The bye week always seems to come at the perfect time, and boy does Clemson need a break. The Tigers were the first, but certainly not the last, team to get suffocated by Georgia’s defense. We didn’t know it then, but the offensive performance in that game was a feature, not a bug in the system. It’s the clunkers against every other FBS team that has the Tigers in the college football penthouse version of a tailspin.
Clemson is fourth in the 247Sports team talent composite, with the best of everything money can buy—including facilities and coaching staff—as well as one of the best defenses in the country. Despite that, the Tigers sit with two defeats after losing in overtime to NC State in Week 4. In addition, they had to pull off a goal line stop against Georgia Tech and beat Boston College by only one possession.
Clemson’s offense isn’t just struggling this season by its own lofty standards. Whether you dice the stats up by average or counting or conventional or advanced, they are simply horrible through five games. It’s hard to find anything the Tigers excel at on that side of the ball.
Rushing yards per attempt
Third down conversion rate
Offensive plays of 10+ yards
Total rushing yards
Rushing yards per game
Yards per play
Available yards gained
Points per game
Expected points added/pass
Points per drive
Passing yards per game
Offensive success rate
Total yards per game
Passing yards per attempt
Expected points added/rush
Expected points added/play
Average throw depth
Adj. net passing yards/attempt
+ denotes DJ Uiagalelei's ranking of FBS passers with minimum of 50 attempts
* denotes non-garbage time possessions in FBS vs. FBS games
Stats sources: CFBStats.com, bcftoys.com, cfb-graphs.com, Sports Info Solutions data hub
Saturday’s Boston College win was a step in the right direction in that they gained 6.4 yards per play and ripped off explosive plays in both the running and passing game. But only scoring 19 points—including the decision to kick a field goal on the two-yard line instead of going for it on 4th-and-goal—hints at a lack of confidence in the offense to get the job done.
It is a unit searching for an identity to hang its hat on. It’s personified by its quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, in an empty stadium working deep into the night after the BC win.
As most things in football do, things start up front for Clemson. It’s no secret the program does not develop offensive line talent at a rate commensurate with its peers in the sport’s upper echelon. Since Dabo Swinney took over at Clemson in 2009, the school has had only three offensive linemen drafted into the NFL. Alabama has had 14, Ohio State 11 and Oklahoma 10.
Clemson is entitled to miss at quarterback (and even calling Uiagalelei a miss at this point is unfair to a player who has started only seven games in his college career). But generational talents are, well, generational. And Clemson got two back-to-back in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.
Similar to how Ohio State’s defense now faces the sting of not having a Bosa brother or Chase Young on its defensive line, there’s a dropoff from the astronomic heights typically enjoyed at the premier position permeating to the rest of that side of the ball. Combine offensive line play that isn’t great with a QB who has not played to his potential and sprinkle in the loss of a touchdown waiting to happen in Travis Etienne, who went to the NFL, and you’ve got an offense that is struggling to find its footing.
There are high hopes for 2022 commit Cade Klubnik, just like there are for any five-star QB from Texas with a rocket arm. But no matter who plays quarterback for Clemson next year it bears wondering what system he will play it in. The big question for the Tigers is whether what they’re doing on offense has simply grown stale.
Quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter is in his second stint with the program and has been around since the 2015 season. Robbie Caldwell has been offensive line coach since ’11, as has Tony Ellliott (originally as just a running backs coach before adding a co-offensive coordinator title in ’15 and taking the sole reins of the offense in ’20 after Jeff Scott left for USF).
Watch NCAA football games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
Oklahoma and Ohio State share similar levels of continuity with their offensive staff, but Alabama notably does not. The Tide have had four offensive coordinators since 2014, and while they have all run the same system, they’ve each been able to put their own spin on things—which is only natural when you have so many different people calling the plays. The Bama comparisons for Clemson come naturally, given that the two teams have combined for five of the seven playoff-era championships and that there has been only one CFP title game that didn’t feature at least one of them.
This will be the test of Clemson’s family model and Swinney’s belief in continuity. Saban adapted and more or less switched what Bama did on offense in a way that mirrored Swinney’s hero, Bear Bryant. Clemson may not need something that drastic to solve its problems on offense, but something’s broken. And despite an elite defense, it is very much within the realm of possibility for the Tigers to lose again this season. Clemson will not get to the heights it’s accustomed to in 2021, but where it goes from here is what’s most intriguing.
More College Coverage:
Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.