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The Tiger

The Tiger

The current state of Clemson football

No one should have expected this team to go undefeated. Vegas bookmakers put the over/under on wins at 9.5 to start the season. Multiple stars were lost on offense including three players that all set Clemson records. There was no reason this team should have been a playoff contender to begin with.

But here we are, seven games into the season, and Clemson sits at 6-1. Normally, any team would be happy with this. They are a top-ten team and, if they win out, have a chance to appear in their third consecutive playoff. Yet, Clemson fans are unhappy. A lot of Twitter posts described how sad they were at seeing a Clemson loss. Others harkened back to the days of Clemson-ing, reminding the Tigers what kind of history they were trying to erase. A particularly depressing tweet said, “In 2017, Syracuse lost to Middle Tennessee St but defeated the defending national champs. Just like we all thought.”

To the people who are sad at seeing a Clemson loss, they haven’t seen anything less than a 10-win season since 2011. The fact that a loss puts people on the brink of tears is telling about the expectations of this team.

But to be fair, they did this to themselves. Clemson set a record earlier this year by beating three top-15 ranked teams before the start of October. No other team had ever done that before. This was with a completely new quarterback, running back, tight end and multiple new starters on defense. Deshaun Watson, the previous record-setting quarterback and two-year Heisman trophy finalist, is tearing the NFL a new one in one of the most dominant rookie seasons from a quarterback in a long time (Yes, Dak Prescott was good last year, but not like this). Even his Clemson days weren’t that successful.

Dabo Swinney put together a team that could win big games. Auburn took 11 sacks en route to a loss, Lamar Jackson got shut down in his home stadium when the Tigers marched into Louisville and Virginia Tech was done before halftime. This team was beyond dominant. No, they didn’t always have blowout wins, but that doesn’t mean a team isn’t dominant.

Syracuse turned that narrative on its head. Kelly Bryant injured his ankle during the Wake Forest game a week prior, but said he was good to go against the Orange at the Carrier Dome. He certainly didn’t look the part of a starting quarterback during the first half. Bryant makes use of his legs to create plays and when one of those legs doesn’t work it becomes a problem for the rest of the offense. At one point during the second quarter, the coaches called for a read-option, but Bryant couldn’t run and the Orange defense knew it. Feaster was swallowed mere moments after the ball was snapped for a large loss.

Eric Dungey, the Syracuse quarterback, is a mobile quarterback. He will make plays with his legs if he doesn’t see an open receiver, which happens fairly often. Somehow, the defense did not anticipate this, despite playing against the most athletic player in the nation in Lamar Jackson, and he made plays all over the field. Dungey’s per run average wasn’t great but every time the Orange needed one or two yards, he helped them reach those yards.

The problem is not the players. It has never been the players. The way they are coached and the talent they have is second to none in the ACC. The way the games are coached is a whole different story. Dabo Swinney and his offensive coordinators need to get it together. Swinney has had plenty of mid-game gaffes over the years, but his players generally bail him out.

Last year against Pitt, Clemson’s only loss that year, Swinney made the choice on fourth-and-1 to put out the jumbo set and try to run the ball at the opponent’s 40-yard line to extend the drive and end the game. Everyone and their mother knows that the jumbo set means run. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, two defensive tackles, came in to block for Gallman, but he was stopped short of the line to gain. Swinney decided to run the ball when during the entire game he couldn’t get the ground game going (25 attempts for 50 yards), but Deshaun Watson had diced up their secondary to the tune of 52 completions and 580 yards, a school record of course.

Clemson lost the game on a last-second field goal, but the Tigers won the National Championship so “who cares,” right? Wrong. This is akin to Pete Carroll telling the Seahawks to pass the ball on goal-to-go in the last seconds of the Super Bowl instead of ramming it up the middle with Marshawn Lynch. No fan is happy when their team gets stopped on fourth-and-1, but you can be content in knowing that they made the right choice.

This is a problem that needs to be fixed. Swinney got the Tigers to where they are today. His recruiting is simply exceptional and he deserves all of the credit in that realm. His group of coaches has done some of the best work getting players from all over the country when previously Clemson had to fight with the rival Gamecocks for in-state recruits.

Having said that, his game management is not good enough. His coordinators can do what they want, but he always has the final say. Playing Kelly Bryant when he clearly wasn’t healthy enough was his fault. Not pulling him earlier in the game when you could tell he was only getting worse is his fault. Playing Zerrick Cooper and then not pulling him for Hunter Johnson when he also wasn’t getting anywhere was his fault. This loss falls squarely on his shoulders if only to highlight that he didn’t recruit a good enough kicker to backup Greg Huegel, who is currently out for the year with a torn ACL. Alex Spence missed two field goals during the game against Syracuse. Two field goals which would have been enough for the win.

This is all to say that Swinney has lofted this program to near-Alabama level expectations. The problem is that he still doesn’t have the Saban pedigree to justify that expectation. Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to four national championships, 101 wins in 120 games, and a number one ranking in the AP poll for at least one game during every season since 2008. Swinney doesn’t yet have that, but what he does have is one national championship in two playoff berths preceded by plenty of bowl wins over better opponents.

No, Clemson’s season is not lost. It wasn’t lost last year when they lost to Pitt at home, but the team is skating on thin, playoff-sized ice. Even if this year ends with Clemson winning ten regular season games, that wouldn’t be the worst thing to ever happen to the program. Just don’t let it end on a boneheaded decision.

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