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Clemson’s Sugar Bowl Recovery Requires a Refresh, Not An Overhaul

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Allstate Sugar Bowl Semifinal Game - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Sugar Bowl was an abomination. Doesn’t matter why or how, it was ugly and one of the worst games we’ve seen Clemson play in the last decade. Before last Friday’s loss, Clemson hadn’t been pantsed like this since the 2013 FSU game. And before that we’d really have to look at THAT Orange Bowl loss. These are probably the three worst games for Clemson under Dabo’s tenure.

The reason all three are so bad isn’t because of a talent differential between Clemson and their opponents. It is because Clemson appeared outclassed, almost as though they didn’t belong on the same field. Clemson’s performance came down to several key issues including a lack of effort, poor offensive line play, and an ugly defensive showing.

The most disappointing part of Friday’s loss is that lack of edge. Under Dabo, Clemson has almost always been motivated. Coach Swinney has mastered the art of motivating his team when they are the underdog and when they are the favorite. It isn’t an easy task to motivate a bunch of 18-22 year olds, but Dabo has done it consistently. That didn’t happen Friday.

I know Dabo talked about the prep being exactly what they wanted, but the Tigers were flat on Friday. Guys looked confused, out of position, and just generally didn’t seem to want to play football. Maybe it was a function of the stressful season and the social distancing the team had to endure. That adds up over several months, especially when it means rarely if ever seeing family and friends.

The other possibility is that Clemson has become a bit complacent in its success. There is that old adage about how a repeat is so much harder than winning a first title because everyone is gunning for you. But it is also difficult because of complacency. And this is where Dabo can really earn that massive paycheck.

The second concern was the offensive line and whatever exactly they did on Friday. In past seasons the OL has had problems but rounded into form for the “Championship Phase”, but this year the OL didn’t do that. The run blocking has been ugly all year, particularly in the A Gap. Ohio State exposed that, and they even exposed our pass protection as well. The offensive line wasn’t getting the job done and it showed. After a few scripted drives that did well to get the ball into space, scoring drives fizzled. The running game is key because it forces the defense to account for it and gives space to the playmakers out wide.

Perhaps the biggest indictment against the running game actually comes from Trevor Lawrence’s stats. In this game he went 33-48 for 400 yards, but only threw for 2 TDs while losing a fumble and getting picked once. When looking at games with similar stats, you see victories over Pitt, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, or Virginia. Throwing the ball around is great, but it wasn’t enough when we can’t run the ball to provide some balance. In the Sugar Bowl Clemson ran the ball 22 times to the 48 throws. That is never a good thing.

And, finally, that defensive effort. It was bad from the beginning and only got worse. Yes, Fields had an amazing game and would have put up some good numbers and highlight reel plays even if the Tigers’ defense performed as it normally does. But Clemson made it easy for him. Consider that Fields likely had a significant injury from the Skalski targeting call, but still had time to sling the ball around.

We can talk about how Sklaski’s ejection and Turner missing the first half were critical to the Tigers’ performance. But, while important, they were only a piece of the problem. The defensive line was unable to get any pass rush, and even when Fields got rid of the ball quickly Clemson had ugly pass coverage.

So what is the path forward for Clemson? It isn’t doom and gloom here like some have suggested. Clemson is still going to be an ACC favorite and national title contender for the next few years. But if the goal is to consistently compete with teams that out-recruit Clemson — there are only a few left who do in postseason rivals Alabama and Ohio State, and in the next game on the schedule, UGA — there are improvements that can (must) be made. Think of it like a tune up.

First on offense, the offensive line has to change. The good thing is that recruiting is getting better. On the 2021 roster Clemson will have ten blue-chip recruits on the OL, the highest number ever. And the class of 2022 already has two 4-star prospects committed along the line.

Talent is improving, but it takes a few years to be ready, which is where coaching comes in. And that’s where improvements need to be made. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean that Robbie Caldwell needs to go, though it could be an option. Players appear to love playing for him and he has been doing a good job at getting these blue chip lineman to commit these past couple of cycles.

But there may need to be a reassessment of how the OL is developed. We’ve seen 3-star linemen turn into consistent performers, but we’ve also seen highly touted recruits like Mitch Hyatt fail to develop into pro prospects despite (or because of) four years of film. Jackson Carman has a decision to make which should’ve been a no-brainer based on his recruiting profile, and Matt Bockhorst hasn’t lived up to potential yet. We just don’t see many OL turn into NFL players. While the NFL has specific needs for OL that don’t always jibe with college success, we should see more guys getting drafted.

The other piece of the offense that needs a refresh is the offensive philosophy. We often talk about the lack of desire to attack the middle of the field, how some motion plays like the jet sweep rarely happen, and other similar wrinkles have disappeared. All of these things help create mismatches to allow the Tigers to maximize their talent advantage, or to close the gap when at a disadvantage. The staff has shown a willingness to break tendencies, but it only seems to happen for a single game, like after the UNC game last year. Then the staff goes back to running a similar offense.

On defense, we’ve covered the recruiting issues along the defensive line that led to depth issues. But it is also a concern at safety, and that became really apparent against Ohio State, even once Turner returned. There has to be a better emphasis on spreading recruits across multiple classes. Spot recruiting a position can cause real problems in the future because of injuries, early departures, or even players not panning out. This is why we always try to talk about meeting needs every year, not just signing 20 blue chip recruits and calling it good.

The final thing is preparation. This team did not appear to be prepared despite the comments about how well practices went. Couple this with what we saw in the national title game last year and it is fair to ask if some of the preparation and motivation techniques Clemson uses need to be refined or updated. Sometimes a fresh message is needed, even with the turnover of players every year.

The good news for Clemson fans is that none of this requires a massive overhaul. Heck, it doesn’t even require staffing changes. But what it does require is a coaching staff that is willing to reevaluate what works and what doesn’t, and then to make changes. You can only succeed for so long doing things the same way. Without change and innovation to adopt new practices, the team will stagnate. Look at Nick Saban and Les Miles — part of Saban’s continued excellence is his willingness to make changes as needed, while Les Miles was fired at LSU in part because he refused to make some much needed changes. The Clemson coaching staff has all the tools to compete. It just requires having the awareness to identify and make changes and grow, not just stubbornly cling to old methods.