In 2014, defending national champion Florida State had to labor far more than anyone anticipated. The Seminoles barely escaped Oklahoma State in the season opener and had to overcome early deficits against Clemson, NC State, and what felt like every other team on the schedule. They were experienced enough to escape, but inevitable disaster struck: FSU was walloped, 59-20, by Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
In 2015, defending national champion Ohio State returned almost every key player from its late-2014 run of dominance, and big things were expected. But the Buckeyes eked by Northern Illinois and Indiana, and just as they seemed to be hitting fourth gear, they slipped up in slippery conditions against Michigan State.
These two teams went 25-2, coming within shouting distance of preseason hype. But neither managed to make a repeat run to the title game, and both seemed to start with hangovers.
This year’s defending national champion doesn’t appear to be struggling all that much. Alabama methodically destroyed USC, 52-6, and while Nick Saban tried as hard as he could to be mad about a 38-10 win over Western Kentucky, the Crimson Tide outgained a decent team by 250 yards and won by only 28 because of pretty bad fumbles luck (they recovered 0-of-3 on the day).
Clemson only wishes its struggles were of that nature.
First things first: Dabo Swinney’s defending national runners-up are 2-0. Clemson has already won at Auburn, and while others were slipping up on a strange Saturday early slate, the Tigers did not. They thought about it against Troy but survived, 30-24, slipping from No. 2 to No. 5 in the AP Poll afterward.
Every time you avoid a slip-up is an opportunity to figure things out and roll. Still, Clemson has some things to figure out at the moment.
Through two games, the Tigers are averaging 4.99 yards per play, below the national average. They managed only 19 points while averaging 5.1 per play against Auburn, and in Saturday’s home opener, they averaged only 4.9 per play while turning the ball over three times.
For frame of reference: During 2015’s 14-1 campaign, Clemson only twice averaged under 5.7 yards per play, and one of those games (vs. Notre Dame) came during torrential rains. They scored under 31 points only three times; they’ve already done it twice.
So what’s wrong? Is anything wrong, really?
As always, we’ll begin to look for the answer by diving into the stats.
(Click on these box scores to zoom in.)
Clemson vs. Auburn
Against Auburn, Clemson's biggest issues were a lack of run efficiency, iffy drive finishing, and the inability to make enough big plays to counter inefficiency. Wayne Gallman gained 5 yards or more on only 11 of 30 carries and gained more than 11 yards just once.
During a 13-play scoring drive in the second quarter, the offense looked like it was supposed to. Presumed No. 1 NFL Draft favorite Deshaun Watson hit returning top receiver Mike Williams for passes of 11, 26, and 14 yards, and Gallman had two 8-yard runs and a 1-yard score. And early in the fourth quarter, CU went up 19-6 thanks to a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by a 16-yard pass from Watson to Hunter Renfrow. Beyond these two drives, however, Clemson averaged 4.6 yards per play and scored six points.
Without an effective run presence, Watson struggled to consistently find receivers.
He was only 9-of-18 passing on standard downs. He did complete 9 of 14 passes to Williams for 174 yards, but he was 10-of-20 passing for 74 yards to everyone else. Artavis Scott, who was last year's leading receiver in Williams' absence: four targets, three catches, 30 yards.
Clemson vs. Troy
Against Troy, it was a similar story. Gallman was even less effective, rushing for 5-plus yards three times in nine carries -- that he got only nine carries seemed like compensation for the fact that Clemson's rotation wasn't very large in the opener -- and only Watson himself could bring any efficiency to the ground game.
This rendered Clemson one-dimensional, and while Watson was more accurate -- 20-of-31 passing on standard downs -- the Tigers were unable to connect on anything deep.
Those 20 standard-downs completions gained just 178 yards, and he was a dreadful 7-of-22 passing for 114 yards, with two INTs, on passing downs. Scott had a better game (10 targets, seven catches, 71 yards), but Williams struggled (six targets, two catches, 24 yards).
Gallman's efficiency numbers have never been as high as it seems like they should be. He's an incredible brawler, a muscular back with great second effort, but he sometimes seems a little too happy to take on a pile of tacklers. Regardless, he probably isn't the primary issue. Culprit No. 1 is the blocking Gallman is (or isn't) receiving:
On the first series, LT Mitch Hyatt can’t hold his block on the edge, resulting in a first down loss. Then on third down, he gets a holding call, which results in a punt out of the end zone.
First down, mid-first quarter, and RT Jake Fruhmorgen whiffs against S Kris Witherspoon. Loss of 3.
Obvious passing down. On second down, a pulling LG Justin Falcinelli touches no one on the entire play as two defenders pass him on their way to pressuring Watson to throw the ball away.
On third down, Cain drops it, but it shouldn’t be third-and-13. Falcinelli again whiffs on the pivotal fourth-and-1. He pulls and blocks air, stumbling 5 yards out of the play. Watson doesn’t have a chance.
If there was salvation, it came late, after a break. A controversial touchdown extended Clemson’s lead to 20-10. A play before Watson hit Christian Wilkins for a 1-yard score, Tyshon Dye appeared to have fumbled near the goal line before the whistle blew. Troy would have returned it for a touchdown and taken the lead, had the play not been blown dead.
Predictably, Troy head coach Neal Brown was unimpressed with the call.
"It was big," Brown said after the game. "The communication wasn’t great. There were two fumbles that I felt were fumbles, but both of them were blown dead. They are not reviewable. I called a timeout to get them looked at, but they said forward progress was stopped. It could’ve been a turning point."
But the Tigers followed that score by going 75 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown, then icing the game with a 32-yard field goal drive.
After averaging 4.2 yards per play through most of three quarters, Clemson gained 188 yards in its final 31 snaps (6.1 per play) thereafter. Of course, just as the offense got rolling, the defense allowed two long, late scoring drives to keep the game close.
Still, you can spin this as a positive. Swinney did.
"Seventeen points by the offense in the fourth quarter was huge," Swinney said. "We had three straight scoring drives. Hopefully, we can pick up there next week. Huge momentum heading into next week. But we have to make routine plays."
Now’s a pretty good time for a tune-up. South Carolina State visits Death Valley this Saturday, and while the Bulldogs did give a scare to Louisiana Tech for a while (Tech led only 19-10 at halftime), this should provide the Tigers with a chance to find a bit of a rhythm.
They’ll need it, because the three games that follow are interesting: at Georgia Tech on a Thursday night (Sept. 22), No. 10 Louisville at home (Oct. 1), and at Boston College (Oct. 7).
Clemson’s probably fine.
The Tigers are still going to be favored in either every remaining game this season or all but one. Hungover teams can find their rhythm eventually.
But the struggle of the run game is an absolute concern, and it will hold the passing game back until it is rectified. Gallman’s per-carry average is 1.4 yards lower than it was a year ago, and Watson’s passer rating is a dreadful 113.3. Those two things are connected, and they are a concern.