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Clemson 2023: Down Another Notch

This is my usual recap article/opinion piece about Clemson’s season that I write every year.

Just when we thought the Clemson program couldn’t slip any further, optimistic Tiger fans were blindsided with what would have been unimaginable a few years ago, a 4-4 start to the 2023 season. As expected, many fans were frustrated and looking for answers. A certain fan, Tyler from Spartanburg, even made national news by inciting an epic “google me” style rant from Coach Swinney. Following said rant, the Tigers rebounded to soundly defeat #15 Notre Dame at home and then ended the season winning their final 5 games.

That winning streak is evidence of what I’ve been saying here for the past couple of years. When the team is focused and motivated by something to prove, they are still capable of high-level football. The program is clearly missing the level of fight and killer instinct that it had in the role of “little ‘ol Clemson” from 2015-2020. I believe that with year-round discipline and leadership from the Tiger’s top players, they could perform on the Elite level once again and as soon as next year.

Early in the season, the defensive side of the ball suffered from tackling issues, run fit issues, and toughness issues. These are issues often associated with effort level and desire. You may remember star LB Barrett Carter saying in September that he realized he wasn’t in good enough shape for the season. Huh? This is a preseason All American admitting to a lack of self-preparedness. The defensive low point was probably when Miami, down 10 points in the 4Q, ran the ball down their throat eating up most of the 4th quarter enroute to an eventual OT victory.

Then, in the final 4 games of the year, the defense operated on a championship level. Unfortunately, there were a lot of garbage time points that skewed the numbers (they were just the #20th ranked D in November), but this defense was operating at a top-5 level nationally in the same way we were accustomed to seeing Venables’ defenses operate during the playoff run. The aforementioned Barrett Carter was a beast in his best effort of the year against Kentucky in the bowl win. Hopefully, he carries that into next season.

The Tiger offense, on the other hand, was a disappointment for the 3rd year in a row. The new wrinkle added this year was not more explosive plays, it was mind-boggling mistakes at crucial points in games. There are really too many bungles to list here, but a few stand out. There were multiple fumbles inside the 5-yard line in the Duke loss to open the season. There was the sack-fumble that likely cost them a season-altering victory against Florida State. There was the Pick 6 vs. N.C. State that was the difference in the game. There were also countless head scratching low football-IQ plays from QB Cade Klubnik. Again, too many to mention there also. These mistakes were the headliner this year for sure, but I’m not sure how good the offense would’ve been without them.

The big news last offseason was the hiring of the top OC on the market, Garrett Riley. In his first year, the Tiger offense finished 98th in the country in Yards per Play. Allow that to sink in and remember that Clemson has been recruiting in the top 10 nationally. That number shows just how inefficient the offense was this year. This was even regression from the 2022 team that was 72nd in YPP and was only slightly better than 2021’s 103 ranking. The days when Clemson would finish in the top 5 in this stat (2018, 2019), seem like a long time ago.

The more vocal side of the fanbase, me being one, got what we wanted in the Garrett Riley hire. However, after 2023, Brandon Streeter has been acquitted of being the sole offensive scapegoat. Riley, who’s 2022 TCU team was top 5 in explosive plays with 91, was hired to bring that to Clemson. He didn’t. Riley’s offense was even less explosive than Streeter’s. The offense had 46 20+yard plays in 2023, which was down from 58 in 2022.

As the old adage says, “it the Jimmys and Joes, not the Xs and Os.” Now that the NFL has evaluated the 2022 TCU roster, we know that Riley’s TCU offense was littered with NFL caliber players. WR Q. Johnston (1st Rd pick), OG S. Avila (2nd Rd), RB K. Miller (3rd Rd), WR D. Davis (4th Rd), QB Max Duggan (7th Rd), RB E. Demarcado (started for the Cardinals this year), WRs T. Barber and G. Henderson (minicamp invites).

The Clemson roster that Riley inherited will not have such an impact on the NFL draft this April. However, there is potential for improvement as most of the starters will return in 2024. RB Will Shipley, who was supplanted by Phil Mafah as the starter post-Notre Dame, and C Will Putnam are the only starters not coming back as of now. In the same way it took Venables a couple years to fully rebuild a struggling defense, Riley may need the same consideration.

Exacerbating the lack of explosiveness on offense this year, were the special teams struggles during the sparse occurrences when the offense would actually get into scoring position. FG Kicking was a disaster in September (ranked 132 nationally of 133 teams) and not all that special in October either. There were 2 big misses against Duke, and then of course, the 29-yard potential game winner against FSU.

Had that FG gone in and Clemson defeated Florida State, I think it would’ve sparked the confidence Clemson needed to have a very different season. My gut feeling is that Clemson doesn’t lose again until the Orange Bowl if that happens. I think Clemson would’ve beaten Louisville for the ACC Championship and then likely lost to any of the top tier teams that might’ve been selected for the Orange Bowl (except Liberty and maybe what was left of the Ohio St. team that showed up).

I can’t ignore, though, that the kicker Dabo picked up off the street, Adam Weisz, was an excellent 6 for 6 in the final two games. Instead of FG kicking being a team-deflater, the kicking game actually lifted the team up in those games. That was Weisz’s swan song as he will be gone next year. Fortunately, Clemson signed the #1 high school kicker in the nation, Nolan Hauser, to compete with Robert Gunn to replace him in 2024.

Clemson also made a couple of notable coaching changes prior to the bowl game as well. Matt Luke, an OL guru who is the former head coach at Ole Miss, was hired to take over a long-struggling OL. Chris Rumph, one of the best DE coaches in the game, left the NFL to come coach up a pretty thin group of DEs the Tigers return in 2024. Both coaches have their work cut out for them and will need to develop competent starters out of mostly unproven talent.

These two coaches replaced what were considered to be “friendly” hires by Dabo in Thomas Austin (who Dabo coached at Clemson) and Lemanski Hall (who Dabo played with at Bama). I addressed and largely debunked the national narratives about why Clemson is slipping (NIL, Transfer Portal, Walk Ons, Friend Hires) last year, so I won’t do that again here. The real problem remains the same. They have to collectively want it bad enough to go get it. The staff and players have to have the discipline and motivation to commit themselves year-round to beating the top teams in college football.

Specifically, they need to be tougher up front on both sides of the ball. They need to develop playmakers on offense. They need the QB to mentally and physically invest enough in himself to where he eliminates mental gaffes, can quickly read defenses, and make the right decision at the right time. Either that or the staff needs to find a QB in the spring that can do those things.

We saw a lot of Freshman play, and play well, in 2023. Tyler Brown was the team’s best WR. T.J. Parker led the team in Sacks. NB Khalil Barnes led the team in INTs and was 5th in Tackles. DT Peter Woods was a Freshman All American along with Parker and Barnes. Kylon Griffin and Shelton Lewis flashed at the end of the season in the defensive backfield. TEs Josh Sapp and Olsen Patt-Henry proved to be capable options. Keith Adams Jr. and Jay Haynes showed promise as backups to Phil Mafah at RB. Hopefully, last year’s freshman and the incoming freshman recruiting class will provide an influx of talented young players that motivate, push, and even replace any complacent veterans.

Perhaps the best motivation for the Tiger program to do all the things I’ve mentioned came from the schedule maker. The Tigers open the season in Atlanta against the likely preseason #1 team, Georgia. After the Bulldogs 60-point dismantling of the ACC Champion in the Orange Bowl, Clemson will be given little chance to, not just win, but even keep the game within two TDs.

This is one of those Elite level matchups I talk about on this site. This is the type of game that has the potential to affect national program perception beyond 2024. Being humiliated in this game would be disastrous for a program that is desperately hanging on to the idea that they are still an Elite Program. Again, I must ask, “Do they really want to do what it takes this offseason to beat the Georgias, Alabamas, Michigans, and Ohio States of the world?” They did at one time, but the further they get away from “Best Is the Standard,” the harder it will be to get it back.

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