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
The defense has been mostly good but not as elite as its talent and depth suggest it should be. That said, the unit put its best half to date together against Syracuse and really started looking like a wrecking ball behind the line of scrimmage producing 5 sacks and 9 TFL’s against the top rated OL in the conference.
Clearly the Wake game was problematic and there have been issues with tackling and containing running QBs in some games. If Clemson is really going to get back to the top of the mountain, the defense will need to play to its true potential. Even a potential meeting with UNC in Charlotte could call for the defense to have to really deliver, not to mention some of the heavyweight offenses the playoffs would offer.
The DL came into this season as the strength of the team. For the most part, they have delivered on that promise despite missing key members for a lot of the season. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy came in with the most hype, but Tyler Davis and KJ Henry have been the most consistent forces so far this year. Xavier Thomas is rounding back into shape from his broken foot. Ruke Orhorhoro is having a strong season as well. The FSU game was a low light but otherwise this unit has been strong and looking stronger as it goes.
The LBs certainly show the speed and athletic ability that was hyped coming in, but they have been inconsistent with fitting gaps and having their eyes in the right places consistently. Jeremiah Trotter is emerging as a real star but Trenton Simpson hasn’t had the type of season a lot of us projected. His move to WILL is still a work in progress. Barrett Carter has also been mostly very good but had to miss last week with a concussion and had an embarrassing moment against Jordan Travis in the FSU game.
The secondary had that terrible day in Winston-Salem getting cooked by the strong WF receivers and Sam Hartman. Their play has improved drastically since then and they have held up well against dangerous players from FSU, Boston College, and Syracuse. Wiggins has been close to two or three pick sixes if he could just hold onto the ball. Sheridan Jones has returned to stabilize the other side of the field. The Tiger safeties, when healthy, are doing their part. They don’t offer many “flash” plays but they aren’t busting or getting burned very much either.
This group has had to get used to a new leader in Wes Goodwin who in turn is growing into his position and figuring out what buttons to push and how to push them. They have survived the biggest test from Wake and lived to tell about it. We certainly need A-level production from a group who definitely can deliver it and you hope the second half against Syracuse is the sign it is coming.
Alex Craft: B-
And here’s where I can’t ignore my preseason expectations and that biased view against the performance to date. The line has been dominant at times but not very consistently like the 2018 group they look up to. The inside linebackers are more athletic than we’ve ever seen, allowing a cover 2 base to work quite nicely, but the run fits and gap integrity have been a massive letdown, especially in the last two games. The secondary performed to the worst case scenario in September and I have a hard time gauging their improvement against some anemic receiver groups in October.
In all though, it’s still a great unit with elite potential. Goodwin was too slow to adjust against Wake for my liking, but since then has put the clamps on everyone after halftime until FSU’s garbage time turned-not-garbage time rally. KJ Henry is delivering 5 star performances. Tyler Davis is the most underrated player since Grady Jarrett (not that anyone here has ever underrated him). Bresee and XT are ramping back up.
Simpson has to do better fitting the run, but I still don’t want him off the field. Wiggins is rounding into a decent CB1 and Sheridan Jones has been a steadying force for the entire secondary. It’s been a quiet and mid year so far for the safeties, and I’m looking for improved play from Phillips, who’s been late getting over in cover 2 more than a few times this year.
In all, I don’t think anyone feels this group has been as dominant as it should’ve been to this point, but there are many valid reasons for this. Whether it’s enough to get to — much less compete in — a Playoff game remains a massive question for me.