In general, I rage against stereotypes. I put it this way in this summer's Clemson profile:
It is in my rather anti-social nature to react negatively to generalizations, especially negative ones. We make sense of a world full of gray matter by resorting to black-and-whites. Team A always chokes. Team B is always overrated. Team C can never win the big game. Et cetera.
It is never as simple as we want to make it, nor should it be, especially in college football, where the players cycle in and out every few years and the coaches don't last much longer. Saying a program "always" does this or "never" does that makes no sense when only the color of the team's uniforms typically stays the same through the years.
Anytime a team develops a negative stereotype, my natural inclination is to root for them to overcome it. In Clemson's case, the Tigers ranked higher from an advanced stats perspective than Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin and other pretty successful programs. Yet they entered the season having lost 23 of their previous 34 one-possession games and haven't won 10 games in a season for two decades.
Bad luck? Stereotypes reinforcing stereotypes?
Numbers don't see curses, chokes or funks; they just see a team that has been nearly excellent for a while now despite a step backwards last season, and a team that is probably going to be pretty good again this year. The stereotype may occasionally be the stereotype for a reason, but there is no "Lower the win expectancy by two games if the team is named Clemson" adjustment in the Football Outsiders projections.
Thus far in 2011, such an adjustment would have been a very bad idea, as the Tigers just finished knocking off the defending national champion (Auburn), the powerful up-and-comer (Florida State) and the ACC standard-bearer (Virginia Tech) in consecutive weeks. It is their first 5-0 start since 2000.
By all means, the stereotype could still take hold, and Clemson could lose unexpectedly to, say, Boston College at home this week or Maryland in College Park next week, and maybe that would trigger a massive collapse. But all we know so far is that the Tigers are 2-0 in one-possession games this year, and they just ground out wins over three of probably the five toughest teams on their schedule.
Casting aside stereotypes for a moment, what can the numbers tell us about Clemson's general viability? What's changed for them this year?
For starters, look at the offense. The Tigers faded from 27th in Off. S&P+ in 2007, to 53rd in 2008, to 63rd in 2010. Dragged down by some truly poor efficiency numbers (they were 78th in Success Rate+ in 2008, 70th in 2010), the CU offense was clearly moving in the wrong direction. Head coach Dabo Swinney brought in Tulsa offense whisperer Chad Morris, and the effects have been clear. Clemson currently ranks 22nd in Success Rate+ and 17th overall in Off. S&P+.
A passing game that slipped to 72nd in Passing S&P+ last year has surged all the way to ninth so far this year. Tajh Boyd has certainly experienced some glitches, but when he finds a rhythm, Morris has helped make sure that he maintains that rhythm for drives at a time. After facing strong Florida State and Virginia Tech defenses, his season stats are still quite strong: 61-percent completion percentage, 8.7 yards per pass attempt, 14.2 yards per completion, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions. That makes for a passer rating of 159.4. Kyle Parker's last year: 117.2. (In 63 pass attempts, Boyd's was even worse last year: 107.7.)
Of course, it would be quite remiss to talk about Clemson's improved passing game without talking about Sammy Watkins. Last year, as Clemson's No. 1 target, DeAndre Hopkins managed 51 receptions for 626 yards with a catch rate of 63 percent and a per-target average of 7.7. The national average for a No. 1 receiver was 8.5 yards per target in 2010. This year, Hopkins is the No. 2 guy and has seen his numbers jump a bit to 8.9 yards per target (22 catches, 284 yards, 69-percent catch rate) while Watkins, a five-star freshman from Ft. Myers, Florida, has assumed the role of go-to guy.
One should never assume that a freshman is going to be up to speed from Day One -- even great players sometimes take a while to get going -- but Watkins has just been phenomenal: 32 catches (68-percent catch rate), 471 yards (14.7 per catch, 10.0 per target), six touchdowns. Through just five games, he has seven catches of over 20 yards, and he has redefined the passing game. Now, Hopkins gets an opponent's No. 2 cornerback, and tight end Dwayne Allen (11.3 yards per catch in 2010, 16.2 yards per catch in 2011) is finding more room to run over the middle. You need more than one player to win a football game, but the addition of a single player at the right position can make such a difference. Clemson needed a true No. 1 receiver; now they have one. They have an outstanding offensive coordinator as well. Generally, that is a nice combination, to say the least.
There are still some warning signs, however, and they come mostly on defense. A Top 25 unit (in terms of Def. S&P+) for each of the last five years, the Tigers rank just 63rd so far this year. A dominant performance against Virginia Tech last Saturday certainly raised expectations for this unit, but before then, CU was getting torched and needing the offense to produce to win. They allowed three long drives and 423 yards to Troy, then got lit up early by Wofford's odd veer option attack. They allowed 6.9 yards per play versus both Auburn (they won because they played a beautiful game of keep-away in the fourth quarter) and Florida State (ditto). These are not the numbers of a true national title contender. Their numbers versus Virginia Tech, on the other hand (258 total yards, 3.9 per play, 3.0 yards per pass attempt including sacks), are.
It is up to Clemson to prove that last week was the new norm and not an outlier. There are plenty of landmines remaining on the schedule, including efficient North Carolina and explosive Georgia Tech. There's nothing saying that the "Clemson stereotype" will not suddenly come back with a vengeance.
But if you polled believers in the stereotype before the season, they'd have said that CU would be 3-2 at best right now. They are not. It's a start.
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