CLEMSON – As Clemson began preparations for the Orange Bowl, your thoughts on the state of the Tigers’ program after a 10-2 season might depend on whom you talked to.
Fifth-year head coach Dabo Swinney was his usual positive, upbeat self, noting that the Tigers had won 10 games for the third consecutive season, the program’s longest such stretch since 1987-90, the end of the Danny Ford era. With a win over Ohio State Jan. 3, the Tigers would win 11 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever (a stat which is admittedly helped by college football’s expanded schedule).
Clemson is in a much better place than when Swinney took over for Tommy Bowden midway through the 2008 season. Recruiting is solid. The facilities are sparkling, and more are coming online in the next few years, most notably a new football operations building set right next to the $10 million indoor practice facility that opened a year ago.
But some Clemson fans are having a hard time remembering the “10.” They’re focused on the number on the other side of the dash – “2.”
The Tigers entered 2013 with three marquee games – Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina. A season-opening 38-35 win over a Bulldog team at full strength propelled Clemson into the nation’s top 5. But embarrassing losses to the Seminoles and Gamecocks still sting.
ESPN’s Rece Davis called the 10-win season “a little hollow,” and he’s not wrong.
In the ACC’s biggest game in recent history, Florida State marched into Memorial Stadium and put a 51-14 whipping on the Tigers. It was the most points scored by an opponent in stadium history and Clemson’s worst home loss since a 37-6 loss to Virginia Tech in September 1998, jump-starting the Noles’ march to the BCS national title game.
And South Carolina dealt the Tigers a 31-17 defeat in Columbia, aided by six Clemson turnovers. It was the Gamecocks’ fifth consecutive win over Clemson, their longest win streak in the teams’ rivalry – an unconscionable number for Tiger fans.
How bad were the Tigers against their rivals? Well, consider this. In its other 10 games, Clemson averaged 44.8 points per game. Against South Carolina and Florida State? 15.5.
Ten of Clemson’s 22 turnovers on the season came against USC and FSU.
In fact, dating back to 2009 – when Swinney took over full time – he is just 2-8 against Florida State and South Carolina, with both wins coming over Florida State in Clemson.
The Tigers have been historically good in Swinney’s tenure. It’s hard to discount making two BCS bowl games and an ACC title in three seasons when Bowden couldn’t even make an ACC title game.
But to take that next step from nationally relevant to legit BCS title game contender, Clemson must have success against Florida State and South Carolina, two teams that will be on its schedule every season.
And until that happens, there will be a healthy segment of the fanbase that simply won’t be satisfied.
Next season could be something of a transition year. Record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd – the ACC’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and No.2 in passing yardage behind Philip Rivers – will play his last collegiate game in the Orange Bowl, and standout wide receiver Sammy Watkins (a mid-first round pick) is expected to follow him out the door to the NFL draft. Defensive end Vic Beasley, who emerged as a first-team All-American, will likely declare for the draft if he receives a first-round evaluation from the NFL.
Beasley would likely be replaced by star rising sophomore end Shaq Lawson, but it’s hard to replace the transcendent talent that Watkins brings to an offense.
This spring, Clemson will likely have a three-way quarterback battle between steady rising senior Cole Stoudt, rising sophomore Chad Kelly and incoming five-star freshman Deshaun Watson. Regardless of who wins, it’ll be impossible to approximate Boyd’s impact next fall.
What’s more, the schedule gets tougher. The Tigers will open at Georgia and trade Maryland and an abysmal Virginia team for up-and-comer Louisville and North Carolina (both at home). Also, trips to Florida State and Georgia Tech are on the docket.
Swinney believes his team is among the nation’s elite: the Tigers are one of just five teams that have been ranked in the top 20 of the BCS for 24 consecutive weeks (Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon and Stanford are the others).
But given the change at key positions, slight regression is possible in 2014, which would only fuel unrest among some.
The best advice? Find a way to contain Braxton Miller and beat Ohio State, a win that could silence some of the most vocal doubters.
Recruiting Efforts Look Strong
Clemson enters the homestretch of the 2014 recruiting cycle in solid shape. The Tigers have 18 verbal commitments and are in position to add at least three to four more before national signing day in early February.
Granted, the Tigers lost out on five-star wideout Josh Malone of Gallatin, Tenn., who chose Tennessee over Clemson and Georgia, and five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who picked Ohio State over Clemson. But the Tigers still remain in contention for a handful of elite prospects.
Marietta, Ga., safety D.J. Smith, rated among the top-15 safety prospects, is considering Clemson along with Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Greensboro, N.C., defensive end Lorenzo Featherston (among the nation’s top-20 defensive ends) is considering the Tigers, Florida and Florida State. He is friends with early enrollee and Greensboro product Chris Register, a linebacker. Clemson is also among the suitors for McDonough, Ga., defensive end Andrew Williams, a top-30 end prospect who is considering LSU, South Carolina, Auburn, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Notre Dame.
Notre Dame defensive end commit Richard Yeargin III, rated among the top-15 ends in his class, visited in late November.
Four-star wideout prospect Trevion Thompson would also be a solid addition. The Durham, N.C., product is considering Clemson, N.C. State, Ohio State, Florida State, North Carolina and West Virginia.