This is a time to take a deep breath and think about the season so far. Certainly, the Tigers have done what it takes to stay on course for a return to the playoffs, finishing this part of the schedule 8-0 with the major divisional foes now vanquished. Despite this success, including a nation-leading three wins over currently-ranked opponents, the skeptics remain and the Tigers are just 5th in the country in both polls. Some folks remain in perpetual fear of a future loss to some power like Ohio State or UGA, while others put more stock in what the Tigers have accomplished against this schedule. This is what some of your friendly neighborhood STS staffers feel about things to this point.
C_Craft: Overall grade B+. This grade dropped from A- to B+ for me after the 4 turnover day against Syracuse, but the team has shown me it can operate in a variety of ways, unlike last year. It had to throw it all over the yard to win at Wake and did so, and the last two games have featured the running attack taking center stage. The Tigers are inching closer to that 200 yards per game rushing output I expected this offense to produce preseason after putting up nearly 300 on the ACC’s top rushing defense.
DJ Uiagalelei obviously had his worst game of the year by a mile against Syracuse and was benched after his third turnover, however, his season up to that point had been exponentially better from 2021. DJ has made huge plays with both his arms and his legs despite a WR corps that is still trying to find its full stride. His play in the Wake game should not be underrated and hopefully this was one bad day at the office due in part to a hand-stomping incident early in the game via a Syracuse defender. Klubnik flashed in the GT game opener and did a good job “driving the car” so to speak to help the Tigers come back and beat the Orange. There are very, very few teams out there who can go to QB2 and win a game like that.
The Tiger RBs had a slower start to the season than I expected after they finished 2021 on a very high note, but they are gathering steam now and once again look like the top-position group on the offense. Will Shipley in particular has exploded with multiple 100-yard games, and Phil Mafah has taken on the extra work from the injured Kobe Pace to be a factor as well.
The Tigers don’t have the WR play yet to basically dominate that matchup with every opponent as they did in some previous seasons, but the RBs are doing their part in both the running and passing games to exploit favorable matchups there. There hasn’t been a defense that can match up everywhere with the Tigers yet, thankfully. 421.5 yards per game, 37.1 points per game, 48% third down conversion rate, and 86% fourth down conversion rate are plenty good enough to win with the defense Clemson has.
The Tiger TEs have been a major factor after being mostly MIA since the graduation of Jordan Leggett in 2016. Davis Allen and Jake Briningstool have combined for 35 catches for 428 yards and 7 touchdowns. Allen in particular has been a key blocker on many plays. This group is definitely on the up and up under Kyle Richardson and Brandon Streeter - they are finding ways to feature these guys more and more.
Clemson WRs are probably the biggest reason this offense isn’t considered on par with Ohio State or Alabama or Tennessee. The position is definitely better than last year’s disappointing and injury-riddled crew, but we aren’t being reminded of 2012, 2016, or 2019 very much either. I will say the blocking effort and execution has gotten way, way better which allowed the Tigers to have success with swing passes to the backs and for Shipley and Mafah to break some bigger runs. Freshman Antonio Williams is really the only consistent receiving weapon clearly winning every week. Ngata and Beaux Collins have had several moments of greatness mixed in with some disappearing acts and drops. If this crew can step it up a notch, this offense can become a truly elite unit once again.
Clemson’s OL has stabilized and is playing better and better as the season goes along. They have already faced three of the best defenses they will see in Florida State, Syracuse, and NCSU and gave up a total of 5 sacks and 15 TFLs (5 of those coming on failed WR screens you don’t blame the OL on) in those three games. Syracuse’s sack on Klubnik was on Cade, not the OL. Clemson hasn’t been as explosive in the passing game as many past teams have been, which puts more on the OL to consistently deliver for multiple-play drives. As you can see from the stats on yards and third down/fourth down %, they are delivering more often than not. Jordan McFadden in particular is playing some of the best OL Clemson has seen in many years.
All these things add up to B+ for me. As I said, WR explosiveness (and no more bad days from DJU) would get this crew to an A IMHO.
Alex Craft: B
This grade feels harsh relative to my preseason expectations, and perhaps it’s recency bias given how they looked against Syracuse. Or perhaps, like C Craft (no relation!) mentioned above, it’s the perpetual fear I have that this team’s ceiling is a 20+ point loss in a Playoff semifinal to Ohio State or Georgia. That wouldn’t shift the narrative given the “eye test” metric everyone seems intent on using to ignore Clemson’s elite resume (until inevitably all those ranked wins are no longer ranked), but 13-1 would be phenomenal for a young unit.
I’m sticking with B though because it’s a mixed bag but overall has been good. The pass blocking has been outstanding. DJ has been B+ or A- until last week. The running backs are getting some room and creating yards when they don’t. Tight ends!! This offense has been far more efficient than anyone expected, making up for the lack of explosiveness.
Even though I dropped the grade a bit after last week, there were still positives in the performance which showed what I’ve long awaited 2⁄3 of the way through the year: a reliable run game and enough touches for Will Shipley.
DJ has improved tremendously despite last week — he carried the team against Wake, was the steady hand against NC State and FSU, and I expect him to rebound and put this group back on course for a B+ season. The receivers, run blocking (until last week), and recency bias deflate my grade somewhat.