Coming out of the Troy and Wofford games, most Clemson fans were reluctant to say they liked what they saw. Although there were some big plays and we got to see Chad Morris' new HUNH offense, the play of our offensive line and defense left much to be desired. The first half struggles against Troy were understandable. The performance against Wofford was not.
It seemed that the mistakes we made against Troy and Wofford would be the very ones that would come back and bite us in the ass against Auburn, FSU and/or VPI.
But here we are, sitting 5-0 and ranked 8th in the country.
Our resiliency against Auburn, our early attack mentality against FSU and our physical, chip-on-the shoulder attitude going into Lane Stadium has me as excited about Clemson football as I have ever been (mind you, I wasn't around during most of the Danny Ford era).
Below is a brief breakdown of the expectations I had from the offensive position groups going into our last three ranked games and how I feel those groups performed during that stretch. I'll break down the defensive position groups later.
Expectation (B-): Coming out of the first two games, I was comfortable with Tajh Boyd's arm strength and ability to throw the ball downfield, but I was worried about his ability to read more sophisticated and athletic defenses and to make accurate throws when it mattered. I knew he would manage the game well and take ownership of the offense, but was concerned how he would respond to the schemes of Ted Roof, Mark Stoops, and Bud Foster. I thought he would make far more mistake than he did, and that his numbers would be average against those teams. I was sure his inexperience would blow the game for us in one or more of these matchups.
Performance (A-): Tajh has answered any questions about his ability lead this offense and to be an accurate, versatile passer. He distributes the ball well to all of his receivers and tends to have a knack for standing in the pocket and delivering the ball confidently even when under pressure. He is tied for 4th in the nation in touchdown passes (14) and leads one of the best 3rd down offenses I've seen at Clemson. He's made two mistakes that could have shifted momentum, including the 3rd quarter fumble in the FSU game and the early interception vs. VT, but still has exceeded expectations because he was able to stay calm and efficiently lead the offense later in each contest.
Expectation (B+): Ellington looked like Ellington before his injury when he raced 74 yards to the endzone on the drive following a Wofford touchdown. Bellamy's run against Troy showed unparalleled speed and agility. Howard looked good in his limited time as well. I thought for sure that these guys would by carrying the load to take pressure off Tajh.
Performance (B-): Ellington hasn't been 100%, and it has been obvious at times. He has shied away from contact on several occasions when more yards were to be had, and he doesn't seem to have his usual burst. Howard was a relentless, determined runner in the Auburn game and put the game on ice, but he also has struggled to stay healthy. Bellamy doesn't know the playbook, and runs up into the back of his blockers when they don't get the perfect, synchronous push on the front 7 of the defense. If Auburn had anything going on offense that day, his unforced fumble could have made that game interesting.
Our running game has been effective enough to set up the past and finish some of our drives. We still had trouble on at least one occasion to get short yards when we needed them. Obviously, this position has underachieved mainly due to injuries, inexperience and lackluster run-blocking of the offensive lineman (see below)
Expectation (B+): After last year, it was hard to expect much out the WR corps, even after we saw some impressive plays from Dwayne Allen and young Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in the first two games. I knew these guys would make a play or two and would do their job, but I had no idea that Sammy, Nuke, Martavis, Jaron, Allen, Peake and even Humphries would all be viable options for this Clemson passing attack.
Performance (A+): The two most valuable players on this team at this point are Sammy Watkins and Dwayne Allen. These two, along with Tajh, have determined the fate of the Clemson Tigers during this three game stretch. I have been astounded with the leadership and playmaking ability of Dwayne Allen, who I had seen as an underachiever up until that point (save the TD catch against Troy). Regarding Sammy, there's really nothing else to be said about his gamebreaking ability. I have been impressed with this group and am not reluctant to say that this is the best combination of youth, hands, and athleticism in the nation.
Expectation (D): After the first two games, I was certain that the offensive line was one of the biggest weaknesses on this team. They didn't look physical and at times looked lost with regard to what they were supposed to be doing, specifically in the running game.
Performance (C+): I still think the run blocking is the only thing holding this offense back from scoring 45 points a game and is a major reason for the mediocre-to-above-average-at-best performance of our stable of talented running backs. Antoine McClain looks sloppy and slow. I wish we'd put Cloy at RG or put Smith back at LG and put Thomas at RG. This unit did hold up well against Florida State and VT's pass rush, and exceeded my expectations in that regard. The performance grade would be higher, but I expect more out of a group of predominantly experienced players.
What are you guys' thoughts? Has one group exceeded or fell short of your expectations?
We have a chance to be a damn good football team if we can keep improving from week to week. From what I've seen up to this point, this coaching staff is damned and determined to prove a point.