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What Are Reasonable Expectations for 2012?

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I’ve gotten the feeling from talking with Clemson fans that no one really knows what to expect from the 2012 Tigers. How do you predict the season when you have big question marks in the trenches, where big games are really won and lost? One side thinks it’s no big deal and that we can only go upwards from last season, what with the seasoning and experience gained by the skill talent in 2011, and a new defensive coordinator. The other side is deathly worried about this season turning out like 2008’s train wreck, where we had plenty of skill and nothing on the lines. If you’ve been watching us for the last ten years, then you know there is plenty of evidence to support both scenarios. We’re still bipolar until we prove that we’re not. One thing I really want to see is for us to break that cycle, but what has to happen to fix it? What is the most ‘reasonable’ set of expectations for Clemson in 2012?

Before going further I’ll reiterate our standards for success

1. Win 10 games

2. Beat Sakerlina

3. Win the ACC Title

And they don’t change every year. I won’t be happy unless we do all 3, and somehow manage not to have a "WTF" game like NC State or West Virginia where we get embarrassed again on a national stage or look like we haven’t practiced the game of football in a month. Take those two losses off, or even make them close losses, and the 2012 season looks a lot better. Take SC and WV off and you'd see the mouthbreathers proclaiming us 2012 national champs. I’m not expecting to win the ACC this season, but we have the best shot behind FSU, and it will probably come down to that game in Tallahassee. Some will say that the BCS NC should be the standard, but realistically we cannot expect Clemson to challenge for national championships every year, and we won’t this year. However, 2013 is looking like a possibility. Unless 2012 is a train wreck, our standard will probably go up for 2013.

If my expectation is that we will not win the ACC, then I may need to back off 10 games, but 10-3 does not look terribly unrealistic given the road schedule and our usual home success, plus a bowl game. It may be slightly optimistic, but not beyond reason. A 4th straight loss to SC is not acceptable under any circumstance, and if Dabo hasn’t been taking them seriously before, then he better get with it now. I don’t see how he could survive 4 years of losing to SC here, unless we’re just whipping everyone else’s ass on the schedule.

I think after the month of September is over, we’ll know what kind of team we have. I do hope that either way we do look like we’re getting better throughout the season. That is a big indicator of good coaching taking place. That will mean that we hit in practice, at least on Monday-Tuesday when practice is supposed to suck for the players, especially after a loss. Last season there were several people around the team telling me that practices really took a nosedive in intensity and difficulty after the 1st VT game. Those things are intangibles that most fans won’t see without any film study or connections around the team though. Here are some things that are more tangible:

1. The backup RBs must do something in 2012.

We’ve harped on this all offseason, but it is a must that someone besides Andre Ellington be able to tote the rock this season. Howard ran for 230 yards in 2012, with Sammy putting up an equal number and Hot Rod getting just 63. This needs to change.

We all saw Andre take much longer to look like himself last year, despite the staff saying he was fine. Yeah right. In many games he looked very tired and he has been injury prone over his term here. Andre had to stay in for 6- and 7-man protections last year because a) a certain RG can’t block a soul, b) Wofford and others didn’t tell Freeman where the blitz was coming from, and c) because no one else at RB could block. He’d end up taking his 15-20 carries and then run a route or block instead of taking a short rest. The best way to fix this is to have someone else back there who can at least block, but someone needs to be able to do both carry it and block so the defense stays honest.

Zac Brooks is not there yet with his knowledge of the offense and weight, and may only get in for specific situations for some time, if he does not RS. McDowell has done nothing of note since signing with Clemson, and Howard has had issues holding onto the ball and blocking. But, we have to have someone who can put up about 400-500 yards as Andre’s backup this season. There’s no getting around that.

I still want Andre to get his 20 carries per game, and over 1000 yards this season, but he can’t be expected to play 60-70 plays per game every week. Right now, all eyes are on D.J. Howard.

2. The OL has to at least be OK.

Last year I thought the season would only go as Tajh Boyd went. He did well as a starter to win 10 games. This year I think it only goes as far as the offensive line can take it. I said when Caldwell was hired that all eyes were on Batson’s offseason development, and between that and Scott’s misses in evaluation/recruiting, the 2011 line was not impressive. Now we’ve got the Training Table that we wanted and a new assistant S&C coach over the OL (Paul Hogan), so we’ll be hopeful for some progress in functional strength and intensity along the offensive line. I think everyone reading this knows I'll believe it when I see it. Last year we couldn't even push Wofford around for 60 minutes.

An ideal situation would be for Isaiah Battle to pick this offense up quickly and be able to take over at LT. However he hasn’t had a lot of organized football in his life and so is well behind some others coming in. Long term, he should be the answer. Short term, Thomas is the answer. He was not great at LT last season in spot duty, but has to play LT now. He’s got the athletic ability to play the spot, but I question whether he has the tenacity.

David Beasley was someone we loved in recruiting, but could not get his weight under control when he arrived. Kalon Davis enrolled early, hurt his back, and still has a problem with weight management. Davis is the more experienced player and if Beasley messes up too frequently, Kalon will go right in. Still, this is a big worry since all our basic run plays are A-gap runs right behind the Guard, and the LG has to pull more than the RG. As soon as Battle picks up LT play, Thomas will slide right over and one of these guys will go to RG.

Freeman will be fine, but will still occasionally get whipped by NGs that he should dominate. At least this year he doesn’t have to tell the RG beside him what to do on every play.

RG is a source of worry because no one has stepped up to challenge a guy who played DT last year, but I think this spot is addition by subtraction. Shatley can’t be any worse than McClain. Norton may eventually push for some play here.

At RT it’s between Shaq Anthony and Gifford Timothy. Timothy may well be the starter for FSU but probably not for Auburn. Anthony was a good pass blocker in HS and from everything we’ve seen and heard he’s still about the same in college. He’s been able to stop Goodman from doing whatever he wants in practice at least. However, RT is a spot where you want a good run blocker, and we may not have one.

Much was said earlier this offseason about more Gap blocking as opposed to Zone. The disadvantage of our style before is that they tended to follow a philosophy of "giving ground to gain ground", where the OL step back and try to pin the DL one way or another, or that we step too laterally instead of forwards. Well, Clemson is still going to run zone blocking because we pretty much have to, but they have adopted a philosophy of driving off the ball. It remains to be seen whether it works.

If we had a good OL coming back, 10 wins would be the definite expectation. If we really want to make a run in 2013, then this area has to be good.

3. Progression of the offense, will it expand or get better?

Last season we probably got in 70-75% of the playbook, and this year will likely be no different just because of the OL’s youth and inexperience. Last year the sack rate went from 26th to 86th nationally, with a veteran OL. So what is the expectation for improvement here?

Last season, Tajh Boyd completed 59.7% of passes with 12 INTs and 3800 yards passing. The yardage should go up along with the completion percentage and the INTs need to go down. Overall we finished with the 21st ranked passing offense and 36th in efficiency. If the OL were veterans, my hope would be for 4000 yards, 6-8 INTs, and over 63% completion. The offense would put up about 300yds passing per game. I doubt it gets there with this OL. The best I think I can hope for is to duplicate 2011. If we beat that we're golden.

The rushing offense put up 155 ypg, good for 60th nationally. We know this should’ve been higher with a veteran group of OL. In Spiller’s last year it was 170pg, 40th nationally. I think the goal should be to get there or higher, but again with this OL I’m not sure it will. If Ellington gets hurt, it will probably drop big time.

2009-2011 Offensive Statistics
Category 2009 Ntl Rank 2010 Rank 2011 Rank
Rushing Offense 170.36 40th 139.0 79th 155.85 60th
Passing Offense 192.0 88th 195.62 78th 284.77 21th
Pass Efficiency 127.09 67th 115.3 100 142.32 36th
Total Offense 362.36 74th 334.62 88 440.62 27th
Scoring Offense 31.14 28th 24.0 86 33.62 24th
Sacks Allowed 1.36pg 31 1.38pg 26 2.31pg 86th
Overall turnover margin .43 28 -.23 69 .15 T-45th
Offensive FEI Rank 32 56th 22nd

The 2011 Tigers finished 24th in scoring offense, at 33ppg. I think Top 25 is again attainable given the weapons we have. Top 30 might be more realistic, which should still be over 30ppg. The goal though is to be Top 10-20. If the 2012 team finishes in the Top 20 offensively, we should be very happy considering the OL inexperience.

4. The defense has to improve, and can’t get any worse.

Before last season, I predicted we’d fall into the 35-40 range in total defense, down from 19th in 2010. We ended up 71st overall, giving up 394ypg. Scoring defense dropped from 13 to 81. The sack rate dropped from 32nd to 76th. TFL numbers went from 10th to 86th. That’s not acceptable and we have a new DC as a result.

2009-2011 Defensive Statistics
Category 2009 Ntl Rank 2010 Rank 2011 Rank
Rushing Defense 151.50 67th 128.46 28th 176.86 83
Pass Defense 162.79 7th 191.85 22nd 217.5 50
Pass Efficiency Defense 110.88 21st 116.24 27th 133.47 74
Scoring Defense 20.43ppg 25th 18.77 13th 29.29 81
Total Defense 314 20th 320.31 19th 394.36 71
Sacks/Gm 2.57 27th 2.38 32nd 1.85 76
Sacks 36 13th 31 T-28th 24 76
Tackles for Loss 7.29pg 12th 7.38pg 10th 5.07pg 86
Interceptions 21 5th 15 34th 14 31
Defensive FEI 16 15 50

We’ve looked at Venables’ statistical results over the years at Oklahoma, and watched plenty of OU games from last season. I’m not sold on the hire yet, because I believe his defense underperformed their talent level. Many OU sites are talking about how Mike Stoops brought in a simpler approach this August compared to Venables' scheme. If it gets worse here, this will be a very bad season. However, I don’t see how we can get much worse in 2012.

The killer for us last year was rushing defense, which allowed 176ypg (86th nationally). Pass defense finished 50th, at 217ypg, in a run-oriented conference. I think the talent and coaching is here to hit Top 40 this season. I'm just not certain there has been enough time of on-field coaching to get them any higher. We should be able to knock a TD per game off the scoring defense, from 29ppg to about 21-22ppg.

But that is not really the standard for good defense. Clemson defenses should be in the Top 20 every year. We have way more talent on defense than most of this schedule does offensively. Additionally, championship defenses can stop the run, and historically that is what Clemson does. Bad defense is unacceptable to me.

These are my own thoughts on what good defense looks like: On 3rd and short, I think we need to be 40% successful in every game. Hopefully 3rd and long will be 70% for the year. Scoring defense on championship teams should be in the 14-15ppg range. Total defense should be under 300 yards allowed. NO more plays over 25 yards allowed, and sacks should come up to 1 out of 10 attempts. Interceptions should come at a lower rate, maybe 1 out of 15 attempts. Even though I am not a stats guy, these numbers would indicate good defense is being played.

With that in mind, STS is looking for another writer with a flair for statistics to review the team’s measureables each week compared to a set of goals. It is a niche that we need to fill with a writer who can write year-round. We are also looking at other ideas for adding staff. If you would like to do this you can contact me via email directly.

What is acceptable to you this season, in terms of overall production numbers and in the W-L department?