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South Carolina at Clemson Preview: Depth Chart Statistical Analysis

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Duke at Clemson Review:

Just after Alabama sleepwalked through a 10-10 first half against The Citadel, Clemson wasn’t much more focused at 7:00 p.m. in Death Valley. The Tigers held a precarious 7-6 lead in the final two minutes of the first half. What stood out about the early offensive struggles was the lack of success running the ball. The occasionally wise Alex Craft stated it well:

The Tigers have run the ball for chunks all season, but when they really need to convert on 3rd & 2, they often rely on Lawrence and the passing game. That’s because they’re 107th in power success rate. At times they’ve run it when they absolutely have to have it—late in the game against Syracuse comes to mind—but it’s been fleeting. The running game came to life in the second half against Duke though. Clemson was converting those 3rd & 2 situations on the ground. My favorite example was on 3rd & 2 from the Duke 29 with just under 4:30 to go in the third quarter. Travis Etienne broke an arm tackle, got into the second level, and had one man to beat. Garrett Williams climbed and blocked #41 of Duke, the middle linebacker, allowing Etienne to burst 29 yards into the end zone to give Clemson a 28-6 lead and effectively end the game. Take a look:

When Clemson runs the ball like that, they’re awfully hard to beat. Even while they were struggling offensively, the game never felt out of their control. That’s because the defensive line was so incredibly dominant. The Tigers registered four sacks and countless QB hurries while also holding the Duke running game in check all night. Save for one 22-yard scamper, Duke’s leading rusher only had 29 yards on 10 carries. Their other RB had just 22 yards on 7 carries. Clemson forces every opponent to be completely one-dimensional on offense. That’s spells trouble for South Carolina.

Palmetto Bowl Preview

Next, the Tigers look to to get their 70th win in the 116th Palmetto Bowl. The Gamecocks are bowl eligible at 6-4, but their only wins against teams with winning records are home wins over Missouri and Chattanooga. After a few years of double-digit win totals and then a few years of ugly losing records, the Gamecocks have found their equilibrium as a 7-or-8-win program. Their elevation to national relevance under coach Steve Spurrier was short-lived, but they’ve changed their stripes and are a middle-of-the-road program now. This year, advanced stats put them just below NC State and just above Virginia and Pittsburgh. That should set expectations for this one.

Let’s take a look at the recruited talent and some other informative metrics, but first our usual caveat:

In our analysis of the depth charts, we divide the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Eric Dungey) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2017 Clemson vs. Syracuse), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2018 Clemson vs. Wake Forest).

The talent gap has grown over the past few years, and the Tigers now hold a strong advantage over their in-state foe. It’s even grown throughout the season as Clemson has added Justyn Ross and Derion Kendrick, two Rivals five-star players, to their two-deep on offense. The only position group on either side of the ball where the Cocks have the talent advantage is on the offensive line. The Gamecocks’ O-line has performed reasonably well, ranking 44th in line yards (rushing yards attributable to the OL) and 35th in sack rate. Nevertheless, the Tigers outperform the Cocks even there, ranking 25th in line yards and 21st in sack rate. This is likely due to depth, as they have former four-star Sean Pollard and five-star Jackson Carman coming off the bench, which is not accounted for in the above chart.

At QB, Jake Bentley has been solid. He sports a 19-9 TD-INT ratio across nine games. He has slightly more yards per attempt than Trevor Lawrence while matching his 65% completion percentage. Like Lawrence, he has solid WRs helping his cause. The 6-foot-3 Bryan Edwards (#89) and the speedy Deebo Samuel (#1) will be the players to watch for the Cocks on Saturday. Not only are they good receivers, but they’re also South Carolina’s punt (Edwards) and kickoff (Samuel) returners.

The Cocks’ biggest advantage is on special teams where S&P+ ranks them 2nd. The Tigers rank just 64th. In addition to their talented returners, their kicker is 13/15 on FGs (though his long is only 42 yards), and their punter is averaging 46.2 yards per punt (6.1 yards more than Clemson’s Will Spiers). The Cocks must dominate this phase of the game to have a chance. This is their one edge!

South Carolina’s defense has been behind their offense this season (S&P+ 33rd offense, 72nd defense). Depth issues abound and made the creation of this chart quite tricky. Several of their starters are also second-stringers at other positions, particularly in their secondary, but by using several sources for depth charts and leaving blank a backup slot at DT, LB, and S, we managed this startling graphic:

The defensive line is a great example of where talent shows through to the resulting statistics. The gap in talent between these two defensive lines is the biggest of any group in our analysis (even more than the full star difference between Trevor Lawrence and Jake Bentley at QB). The Cocks average just 1.9 sacks per game compared to the Tigers 3.6. They average only 6.3 TFLs per game compared to the Tigers’ 9.8. The Cocks rank 103rd in the nation allowing 205 rushing yards per game, while Clemson allows just 82 rushing yards per game. This advantage feels impossible to overcome.

Against South Carolina’s D-line, Clemson should find success on the ground—as they did second half against the Blue Devils—and control the game. Meanwhile, Clemson’s defensive line will put this game squarely on Jake Bentley’s shoulders by taking away their already mediocre rushing attack (75th in rushing yards per game). Bentley and those talented receivers are the best part of their offense, but a one-dimensional passing attack isn’t going to beat Clemson, as the game against Ryan Finley and NC State demonstrated.

In fact, NC State is a good comparison for South Carolina. The Wolfpack are ranked seven spots above the Cocks in the S&P+ overall rankings. Both teams are better on offense than on defense, and both are better passing than rushing. Both also have brutally long losing streaks against Clemson (seven straight and 14/15 for NCSU, four going on five for South Carolina).

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

I expressed my concern about Clemson’s secondary at the outset of the season, but they have exceeded expectations and improved throughout the year. Former two-star safeties Nolan Turner and Denzel Johnson have provided solid depth while Trayvon Mullen has become an excellent cornerback.

With Clemson’s secondary strengthening (thanks in no small part to Tanner Muse’s maturation), the linebacking corps’ pass coverage may be the defense’s relative “weakness.” Fortunately for Clemson, TE Hayden Hurst is on the Ravens, not the Gamecocks (a more respectable bird, no?). They’ll need WR Deebo Samuel to attack Clemson over the middle, and they’ll need to hit him quickly as anything slow developing will yield havoc.

Clemson has the #9 offense in the country (S&P+). The Gamecocks have faced four top 25 offenses by that metric (UGA: #3, Ole Miss: #8, Missouri #15, Texas A&M #22). They’ve allowed 37.5 points per game in those contests. The Tigers should be focused following a slow offensive start against Duke and could easily exceed that figure. Expect the Tigers to take away the Cocks’ running game and punish QB Jake Bentley while regaining their own offensive balance with success on the ground. The similarities to the Textile Bowl are striking. A 41-7 type game is a reasonable hope and expectation.