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The Stat of Eliteness and The Bowden/Swinney Era

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Clemson is close to the Elite Level and there is not much holding us back from being up there with the Elites of college football. If you want to see exactly what I wholeheartedly believe is holding us back, this is a post for you.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The last 2 years, I posted many different statistical characteristics of Elite Level HUNH teams, allowed you to compare that with Clemson, and see what sticks for you.  This time, I'm going to look at recent National Championship Teams and a characteristic that stands out from the rest.  This time, the entire post will be dedicated to that.  This post is going to examine the importance of an effective Offensive Line and a highly efficient running when compared with National Championship Level success.

So, with that, I'll start with the disclaimer.  There are no absolutes in football and there are a lot of different ways to win football games.  Anything is possible, and if you were at the 1988 Florida State game or the 2012 LSU game, you pretty much saw that anything.  In this post, I will be looking at the most consistent statistical characteristic of eliteness, while acknowledging that a game can sometimes be decided by things like "Puntrooskies,"  inexplicable coaching decisions, or "4th and 16" conversions.

Clemson is close to the Elite Level and there is not much holding us back from being up there with the Elites of college football (Elite Programs / Elite Teams) .  If you want to see exactly what I wholeheartedly believe is holding us back, this is a post for you.  You don't need a calculator with this and you don't have to understand a sophisticated algorithm

So without further adieu, let's get right to the one common stat that all the recent National Championship teams excel in, which by the way, also happens to be the one stat with which Clemson has had the most difficulty with over the years.

That stat is "Yards per Carry."

The last 7 National Championship Teams have finished in the top 11 in "yards per carry."

National Championship
Team
Year Rushing
YPC
Rushing YPC
Nat'l Rank
Rushing
S&P
Rank
Florida 2008 5.94 4 1
Alabama 2009 5.01 11 14
Auburn 2010 6.12 3 1
Alabama 2011 5.49 7 5
Alabama 2012 5.59 6 4
Florida St. 2013 5.63 10 13
Ohio St. 2014 5.75 11 1
AVERAGES 5.65 7.4 5.6

As you can see above, the recent NC teams average 5.65 yards per carry with the lowest yards per carry of a recent NC team being Alabama in 2009 at 5.01 ypc.  So, if you examined just the past 5 years, that average goes up to an impressive 5.72 ypc.  When examining this over the past 15 years, yards per carry is consistently trending up in elite level value.  It would appear that as the rules make passing easier, the importance of elite level efficiency running the ball is growing (but that's another post).

When comparing these teams to Clemson, I see that Clemson has had one year since 1999 where we averaged 5.0 yards per carry and we ended up being an average rushing team by the end of that year.

That year was 2006, the first year of Davis and Spiller.  After obliterating Georgia Tech on National TV with Gameday in the house (good times), we cracked the top 10 in the AP poll.  Our best OL, Roman Fry, got hurt in that game and the next week, Bud Foster would show all the other DCs we would face that Rob Spence had a one-play strategy for attacking 8-in-the-box.

Under Spence
Tigers
Team
Year Rushing
YPC
Rushing YPC
Nat'l Rank
Rushing
S&P
Rank
#21 Clemson 2005 4.1 45 9
Clemson 2006 5.7 3 7
#21 Clemson 2007 4.1 56 14
AVERAGES

4.63 34.7 10.0

In 2006, we also padded our rushing stats against the two worst rushing defenses in college football, Florida Atlantic and Louisiana Tech, and also Temple (#97 rush D) and UNC (#100).  When we faced VTs aforementioned #11 rushing defense, they shut us down (2.1 ypc).   We ended the season by losing 4 of our last 5 games (including an embarrassing loss to Kentucky where we abandoned a successful run game and a bad loss to SC when TB pulled an unstoppable Reggie Meriwether for an injured James Davis on the final drive) to finish unranked.

Officially, 2006 qualifies as the best year rushing the football in the 16 years of the Bowden and Swinney eras at Clemson.  Some may refer to this time period as "The Batson Era" (after Strength Coach Joey Batson) and you wouldn't be wrong to do so. Batson has been here through 3 head coaches, 7 Offensive Coordinators, and 4 OL coaches.

We had the most talented RB in school history, C.J. Spiller, in 2009 and that along with Billy Napier's commitment to power running and taking the top off of the defense, something Spence was opposed to, boosted our running game up to a respectable 4.81 ypc.

Under Napier
Tigers
Team
Year Rushing
YPC
Rushing YPC
Nat'l Rank
Rushing
S&P
Rank
#24 Clemson 2009 4.81 19 29
Clemson 2010 3.96 78 56
AVERAGES 4.39 48.5 42.5

Then, in 2010, we switched to more spread, dealt with a soft OL, and that was compounded by injuries to Andre Ellington and Kyle Parker.  We dropped back to being totally ineffective rushing the ball midway through the season.  This prompted the firing of Napier and the hiring of that cutting edge Texan who told it like it is, Chad Morris.

Upon his arrival, and we didn't know this at the time, but Morris would be coaching perhaps the best collection of offensive skill position talent Clemson has ever had at one time and arguably, the ACC as well.  Nuk Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Dwayne Allen, Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington, Martavis Bryant, Charone Peake, Adam Humphries, Brandon Ford, and Rod McDowell.

With 5 current NFL starters and Morris' "single-wing on crack," a lot of points would be scored and Morris would become the highest paid OC in the nation.  Let's take a look at how our rushing effectiveness improved under The Chad.

Under Morris
Tigers
Team
Year Rushing
YPC
Rushing YPC
Nat'l Rank
Rushing
S&P
Rank
#22 Clemson 2011 4.19 55 37
#11 Clemson 2012 4.23 70 26
#8 Clemson 2013 4.19 73 31
#15 Clemson 2014 3.53 108 106
AVERAGES 4.04 76.5 50

Well, so much for improvement.  You may be surprised to know that, despite all that skill talent, there was no improvement in "yards per carry" from Napier to Morris.  We did become a much better passing team thanks to having those two NFL first rounders WRs, the Mackey Award winner at TE, an NFL starter at RB, and a top 2 QB in school history.

Those elite skill players gradually moved on to the pros from 2011 to 2014 and the talent level began to drop. After 2012, things began to go south and 2014 was the least effective season rushing the football in the 16 years of the Bowden/Swinney era.

As you can see, under Morris, our average national ranking was 76th in "yards per carry" over the past four years.

That is, honestly, an outright embarrassment at a power 5 program with Top 15 talent in recruiting and the highest paid Offensive Coordinator in college football.  Since this is clearly a longterm problem that has yet to be fixed and not new under him, Morris shouldn't catch the blame for this.  This is a program philosophy problem.

However, it's no credit to Morris that we did drop every year in the national rankings to the point where we have to hope that we have now bottomed out at 108th in yards per carry.  Without the electric passing game for most of the year, the OL was forced to open holes against a defense less concerned with our talent level at QB and WR.  Only Wake Forest was worse than us in the ACC and they were last in the nation.

The truth is that there has been a ceiling on what we accomplish as a program, and this is it.  We have been successful as a program at developing every position group except for the Offensive Line.  Even when Rich Rod was here and we had Woody Dantzler at the helm, we didn't have elite level effectiveness running the football.

Under Rich Rod
Tigers
Team
Year Rushing
YPC
Rushing YPC
Nat'l Rank
Rushing
S&P
Rank
Clemson 1999 3.73 N/A N/A
#16 Clemson 2000 4.67 18 N/A
AVERAGES 4.20 N/A N/A

If you remember, Rich Rod had our OL drop down to about 250 pounds to increase their speed which also lowered their power.  This would conceivably force the defense to make quicker decisions against an unfamiliar schematic concept (at the time) that players and defensive coordinators were not familiar with defending.

Despite both OCs achieving  5.0 yards per carry at other stops, 5.0 yards per carry eluded Rich Rod as it eluded Chad Morris at Clemson.  As you can see, we averaged about what we did under Spence with Rich Rod at the helm.  We had one respectable year where we cracked the top 20.

And, if you just want to cover your eyes and skip past this, I don't blame you...The Brad Scott/Mike O'Cain years.  Man, it's been a long 16 years of mediocrity to futility.

Under Scott and O'Cain
Tigers
Team
Year Rushing
YPC
Rushing YPC
Nat'l Rank
Rushing
S&P
Rank
Clemson 2001 4.38 27 N/A
Clemson 2002 3.43 91 N/A
#22 Clemson 2003 3.83 64 N/A
Clemson 2004 3.20 98 N/A
AVERAGES 3.52 81 N/A

Enough of that, back to our current situation.  When you delve into advanced stats, specifically, Football Outsiders Offensive Line Ratings, the problem is clearly identified.   In fact, the word "soft" might as well be written there in the place of the numbers.

We were ranked 101st in the number they use to measure overall run blocking (Adjusted Line Yards).  However, we were ranked 26th in adjusted sack rate which means we are a pretty good pass blocking OL. I take from this that we are athletic enough and fundamentally sound enough to pass block decently but that, for some reason, we lack the meanness, strength, or toughness to move people off the ball.

In case you're wondering where the National Championship Game teams, Oregon and Ohio State, ranked in run blocking (Adj LY), it was #1 and #2 respectively.  This is the first year they have ranked OLs at Football Outsiders, so you can judge for yourself if that's just a coincidence.  Personally, I think the NCG probably won't have the #1 and #2 every year, but it ain't no coincidence.

We were ranked 126th (of 128 teams) in Power Success Rate.  Allow that to sink in.  Soft.   These are 3rd and 4th down runs with 2 yards or less that achieve a first down or TD.  We focus on all the mistakes we made against FSU last year, but if you really want to know how you make 7 trips to the RedZone and only score 17 points, here's why.

We were ranked 103rd in Std Downs Line Yards.  This is basically "yards before contact" on first down, second-and-7 or fewer, and third-and-4 or fewer.  In other words, we're among the worst in the nation in the situations where you would most like to have the threat of running the ball.

We were ranked 87th in Stuff Rate (GT was #1 BTW).  These are the percentage of runs by a running back that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.  These are drive killers as we saw with our own defense in 2014 using "stuffs" to force so many "3 and outs."  "Stuffs" put you in obvious passing situations and allow defenses to play pass-first and pin their ears back and come after the QB. We got stuffed about once every 5 runs last year and even worse, we were ranked 107th in tackles for loss allowed.

This reminds me of a couple quotes:

"If you hit Clemson in the mouth, they'll fold." -Ralph Friedgen to his players every year

"You don't win 10 games if you aren't tough," -Dabo Swinney's response in 2012

In 2006, Maryland held our best rushing attack in 16 years to 1.9 "yards per carry" and Friedgen finished 6-4 against Clemson. Point made.

There is hope though. Many see Strength Coach Joey Batson as the common denominator of the soft OL play, and it is true that he has been here for all 16 years of the Bowden/Swinney era, but there is another issue as well.  An increase in both numbers and talent level in offensive line recruiting has been desperately needed.

So, that leaves most of us with some combination of three different opinions on the subject: 1.There is no problem with the OL, look at our scoring. 2. Coach Batson is the problem and should've been fired years ago. 3. We need to better prioritize OL recruiting like the SEC teams do.

#1, of course, is false.  #2 and #3 hold water and we are going to get our answer of just how much water each holds in the near future.

In January, we brought in the first elite level OL class Clemson has signed since the 80s. From all accounts during spring ball, these guys appear to be "hits" from a talent standpoint and are as advertised.  I can almost guarantee that at least two are going to see meaningful playing time as true freshmen and one of them has a very good chance to start by the end of the year.

Keep in mind that this says just as much about the incumbent talent level at OL as it does about the talent level of the Freshmen.   Freshman OL need time to develop their bodies and greatly benefit from a redshirt year.  This is not an ideal situation, but we can really use the help.

The talent and depth part are finally being taken care of and we already know that Dabo wholeheartedly supports Coach Batson. Although, if a couple years down the road, we are still unable to move people off the line, I believe the blowback towards the S&C program will be substantial enough for change (if Dabo doesn't do it first).

Despite what he may say to the media, Dabo has shown that he is always tweaking his program philosophy for the better.  He has certainly not been set in his ways and he has made countless positive changes in the design of his program.

Dabo's actions in recruiting also finally show that the OL has become a priority.  Being the positive realist that I am, I see this is a wonderful thing for all of us Clemson fans.  In my mind, this is the final step towards becoming an elite program and the last major growing pain left for Dabo to conquer.

Even though this post encapsulates 16+ years of frustration, I am choosing now to be more grateful about the future possibilities, and specifically, the impending removal of the ceiling that has blocked our ascension to eliteness the past four years.

In conclusion, I'll just say that if we turn this negative into a positive, it becomes very likely that we will enter a second golden age of Clemson football in the near future.  This will be extremely fun for those of us that have been waiting 25 years for this rebirth.   My suggestion to younger folks is don't forget to enjoy the ride.  My suggestion to older folks is don't forget to let the Clemson administration know how proud and happy you are to have the football program representing Clemson University in this way once again.