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Clemson 2022: Growing Concern Sparks Change

This is my usual recap article/opinion piece about Clemson’s season that I write every year. For the 2022 season, I’m obligated to address the signature topic that dominated the national conversation about Clemson this season. Why is there slippage in the program? Is Clemson done being one of the elites of college football?

Clemson’s downward trajectory began following perhaps the peak moment in Clemson sports history. That moment was, of course, Clemson’s blowout win over Alabama in the 2018 National Championship Game. From 2019-2021, each subsequent season produced less desired results than the previous one. There was a measure of improvement for Clemson in 2022, but certainly not the return to the Eliteness that the fanbase enjoyed from 2015-2020.

As I mentioned in last year’s article, I believe the primary cause of this slippage is program-wide complacency. We haven’t seen the same fight they had in the role of “little ol’ Clemson” from 2015-2020. Those teams’ players emanated a pride, desire, confidence, and leadership that just isn’t the same right now. Across the board, the program lacks the year-round discipline that comes from wanting to prove they can beat the best of the best.

Many in the college football world, as well as the Tiger fanbase, have other things they think Clemson needs to change though. Both the national pundits and the fanbase claim that stricter roster management and use of the transfer portal are necessities to Clemson being able to compete on the elite level. I’d very much like to take a closer look at the validity of these two claims.

First, the 5-Heart/Walk On narrative can be immediately thrown out. This argument has been lying stiff at room temperature since 2016 and doesn’t need any resuscitation. Clemson appeared in 6 straight playoffs and won 2 Nattys while providing several scholarships a year to 5-Hearts and walk-ons. The culture Dabo created has long since proven to be more valuable than those scholarships. And of course, that’s before we even address the fact that many of those 5-Hearts/Walk Ons could play. Nolan Turner’s Fiesta Bowl-sealing play a testament to Dabo Swinney’s relationship with late father | Sporting News

Furthermore, those making this argument over the past 10 years have gotten the talent upgrade they wanted. Winning on the highest level has given Clemson access to the best high school football players all over the country. Being able to go into California and pull two 5-Stars out is a testament to that. However, when those 5-Stars are DJ Uiagalelei and Joseph Ngata, we should be asking a different question. Why is Clemson bringing in higher rated players that aren’t panning out like they used to?

Personally, I believe this phenomenon is the by-product of the complacency and desire issue. However, it would also be fair to call this a recruit evaluation issue, a player development issue, or some mixture of both. Is the staff bringing in players with the right mentality? And, is the staff providing them with the right mentality when they get here?

It takes a village to compete at the highest level in modern college football. Here is the staff directory where you can count the 16+ people on staff that have either “recruiting” or “player development” in their job title: Clemson Tigers | Clemson University Athletics | Football . I can’t tell you exactly where the leaks are, but I can tell you that almost every position group has not been winning individual battles like they did between 2015 and 2019. Talent higher; performance lower.

Couldn’t the transfer portal alleviate some of the issues of players not panning out? Perhaps so, but there is no scenario where it fixes the leadership, recruiting evaluation, and player development concerns. Those issues are the actual lifeblood of the program. The transfer portal is a Band-Aid when that doesn’t work.

Recruiting and developing high school players is still the path to Eliteness. Going big in the transfer portal has not proven to create the same consistency that recruiting and developing provides. This is what we’re seeing at places like Michigan State, who went 11-2 doing it in 2021, but had more guys transfer out than they brought in, which led to a 5-7 2022 season. Those results would be unacceptable at Clemson.

Some may dislike hearing the culture argument when the program is slipping, but we have to acknowledge that Clemson has successfully used a different mousetrap than the other elites to compete on the highest level. Clemson has made its mark with a culture that is envied at every non-elite program in the nation. If we’re going to abandon a cultural advantage that produced sustained Eliteness, it should be for a methodology that is proven to be better.

I’m all for Clemson plugging a hole or two out of the transfer portal, but the reality is that an Elite Program can pay $3M to get the Heisman Trophy winner in the portal, and still lose to Tulane in their bowl game.

Today, Clemson has the most talent on its roster than they’ve ever had. Therefore, one could also come to the conclusion that the issue is simply coaching ability. Shortly after the season, Dabo seemed to agree with that when he fired OC Brandon Streeter and made a splash hire in Garrett Riley.

In last year’s article, I wrote about the 2018 schematic change (that I supported at the time) which affected Clemson’s WR recruiting. This was when they stopped recruiting 2WR types (think Ray Ray McCloud/Artavis Scott) and added more 9WR types (think Tee Higgins/Mike Williams). At the time, they wanted a 9WR to challenge the deep third on each side of the field (ie. Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins on the field at the same time instead of one of them on the bench every offensive snap). Last year, I mentioned how the recruiting of Antonio Williams signified a change in that strategy.

The staff moved to correct the WR makeup in November when they offered Antonio Williams. Williams is the first 2WR-type we’ve signed in years. The staff clearly understands they have to have the versatility provided by speedy jitterbugs who can run routes, get open, and do damage after the catch. A great offense will challenge all areas of the field and not just the deep thirds. As we saw this year, Georgia Tech has enough talent to scheme that up.

Antonio Williams was our best WR as a true freshman and led the team in both receptions and yards in 2022. The offense needed the injection of a playmaker with his kind of skills, but it was too little, too late. Clemson improved from 14th (last) in the ACC in offensive efficiency in 2021 to 8th in 2022. Even with the improvement, this is clear underachievement based on Clemson’s talent level.

There are only a few teams every year able to overachieve with a noticeable schematic advantage. Last year, TCU was one of those teams. For this reason, I could not be happier with Dabo’s hire of the TCU OC. The program needed some fresh ideas in the room and Garrett Riley is just about the best possible hire you could make to achieve that.

That is not to say that I think Brandon Streeter did a horrendous job. When evaluating the OC from the perspective of whether or not he is putting his players in position to win, Streeter routinely put the right call against the right defense on the field. However, a great offense dictates to the defense by challenging all areas of the field. Streeter’s offense did not do that.

Riley’s TCU offense generated almost twice as many plays over 20 yards as Clemson last year (91 to 58) and 4 times the number of 50+ yard plays (22 to 5). That’s right, they averaged almost two 50-yard plays per game. That’s the most 50-yard plays the college football world has seen since, well, Clemson’s scheme in 2018 I just mentioned above.

Of course, as we’ve seen, all innovations in offensive football eventually get “figured out” by defensive coordinators. As it’s often said, it always comes back to the Jimmys and Joes, not the Xs and Os. The Malzahn/Morris system was “figured out” by the time Morris left Clemson in 2014. However, modified versions of his system are still being successfully used all over college football today. In fact, Florida State had even more 20+ yard plays than TCU (97 to 91) last year running their version of the Malzahn/Morris. So, I wasn’t fully convinced we needed a reinventing of the wheel on offense, but if we’re going to do it, I’m glad it’s with Garrett Riley at the helm.

Even without seeing any results on the field, we can say that this is the right move no matter what happens. This is a morale booster and the fresh start that the offensive side of the ball needed. Dabo has also created a lot of fan excitement in the process. Yes, we are all aware that the Clemson OC position is not Riley’s destination job. We can be sure that Riley is ticketed for a head coaching job within the next couple years and that the Clemson OC position is just a resume and credibility builder. That’s ok.

The hope for me is that Garrett Riley is to the program what Chad Morris was to the program. Morris brought in an offensive system that became the foundation for an offensive identity after he left. If we get 10 great years out of Riley’s system, like we did Morris’ system, we will all be thrilled.

On the other side of the ball, there wasn’t a lot of clamoring for Wes Goodwin to be fired and I would agree that he deserves a second year. However, you can just look at the NFL combine and see that the defense definitely underachieved based on their talent level last year. Then again, they didn’t go off the rails either. Goodwin definitely had some schematic decisions that made me scratch my head, but he publicly acknowledged several of them and said he would do it differently next time. We have seen a lot of DCs have a much better 2nd year than their 1st year and I have no reason to believe that couldn’t happen for Goodwin.

So, why do I think that the primary problem with Clemson is simply this abstract concept of complacency? Post-20 years of mediocrity, Clemson embraced the role of a program with a lot to prove. By 2018, the program had nothing left to prove. This was the greatest run in Clemson football history, and we forget that the catalyst that sparked Clemson’s greatness was pain. Pain creates desire. Pain creates change. Change creates confidence. Confidence and desire create success.

Tommy Bowden not being able to win the Atlantic Division led to facility upgrades for the first time in 15 years and the seat equity program. The Alabama humiliation on national TV in 2008 led to Dabo being hired midseason. Falling behind Spurrier’s Gamecocks and Jimbo’s Seminoles led to the indoor practice facility, the Reeves Football Complex, a revamped S&C program, and a nutrition program. The 70-point West Virginia humiliation led to Brent Venables coming here. The loss to Beamer’s Gamecocks led to Garrett Riley coming here.

So, I wonder if Clemson has experienced enough pain the past few years to bring back the desire to dominate at the highest level? After all, Clemson is still a respected program, still the defending ACC Champions, and was just one win away from a playoff berth last year. To borrow Dabo’s quote from when he was hired, Clemson is a Ferrari that needs an oil change.

I’m confident Garrett Riley will fix any lingering confidence problems on the offensive side of the ball. I’m not as confident that the team-wide focus is lining up and winning the majority of individual battles against the Georgias, Alabamas, and Ohio States of the world. That is more important and what they’ll need to have in order to return to Eliteness.

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