As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the spring/summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Clemson on Oct. 22 with their major storylines.
2021 was a strange year for the Clemson Tigers football program. A 10-3 overall record and a 20-13 win over Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl would be considered a great year for the majority of programs in college football. Yet for a school that has played in four national championship games in the last seven years, bowl game victories doesn’t cut it.
The Clemson offense fell off a cliff last year, landing at the 82nd ranked scoring offense with 26.3 ppg. That was dismal when compared to their performance in 2020 when they scored 43.5 ppg, good for third in the country. Ultimately, injuries to receivers and the offensive line paired with the departure of an All-American quarterback proved to be too much for the Tigers to overcome.
Luckily, the offense didn’t need to be great.
DEATH, TAXES AND THE CLEMSON DEFENSE
The defense made up for everything. Ranked second in the country only to the national champion Georgia Bulldogs, their defense gave up a mere 15 ppg and allowed their offense to do just enough to win. Going back to 2017, the Tigers defense has been top two in the country in points per game every year except one- 2020, when they finished 18th.
That was the most Covid-affected year however, and if you disregard the teams that didn’t play at least 10 games, Clemson finished ninth in the country with 20.2 ppg.
Losing defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who took a head coaching job at Oklahoma, will certainly be tough to overcome. This roster is deep and talented though, and new DC Wes Goodwin is an in-house hire that’s worked closely with Venables for the last four years as a scouting and defensive breakdown assistant. The transition there should be hardly discernible.
Clemson is filled with talent along the defensive line, but of more importance might be in the secondary where there’s definitely a large hole to fill with Andrew Booth, Jr being drafted by the Buffalo Bills at the top of the second round (#42 overall) and Mario Goodrich getting nabbed by the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent. The two corners were the first single-team cornerback duo to earn first-team All-ACC honors since 1997.
In their place will be Sheridan Jones, the teams’ elder statesman in the defensive back room having played in 38 games and making 11 starts. Fred Davis II and Nate Wiggins are the two players with the most experience behind Jones, but they have a couple of four star recruits in Jeadyn Lukas and Toriano Pride, Jr coming in looking to earn spots of their own. As usual, the Tigers defense will probably be just fine.
CAN UIAGALELEI TAKE A STEP UP?
Junior quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei certainly didn’t have eye-popping numbers in 2021, throwing for 2,246 yards and only nine touchdowns, to go with 10 interceptions. Having a negative touchdown to interception ratio is worrisome, but when you put into context that Clemson was hit with injuries along the offensive line, receiver(including top wideout Justyn Ross and EJ Williams) and was struggling with a strained PCL it’s hard to fault him.
In his first year starting after the departure of Trevor Lawrence to the NFL, Uiagalelei did what he needed to do- limit mistakes, ride your elite defense, and score just enough points to come out on top of the other team. That worked well enough to get the Tigers ten wins without having a quarterback putting up elite numbers, and that’s a great sign for the program moving forward, no matter who the QB is.
D.J. is still a talented former five star prospect, and with the transfer of departing backup Taisun Phommachanh, the Tigers welcome in another five star recruit, the Texas Gatorade Player of the Year Cade Klubnik. While some might see that as pressure on the underperforming Uiagalelei, competition is what’s needed in football to bring out the best in each player.
As it stands right now, Clemson is in a great position to start Uiagalelei and see if he can raise his game while the riding their elite defense to be competitive in every game. If DJ doesn’t work out and his inefficient passing continues (55.6% last year) they can turn the reins over to another five star prospect, similar to how Oklahoma handled the Spencer Rattler/Caleb Williams situation last year.
Overall, despite less than ideal play from the most important position(quarterback) and slight turnover in the coaching staff, we’d be kidding ourselves to think it’ll have any major effect on Clemson’s program. They’re a safe bet to win another 10 games as they have the last 11 straight years under Dabo Swinney and compete for the ACC Championship. Whether their offense can take the major leap they’ll need to make it to the college football playoff remains to be seen, but an improvement in efficiency and continued elite play from their defense might be enough in the end.