Whatever you thought about Clemson’s win over South Carolina State on Saturday, you’re probably right. At the very least, there’s plenty of information to back up your claim.
If you think the third-ranked Tigers are suddenly healed of the issues that plagued them on offense through the season’s first two games, it certainly looked that way. If you’d like to see that play duplicated against a more capable opponent before buying in all the way, well, that makes sense, too.
It’s the blessing and the curse of competing against an overmatched opponent from the FCS ranks. From a big-picture standpoint, it’s a lose-lose situation. Win big, and nobody cares. Struggle, and people hit the panic button. Lose, and people lose their minds.
From Clemson’s perspective, it really doesn’t matter what the outside world thinks about its play on Saturday. There’s little doubt the Tigers desperately needed a game like that to prove—more to themselves than to anyone watching at home or in person—that everything is okay, that Deshaun Watson’s unprompted apology last week mattered, and that the glass-half-full comparisons to last season (when the offense ramped up its level of play as the games began to matter more) weren’t off-base.
Dabo Swinney can celebrate the fact that a whopping 92 players saw the field on Saturday. Just for a reference point, only 85 scholarships are given out, and there are several of those players who are either being redshirted or are injured. The opportunity to reward the work of those walk-ons comes on rare occasions, and the bludgeoning of the Bulldogs—a contest that lasted only 54 minutes of game time per the coaches’ agreement—was a perfect opportunity.
In all, 23 skill players got their hands on the football on offense during the game. Five players attempted a pass, eight got at least one carry, and fifteen receivers managed at least one catch. Thirty more Tigers made at least one tackle, and they used five different return men. It was a stark contrast from the Auburn game two weeks ago, when only 38 players saw the field.
A game doesn’t get to that point unless a bunch of things are going right in all phases. That’s the encouraging part for anyone who wants to paint a rosy picture. Clemson had a hard enough time executing in the first two games, beating itself with regularity. Just seeing a squad relaxed and capable of making available plays was enough for many.
But how much do we really know about how Clemson will be different moving forward? That question wasn’t answered on Saturday. In fact, it really wasn’t even addressed. South Carolina State is a cash-strapped FCS school with low aspirations and an underwhelming roster. It’s both far worse than the Tigers have seen and a far cry from what is to come in the final nine games of the regular season.
The simple truth is this: We won’t know if the proverbial light has come on for Clemson until more games have been played. Thursday’s opponent, Georgia Tech, has a funky offense that hasn’t seen much success against Brent Venables, but preparing for Paul Johnson’s offense on a short week is about as daunting as it gets for a defensive coordinator. Vanderbilt—not a juggernaut by any measure, but a formidable defensive team—couldn’t stop the Yellow Jackets at all last week during a 31-point beatdown that ended just after the Tigers’ blowout win concluded.
Strange things always seem to happen in Bobby Dodd Stadium, so the renewed confidence of the offense must travel. It may not be as simple as holding Tech under 24 points and trying to muster enough production to get over the hump. Winning may require a bit more in this case. For both the comforted and the leery, that house of horrors will be a proving ground on which the good vibes associated with Saturday’s win will be tested.
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