As expected, Clemson easily defeated the South Carolina State Bulldogs 49-3 on Saturday. My family & I were able to attend the game and we all had a wonderful time. I witnessed the defense have another great day, and saw the offense make several good plays. The running game was very good, and I saw several good plays in the passing game, but I also saw some flaws. DJU had a good day, but still had a few headscratchers. Taisun was about what I expected in relief: good but not great. The coaches made sure the offensive game plan was designed to give the QBs simple options. I thought the three main running backs looked very good. The receivers did a good job, but it does seem like they were somewhat limited because of the simple game plan.
I left Death Valley generally happy with what I saw, but I also understood that the opponent did not have the personnel needed to be truly competitive. I saw what I expected to see. We are only two games into the 2021 season, with one game against a Top 5 opponent and one against a lower division opponent, so it is way too early to jump to conclusions about what this season can be for the Tigers, or where individual players can be by the end of the season. It is always fair to question and criticize performance of the players and coaches, and there has been plenty to scrutinize in these two games. I think it is fair to make one statement: this Clemson offense is rebuilding, not reloading.
Clemson has had three outstanding quarterbacks in Tajh Boyd, Deshaun Watson, and Trevor Lawrence. Each has elevated the Tigers to a new standard. The transition between each of them hasn’t been seamless. Following Boyd’s departure, Cole Stoudt was named the starting quarterback, and it took a few games before DW was promoted. When DW was injured, Stoudt had to step back in. After DW went pro, we had a year with Kelly Bryant behind the helm. KB was good, but not great, and when T-Law arrived, it took four games for the staff to promote him over KB. In each of these transitional years, we also had young running backs that lacked experience.
What is the biggest difference between those transitional years (2014 & 2017) and this 2021 season? The expectation was that Clemson would simply reload in 2021. T-Law left for the NFL? Easy, plug and play DJU. ETN left for the NFL? Easy, they have a full room of talented running backs, one of them will step right in. Wide receiver? Ross is returning, Ngata and Ladson should be healthy, EJ looked promising. No sweat.
It simply has not worked out that way. DJU looks like a QB1 that has four games of experience. He is making mistakes. You know who else made mistakes? Trevor Lawrence. Clemson fans remember that by the end of the season T-Law helped lead the Tigers to a national championship, but they tend to forget that in the early part of the 2018 season, Trevor was botching handoffs to ETN, bringing his arm back to pass & just dropping the ball, and losing his footing several times & falling. I questioned whether he had the coordination to be a good athlete. He looked plain clumsy. It worried me, but I didn’t trash him because he was a freshman. It takes everyone time to adjust to the next level, even generational talent like Trevor Lawrence. I questioned, but I didn’t rush to judge.
The big statistics from those two starts DJU had in 2020 skewed expectations, but the reality is that he has just finished his fourth start. He did have a season to sit behind T-Law and learn, but nothing compares to in-game experience. It would have been great if DJU & the Tiger offense came right out of the gate highly efficient and ready to play in the national championship right now. Honestly, Clemson fans are hungry for that because the team that sets the standard, Alabama, rarely looks shaky at the beginning of the season. Be honest: when has Clemson’s offense ever started the season operating as efficiently as they would by the end of the season? 2013, when they defeated Georgia at home? It’s been almost a decade. Yet every season, fans expect to see Clemson’s offense firing on all cylinders right away.
The main thing I learned this past Saturday is that there is individual talent on this offense, and as a unit there is potential. I thought each of the running backs played well, especially Will Shipley. I think it is just a matter of time before Justyn Ross is completely back. His situation reminds me a lot of Mike Williams, who didn’t truly come back full strength from his injury until the 2nd half of his last season. The offensive line wasn’t challenged significantly in a physical sense on Saturday, but they didn’t need to face a great defensive front seven to make good decisions and work well together as a unit, which is what they accomplished for the most part. DJU played well enough to remind me of the raw talent he possesses and made enough bad plays to remind me he is still a work in progress.
The Clemson defense is good enough to keep the Tigers in every game they play for the balance of the regular season. The Clemson offense is rebuilding, which means they are far from perfect, and the reality is that they will have good days and bad days. They may not be playing national championship contenders in the ACC, but they will play decent teams, so the pressure is on the Tiger offense to improve. The offensive line and the running backs will have to repeat their efficient performance against better & bigger squads. DJU will have to improve his efficiency and the coaching staff will have to create a game plan that can be successful against ACC opponents, even if it means DJU must handle a more detailed and demanding strategy.
For fans, this means we will have to tune into each Clemson game this season without the expectation that the final will always be 40 something to single digits something. A team that shouldn’t beat Clemson will beat them or will come very close. We can expect for an opponent to take a big lead that will require one of those nail-biting comebacks. For the first time since 2017, fans will have to tune in week to week knowing the outcome is not pre-determined. The Clemson defense will show up; it will be up to the rebuilding offense to decide the outcome.
The last thing any fan should do is despair because Clemson is rebuilding on offense. The 2014 record when Clemson started with Cole Stoudt? 10-3. The 2017 record under Kelly Bryant? 12-2. Those aren’t bad records. Shrug off the Debby Downers, Clemson fans. Things are about to get interesting.