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Ode to the Gator Bowl

I typically don’t do postgame articles, but I figured I would do this because I have thought a good bit about the bowl game and what is in store for Clemson football since then.

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

The future of the traditional college bowl system is definitely up in the air as college football pivots towards an expanded playoff. I’m thankful that I was able to take advantage of the date and location of the Gator Bowl to enjoy it in person with my two oldest children. My own father took me to see Clemson beat up on Major Harris and West Virginia in 1989, and it remains one of my great memories of my time with him. We didn’t know that would be Coach Danny Ford’s final game as Clemson’s coach. I feel a bit sad that these bowls may go away thanks to increasing opt-outs, transfer portal attrition, and the idea that non-CFP bowls are “meaningless.” For the players and bowl site communities, the experience often provides once in a lifetime moments. For the coaching staffs, the bowls provide invaluable extra practice time to help transition the current team to the team that will be returning the next season. I get the desire to create a “true champion” in major college football, but it will be a shame if it comes at the expense of these bowl games.

I appreciate Kentucky for coming in and playing this game like it really mattered. The Wildcats and Tigers treated those of us in the stadium and all those who watched from home to one of the most exciting games of the year, much less the bowl season. It is always great to win that final game of a season, but I have to think those UGA fans are feeling a bit cheated and empty due to the absolute lack of competition the shell of Florida State’s team provided. The Gator Bowl provided outstanding situational football moments for Clemson’s returning talent, and an excellent final performance to evaluate for those departing seniors who played along with Will Shipley who declared for the NFL draft afterwards. Clemson fans should remember that Xavier Thomas went out like a total boss with his best PFF performance of the season. Will Shipley’s final play was an outstanding 60 -yard kick return. Jonathan Weitz added to the legacy he started in Columbia, and his last kick was an amazingly clutch 52-yarder thanks clanked through off the crossbar.

Meanwhile Shelton Lewis got an absolute trial by fire game that should do wonders for his growth. Adam Randall stepped up in the place of Beaux Collins and provided some tough plays. Probably most importantly, Cade Klubnik engineered a clutch fourth quarter game winning drive that featured overcoming a 3rd and 18 situation. Those are things no spring practice or scrimmage can really simulate, and the Tigers start 2024 with arguably the most daunting opponent possible.

There seems to be a thousand moving parts with college football as 2024 begins. We have certainly seen some of the craziness of this NIL/transfer portal universe from prospects rolling up in Lamborghinis to signing day to an established starting quarterback at Ohio State leaving for Syracuse. It used to be only the guys who couldn’t win a job transferring but now it could be anyone. The Orange Bowl situation revealed a lot of the ugliest aspects of modern college football. The aftershocks could be felt for years to come depending on how Florida State’s litigation efforts against the ACC turn out.

The 2023 season certainly didn’t unfold the way many fans, including myself, expected. The promise of a renewed explosiveness on offense really didn’t materialize and the team once again had to execute long, multiple play drives for the vast majority of its scoring. Turnovers were devastating in all the losses. Fortunately, the team figured out how to stop beating itself and play to its best parts, which was an elite defense and two very good running backs. This was essentially the same formula the 2021 team employed to rebound that year.

Nevertheless, we all know that the only way to college football playoff relevance is for the Tigers to finally get the offense back to the type of unit the 2015-2020 years enjoyed. Coach Swinney certainly seems to understand the urgency with powerful UGA looming in September. His moves to bring in Matt Luke to shore up what has been mostly a weak offensive line and Chris Rumph to elevate what has been a talented but not always consistent defensive end position definitely support that urgency. Many still long for a splash portal acquisition, but if the Tigers can simply get back to the excellent talent evaluation and development that helped launch the program to the top of college football, this program can still get to the top.

My priority list for the 2024 team:

  1. Get the center position solidified. The staff has essentially had to use duct tape at center for three years running. The staff has had to keep moving guards to center and each time that player has not been as productive in his new spot. Cross training will always be a big deal for OL, but center is a crucial spot on any OL.
  2. Find/develop an alpha outside WR. The Tigers seem to be set with strong slot talent with Tyler Brown and Antonio Williams returning. Troy Stellato is really built more like an inside guy as well. Fans eagerly await new recruits Bryant Wesco and TJ Moore, and returnees Cole Turner, Adam Randall, Ronan Hanafin, and Noble Johnson will all vie to try to finally provide what a healthy Justin Ross and Tee Higgins brought.
  3. Take Cade from good to great. Cade is a good quarterback. Clemson got mostly good QB play from him in 2023. However, there is another level he can get to and needs to get to if Clemson really hopes to compete at the top. This is where Garrett Riley the quarterback coach really gets to show his worth in that capacity. Can Cade add the weight and strength to become more of a running threat and more effectively extend plays? Can he improve his recognition of where the weaknesses in a defense are vs. just following the natural progression of the initial call?

I expect the defense to be great again. All the tools are there, provided Rumph can shore up the defensive end spot with Mascoll and XT moving on. He’s got an excellent starting point with TJ Parker, but it is very unproven after that. Barrett Carter returns to anchor the second level coming off a great bowl performance. The secondary features ball hawking safety Khalil Barnes and emerging alpha corner Avieon Terrell. Wes Goodwin had an outstanding second full year as DC, even if the final game was marred by several busted coverages thanks in part to not having mainstays Jeremiah Trotter, Nate Wiggins and Andrew Mukuba available.

Like always, I will eagerly await the arrival of the new football season with my fair share of usually misplaced optimism. I will work hard to not buy any hype on OL depth or WR speed until I see how it lines up in Atlanta vs. the hated Bulldogs. Thanks for reading my stuff on here this season and Happy New Year! And if the 2023 Gator Bowl is the last classic bowl game I ever see, what a great one to finish up with.