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Head to Head: Clemson Has Entered Uncharted Waters

This week we tackle some questions we did not expect to ask this year.

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

It is the first weekend in October and Clemson is out of the playoff race for the first time since 2014. It feels weird, we can admit it, but there was always going to be a day this reality occurred. It certainly felt like it would be later down the road, but nonetheless, here we are.

Clemson is 2-2 and one loss away from most likely not competing for their 7th-straight ACC title — every game matters from here on out. Every game. Given the ACC’s history, teams like NC State, Boston College, and Wake Forest are all very likely to drop a few games because that’s what the ACC does; giving up on the season just because the playoff is off the table makes no sense!

This week is a big one. Clemson is welcoming a Boston College team that might be better than the Tigers, something we have not seen since Matt Ryan led the ship for the Eagles. Saturday’s game is the biggest match-up between the two in Death Valley since that dreary night in November of 2007 (you already know the one, I wrote very strongly about it last year right here). There is no reason to throw in the towel ahead of an October night game in Memorial Stadium against an undefeated opponent.

I’m joined by the king of hate, Drew, to tackle some questions about Clemson and the road back to Charlotte. Beware: this is unfiltered; we just tell it how it is. Let’s get into it.

Question 1: What’s the scouting report vs. Boston College? Is this a rebound game for Clemson?

Drew: It’s impossible to tell. Playing at home has to help the offense... Right? Like it can’t continue to be one of the worst offenses in the nation... Right? Can the Tigers break 21 points on offense without throwing 7 interceptions? Can the defense get off the field on third down instead of dying a death of 1,000 cuts?

Will Tony unleash DJ as he did on the 2nd drive of the game, or will we get 1st down inside zone, 2nd down WR screen, 3rd down QB overthrow, and punt again? I’m concerned this is going to be a low possession, grind it out game, with B.C. leaning on an injured Clemson defense with their functional offensive line (Lord, I see what you have done for other offensive lines, and I would like that for Clemson’s offensive line).

If the offense can’t stay on the field, the defense will eventually fold. It’s up to Dabo, Tony, and the guys on offense to keep that from happening. We were treated to a few sparks of an offense last week, but they were few and far between. This needs to be the week that the offense sustains a few drives, or better yet, breaks out and puts a few quick scores on the board. Everything looks hard right now, and things need to look easier against a decent B.C. team.

Jon: Clemson enters this game as a double-digit favorite over the undefeated Eagles, which ultimately only says that Vegas still believes Clemson is the top dog in the ACC. However, I’m not sold on a Clemson cover. Boston College enters this game averaging 41.3 PPG, and despite their four games being nowhere near the task of this game, the Eagles have the perfect type of offense built to wear down a battered and bruised Clemson defense. NC State held the ball for nearly 42 minutes last weekend, and the Wolfpack don’t even have a clock-chewing offense like BC. A ground-and-pound attack is exactly what the Eagles run, and Clemson’s front seven just got much thinner.

With Bryan Bresee out for the year with a torn ACL and Tyler Davis not expected to return anytime soon, the Clemson defensive line has taken a hit, not to mention linebacker James Skalski is not 100% either. The Eagles have moved the ball a good bit this year, averaging 422 yards of offense per game, including over 220 yards per game on the ground. BC has three great running backs who have each already surpassed the 100-yard mark on the season (for reference, Clemson has one running back in triple-digit yardage and he’s not even available for several weeks).

If Clemson’s offense cannot move the ball and stay on the field, that defense is going to get worn down rather quickly, like it did in Raleigh. Whatever the issue is offensively, the goal has to be to maintain longer possessions and keep the BC offense off the field because we know the Clemson defense can hold any offense when it hasn’t been on the field for nearly three full quarters of play. This is a must-win, not just for the ACC chances but for morale as well.

Question 2: What do you think Clemson has to do to fix an “archaic” offense?

Drew: Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to look backward. Remember when Clemson had a downfield threat at tight end? Remember when they had an actual slot receiver? Remember when they pushed the tempo and tried to get 80+ plays every game?

I remember.

As the talent level increased, the creativity decreased. Clemson reminds me somewhat of Alabama before Nick decided to spread the field out and play modern football. Clemson went into the season thinking they could play bully ball as they have over the last several seasons, but that only works when you have bullies. It’s time to go back to a time before every player was a 4 or 5-star guy that Dabo assures us is the “best, fastest, and most talented player he’s ever coached.”

If we’re following the “let’s make the layups all the time then we’ll worry about the three-point line” comment from Coach Swinney, Clemson is attempting to make layups with a 7’2” center standing in the middle of the paint. The Tigers keep driving into the lane and getting their shot swatted into the stands, and thinking “if we only layup-ed better, this 7’2” dude wouldn’t block our shot” instead of saying “hey, let’s check out the mid-range game, maybe put a shooter at the 5 and pull the big dude out of the lane so we can start making layups since what we’re doing isn’t working.” It’s time for Tony to change his way of thinking.

Jon: I don’t even know. Maybe the question should be, “How is Clemson only averaging 12 PPG against FBS competition and struggling to convert on third down with an offense almost completely made up of four and five star talent while paying its offensive coordinator $2 million?” This seems like the shell of an offense that scored 44 points in a national championship game just three seasons ago. Did the creativity and the drive to stay elite offensively leave the building with Jeff Scott?

Just to emphasize what Drew said earlier, it must be extremely exciting to be a defensive coordinator preparing to face an offense that runs five main plays, runs inside zone on 2nd and 10 with an offensive line forgetting to block, and then allows you to call a simple Cover 1 on third down because a 3-man rush can cause enough pressure to rattle the quarterback into an errant throw. What a life. That’s what defensive coordinators are seeing on film right now preparing for Clemson.

Clemson has to stay on the field. 3-and-outs against BC are essentially giving possessions away. Whether it’s a crossing route to confuse DBs or a simple out route to the sideline, literally just anything other than an inside zone or WR screen pass to get the ball downfield more. With Shipley out, guys like Kobe Pace and Michel Dukes are going to have to step up and run/pass block for DJU.

Question 3: Is Clemson losing, and the ACC being wide open, better or worse for the conference?

Drew: Unless Wake or B.C. can run the table (winces) then this isn’t great for the conference. What would have been great for the conference is Miami, Florida State, or North Carolina taking advantage of this rare opportunity instead of defecating all over the rug. Clemson needs a year off to get their stuff together, and no one is willing to step up and fill the void. Wake is a fun little team, but not a national contender. Clemson did everything possible to let NC State win a football game and it still required overtime. It will be more interesting for people interested in the ACC, which is about 13 people. Nationally, the ACC continues to be a joke outside of Clemson, and the joke isn’t particularly funny.

Jon: Yes and no. I think the repetitiveness and the plug-and-go of picking Clemson to win the ACC every year has gotten old for everyone (yes, we can admit sleepwalking up until this year has gotten old). However, Clemson is the only real established program within the ACC right now. UNC has shown life but I think ultimately they’re a fraud. BC, NC State and Wake Forest aren’t great brand names that are going to garner much attention for winning 9, 10, 11 games despite beating Clemson. Without Clemson, the ACC really doesn’t have a playoff shot. It hurts the conference because it has hinged on Clemson for so long. It’s the same thing as Oklahoma in the Big 12, even though they’re still undefeated for the moment. When you have one staple program (progrum as a good, southern coach would say) running the show, and they begin to falter, your already battered conference tanks even further.

Question 4: Is this the beginning (pause for dramatic effect)... of the end for the little ol’ Tigers from Clemson?

Drew: Dabo’s response to this season has me concerned. He built a system of coaching, both on and off the field at Clemson, and that system isn’t working. Maybe it’s a one-off year and everything goes back to normal in 2022, but keep in mind that the extremely handsome and infinitely knowledgeable writers at STS have been talking about many of the issues this team is facing for the last few years. There appears to be a fundamental flaw in the system. What we keep hearing from Dabo is the system is working fine, it’s the results that are wrong. This is a dangerous mindset for anyone in a leadership position.

Dabo must make changes to his system this offseason. I have a few ideas on what might help but I don’t get paid upwards of 7 million dollars to make decisions. These are Dabo’s decisions to make, and he’ll be judged on their outcomes. Momentum in college football is a funny thing, and once you lose it, it’s tough to regain. One bump in the road is fine, and it happens to every program, but if you string together a couple of bumps in a row, things tend to fall apart.

Hungry Dabo had no issue making decisions. If something wasn’t working, he fixed it. Billy Napier wasn’t ready to be an offensive coordinator, so Dabo fired him. Kevin Steele’s defense was consistently inconsistent, and Dabo dropped the ax. Trevor Lawrence was better than Kelly Bryant, so K.B. was sent to the bench. I’m sure these were difficult, emotional decisions, but he made them, and they turned out to be the right decisions. I’m not sure this version of Dabo is capable of making the tough choices. He’s in love with his system, and the system has produced for him. Remaking the system is tough work - it requires a strong leader capable of thinking analytically and not emotionally. I’m not sure Dabo is that guy anymore, and that would put an end to the Golden Era of Clemson football.

I hope I’m wrong.

Jon: This is a funny question to me but honestly, a valid one for this reason: Clemson has not had to endure this type of situation, ever. Yes, the 2014 team lost three games and often times felt much worse than that with Cole Stoudt running the offense, but that Clemson program then was not the program it is now. The dominating success Clemson has had ever since that team has really cemented them as an elite program in the current landscape, and this is the first time Dabo and his staff have had to face this type of scrutiny. 2017 was a unique season, but Clemson still beat six ranked opponents and was never really out of the playoff consideration. This year, Clemson’s out of the playoff race earlier than it’s ever been in this current run and is staring down its first year without a victory over a top 25 team since that 2014 team.

Maybe it is the end, but the more likely reality is that it is a year where Clemson has to look in the mirror and redefine itself. Recruiting, coaching, play-calling - everything could use a boost of life right now. This team does not look like it's having fun or playing confidently in itself. Hopefully, a night game in October in the Valley is just what the doctor prescribed.

This is a pivotal game, STS peeps. Clemson hasn’t been 2-3 in over a decade. The best-case scenario is that Clemson comes out humming and doesn’t even give BC a chance to steal a close one. Otherwise, Clemson may be in a dogfight every single week. Here’s to all 81,000 seats being full on Saturday night.

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