Clemson’s stumble turns into free fall with college football’s latest loss to NC State
There is a mantra that Clemson lives, plastered all over his football pitch and training facility: the best is the standard.
Indeed, over the past six years, Clemson has been the best at virtually everything: winning the ACC, qualifying for the college football playoffs, producing NFL No.1 draft prospects at quarterback and NFL picks across the board, while dominating with explosive offenses and strong defenses.
That’s why the first four games of this season have been so amazing in their quick turnaround. Suddenly, the Clemson we used to watch has disappeared, replaced by a team that struggles to gain 300 yards in a game. Just a year ago, Trevor Lawrence threw over 400 yards in a half. My God, how everything has changed.
After a 27-21 double-overtime loss to NC State on Saturday, Clemson fell to 2-2 and was essentially knocked out of the college football playoffs before it even reached October. His six-year stranglehold on ACC is now compromised. Every year since 2015, we’ve been asking ourselves, “Is this the year anyone can overtake Clemson in the ACC?” “
We may finally have an answer.
Truth be told, the cracks started to appear long before the start of this new season. In his last two college football playoff games, Clemson blew himself up – first in the domestic championship game against LSU to end the 2019 season, then in the semifinals last year against the State of Ohio. Clemson looked outclassed in both – and that was with Lawrence behind the center.
But we’ve seen Clemson make quarterback transitions and not lose a step before. After Deshaun Watson won the Tigers National Championship in 2016, Clemson always found a way to come back to the playoffs behind Kelly Bryant and then won another title with Lawrence in 2018. The rest of the ACC not being up to the challenge in his recent run, it made sense to believe it would be Clemson and everyone again.
We all expected the transition from Lawrence to DJ Uiagalelei to be just as smooth. Uiagalelei has played well in two games without Lawrence a season ago, registering big assists against Boston College and on the road against Notre Dame. We actually had a job to judge him on, and that job said he would pick up where Lawrence left off.
But a year ago, Clemson struggled in attack which has become even more glaring this season. Last year’s offensive line was average, and Clemson had no real threat from a wide receiver with Justyn Ross gone. Travis Etienne helped hide some of those issues, and his loss could be the biggest of all for this Clemson offense. Because he at least made the offensive line respectable and made a difference in everything, including as an outlet in the passing game.
Now the offensive line’s woes are even worse. Clemson does not have a racing game. And even with Ross back in the mix, there’s nothing Clemson can do with explosive plays in the passing game. It’s not exactly a combination that will allow any young quarterback to thrive, let alone one who has so many expectations on his shoulders.
All the signs were there. But Clemson was the best, so we ignored them. Even after the Tigers scored just three points in the season opener against Georgia, it seemed hard to believe that was what Clemson would be this year. Georgia, after all, has one of the best defenses in the country.
But even in the next game against FCS South Carolina State, Clemson wasn’t clear on offense. Against Georgia Tech it looked pretty much like Georgia, although at least he scored an offensive touchdown (progress?). Ahead of the NC State game, coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott pledged to make changes.
And yet, after a quick touchdown early in the game, Clemson pulled off one three-and-out after another, barely moving the ball. It was yet another breathtaking performance, as the Tigers finished with just 10 first downs. In fact, they had more penalties than first downs, a sad commentary on this team’s situation after four games.
Afterwards, Swinney was asked if he remembered the last time his team struggled so hard on offense.
“It’s been a long, long time,” he said, before guessing it was probably 2010.
It was 10 seasons ago.
Elliott also struggled to provide answers, saying they should “evaluate everything. It’s our job as coaches to put a plan in place that gives kids the best chance at success and from there they have to do their part. and go do some coins. “
It just hasn’t happened this season, and while the coaches have tried to explain it, they also seem a bit mystified by it all. After all, they’re also not used to staying 2-2 and without any control over the ACC or the playoff race so early in the season.
As Swinney said, nobody expected to be 2-2 right now. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been in a situation like this,” he said. “We thought we would be 4-0.”
Because that’s what Clemson has been doing every September since 2015. In the seasons he suffered a regular season loss, those losses came later – to Pitt in November 2016, to Syracuse in mid-season. October 2017 and at Notre Dame in November 2020.
While Clemson had to overcome those losses, this one to NC State forces the Tigers up a much steeper mountain for a chance at the Atlantic Division title. ESPN’s REIT still thinks it’s possible, still giving Clemson the highest odds of winning the ACC – although those fell from 57% on Saturday to 27.5% after the loss to NC State .
Swinney said his team will get back to work on Monday to find a way to win another game. But the next one also offers a huge challenge: 4-0 Boston College is coming to town, having nearly upset the Tigers a year ago.
No matter how it ends, it won’t be the season everyone expected for Clemson. Although Swinney says his only expectation for his team is “to be the best they can be,” the best might not be good enough for an ACC title again. Certainly not for a CFP appearance.
The teams are not insensitive to lean seasons. Alabama missed the playoffs, only to come out stronger than before. But this is the first time the Tigers have experienced these difficulties in their long playoff streak.
Nothing will be automatic for them to move forward.
Not even the ACC.