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2012 Clemson Football Preview: Greatness And Dumpster Fires

Clemson both improved and regressed last season, surging on offense, figuring out how to win close games, and completely falling apart defensively. Can a new defensive coordinator and further experience in the offensive skill positions make up for quite a bit of attrition in the trenches? Related: Clemson's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Tigers football, visit Clemson blog Shakin The Southland.

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Can you trend in the right and wrong directions at the same time? If so, it would make sense that Clemson would be the one to figure out how. Consistently one of the more fascinating teams in the country (for reasons good, bad and worse), the Tigers carved out quite a unique path in 2011.

They regressed on paper, from 26th in F/+ to 36th, but improved by 3.5 games, from 6-7 to 10-4.

After going 4-13 in one-possession games from 2008-10, they went 3-0 in 2011.

After going 18-5 in games decided by more than one possession in 2008-10 (win percentage: 0.782), they went just 7-4 in 2011 (0.636).

Their losses in 2010 came by an average of 7.6 points. Their losses in 2011 came by an average of 24.0 points. They finished with a losing record in 2010 and won the ACC in 2011.

A team with Clemson's 2011 offense and 2010 defense would have ranked sixth in the country in F/+, just behind Oregon.

A team with Clemson's 2010 offense and 2011 defense would have ranked 87th, just ahead of Marshall.

The ACC Episode by Shutdown Fullback

None of this makes any sense. And it only gets weirder from here: the Tigers return almost every single player of significance from every position outside of the offensive and defensive line … and they must replace a vast majority of their offensive and defensive linemen.

Think this is the year Clemson finally breaks through as a true Top 10-caliber team? You've got evidence on your side.

Think the Tigers are going to collapse and disappoint horribly in 2012? You've got evidence on your side.

There is no good or bad when it comes to Clemson football. Only greatness and raging dumpster fires.

In theory, head coach Dabo Swinney has a lot going for him right now. He has brought in a well-respected defensive coordinator to take over a unit that was far worse than it should have been last year, and he returns the trifecta of quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins and running back Andre Ellington. And the fact that he loses five of his top seven defensive linemen is mitigated by the fact that the line was pretty awful last year. Plus, the man is recruiting like crazy; Clemson ranks in the Top 10 in two-year recruiting, and he has already scored a verbal commitment from the nation's No. 1 player in the 2013 class (for now, anyway).

On paper, Swinney has addressed his team's weaknesses and enhanced its strengths. But on paper, this defense shouldn't have been anywhere near this bad last year either, so why should we automatically think it will change?

I'm struggling to come up with any sot of conclusions about Swinney's squad, as you can tell, but I couldn't care less. This is going to be fun to watch one way or another.

Related: Check out Clemson's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Clemson last year, before Sammy Watkins came into my life:

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. […]

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).

It wouldn't have been Clemson enough to simply take two steps forward for every step backwards and plod its way to a 10-4 record and a conference title. Rearrange some of the wins and losses, and you've got a nice, redemptive season by a team that was in between solid and great. But that would have been far too easy.

Instead, the Tigers had to convince everybody in the country that they were better than they were, winning all three games in the brutal 15-day stretch mentioned above and finishing off that stretch with a 20-point whipping of No. 11 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Clemson eventually moved to 8-0 and sixth in the country, THEN dropped four of six and lost their first BCS-level bowl game in 30 years by 37 points. What could have been seen as a scrappy rise was instead seen, completely justifiably, as a collapse. And if you remove the strange outlier that was Clemson's near-perfect performance versus Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, it was indeed a collapse.

First Eight Games: Clemson 30.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 28.3 (plus-2.5)
Last Six Games (minus Virginia Tech): Opponents 30.1 Adj. Points per game, Clemson 26.4 (minus-3.7)

It is funny how a narrative takes shape. In the 2011 season, Clemson went undefeated in one-possession games, thereby shattering one of the biggest pieces of the Clemsoning meme. But the end-of-season tumble allowed for that narrative to continue at least somewhat apace. And there's no point in even trying to guess what twists and turns the narrative will see over the next few months.


The chicken and the egg entered Clemson's universe around the same time. On January 9, 2011, Tulsa's Chad Morris accepted the offensive coordinator position at CU. On February 2, 2011, Sammy Watkins, a five-star receiver from Ft. Myers, Fla., signed his Clemson Letter of Intent. Throw in a new starting quarterback in Tajh Boyd (one who happened to be nearly perfect for Morris' system), and you have the ingredients for an immediate, drastic offensive turnaround. Morris was the brain behind Tulsa's potency (lord knows said potency didn't travel with Todd Graham to Pittsburgh), and he knew what to do with a rather impressive set of skill position players in 2011.

The improvement was stark. Clemson went from 84th in Off. F/+ to 20th, from 72nd in Passing S&P+ to 12th. The run game stayed about the same (a little more efficient, a little less explosive), but the impact of both Watkins' incredible play and Morris' schemes -- including his pistol preference -- and play-calling was drastic. Now we get to find out what they have for an encore.

Watkins truly was incredible in 2011. Just 6'1, 200 pounds, he plays a physical brand of receiver, only with breakaway speed. He was the go-to guy almost immediately, catching 10 of 12 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns versus Auburn in Week Three, then going 8-for-11 for 141 yards and two more touchdowns against Florida State in Week Four. He spearheaded a huge comeback versus Maryland with two receiving touchdowns and a kick-return score. He was hobbled in November, but he still ended up with 1,225 receiving yards (9.9 per target, 68 percent catch rate). As a true freshman.

Watkins alone did not account for this enormous improvement, however. He was, after all, targeted by just one quarter of Clemson's passes. DeAndre Hopkins (961 yards, 9.0 per target, 66 percent catch rate) was a strong No. 2 wideout last year, and Jaron Brown (406 yards, 8.3 per target, 63 percent catch rate) was a solid No. 3. All three return, though the departure of tight end Dwayne Allen (592 yards, 6.5 per target, 54 percent catch rate) will result in at least a bit of a redistribution of targets. Four-star sophomores Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake might also be ready for more opportunities, though only Bryant took advantage of his chances last year.

At quarterback, Boyd showed both interesting explosiveness and room for growth. He rushed for 436 pre-sack rushing yards and five touchdowns, but his pocket presence could use work (his 5.8 percent sack rate was a bit too high, though obviously that was partially on the line) as could his frequency of brain farts (12 interceptions). Boyd did not have a particularly incredible spring, but he's still the obvious starter ahead of sophomore Cole Stoudt.

A fun running backs duo of Ellington and sophomore D.J. Howard also returns in 2012. Ellington was explosive (2.4 highlight yards per carry) over 16 carries (and three pass targets) per game, though he could certainly still grow into more of a receiving threat (60 percent catch rate, 5.0 yards per catch). Howard, meanwhile, made the most of his limited opportunities in 2011. Really, the only departed skill position player worth mentioning is five-star sophomore Mike Bellamy, who evidently didn't hit the books quite hard enough last season.

And then there's the line. A bad line can slow down even the most potent set of skill position players in the country, and there is certainly reason for concern. At the end of last season, eight Clemson players had earned starting experience, a total of 152 starts. Only two of those players (46 career starts) return. All-conference center Dalton Freeman is fantastic, and tackle Brandon Thomas has potential, but the experience level is drastically lower this fall (which all but guarantees a dropoff), and let's just say that this post uses "too fat and too slow" a little much for my tastes. If there's good news here (in backhanded form), it's that the line wasn't as good as it probably should have been last year, and therefore the dropoff might not be as stark as we might think.


As drastic as Clemson's offensive improvement was, the regression of the defense was every bit as steep. The loss of stars like end Da'Quan Bowers and tackle Jarvis Jenkins hit harder than even I anticipated, and the linebackers were unable to pick up the slack. Clemson sank from 16th to 94th in Adj. Line Yards, from 35th to 101st in Adj. Sack Rate, from sixth in the country to 82nd in Rushing S&P+, from 10th to 80th on standard downs, and from 43rd to 65th in Passing S&P+.

Despite his success in previous seasons, Kevin Steele was forced out after the awful fall, and while the "one bad year, and you're gone" approach can often backfire, it was probably time for some new blood. So when Mike Stoops returned to Norman to once again become his brother's defensive co-coordinator last winter (also at least somewhat in a quest for new blood), Oklahoma's Brent Venables left for Clemson.

Response to Venable's hiring was at least a little bit tepid, if only because Venables' last couple of Oklahoma defenses regressed. But let's put it this way: when adjusting for opponent, Oklahoma still ranked eighth in Def. F/+ last season despite the "disappointment." A team with Clemson's offense and Oklahoma's defense would have ranked 10th in F/+ last fall. The intense Venables doesn't always press the right buttons, but he is very well-versed in defending the spread, and he tends to know what to do when given a group of solid athletes; and that's exactly what he inherits at Clemson.

Obviously recruiting rankings only matter so much (otherwise Clemson's defense would have been a lot better last year), but here's a portion of what Venables will have to work with this fall:

  • Five-star sophomore linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. Anthony was a "make a big play or give one up" guy last year -- he did manage six tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in backup duty last year -- while Steward, recovering from an ACL tear in his senior season of high school, tore his other ACL in mid-October last year. He is supposedly near 100 percent now, but we'll see. Regardless, with Anthony more experienced and Steward at even 80-90 percent, Venables should find the linebacking corps to his liking. Seniors Corico Hawkins and Jonathan Willard (combined: 135.5 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, six passes broken up) bring experience to the table, and any number of former four-star recruits (junior Justin Parker, sophomore Lateek Townsend, freshman safety-nickel back-LB combo Travis Blanks) could bring quality depth.
  • Last year's top three safeties, and three of the top four corners. The safety trio of seniors Rashard Hall, Jonathan Meeks and Xavier Brewer was asked to do far too much last year thanks to an inferior pass rush. But they still made their share of plays: seven tackles for loss, six interceptions, 13 passes broken up. Meanwhile, senior corner Bashaud Breeland and juniors Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson should make sure that Clemson's secondary is at least as good as Oklahoma's banged-up unit was last year. And if a four-star freshman like Cortez Davis or Ronald Geohaghan can break into the rotation early on, all the better.
  • Lots of four-star guys up front. Again, recruiting rankings only go so far, and last year's underachieving unit was littered with former four-star recruits. But as I've said before, you'd still rather inherit underachieving former star recruits than two-star overachievers who already hit their ceiling with the previous defensive coordinator. In senior Malliciah Goodman and sophomore Corey Crawford, Venables will have two four-star ends at his disposal. Goodman was durable last year, logging over 750 snaps, but he barely actually made any plays. Meanwhile, a boatload of sophomore tackles, including DeShawn Williams (2.0 tackles for loss) and former four-stars Tavaris Barnes and Josh Watson, will get a shot in the middle, as could freshmen like Carlos Watkins and Kevin Dodd.

It is probably unfair to ask Venables to immediately turn this unit into its former Top 20 self in one season. But he should be able to improve the defense to some degree pretty quickly.

Defining Success

When you win the conference title one year, anything less than a second straight title will feel like at least a bit of a letdown. And with this year's Clemson-Florida State game taking place in Tallahassee, CU probably won't be the favorite this time around. But it is worth noting that the other three conference road games (Boston College, Wake Forest, Duke) are exceedingly winnable, and Clemson should be expected to put another solid win total on the board. We'll say 8-4 would be acceptable, nine or more wins preferable. But this being Clemson, you should probably either expect 10-2 or 6-6.


I tend to rage against stereotypes. Coach A's teams don't always choke, no matter how much we want to say they do. Team B isn't cursed, no matter what unlucky breaks they have gotten. Generalizations are typically lazy and often far from the truth. But when it comes to Clemson, I struggle to avoid them myself. The Tigers' highs and lows are so frequent and so extreme.

That said, ignoring the helmets Clemson's team wears and the glorious shade of orange they emit, one should expect decent things of this team. Weaknesses in the trenches should hold Dabo Swinney's Tigers back, but the extreme talent at the offensive skill positions and, potentially, linebacker and defensive back, should make sure the dropoff from last year's 10-win season isn't too extreme. As with most recent years, Clemson's record in close games will likely tell the tale. Did Clemson permanently cross a bridge in that regard last year, or was that just some mathematical regression at work?

It is difficult to ignore the magnitude of upside the team will possess in 2012 (and, probably, 2013 and beyond); but it is also difficult to ignore the wackiness that generally accompanies Clemson football.

For more Tigers football, visit Clemson blog Shakin' The Southland.

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