BSD: Dabo Swinney currently has the Clemson Tigers ranked #1 in the country. The Clemson program, while it has always been good, has clearly seen a steady ascent under Swinney's leadership. What separates this year's Clemson team from even the teams of the past few years, which have seen bowl victories over programs such as LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma?
STS: Dabo Swinney became the interim head coach midway through the 2008 season and immediately shook things up. He endeared himself to the fan base by dismissing struggling offensive coordinator (turned Syracuse assistant, turned high school coach) Rob Spence and beating South Carolina. He was named the full-time head coach at the conclusion of 2008 and promptly won the division for the first time in school history the very next season (divisional alignment is relatively new). 2010 was a struggle, but it is the year he often cites as when they were building the foundation and character of the program. In 2011, they brought in OC Chad Morris and won the ACC for the first time in two decades. They would fire Kevin Steele after losing the Orange Bowl at the close of that season and the program would soon take another step forward.
2013: Offense- 12th, Defense 41st
2014: Offense – 73rd, Defense 2nd
2015: Offense – 1st, Defense 4th
The defense lagged behind the offense as current defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, was working hard to improve what had been a major weakness. By 2014, they were among the nation’s best, but the offense struggled with Watson injured and Sammy Watkins on the Buffalo Bills.
This year, the team is far more balanced. Deshaun Watson is healthy and the offensive line has young talent that has raised the bar, particularly in rush blocking, above even that of the best of Chad Morris offenses. The offensive line could still stand to improve or at least get healthy (Tyrone Crowder’s presence was missed against Syracuse and Mitch Hyatt left with a stinger), but with the fuel of a few painful losses a season ago and the one-game season mentality, this could be the best Clemson Tiger football team in over two decades.
BSD: Clemson is coming off of a less than stellar performance against Syracuse. While Dabo has said that it's not a beauty contest, did that close win give you any cause for concern moving forward?
STS: We’re hoping it is more of a wake-up call and a prompt for focus and improvement than a foreboding premonition of bad things to come, but yes it’s surely concerning. Without Tyrone Crowding at guard, the inside running game wasn’t as effective. Mitch Hyatt also left with an injury which further highlighted the lack of depth at some key positions, in his case, left tackle.
The defensive performance was the most concerning though. For the third straight week, big plays in our opponents run game have kept scores close.
A few weeks ago, NC State used a 41-yard run by Matt Dayes to keep it close in the first half. The next week against Florida State, Dalvin Cook gashed us with two big runs early in the game. Remove Dalvin Cook’s first quarter 75-yard TD run and that 23-13 nailbiter may have been a comfortable 23-6 victory. This past week, 42 of Syracuse’s 118 rushing yards came on one play. I’ll be watching to see if the Tiger linebackers and safeties can prevent the big play on the ground these next two weeks before facing the huge challenge that Elijah Hood of UNC presents.
BSD: What are the biggest areas of weakness for this Clemson team? Have there been certainly units that consistently get targeted by the opposition?
STS: The lack of great depth is a scary reality for this team. Earlier I mentioned our improved offensive line play, but if a few key starters were to be injured, a strength could quickly turn into a weakness. The same could be said about the cornerback and nickelback positions. After building a quick 14-0 lead at Syracuse, it looked like our starters would get some much needed rest (our bye week was way back in week 4), but a few key fumbles changed that and some starters wound up getting banged up a bit. The first-team guys have played a lot more snaps than last year’s starters due to these depth issues so a comfortable lead early in this week's contest would be extremely beneficial to avoid injuries, develop depth, and get some rest.
The other possible weakness is what we’ve seen from the defense just these past few weeks. It seems linebackers are missing their run fits and the safeties aren’t there to bail them out. I tend to think the Syracuse matchup was a classic letdown game after beating Florida State the week prior and we’ll see a re-focused defense. If not, I’ll be extremely worried that the issues are not a blip, but rather a trend.
BSD: Everyone knows about Deshaun Watson, who is arguably the best quarterback in college football. Who is an X-Factor who you expect to have a big performance on Saturday?
STS: Although we didn’t see it much against Syracuse, Wayne Gallman has been a workhorse running back who can fight for the tough yards. He’s a physical back that you’d expect to see from a Danny Ford or Nick Saban offense and Clemson fans are loving it. He tweaked an ankle against Syracuse, but it doesn’t sound to serious. I hope to see him early in the Wake game (playing healthy), but would really like him to get some rest in the latter stages of the game.
That would allow us to see what Zack Brooks is can do. It is senior day and Brooks, a redshirt junior, has asked (and has been) re-listed as a senior so this will be his last game in Death Valley. With RB Adam Choice coming off redshirt next season and (hopefully) the highly-touted RB Tavien Feaster joining the program next year, that makes sense. Brooks is a very good pass catcher and after suffering some lower body injuries in previous seasons, really seems to have regained his burst.
Whenever I watch Wake Forest, I’m impressed with TE Cam Serigne, who already has 40 catches this season. One other Clemson player to keep an eye on is TE Jordan Leggett who has racked up six TDs on 26 receptions and is finally breaking out and becoming a key piece of the offense.
BSD: Clemson is an overwhelming favorite in this game, so what's your prediction for the game? Will Clemson cover? Will they be challenged?
STS: I never feel comfortable picking a team to cover a spread over four TDs (looks like it’s in the 30 point range this week), but I think the Tigers complete their second consecutive perfect home season with a win over the Demon Deacons. Following a letdown game against ‘Cuse, we should see a re-focused Tiger team making the most of senior day. I don’t expect this game to be within single-digits in the second half.
For everything you'll ever need to know about the Clemson Tigers, I highly encourage you to check out Shakin The Southland. They do an outstanding job. You can also follow Ryan on Twitter @Ryan_Kantor. To see the other half of the Q&A, you can check out my answers here.