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Chasing History: How Great Can the 2016 Clemson Offense Be?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Alabama vs Clemson Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The time for talk is rapidly coming to a close and performance will dictate the terms for those of us thirsting for college football to begin. There is no doubt that the 2016 Clemson Tigers have championship aspirations coming off a magical 2015 which came up just short of a national title.

The bar is set higher than ever before, as the only title team in Clemson history came from off the radar and unranked to bring home the gold in 1981. This year’s team is firmly on the radar, and Clemson has finally broken into the elite program fraternity in a way even the Ford era teams struggled to do.

If you saw how Oklahoma and Penn State acted prior to facing Clemson in bowl games in the 80s, it said a lot about how Clemson was still looked on as a second class citizen by many of the college football blue bloods. Ford, the Tigers, and the Clemson fans knew better (and the Sooners and Nittany Lions found out as well), but the national outlook on the Tigers is much different today thanks to the efforts of Dabo Swinney and his program. If the Tigers win it all in 2016, it will no doubt take great efforts from all three phases at certain times.

No purely one dimensional team can navigate the current college football format and survive. Heck, even mighty Alabama boasting one of the best defenses in modern college history had to get over 40 points to finish the goal. They had to play nearly mistake-free on offense and special teams to survive that night in Arizona, and earned their title by doing exactly that.

Of course, there is no secret that the offensive side of the ball should very well be the bell cow of this 2016 unit considering it returns the best quarterback, and probably best overall player, in the nation, along with a ridiculous compliment of skill players and a now formidable offensive line. This offense will be very, very good for certain, but how will it stack up against the best college football has seen in the last 25 years or so?

I’ve been addicted to college football even from my youth and thought about some of the very best offenses I have seen from around 1990 to now. Some units have put up ridiculous numbers in that time, especially in the last fifteen years when the spread systems emerged, but I have decided to trust the eye test more than anything else in formulating the list of teams to compare with this upcoming Tiger offense.

For example, that 2010 Oregon Ducks offense was pretty scary and put up some ridiculous stats, but it struggled up front against the physical front seven of California, then again against Auburn in the title game. Which teams possessed the versatility to dictate games against really any type of opponent? Here are some of the offenses that I would consider to be the best I’ve seen (though most of these had at least one game where things weren’t great and they lost or came close to losing). It will be fun to see if Clemson can surpass some of the feats these teams accomplished.

1993 Florida State (300.7 ypg passing; 205.2 ypg rushing; 41.2 points per game): This team was scary good and put perhaps the worst beating on Clemson I have ever seen delivered in my lifetime that year. Charlie Ward was the DeShaun Watson of that era, able to run and throw in a way rarely seen back then. The Noles had a stable of running backs led by William Floyd, Sean Jackson, and the electric Warrick Dunn. Tamarick Vanover brought speed to the outside along with steady Kez McCorvey. That team not only destroyed a Clemson team that still boasted NFL talent on defense, but also took apart Miami, Virginia, and North Carolina who were all ranked when they met. The lone blemish was the loss to Notre Dame at Notre Dame when the Noles scored a season low 24 points (later Nebraska held them to 18 in the bowl). Both Notre Dame and Nebraska were able to use ball control run games to partially neutralize the Nole offense that year. I still believe it is one of the best offenses ever and deserved to be on this list.

2001 Miami Hurricanes (250.2 ypg passing; 204.6 ypg rushing; 42.7 points per game): Many feel, and I am among them, that the 2001 Hurricanes was the best college football team of all time. It certainly was the best of the 2000s. Although the stats aren’t as eye-popping as some others on the list, the Canes played as much offense as they needed to that year. It was a standard pro-style offense which didn’t offer the dual threat aspect of many top offenses, but the names on that depth chart were astounding. Ken Dorsey was maybe the weak link at quarterback, not that you could notice that year. Clinton Portis and Najeh Davenport at running back (along with Willis McGahee and Frank Gore), Andre Johnson at wide receiver, and Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow, Jr. at tight end. The Canes also boasted a top flight offensive line anchored by Bryant McKinnie. Their lowest output of the year was 18 points on the road at Boston College and they beat Florida State and Virginia Tech on the road that year, scoring 49 and 26 respectively.

1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers (143.4 ypg passing; 366.5 ypg rushing; 53.2 points per game): Well, if folks don’t think the 2001 Canes were the best team ever, they usually say the 95 Huskers take that crown. This offense was pretty one dimensional, but it was so overwhelming on the ground that they only passed if they felt like it usually. I’m not sure they faced a defense on par with what VT or FSU brought to the table in 2001 against Miami, but how many of you took pleasure in watching them demolish the Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl? They belong on this list. Tommy Frazier was a guy Rick Stockstill always regretted not being able to get to Clemson, and he certainly was a difference maker that season. Lawrence Phillips and Ahman Green formed one of the best tailback duos you will ever see. Their top pass catcher that season had 22 grabs, so it was probably the last of the great ground and pound offenses to win the national title.

2005 Southern California Trojans (319.8 ypg passing; 260 ypg rushing; 49.1 ppg): The real USC fell short of defending its 2004 national title with that epic game against Vince Young and Texas, but there was little doubt that offense was better than the 04 team’s and one of the best of all time. Matt Leinart returned as the Heisman Trophy winner and had that year’s winner, Reggie Bush, in the backfield with him. Lendale White teamed up with Bush to give the Trojans two 1000 yard rushers. On the outside were Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith who went for 1274 and 957 yards respectively. Then there was dynamic tight end Dominique Byrd blocking and controlling the middle. That team’s lowest output of the year was 34 points at Notre Dame, who famously had their field grass up like a US Open rough to slow the Trojans down.

2013 Florida State Seminoles (315.9 ypg passing; 203.1 rushing; 51.6 ppg): No need to say much on this team considering all the current Clemson folks pretty much remember (or have tried hard to forget) what happened with them. It was a historically great team for certain and set the bar on offense for the 2010s. They have many of the ACC records this current Clemson team will try to top. They played pretty poorly in the title game and still scored 34 points.

(Also under consideration were the 96 Florida Gators, 2000 Seminoles, and 2008 Oklahoma Sooners).

What the Tigers have going for them: It all starts at quarterback and each one on this list had a dynamic leader at the controls, with the possible exception of the 2001 Hurricanes. Watson is one of the best passing quarterbacks I have ever seen, already producing two or three of the sickest throws in my memory (like that first TD against UGA). He took his running to another level down the stretch in 2015 and can easily top 100 yards in any game if he needs to. The added weight and lower body strength only makes his run dimension even more deadly.

Wayne Gallman is still a little overlooked despite setting a single season rushing record last season. He was behind Dalvin Cook and Elijah Hood on the preseason All ACC team. However, Gallman did not come to Clemson as a ready-made back and has just now begun to come into his own in that regard. He also has a deep stable of backups, including five star freshman Tavien Feaster, to push him and spell him.

Clemson has the big time tight end target in Jordan Leggett that teams like the 01 Canes and 05 Trojans sported. Of course, #WRU is in full effect with several future NFL guys on the outside, led by Mike Williams and Artavis Scott.

It is hard to think of a way to defend this offense for four quarters. I’m sure a team or two can make things tough for a bit, or the weather plays a factor like last year against Notre Dame, but if you stack the box against the run, good luck. If you play a lighter box to help on the passing game, good luck. If you try to get after Watson with a heavy rush, you better be disciplined. This is an offense coming off 10 straight 500+ yard games of total offense and is even better at the WR position than last year. The offensive line returns three all conference performers with two being legitimate All American candidates.

So, what expectations do you folks hold for this offense? Score like 95 Nebraska? Go for nearly 600 yards a game like the 05 Trojans? Be as efficient as the 13 Noles? Produce as many high draft picks as the 01 Canes? Just being in this conversation is exciting indeed.

Deshuan Watson
To be the man...