Inside the Numbers: Clemson's Special Teams Living up to Name Early in 2020

Brad Senkiw

Clemson was a great team last year, but was it a complete team? 

The Tigers went 14-1 and made it to the national championship game, where they ran into a better team in LSU. But Dabo Swinney's squad accomplished a lot as a program.

 The offense averaged more yards per game than any in school history. The defense finished in the top 10 in total defense for the sixth consecutive season and had multiple defenders taken in the NFL draft for the second consecutive season. 

By nearly every measure, Clemson was one of the best teams in all of college football. In ESPN's Bill Connelly's SP+ metric, the Tigers had the fifth-best offense and fourth-best defense in the country. 

But sometimes "great" team doesn't mean "complete" team. Ohio State, which Clemson beat in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl, actually finished higher in SP+'s final rankings because the Buckeyes were fourth on offense, second on defense and 21st on special teams. 

The latter for Clemson: 84th. 

That metric takes several areas of special teams into account, including field position, punting and field goals. If you watched the Tigers last season, you know that at times, those weren't their strong points. 

For instance, as a team, Clemson ranked 66th nationally with 41.98 yards per punt. Kicker B.T. Potter, who's strong leg helped the Tigers rank 13th nationally in kickoff coverage, made just 13 of his 21 field-goal attempts. 

Much of the talk around the program last season was what they would do if a close game came down to Potter's leg and if his inaccuracy would cost the team a shot at a national title.

As it turned out, it didn't. In fact, not being great, or even average, in one of the three facets of football hasn't actually hurt Clemson overall. The Tigers have won the ACC and been to the College Football Playoff in each of the last five seasons. They've lost a total of five games during that span and have won two national titles, all without a high-ranking special teams unit. 

The 2015 national title game loss to Alabama, in a season in which Clemson was dreadful on special teams, came in part to an onside kick that the Crimson Tide used to surprise the Tigers, but the defense simply didn't cover tight end O.J. Howard down the field on too many plays. 

In 2016's national championship run, Clemson's lone loss to Pitt was because of Deshaun Watson's interceptions and an uncharacteristic performance from Brent Venables' defense. 

In 2017, Clemson lost a game at Syracuse, its last regular-season defeat, because QB Kelly Bryant got hurt and left the game, and the defense couldn't contain QB Eric Dungey. Punting and field position, though, were a factor. Later that season, Alabama rolled the Tigers in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl because Clemson's offensive line and running backs couldn't protect against the Tide's dominating pass rush. 

The Tigers didn't lose in 2018 on their way to their third national title in school history, and in 2019, the loss to LSU in New Orleans was because of LSU and the Joe Burrow offense being so doggone good. 

Special teams are hard to put in perspective when you look at it like that. Clemson was better than Ohio State in Arizona last December despite not being more "complete." 

However, through two games this season, not only is Clemson looking dominant on offense and defense, at least with the starting groups, special teams has lived up to its name. In the latest SP+ rankings, Clemson's gone from 84 at the end of last year to 11th in that metric. 

Full disclosure: Only 52 FBS teams have played a game to this point, and once the SEC (Saturday) and Big Ten (Oct. 23-24) return to action, there will be a lot more teams to rank. But right now, the Tigers have excelled in an area that's long been a weakness. 

As a team, they're averaging 44.13 yards per punt, which is over 2 yards more than last year and ranks 13th nationally. Will Spiers is averaging 44.1 yards on seven punts, which is nearly 4 yards more per boot than his career average. 

Potter has looked sensational thus far, nailing his three field-goal attempts at Wake Forest, including a 52-yarder at the end of the half in Week 1 that would've been good from much longer. He's also made all 10 of his extra-point kicks after touchdowns and has displayed a new sense of urgency to make up for last season. 

One area Swinney said the team focused on improving in the offseason was returning punts. Against The Citadel on Saturday, the Tigers had 89 yards and changed field position. They currently rank second in the ACC with 17.8 yards per punt return. 

It remains to be seen if this is a long-term improvement overall or just too small of a sample size for the Tiger Faithful to get excited about, but Clemson doesn't have to be amazing or a top-10 unit to see benefits. 

A little bit better field position can lead to more points and efficiency on offense. A little worse field position for opponents can help a young defense grow up without the fear of giving up many points. 

And having faith late in games in both Spiers and Potter is invaluable. 

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