It sounded like the usual pleasantries that get recycled by coaches on a weekly basis.
Whether it’s because there’s typically no good reason not to simply be cordial or because they don’t want to give the opposition any bulletin-board material as a source of motivation, college football coaches love to spend part of their weekly press conference talking about how great their next opponent is regardless of how great they actually are. For example, a couple of weeks back, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and his coordinators, Tony Elliott and Brent Venables, tried to sell Connecticut — an FBS independent that hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2016 and didn’t even have a head coach in place when it played Clemson — as a team that could give the Tigers some trouble.
Nice try, guys.
So when Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson opined before Clemson opened up a can on the Demon Deacons last week that this season was Swinney’s best coaching job in his 13 years at the helm of the Tigers’ program, I didn’t think much of it. But Clawson may have been on to something.
For the first time in seven years, Clemson isn’t in the College Football Playoff mix. Not even close. The Tigers have three losses — the most they’ve had in a season since losing that many games in 2014 — with at least two games left starting with their trip to Columbia on Saturday to renew their rivalry with South Carolina.
But, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the fact the Tigers are still sitting on three losses is borderline miraculous. Because they had two of them before September was over, and with the way the offense was performing, it looked like more were coming in a hurry.
It was always going to be hard for Clemson to replicate the same offensive juggernaut without Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne (and multiple starting offensive linemen gone, too). But a unit that failed to produce anything remotely explosive and, for the longest time, struggled to simply put one foot in front of the other? That wasn’t expected either.
Only mustering a field goal against Georgia, as we’ve come to learn, is one thing. Averaging 17 points against Georgia Tech, North Carolina State (in double overtime), Boston College and Syracuse is something else entirely. After the Tigers started the back half of their schedule with just 17 more points in that third loss at Pittsburgh, the question of whether or not they would score 20 points in regulation against an FBS opponent was still unanswered (they finally did the next week against Florida State).
Then the flies started dropping.
Actually, that began before the season started when Clemson lost a pair of backup offensive linemen to season-ending injuries. Veteran running back Lyn-J Dixon left the team after three games, and another back, Michel Dukes, soon followed. Receiver Frank Ladson Jr. (groin) had his season cut short a few games in, a sign of things to come for a position that will be without its top three players until a bowl game if not for the rest of the season because of injuries.
Then Clemson lost both starting defensive tackles, Tyler Davis (for a few games) and Bryan Bresee (for the rest of the game), in consecutive weeks. Leading rusher Will Shipley also went down with a leg injury against N.C. State that cost him multiple games. The injury bug went back to biting the offensive line against Pitt when senior guard Matt Bockhorst tore his ACL. Clemson’s other guard, Will Putnam, also missed multiple games with injuries, all of which has played a part in the Tigers starting seven different combinations along the offensive line this season.
The running list of attrition is longer than that, but you get the point. By the time two more receivers, E.J. Williams (leg) and Troy Stellato (heel), were deemed unavailable for last week’s game against the Demon Deacons, Swinney said it made for the fewest number of available players the Tigers have had for any game this season.
Yet, even with a banged-up quarterback in D.J. Uiagalelei (sprained knee), Clemson put together its most complete performance in a runaway victory. With the help of the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense, the Tigers have been winning a lot the last two months despite their circumstances.
The loss to Pitt was Clemson’s most recent. The Tigers have won four straight games since and have won six of seven since the calendar flipped to October. As a result, Clemson still has a puncher’s chance to play for an ACC championship for a seventh straight year. The Tigers need N.C. State and Wake Forest to lose this weekend for that to happen.
Perhaps most incredibly, the Tigers still have a shot at yet another 10-win season. A win Saturday coupled with a bowl win (if not an ACC title game victory) would make it 11 straight such seasons.
“That would be unbelievable,” Swinney said. “Maybe as good a 10-win season as we’ve ever had, to do it with the circumstances we’ve had with this team. How we started. You name it. On and on and on. That would be an amazing accomplishment.”
And if you don’t think what Clemson has pulled off over the last couple of months is important, look at what’s going on at some other high-profile Power Five programs around the country.
LSU, just two years removed from a national title, lost three of its first six games and is now trying to stay out of the SEC West cellar after losing its last three conference games. Florida finished last season as a top-10 team but lost two of its first five games and hasn’t recovered, dropping four of its last five. Out west, Southern Cal started with the same 2-2 record as Clemson, but the Trojans have also lost four of their last five and need to win out just to make a bowl.
All three of those programs are looking for new head coaches. Meanwhile, even if Clemson doesn’t play for another ACC title this season, the Tigers’ stabilization has at least taken away some of the other schools’ ammunition that would’ve almost certainly been used to try to sell the Tigers’ fall from grace on the recruiting trail. Led by the nation’s top quarterback recruit, Westlake (Texas) High standout Cade Klubnik, Clemson’s 13 verbal commitments make up the nation’s 11th-best class for the 2022 recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
In other words, it’s shaping up to be a class that Clemson hopes can help it get back to the playoff in the future. As for now, knowing it’s not going to happen this season is still taking some getting used to.
For a program that’s almost conditioned at this point to make New Year’s plans wherever it’s playing a CFP semifinal, a sudden deviation from that is going to shock the system. It’s easy to play the what-if game with that, too. What if an offense averaging 38 points over its last four games had put it all together sooner? What if the list of attrition had only been half as long?
Maybe the season would’ve turned out a little better. But unlike some of its peers, Clemson kept it from getting so much worse.
And for that, the Tigers and their followers should be more thankful than usual this holiday season.
Clemson Variety & Frame is doing their part to help bring you some classic new barware and help one of the local businesses that helps make Clemson special.
Order your Nick’s barware and do your part to help. #SaveNicks