2011 Season Preview: Stereotypes And The Clemson Tigers

Clemson has cracked the code when it comes to putting together a good team on paper. But until they figure out how to win close games, that doesn't really matter. Will a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator lead to a new stereotype?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. As always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

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.

What, then, do I make of Clemson?

Oh, Clemson. The Tigers of Death Valley rank 15th in terms of both recent recruiting and four-year F/+ performance. They have, in a sense, cracked the code; they know how to put a high-quality team on the field, and in four-year performance they rank ahead of No. 16 Georgia (11-2 in 2007, 10-3 in 2008), No. 17 Missouri (40 wins in four years), No. 18 Arkansas (10-3 last year), No. 20 Iowa (11-2 in 2009) and No. 21 Wisconsin (11-2 in 2010). They are constantly bringing in high-caliber recruits and producing high-caliber pros.

And they haven't won ten games in a season since 1990. What gives? What explanation could there be for Clemson's odd allergy to big seasons, other than a curse, or a muscular gag reflex, or a general funk that occupies Death Valley, or "F*** Clemson," or whatever other generalizations we can muster? Almost every single year, Clemson fields a team that is strong and athletic, and almost every single year the Tigers win fewer games than it seems they should. The last time they had a winning record in one-possession games was 2004; they are 11-23 in such games in that span ... not quite as bad as their unbelievable 1-13 stretch from 1997-99, but not good. Just a .500 record in such games would add an extra win per season. But Clemson evidently doesn't win these games. Why not?

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.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 25
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep North Texas 35-10 W 43.6 - 23.8 W
11-Sep Presbyterian 58-21 W 29.4 - 34.9 L
18-Sep at Auburn 24-27 L 25.8 - 22.7 W
2-Oct Miami 21-30 L 26.9 - 26.1 W
9-Oct at North Carolina 16-21 L 24.6 - 20.5 W
16-Oct Maryland 31-7 W 18.1 - 22.2 L
23-Oct Georgia Tech 27-13 W 29.2 - 20.1 W
30-Oct at Boston College 10-16 L 24.5 - 31.8 L
6-Nov N.C. State 14-13 W 15.4 - 4.2 W
13-Nov at Florida State 13-16 L 24.5 - 20.2 W
20-Nov at Wake Forest 30-10 W 25.4 - 16.4 W
27-Nov South Carolina 7-29 L 9.2 - 12.5 L
31-Dec vs South Florida 26-31 L 24.4 - 28.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 24.0 86 18.8 13
Adj. Points Per Game 24.7 83 21.9 27

It was a big deal last summer when quarterback Kyle Parker announced he was returning to Clemson for a second season on the gridiron despite being drafted by the Colorado Rockies and facing a professional baseball career. At the time it seemed rather unlikely that a Parker-led Tiger offense would play at an above-average level just three times all season and just once after September 11. Clemson looked alright for a while, but a rib injury that Parker suffered early in the season eventually took its toll, and the offense crashed and burned.

Clemson Offense, First Four Games: 31.4 Adj. PPG
Clemson Offense, Next Four Games: 24.1 Adj. PPG
Clemson Offense, Last Five Games: 19.8 Adj. PPG

The defense held on as long as possible, only playing at a below-average level three times all year, but Parker and the offense just couldn't hold up their end of the bargain. CU lost four of six to end the season, with three of those losses by eight points or less, two while allowing fewer than 17 points. They finished with a 6-7 record, their first sub-.500 season since Tommy West's final campaign in 1998, and dropped head coach Dabo Swinney's career record to just 19-15. This, again, despite putting a seemingly high-quality product on the field. Being a Clemson fan is an odd, odd experience.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 63 70 51
RUSHING 46 58 39 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 72 81 60 77
Standard Downs 64 97 43 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 67 56 78 14
Redzone 80 89 68
Q1 Rk 54 1st Down Rk 79
Q2 Rk 51 2nd Down Rk 65
Q3 Rk 50 3rd Down Rk 66
Q4 Rk 105

Let's quickly discuss what the Clemson offense was last year because whether it is better or not in 2011, it will certainly be different. With an ailing Kyle Parker (2,213 yards, 6.5 per pass, 58% completion rate, 12 TD, 11 INT), the CU passing game was horribly inefficient, especially on standard downs. There was big-play potential, particularly in running back Andre Ellington (686 yards, 5.8 per carry, +21.1 Adj. POE, 10 TD), but the offense as a whole simply could not sustain any momentum. The offensive line was solid in pass protection (though the frequency of quick, ineffective passes was probably responsible for some of that) but lackluster in opening holes for Ellington and since-departed Jamie Harper (760 yards, 3.9 per carry, -4.6 Adj. POE, 7 TD; 328 receiving yards, 3 TD), and what was supposed to be a quick, efficient passing game was really only quick.

But that's enough about that. There's a new starting quarterback in place with Parker's departure, and more importantly, there's a new offensive coordinator. Say hello to Todd Graham's former righthand man at Tulsa, Chad Morris. We already did this for Pittsburgh's preview, but let's look at Tulsa's Offensive Footprint from last year to see what type of changes may be in store.

Tulsa ran a fast-paced spread offense, but they were different from many in their focus on the run. In fact, Tulsa's run-pass splits were quite similar to Clemson's last year, but they played at a much, much higher pace, and they got away with the pace because they were infinitely more efficient than Clemson.

Former star recruit Tajh Boyd (329 yards, 5.2 per pass, 52% completion rate, 4 TD, 3 INT as a redshirt freshman) takes over behind center, and in theory, this offense should do good things for him even if he was a bit slow in his development this spring. An offense that features as much of Andre Ellington as possible is a good thing; and Ellington, backup Roderick McDowell (161 yards, 5.0 per carry, -1.4 Adj. POE as a redshirt freshman), and incoming five-star freshman Mike Bellamy should get the reps they need to thrive. An efficient run game leads to a steady quarterback, and there's quite a bit to like here.

Other tidbits:

  • The offensive line is stocked with experience but needs to increase the effectiveness. Their 118 career starts is one of the highest totals in the country, but their one loss from last season -- all-conference tackle Chris Hairston -- is a tough one. Tackle Landon Walker is a three-year starter, while guard Antoine McClain and center Dalton Freeman have been in the starting lineup for two each. If the run blocking improves, then the sky is the limit for Ellington and the running game.
  • The cast of characters that will be at the end of Boyd's passes is a bit of a mystery. DeAndre Hopkins (637 yards, 12.3 per catch, 63% catch rate, 4 TD as a freshman), "Nuke" to his friends, had a stellar freshman season as a high-ceiling possession receiver, and Jaron Brown (405 yards, 12.7 per catch, 60% catch rate, 3 TD) showed the same type of potential, but none of this year's returnees showed too much serious big-play capability. That's not to say they don't have it, but they didn't show it last fall. Marquan Jones (184 yards, 8.8 per catch, 62% catch) and Bryce McNeal (187 yards, 9.8 per catch, 56% catch rate as a redshirt freshman) both averaged 5.5 yards per target or fewer, and tight end Dwayne Allen (373 yards, 11.3 per catch, 64% catch rate, 3 TD) seems like an efficiency-only option. Clemson welcomes three highly-touted freshman receivers to the party -- five-star stud Sammy Watkins (6-foot-1, 180) and four-star signees Charone Peake (6-foot-3, 200) and Martavis Bryant (6-foot-4, 195). It probably isn't too much to ask for one of these three to emerge and provide the occasional big play. Morris loves him some vertical routes to complement quick passes; will his personnel be able to execute?

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 14 16 17
RUSHING 6 13 3 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 43 32 49 16
Standard Downs 10 9 15 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 33 38 34 35
Redzone 22 7 43
Q1 Rk 14 1st Down Rk 11
Q2 Rk 39 2nd Down Rk 8
Q3 Rk 21 3rd Down Rk 53
Q4 Rk 13

With a poor offense and a tough schedule, it's somewhat impressive that Clemson was able to keep games close enough to lose so many heartbreakers. Credit for that obviously goes to a rather stout defense. You couldn't run on Clemson last year; both a strong front four and underrated linebackers made sure of that. Despite the loss of all-world end Da'Quan Bowers (68.0 tackles, 26.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT), star tackle Jarvis Jenkins (44.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks) and linebacker Brandon Maye (37.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks), the front seven should still be quite a strength this fall.

Bowers and Jenkins will be missed, but there are plenty of interesting options for coordinator Kevin Steele. Tackle Brandon Thompson (45.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) was a force, and Rennie Moore (19.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks), a bit of an all-or-nothing guy last year, could settle into Jenkins' role quite well. It is unlikely that the unit will be able to replace Bowers' ridiculous TFL rate -- he registered a tackle-for-loss on 3.8% of his snaps; returning ends Andre Branch (45.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 7 PBU), Malliciah Goodman (27.0 tackles, 3.0 TFl/sacks, 3 FF) and Kourtnei Brown (14.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) all fell between 0.9% and 1.1%. Big, four-star end Corey Crawford (6-foot-5, 275) could work his way into the rotation quickly, but Bowers' production will probably not be duplicated. Still, Bowers' strength was the pass rush (he was good against the run, great against the pass), and Clemson's overall strength was run defense. Thompson and Moore should help to make sure that doesn't change.

It is pretty easy to get excited about the Clemson linebackers, at least on paper. Statistically, this unit graded out extremely well and was potentially stronger than Clemson fans may have believed; not only do they return three of their top four, but they're also adding two five-star signees to the mix. Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony, the No. 13 and 24 recruits in the country last year according to Rivals.com, join Corico Hawkins (62.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks), Jonathan Willard (23.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks), and a threesome of sophomores -- Quandon Christian (23.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks), former blue-chipper Justin Parker (6.5 tackles) and Spencer Shuey (8.5 tackles) -- to form one of the best linebacker units in the ACC. Steward may or may not be 100% at the start of the season due to an ACL tear last year, but the addition of Hawkins alone makes this unit's ceiling quite high. Clemson struggled at first in adapting to Steele's scheme -- former coordinator Vic Koenning ran more of a 4-2-5, and the unit Steele inherited was quite thin -- but he's got the pieces he needs now.

Other tidbits:

  • In terms of returning playmakers, the secondary isn't quite as stocked as the front seven. Gone are safety DeAndre McDaniel and corners Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell. Never mind that these three combined for 172.5 tackles, 12.0 TFL/sacks, seven interceptions and 23 passes broken up; their biggest value may have come in the pure number of plays they were on the field. Clemson's top eight defensive backs combined for 4,093 plays; the three players above accounted for 52% of them. There are by all means some interesting players in the mix -- cornerback Xavier Brewer (47.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 8 PBU), in particular, is big-time -- but the passing game was already the weakness of this defense last year, and the unit's potential lack of star power won't help. McDaniel, in particular, was helpful on run defense (perhaps making the linebacker numbers better than they otherwise would have been), and the pressure is on returning safeties Rashard Hall (54.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU) and Jonathan Meeks (23.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU) to provide the same support.
  • I need to take a moment to profusely compliment Clemson's athletics website: that they included total defensive snaps in their post-season statistics (PDF) is so incredibly awesome. This should be mandatory. When I first started writing this defensive portion, I quickly had to reel myself in; I could have easily gone about 2,000 more words talking about tackle rates, TFL rates, etc. Knowing how many snaps a player saw is unbelievably useful, and I beg the other 119 FBS websites to take their lead. Clemson and Colorado have by far the most useful stat pages I've seen.

Clemson's 2010 Season Set to Music

Obviously...

"Don't Have to Be So Sad," by Yo La Tengo
"Sad," by Pearl Jam
"Sad But True," by Metallica
"Sad Expression," by Zack Wiesinger
"Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," by Bob Dylan
"Sad Songs and Waltzes," by Cake
"Sad Tomorrows," by Marvin Gaye
"Sad Transmission," by The Raveonettes
"Sad, Sad Song," by M. Ward
"To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," by Ryan Adams

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 15
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 15
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -3 / -1.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (8, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.1

It almost goes without saying at this point, but this should be a pretty good football team. They have an emerging star at running back (Andre Ellington) with a blue-chipper backing him up. They have one of the most experienced offensive lines in college football. They have a pair of potentially big-time defensive tackles lining up in front of one of the more underrated sets of linebackers in college football. They have a star at cornerback, a good defensive coordinator and an up-and-coming offensive coordinator. They are once again projected in Football Outsiders' Top 25.

But that doesn't really mean a lot, does it? It will be hard to truly believe in Clemson until they come up big in a big game. And in 15 days starting in mid-September, they play three huge ones. They host Auburn on September 17 and Florida State on September 24 (they lost to these two teams by a combined six points last year, both on the road) before heading to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech on October 1. The Tigers could somewhat legitimately be anywhere between 5-0 and 1-4 (with a loss to Troy) on October 2; none of those options would surprise anybody too much (okay, 5-0 and 1-4 probably would). The above stats show that Clemson has (on paper) achieved about the level of quality their recruiting rankings would suggest, and they were not particularly lucky or unlucky last year (aside from the injury to Kyle Parker, anyway). They will likely play quite a few more close games this fall, and they will either live down to the stereotype in those games, or they will regress back toward the mean in a crazy way.

 

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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