One game does not a season make. Half the nation wishes that were true, and the other half is glad it’s not. Often times, the Week 1 reactions are extreme and final, as if there aren’t 11 more games left for everyone to play.
Perspective is sometimes hard to come by, especially when a team falls short of expectations and when people seeking clarity have to make some educated guesses. That’s the category in which second-ranked Clemson finds itself after Saturday’s sluggish 19-13 win at Auburn. That means we now have the unenviable task of trying to find the proper perspective in which to view the game.
Here goes nothing…
Clemson played a tighter-than-expected game against an unranked team who sports players from the same talent pool Clemson frequents to find prospects and is anxious to prove its worth in front of a raucous home crowd. The Tigers’ vaunted offense sputtered at times against a talented defense that proved to be a worthy adversary. Clemson’s defense held its own against a team looking to find an identity on offense and trying out multiple quarterbacks, seemingly at random. Special teams issues haunted the Tigers and kept the game close, and the opposition had the ball in the game’s waning moments with a chance to win on a heave to the end zone.
This is an apt description of Clemson’s season-opening win at Auburn. It’s also an apt description of the Tigers’ Thursday night win at Louisville last season.
In some ways, what many fans just endured was a carbon copy of what they endured in the third game of Clemson’s storybook season a year ago. The issues the team faced on the Plains seemed unparalleled for several reasons, not the least of which is the romanticizing of an offense that still has to execute at a high level in order to fulfill its promise. Outrageous—possibly oversized—expectations, set by players and coaches themselves, may have outpaced reality in the short term.
Fan frustrations are reasonable when an offense billed as perhaps the best in college football history can move the ball but struggle to score. Elements like an effective horizontal passing game were seemingly missing from the gameplan. The tight end was an endangered species, as were any receivers not named Mike Williams. Coaching decisions seemed puzzling. The offensive play calls appeared to come from a place of frustration. The defense’s outstanding effort was almost overshadowed by some boneheaded plays.
All of this lends itself to a narrative of disappointment, of feeling like the team or program might be inferior to what it was “supposed” to be prior to taking the field at Auburn. That takes us back to the Louisville game a year ago, when people moaned about how the team would never beat Notre Dame or Florida State or Georgia Tech playing like that.
As it turned out, Clemson didn’t have to beat those teams when it played Louisville. It had to be good enough to beat Louisville, and only Louisville. It just so happened that the Tigers were also good enough to beat those other teams when the moment was right, too.
Fans want to be absolutely sure their team can do whatever it sets out to do at every point along the way during a season. It’s the nature of fandom, and it can lead to an abandonment of logic. Clemson didn’t have to beat Louisville or Florida State or Georgia Tech or Pittsburgh on Saturday night. It only had to beat Auburn, and it did. Plus, if history is any indication, fans can be confident the Tigers will be able to muster whatever is needed to compete with those other opponents, as well.
On a weekend that saw carnage galore—LSU, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Notre Dame, UCLA, I see you guys—just being 1-0 is a gift. Doing it on an opponent’s home field is harder than it looks, as the Fighting Irish and the Bruins found out this weekend. Clemson avoided the trap and can now move on to bigger and better things.
Issues abound, but many of them won’t last long. Deshaun Watson will play better. He will get back into a groove with his non-Mike Williams receivers sooner rather than later. Not every field will have a crown on it that changes the angle of every throw for a quarterback, either.
Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott will have a more diverse gameplan when there is actual film to study of a coordinator coaching his defense. Their collective track record says they’ll dial up an effective plan and implement it with excellence during games.
Dabo Swinney won’t make blunders like he did late in Saturday’s game when he failed to kick a field goal to put the game away, or give the ball to his best player, or pooch kick to pin the opponent back deep in its own territory. His track record says that probably won’t happen again, especially now that an emotional win over a hated personal rival of his is in the rearview mirror.
The defense will keep being the defense, tackling the opponent for lost yardage more times than anyone in the country and wreaking havoc all over the two-deep. Special teams won’t be great, but the kicking game will be what it’s been—punts inside the 20, field goals converted, and an extra point missed every other game or so.
The point is that no one is lowering expectations based on a hard-fought victory against a team that switched out its quarterback a whopping 24 times during play and tried every trick in the book to knock the Tigers off stride. Remembering the past can help inform the present, and last season’s first road game was no different than this one.
Sure, the win was ugly. It was yucky. It was gross. It was the kind of game you probably wouldn’t have watched if you didn’t have a stake in it. However, it was a win, and on a week where wins proved tough to come by, that in and of itself is a thing worth celebrating.