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Clemson’s Turnover Luck Turned and They Went on a Run

Clemson’s season no-doubt fell short of expectations this year. Most of the team goals were dead after a 2-2 start. They spiraled further to 4-4 with all four of the wins coming against teams that would go on to finish with losing records. Then, like magic something changed. They upset Notre Dame and parlayed that into a five-game win streak to end the season with a respectable 9-4 record and a win in the historic, if no longer top-tier, Gator Bowl. So, what changed?

One might point to Clemson’s schedule easing up, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong, but the difference in quality of opponent is fairly marginal. The four losses came vs. Florida State, at NCSU (9-4), at Duke (8-5), and at Miami (7-6). The current five-game win streak came against vs. Notre Dame (10-3), vs. North Carolina (8-5), vs. Kentucky (7-6), vs. Georgia Tech (7-6), and at South Carolina (5-7). The bigger difference there is their only true road game during that stretch came against the only bad team during the stretch. Still, schedule doesn’t seem to be the biggest cause.

Perhaps it was that they finally started leaning on Phil Mafah more, giving him half or more of the carries after Shipley was injured at NC State? This certainly helped, and I’m still not sure why it took them so long to lean on their best skill position player more, especially in the red zone. Still, there’s something more.

The most obvious answers is they stopped committed turnovers so frequently. All four losses were marked by inexplicable turnovers: the goal line fumble against Duke, the scoop-and-score fumble against Florida State, the tipped interception by Payton Wilson in Raleigh, and of course the other goal line fumble against Miami. Clemson stopped turning the ball over, right?

In comparing Clemson first eight games (4-4) to their last five (5-0), we see turnovers go down from 1.88 per game to 1.44. That helps, but it still wasn’t the biggest factor. See the table below and focus on the turnovers gained column.

Clemson Turnover Breakdown

Opponent Turnovers Lost Turnovers Gained Margin
Opponent Turnovers Lost Turnovers Gained Margin
Duke 3 2 -1
Charleston Southern 2 1 -1
FAU 1 4 3
FSU 1 0 -1
Syracuse 1 3 2
Wake Forest 2 1 -1
Miami 3 1 -2
NC State 2 0 -2
Notre Dame 2 3 1
Georgia Tech 1 4 3
North Carolina 2 3 1
South Carolina 1 2 1
Kentucky 1 4 3
TOTAL 22 28 6
AVERAGE 1.69 2.15 0.46
AVG in 4-4 start 1.88 1.50 -0.38
AVG in 5-0 finish 1.40 3.20 1.80

Clemson went from a measly 12 turnovers gained through eight games to gaining an insane 16 turnovers over their final give games. That gives them 28 turnovers gained on the season which ranks no. 1 nationally (pending some final bowl games). Clemson was 6-0 in games where they gained at least three turnovers and only 2-4 in games where they gained two or fewer (the wins were Charleston Southern and Wake Forest). As much as we think of unlucky turnovers in Clemson’s losses, should also think of Clemson’s take-aways in the wins: Trotter’s pick-six against Notre Dame, Nate Wiggin’s forced fumble turned touchback against UNC, the Khalil Barnes scoop-and-score TD and interception against the Gamecocks, and Barrett Carter’s tipped pass to himself against Kentucky.

So, who was the real Clemson in 2023? As is often the case, probably somewhere in-between. Early in the year, Clemson didn’t get those fortunate turnovers. Interceptions went off finger tips and fumbles didn’t bounce their way. Then, they faced the ACC all-time TD leader in Sam Hartman and Notre Dame and luck flipped. Clemson’s defense got even more salty and they certainly deserve their share of credit, but gaining 3.2 turnovers per game over their last five is wildly unsustainable.

As we look to next year, the wild swings in turnover luck should even out and the defense will likely take at least a slight step back with so many pieces departing. The offense can’t rely on the defense to score for them or consistently get the ball in plus territory, but on Clemson’s final touchdown drive of the Gator Bowl, they displayed the potential we only saw in scant flashes throughout the year. The four turnovers gained gave Clemson a chance to beat Kentucky, but in the end, it was decisive throws to Antonio Williams and Jake Briningstool and power running with Phil Mafah that earned the win. They’ll need more of that recipe next year to keep the momentum rolling and improve upon this season’s 9-4 record.