We've heard coaches say over and over again through the years that there is a fine line between good and great. Generally the programs that can reach the "great" level are able to do so thanks to depth. This is nothing revolutionary and just about every fan has an understanding of this...to a point. The issue with expectations is the way fans get caught up with first team guys or a few standout guys. This is a dangerous path as Clemson fans have learned the hard way over the last 25 years or so. Injuries, generally, are an absolute in football at this level. The question is not "if" but "when" one or more of your starters go down with an injury (or even a suspension) that tests the depth of the team. Both Clemson and Georgia are having to put their depth to the test in the opener thanks to some injuries and suspensions on both sides. Here is a look at some lessons on depth.
Lesson 1: You better be deep on the defensive line.
I think you would be hard pressed to find a team that took home the national title that didn't have a good to great rotation on the DL. Florida State's 2013 run was uncanny in terms of injury avoidance. They suffered no significant injury loss and it played a big part in their ability to dominate the way they did. Clemson's 1981 team featured a tremendous two deep up front as neither William Perry nor Jeff Bryant started a majority of games. Obviously great defenses like the '89 and '90 teams had also featured stout 2 deep lines. Guys like Chester McGlockton and Brentson Buckner started out as backups on those teams when they would have been starters immediately for teams like the 98-2004 squads. The 2009 DL is a perfect example. Although the Tigers featured a first team of DaQuan Bowers (2nd rounder), Jarvis Jenkins (2nd rounder), Brandon Thompson (3rd rounder), and Ricky Sapp (5th rounder), it wasn't enough to elevate that defense to elite status. That team had issues at linebacker, sure, but you'd think that kind of front along with a capable secondary would have been enough. In the end, it was defensive lapses that cost that team the ACC championship and began the atrocious losing streak against the coots when they looked awful against a mediocre USuC offense.
This year's defensive line should be the deepest in many years with grizzled veterans backed up by talented underclassmen. The absence of Corey Crawford for game one hasn't caused nearly as much heartburn as when Bowers and Sapp dealt with injuries.
Lesson 2: One man better not make or break your OL.
Clemson fans only need to take a look back at 2011 to see this lesson proved. The 2011 OL wasn't elite by any means, but it was adequate enough to allow The Chad's first offense to run roughshod over Auburn, FSU, and Virginia Tech. When Philip Price went down, it caused serious problems up front and contributed heavily to the erosion in Tajh Boyd's play down the stretch. They were able to pull it together enough to get it done in Charlotte and play well enough to win in the Orange Bowl had the defense done anything close to average, but the NC State and USuC losses could both be traced back to the OL getting absolutely whipped in the wake of Price's injury. A young Brandon Thomas wasn't ready yet when the time came. Fast forward to 2012 and after losing starter Gifford Timothy, the Tigers were able to slide Isiah Battle in against a loaded LSU front and hold up. This was only after trying Shaq Anthony out first. Most Clemson fans I know (and I include myself in this) are keeping fingers crossed that Battle isn't lost in 2014. The staff has already held Battle out and worked on other options at LT in camp, and we can only hope that the team can keep it together should Battle be lost for any time.
Lesson 3: One weak link can sink the entire ship.
Not having an adequate backup at a position can really cook your goose at this level. The 2004 offense was handcuffed to the underachieving Kelvin Grant because his backup, Michael Collins, was losing the ability to run as the season went on due to a degenerative condition. The 1996 defense had some studs like Trevor Pryce, Anthony Simmons, Dexter McCleon, and Antwan Edwards, but a severe weakness at the corner spot opposite McCleon left the team hanging high and dry on more than one occasion.
Prior to the 2000 season, the coaches took the main two guys on defense (Keith Adams and Robert Carswell) off of the field for a couple of scrimmages and quickly saw a canyon-like drop in performance from the entire unit. The terrible 2001 defense was the realization of those two players being off the field. The 2005 team dropped a game in Atlanta because the staff decided a one-armed Charlie Whitehurst was better than a healthy Will Proctor in a one game situation.
This is a section of the story I will call The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly:
The Good: Clemson's remarkable depth at wide receiver was on display in 2012 and 2013 when the Tigers lost Sammy Watkins and Charone Peake for significant time and didn't seem to miss a beat on offense. In 2012, Nuk Hopkins simply dominated the entire season, including key games in the Georgia Dome versus Auburn and LSU when Watkins missed all but one play due to suspension and injury.
In 2000, Clemson was able to insert Willie Simmons for an injured Woody Dantzler and pull off a come from behind win in Chapel Hill as well as a go-ahead TD drive late against GT.
In 1992, Clemson inserted backup quarterback Louis Solomon who helped lead an incredible comeback from a 28-0 halftime deficit to win 29-28 at UVA.
The Bad: Clemson loses starting corner Antwan Edwards early against NC State in 1998, and Torry Holt proceeds to torch Darrel Crutchfield, Dextra Polite, and the Tiger defense for over 200 yards in a 46-39 Wolfpack win.
Tiger LT Philip Price is lost to an injury before the Tigers take on NCST in Raleigh and Brandon Thomas looks completely lost against the twisting and blitzing John Tenuta defense. The Tigers turn it over time and again in a disastrous 2nd quarter leading to a 37-13 loss.
Anthony Waters is lost to a knee injury in the first game against Florida Atlantic, still playing after the game was well in hand, and the 2006 defense falls apart down the stretch of the season. The worst moments coming in the last two games when the Tigers got ripped up by Mike Davis and the coots, blowing a 14 point lead in the second half, and then getting torched by Kentucky in the bowl game.
The Ugly: The 1995 Tigers hosted a depleted UGA team in Death Valley and managed to lose to the leg humpers despite facing their third team QB and third team RB. Third teamer Torin Kirtsey went for 195 yards and the Tigers lost 19-17 in the horrific throwback uniforms.
The coots rolled into Death Valley in 2012 and won behind backup quarterback Dylan Thompson and without Marcus Lattimore, thanks in part to 3 interceptions that were flat out dropped by the Tigers' secondary and a paltry pass rush.
Dabo Swinney has said he has had a hard time telling the difference between the first and second teams on defense, and the offense is preparing to take the field without a national name at the skill positions. The depth of the program will be tested, especially on offense, as the Tigers face a difficult September. Will "the next guy up" have Tiger fans excited about the future or lamenting the losses of Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Brandon Thomas, Martavis Bryant, and Hot Rod McDowell? If 2014 is going to be the year Clemson gets back to Charlotte and/or breaks the streak against the coots, the depth of the program is going to have to be legitimate.