My thanks this week go to Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., who supplied insight into the Clemson Tigers and their matchup Saturday with Georgia Tech. You can follow Aaron on Twitter here and read his stuff here.
Q: It appears that the Clemson defense is again one of the strongest in the country. What are the strengths of the unit and where is it weak?
A: Say the word “dropoff” to any current starter in relation to the 2014 defense, and watch the sparks fly. (Best to wear a helmet when you do so.) Players like defensive end Shaq Lawson, who backed up Vic Beasley but was equally as efficient per snap as the All-American off the bench in ’14 … like Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson, linebackers who’d merely waited their turn behind future NFL draft picks Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward … like Jayron Kearse, a safety who might be a first-rounder himself in a year or two … like cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who can only be described as the incomparable Mackensie Alexander … these guys took pride in not falling from the No. 1 total defense to, say, No. 60.
Right now, the weaknesses appear to be a lack of depth after the top 13 or so players, as well as a small propensity to take their foot off the gas pedal in the fourth quarter when it’s time to put teams away. Those two factors might or might not be linked.
Q: Offensively, it doesn’t appear that Clemson has been solid, but now blowing the doors off its opponents. What’s your assessment of how that unit has done with Chad Morris now at SMU?
A: That’s probably been one of the more under-the-radar developing concerns for Clemson’s outlook. Morris always liked to say, “my offense gets worse when we slow down,” meaning he really didn’t like milking the clock with a tenuous lead in the second half because it rarely worked for his go-go-gadget-go tempo offense. Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who had a rousing debut as the playcallers in the Russell Athletic Bowl rout of Oklahoma, are still foraging their way through game management.
However, from a big-picture standpoint, the offense has been pretty good, with much improvement from tailback Wayne Gallman and a promising offensive line which has, fortunately for them, avoided injuries at the key spots. If Deshaun Watson starts playing better than he has, all will be right in the Clemson fan base.
Q: After the Tigers’ win over Notre Dame, I think Tech fans are probably hoping for a “Clemsoning.” With four consecutive double-digit win seasons, I’d venture to guess that’s probably not as frequent an occurrence as it perhaps once was. (I guess some would say the loss last year to FSU, without Jameis Winston, was.) What’s your take on that?
A: All right, let’s take an objective view at “Clemsoning” with our friends, Stats and Track Records. Here are some attributes that could reflect an overrated or not-quite-up-to-snuff program. Stumbling against a weaker foe? Clemson has beaten 32 straight unranked opponents, the second-longest streak in the country behind Alabama. Screwing up against teams that don’t end up being that good? All seven losses Clemson has suffered since 2012 were to teams that ended up in the final top ten, one of Clemson sports information czar Tim Bourret’s finest stats.
Can’t win outside the pathetic ACC? Ask LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma how that worked out the past three bowl games, with Georgia (2013), South Carolina (2014) and Notre Dame (2015) as complementary witnesses. Failing to protect home field? Clemson is 29-2 at Death Valley since the start of 2011, tied with Ohio State for the most home wins in the last 4.5 years.
Can’t beat the big boys? Since taking over, Dabo Swinney is 6-4 against teams ranked in the top ten at that time, a mark looked up to by the likes of Jimbo Fisher, Gus Malzahn, Kevin Sumlin, David Shaw, Mark Dantonio, Hugh Freeze, Mike Gundy and Art Briles. (For the curious, Paul Johnson is 4-6 with Georgia Tech.)
Finally, the original Urban Dictionary definition is “the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season.” Here’s another Bourret gem, verbatim from the game notes: Clemson is the only school in the nation to post the same or higher final top 25 USA Today and AP ranking than its preseason ranking each of the last four years. And so far, Clemson has risen from No. 12 to No. 6, on track to make it five straight years.
None of this is to say Georgia Tech cannot win Saturday. Of course the Jackets are capable of pulling it off. But is “Clemsoning” a real thing, or was any of Clemson’s previous shortcomings just part of the fabric of oh-so-random college football? You be the judge, rational sports fan.
Q: What are one or two things that this team does better than anything else?
A: That’s a good question. Clemson seems to rush the passer and stop the run – both acts of owning the line of scrimmage on defense – about as well as it did last season with all those future Sunday players. Even though Grady Jarrett, now a Falcons folk hero, and fellow NFL campers DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson graduated, new defensive tackles Carlos Watkins, Scott Pagano and Christian Wilkins have been more than serviceable, while Kevin Dodd, Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson have proven excellent in run fitting.
Since you asked for one or two, I’ll only add that quarterback Deshaun Watson probably hasn’t played to his full potential – but that’s no guarantee he will Saturday, or at any point this sophomore season. Do keep an eye on speedy home-run threat Artavis Scott. You know the Yellow Jackets will, and they did as great a job as bottling up Scott last year (3 catches, 19 yards) as anybody.
Q: My sense of things is that Tech will give a good account of itself, which may or may not mean the Jackets will actually win. What are some more likely ways that Clemson could lapse and give the Jackets some life?
A: My sense agrees with yours: historically, Georgia Tech has played Clemson tough in almost any situation, and you know the marching cry from Paul Johnson is this is their season right here and right now. I’d say it’s possible the Tigers’ offense continues to scuffle below its normal standards, since it has not looked great for any consistent period of time against their better opponents. If Georgia Tech forces some three-and-outs – the Tigers had nine of those vs. Louisville and Notre Dame – that just gives Justin Thomas more chances to strike, and works to wear down Clemson’s defense, which as mentioned is talented but thin. I’m picking Clemson to move to 30-2 at home since 2011 on Saturday, but it’s far from a guarantee.