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Clemson Football's Results Exceeded Our Expectations

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This football season, and January in particular, took us through an emotion gauntlet ranging from devastation to pride to hope. We do our best to objectively line that up with pre-season expectations while also assessing the long-term strengths and weaknesses that were revealed.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To begin, we reach back to two articles from our STS Season Preview Storystream (Calculating Expected WinsGreat Expectations).

First, we look at what our authors as well as bloggers from rival ACC projected from the Clemson Tigers. **Warning someone may get called out!**

Opponent
R. Kantor
(CU)
A. Craft
(CU)
Dr. QT
(CU)
J. Ingles
(CU)

The Kraken
(CU)

J. Weaver
(GT)

D. Rubin
(BC)
Juan M.
(FSU)
R. Reinhard
(WF)
Aggregate
Wofford 100% 100% 100% 99% 98% 100% 100% 99% 100% 100%
Appalachian State 95% 99% 100% 95% 93% 95% 100% 99% 100% 97%
at Louisville (TH) 54% 60% 52% 55% 50% 55% 60% 50% 50% 54%
Notre Dame 52% 69% 55% 65% 53% 65% 40% 50% 65% 57%
Georgia Tech 58% 55% 60% 55% 55% 65% 70% 55% 55% 59%
Boston College 85% 85% 85% 85% 78% 80% 75% 80% 75% 81%
at Miami 75% 75% 70% 65% 48% 65% 80% 65% 55% 66%
at NC State 85% 80% 80% 70% 64% 80% 90% 80% 60% 77%
Florida State 50% 55% 51% 60% 70% 60% 50% 50% 45% 55%
at Syracuse 92% 100% 90% 90% 88% 90% 95% 85% 90% 91%
Wake Forest 97% 95% 95% 95% 85% 95% 85% 90% 100% 93%
at South Carolina 70% 63.17% 75% 70% 73% 65% 60% 65% 60% 67%
Derived Wins 9.1 9.4 9.1 9.0 8.6 9.2 9.1 8.7 8.6 9.0

One thing to keep in mind here is that these projections included the risk of injury - to Deshaun Watson in particular. Fortunately, while injuries and dismissals hit hard during the offseason, Clemson went through a pretty good stretch without significant injuries before Mac Alexander got hurt at the most inopportune time (in the National Championship).

The most notable error here is how much we overrated Louisville and Georgia Tech. On aggregate, writers gave the Tigers just a 54% chance to win in Louisville and a 59% chance get revenge against the Yellow Jackets. Louisville took Clemson to the brink, but Georgia Tech ended up being a bust, unable to cope with some key personnel losses and injuries. Once Clemson beat GT and reached 5-0, the perfect 12-0 regular season became viable.

As for great individual projections, Alex Craft had the Tigers at 9.4 regular season wins, which was closest to the actual result of 12. This is largely due to his confidence in Clemson beating Notre dame. Joey Weaver was next in line at 9.2 wins projected, this one largely influenced by a high likelihood that the Tigers would beat his Yellow Jackets. As for big misses, The Kraken gave Clemson only a 48% chance to beat Miami and projected only 8.6 wins. Robert Reinhard, the editor of the SB Nation's Wake Forest site, also projected just 8.6 wins. Fortunately, they were wrong by more than three wins!

Now, on to the more qualitative assessments given in the preseason. Here's what I said.

"If the team can avoid more personnel losses, I believe the talent and coaching is there for a 10+ win season and an ACC championship. For that reason, I set my goal for this team at an Orange or Peach bowl berth and an ACC title. Realistically though, I know this team is just one or two more injuries away from being just decent."

Notice that heavy injury caveat? Clemson managed to stay pretty healthy until the big injury in the championship and the Tigers not only reached the Orange Bowl, as I hoped, they did one better and won it.

So, as we look ahead to future seasons, what did we learn about our program this year that can be applied to projecting success in future seasons?

Strengths:

Coming into 2015, one unknown was how the offensive co-coordinator duo of Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott - dubbed "ScElliott" - would perform. There was optimism after the Tigers' great offensive output in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl, their first game in the new roles, but there was still plenty of uncertainty. Emphatically, they erased any doubt this season and proved to be a real strength for the Clemson Tigers.

One thing that made them so great is their ability to find and attack opposing defenses' weaknesses. Nick Tully of the Clemson Pawcast calls our offense "fungible." Against Louisville, NC State, North Carolina, and Oklahoma ScElliott saw room for a traditional running game led by Wayne Gallman so they leaned on it. Gallman tallied over 150 rushing yards and at least 5.5 yards per carry in each of those games. Defenses vary though, and when Clemson ran into units with stout fronts, the Tigers found other weaknesses in the defense to expose.

Against Boston College and Alabama, stout D-lines clogged up the A-gap run. Rather than being stubborn or inflexible, ScElliott pivoted and relied heavily on a strong passing game. Deshaun Watson delivered with 420 and 405 passing yards in those contests as the Tigers scored 34 and 40 points respectively, even without an established A-gap running game.

Obviously coaching is easier with great offensive players like Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson, which 2014 showed us isn't always the case. Nevertheless we can feel very good long-term about our flexible offensive co-coordinators who seem to find the weak underbelly of defenses and humbly take what the defense gives them. We can feel even better in the short term as Watson's comments aren't just fluff:

"We have a chance to be one of the best offenses ever in college football, so that's our motivation, to be the best ever." - Deshaun Watson

Another long-term strength that was highlighted this year is the DL and DE position coaches. The 2014 Clemson defensive line boasted first round draft pick WDE Vic Beasley, excellent DT Grady Jarrett, and SDEs Tavaris Barnes and Corey Crawford. With a combination of great recruiting (Christian "War Daddy" Wilkins) and coaching (Kevin Dodd), the Tiger D-line didn't miss a beat. Now the D-line again will lose both starting DEs, but unlike last offseason, I'm not worried. DE Coach Marion Hobby has proven that between great recruiting and phenomenal coaching, Clemson defensive ends will be productive.

Weaknesses:

Unfortunately, a long-term weakness was exposed a handful of times, but none more obvious than in the National Championship game. Clemson's kick-off coverage and return game was deplorable. The Tigers seldom have had impact kick returns and have been hurt in big moments by long returns by the opposition. While fanatics like us knew this long ago, after it cost us the biggest game in college football, it is no insider secret.

You may expect me to write about how terrible Danny Pearman is since his title includes "Special Teams Coordinator," however our own Zach Lentz shared the special teams responsibility breakdown with us.

Responsibility Coach
Kickoffs Hobby/Venables
Kickoff Coverage Hobby/Venables
Punts Danny Pearman
Punt Coverage Danny Pearman
Field Goals Robbie Caldwell
Field Goal Defense Dan Brooks

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your perspective, it's not as easy as blaming one coach. Two of our best assistant coaches are responsible for kick coverage and yet the unit continues to struggle. Although Greg Huegel proved to be a Godsend this year, punts were not great and punt returns were rarely fruitful. Despite having tons of speed and skill position talent, kickoff returns were also rarely fruitful and the return coverage got burned in a few big moments. Coach Swinney as shown the ability to humbly make changes and correct mistakes. Hopefully this is another one he can figure out.

Closing Thoughts:

This year was a magical ride, even if they didn't win it all. They far exceeded our expectations and surely raised the bar for future years. I've never gone into a college football season thinking about winning a national championship (I would have been thrilled with 10-3 back in the Bowden days).

The positive national exposure this team received has helped grow the brand and will continue to aid recruiting. It's a great time to be a Tiger. September 2, 2016 can't get here soon enough.