1.Clemson is coming off an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, but lost a number of critical players due to graduation and the NFL Draft. Have the Tigers met preseason expectations so far?
You're certainly right about Clemson losing a ton of talent, particularly on offense. WR Martavis Bryant is making an impact for the Steelers and just tied the NFL rookie record for most receiving touchdowns (5) in the first three games of an NFL career. Meanwhile Sammy Watkins is already nearing 600 receiving yards and Chandler Catanzaro is the starting kicker for the Arizona Cardinals. That's not even mentioning the great college players who aren't on your fantasy football team (ACC Career TD leader Tajh Boyd, former starting RB Roderick McDowell, star OT Brandon Thomas, and reliable OG Tyler Shatley).
In one of our season preview articles, I gave Clemson a one-in-three chance to win in Athens and a one-in-five chance to win in Tallahassee, so as far as results, 6-2 is right where I expected us at this point in the season, I just didn't think it would be so hard to get there (six point win over UL, four point win over BC, 10 point win over 'Cuse).
Maybe I was naive to think we could lose that much talent and still roll through the ACC schedule (save FSU and Louisville), but the offensive line has been even worse than anticipated (and I was one of the loudest critics about that potential weakness) and injuries have taken a major toll.
Fortunately, Clemson hasn't lost any games in which they were favored (extending their winning streak over unranked opponents to 24), and still could eclipse expectations and what they accomplished last season by winning out. Doing so would match last year's 11-2 mark, but would trade a home loss to FSU for one on the road, and a road loss to SC for a road loss to UGA - which is far less humiliating.
Hopefully Clemson can take care of business in Camel Town and then get QB Deshaun Watson, WR Charone Peake, C Jay Guillermo, TE Jordan Leggett, and RB Tyshon Dye back and near 100% in time for Georgia Tech.
2. Clemson has recently been known for its offense, but currently has the 3rd best defense in the country according to Football Outsiders. What are the main reasons this defense is so dominant?
Much to my chagrin, Clemson tends to recruit in positional cycles. This year, we have six seniors on the defensive line and they're the biggest reason why our defense is dominant. Grady Jarrett is one of the very best DTs in the county. Vic Beasley is possibly the best pass rushing DE in the country while his counterpart Corey Crawford is one of the best run stopping DEs. The depth is incredible and most ACC O-lines can't hold up.
Moving back a layer, MLB Stephone Anthony has carried his dominant Orange Bowl performance into this season and along with Denzel Perryman of Miami (who is so excellent it would be an injustice not to mention him here) is having one of the best seasons I've ever seen from a middle linebacker.
Safety Jayron Kearse has improved his decision making and is becoming a standout at the position. There are a ton of seniors across the defense - primarily in the front seven where six start - meaning the unit will likely have a steep drop off next year, but for now it is a lot of fun.
Finally, I think it's worth noting that DC Brent Venables is an elite coordinator and deserves every bit the level of praise and credit that our big name OC, Chad Morris, gets.
3. Why has Clemson struggled to run the ball this year?
Running back play has been very average this season. Zac Brooks and Adam Choice, arguably Clemson's two best backs, are injured and out for the season. Redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman has begun to emerge, but for most of the year we've experienced a drop off from senior Roderick McDowell, and going just another year back, from Andre Ellington.
The bigger problem though is the offensive line. We miss Brandon Thomas (49ers) and Tyler Shatley (Jaguars) a lot. I was hopeful Isiah Battle would emerge as an elite RT, but he hasn't continued to improve on his solid sophomore season and was suspended against Syracuse (he was also suspended against Wake Forest last season as you may remember).
Exasperating the issue, C Jay Guillermo has had some lower body injuries and his replacement, Ryan Norton, is a bit undersized and doesn't create much in the way of running lanes. He also has had two bad snaps that have cost us points.
4. What are Cole Stoudt's biggest weaknesses and how have teams been exploiting those?
Cole Stoudt has proven he cannot stretch the defense by connecting with the deep ball - a staple of the Clemson offensive attack. When coupled with our inability to run, which we just discussed, that creates quite the problem. In general, teams are expecting the screens and are able to keep them from going for a big gain.
75% of Stoudt's completions have been thrown to someone behind the line of scrimmage. Furthermore, Stoudt is completing just 38.5% of passes thrown to targets 16-20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and just 20% to those 21+ yards downfield.
5 I'll assume you think Clemson is going to win, but do you think Clemson will cover the 20 point spread? Give us a prediction on the final score.
This is a tough question because I respect the Deacon defense quite a bit, but in the end I think the Wake offense will put them in position to fail. With 13 interceptions on the season, I'm expecting at least one on Thursday. I don't think Wolford will have time to throw anything deep and I believe our linebackers are fast enough to keep the short passes from turning into first downs. That translates to good field position and plenty of opportunities for the offense. Eventually they should be able to break through and break it open. 31-6 feels about right.