There is an old saying that goes like this, "There are two sides to every story and then there is the truth." For many years now, posters on Clemson's interactive websites often categorize each other as being "Sunshine Pumpers," or the antithesis of that, "Sunshine Dumpers." These labels refer to those with overly positive and overly negative opinions when it comes to their take on an issue regarding the Clemson program.
In this post, I'd like to present my thoughts on the upcoming season from the "Dumper" point of view and then, in separate posts, also present the "Pumper" point of view and where my personal opinion actually lies. The third post will more or less be my way of laying down some sort of prediction for the season.
A standard prediction-type article may overlook some of these issues and I'd rather promote more thinking on your part. I feel like we need a "best" and "worst" case scenario for the season because aspects of both are plausible even if "somewhere in the middle" is most likely. So, I'm putting on the "dumper hat" and presenting the argument for why Clemson will be very disappointing this year.
Most Clemson sites like to avoid any negative hypothesis, which is a big reason I'd like to have a reference that lists all the major negative possibilities. Remember that this is only my opinion of what could happen along with why it could happen. This article, along with the next article, are not my definitive statements on Tiger football and I welcome your thoughts and reasoning for "why these things will happen" or "why these things won't happen."
Deshaun Watson's health
There is no doubting DeShaun Watson's talent. He has proven that he is among the most talented QBs in all of college football. It's also been proven that Clemson is a MUCH different team when he is on the field. Nobody would deny that. However, his track record has shown that he is just too brittle to be counted on for even half of a season.
During his first year at Clemson, he's spent the vast majority of his time rehabbing from various injuries that have occurred to seemingly all areas of his body. He was physically able to start and finish just 3 games last year and he missed the entire spring this year due to injury.
Watson has had four reported injuries in the past 14 months: broken collarbone, broken finger, torn LCL, and partially torn ACL. His track record of injuries also dates back to high school where he sprained his MCL in a non-contact injury running the ball. Sound familiar?
"Brittle" might be too generous of a word to describe Watson. "Physically unable to play the sport of college football" might be more accurate.
Watson has proven that he is mentally tough though and he led the Tigers to victory over South Carolina with a torn ACL in one of those 3 games he started and finished. However, at what point does his longterm health become more important than the game of football?
His track record suggests that he will miss a substantial amount of time throughout the season and that either Nick Schuessler or one of the true freshman QBs will be called upon to lead the Tigers in meaningful situations with the game on the line.
Unfortunately, Clemson is dependent on Watson to reignite an offense that struggled so often last year. Without the best defense in the nation to offset poor offensive performance, the offense will be counted on to produce at a much higher level than the conservative Stoudt-led offense last year.
Therefore, the team outlook could be summarized by the word "feast" when Watson is in the game and "famine" when he is not. Watson's track record clearly says we should be prepared for a lot more "famine" than "feast."
The OL is still incapable of generating push
It's certainly a huge positive that we have finally addressed the OL in recruiting but, those guys are true freshmen and a couple years away from being stars. The OL that Clemson will actually play with is largely the same soft OL from last year that will provide decent pass protection along with horrific drive blocking.
We heard false-truths last year like the OL just needs the QB to run the ball. This is where the blame for the OL not being able to drive block was Cole Stoudt's fault somehow. Ridiculous.
It is true that DeShaun Watson is a much better runner than Cole Stoudt. However, Watson missed the better part of 7 games last year due to injuries that were sustained from running the ball. So, will we run him? And what's that definition of insanity again?
We resorted to using WRs in the wildcat as a surprise tactic against SC and it worked well against a poor run defense but, how will it work when good defenses can gameplan for it? Also, we got Artavis Scott dinged up trying to run between the tackles in that game.
When will we be able to just hand it off to a RB and expect them to get enough yardage to keep us on schedule?
If the trend from the past 16 years holds, surprise game planning/ smoke and mirrors won't be sustainable and our running game will be a huge detriment in big games. Therefore, we will live and die on the arm of DeShaun Watson (when available) and the play making ability of the WRs.
This will probably work fairly well between the 20s, but what happens in the RedZone? As we saw last year, with a bad run blocking OL and no bulldozer at QB, scoring TDs in the RedZone will continue to be difficult in 2015. This will make games against lesser opponents closer than they should be and force us to execute in tight windows in the passing game near the goalline. I hope Ammon Lakip's leg is ready for the season.
Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, and Garry Peters cannot be replaced.
If any 1 of those 4 were coming back this year, our defense would have a stalwart in place that would basically eliminate questions about their specific position group. Instead, every level of the defense has a personnel issue that needs to be figured out.
How will the interior DL mask the lack of depth? Will our DEs generate any pass rush? Is there a worthy candidate to start at CB on the opposite side of Mac? Is there a MLB with the football IQ and athleticism to prevent busts in run fits? It may be a long time before all those questions are definitively answered and it may not even happen this year.
Therefore, the defense could really struggle at times and we could see 2011-type numbers. Any injuries up front could be especially devastating. We're going to be constantly searching for new contributors to step in and grow up fast. This might be ok in a lot of years but in 2015....
The ACC is getting better.
Florida State and Clemson emerged from long program hibernations in 2012 and reasserted themselves as major brands within the college football landscape over the next couple years. Clemson knocked off LSU in 2012 and followed that up by starting the 2013 season with a win over a top 5 team, Georgia. Florida State was even better as they ended the SEC's National Championship streak at 7 in 2013 and made the CFB playoff in 2014.
Last year, another team emerged as Georgia Tech shut down Clemson, squeaked by Georgia, and obliterated Miss State in the Orange Bowl on their way to a top 10 finish. For the first time in 10 years, we can say that the ACC has proven to be capable of consistently competing with the big boys.
The ACC has now solidified itself as a major conference with the emergence of Clemson, FSU, and GT and the additions of Notre Dame and the northeastern TV market. The benefactors of this solidifying of the conference are all the teams not named Clemson, FSU, and GT.
You see, the rest of the conference has been in limbo since it is not known if they would have had the ability to jump to another P5 conference if the ACC had folded. Now, the ACC is a solid player on the national scene and that's a major reason why the majority of the ACC is trending up in recruiting the past two cycles. The landscape within the conference has changed and the likelihood of more ACC teams emerging is growing with every passing year.
Also coinciding with that stability is the influx of excellent coaching into the conference. Bobby Petrino, Dave Doeren, Steve Addazio, Larry Fedora, Dave Clawson, and Pat Narduzzi have joined already proven coaches Jimbo Fisher, Dabo Swinney, Frank Beamer, Paul Johnson, and David Cutcliffe (yes, and Brian Kelly as well). In my opinion, this is the best collection of head coaches the ACC has had in my lifetime. The product in-conference will improve greatly starting this year.
There are going to be well-coached teams week after week looking to notch their belt with a win over Clemson and FSU. So far, both FSU and Clemson have been able to remain unscathed by the lower tier ACC teams the past two years but, this outcome isn't a foregone conclusion or a birthright for the big football schools by any means.
2015 will be a year where talent and coaching meets opportunity for the likes of NC State, Louisville, Virginia Tech, Miami, and UNC. With Clemson rebuilding their defense and FSU emerging post-Jameis, the probability of the two heavyweights dropping a game or two to 2nd tier teams is as high as it's been since 2011.
Dabo Swinney, Tony Elliot, Jeff Scott, and Brandon Streeter will not be able to replace Chad Morris.
Forget the talent infusion of 2011 that included Sammy Watkins, Charone Peake, Adam Humphries, Martavis Bryant and the return of a healthy Andre Ellington. One man made all those guys click together behind a true offensive identity and that man was Chad Morris.
It all started at QB. Morris developed Tajh Boyd from an overweight, non-focused backup into the best QB in school history statistically. Morris then hand-picked DeShaun Watson and developed him into an elite talent last spring and fall. Morris has a history of getting the best out of his QBs and that will leave with him when he walks out the door. Will Watson get better in year 2 or will we see the kind of regression we saw before Morris got here with Cullen Harper and Kyle Parker?
During Morris' tenure, there was certainly elite level talent at the skill positions, but no prima-donnas on offense. Morris wouldn't allow it. Excluding Martavis Bryant, he made our WRs block and put the incumbent malcontents on the bench. Don't let the measurables of the 2011 WRs fool you. By teaching the proper fundamentals and keeping these guys grounded, they were developed into NFL talent by Morris.
As many have surmised, one of the things that the offensive identity provided Morris with was to reduce the role Dabo had in the offense. He could manage Dabo and get his boss to minimize meddling and rally behind his direction. He had the superior football knowledge and big personality to make sound decisions and largely run the show all by himself.
Morris' leadership was a major contributor to our offensive success and that also goes out the door with him. We've seen Dabo Swinney more involved in the offense before and we've also seen that Dabo Swinney is no Chad Morris.
"Dumper" Season Prediction:
With Watson battling injuries all season, a soft OL, a rebuilding defense, on-the-job-training with the offensive staff, and better competition, this is going to be a down year in Tigertown. Too many less-talented teams are going to be able to exploit our many weaknesses and we will not be able to put teams away like we did in the past.
Clemson will defeat Wofford and Appalachian State to start the season but when the lights come on at Louisville, we will still have too many holes that need to be filled defensively. Then on top of that, the inevitable Watson injury and questions about his availability will put both sides of the ball in rebuilding mode.
After losses to Louisville, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech leave us at 2-3 and unranked, the youth movement for 2016 will be in full force. We rebound to win a close one at home against Boston College but drop the next three games at Miami, at N.C. State, and lose a close inspired performance against FSU at home on a late long FG.
At this point, the youth on defense finds their legs and we rally to defeat Wake, Syracuse, and then muster a surprise two-TD win over South Carolina to finish the season 6-6 and get to a bowl game.
We travel to Detroit for something called the Quick Lanes Bowl on December 28th and face our old Atlantic Division rival, Maryland (6-6). With a healthy Watson at QB and new defensive players growing up before our eyes, we bury the Terps in a non-contest to finish the season 7-6. The depth generated this year will pay dividends, but 2016 can't get here fast enough for the coaching staff.