When you're a team of Clemson's caliber, it's not just THAT it ends. It's often more about HOW it ends.
In the case of the Tigers' 2020 season, the latter is the storyline. This is a top-notch program, and Dabo Swinney's squad can't win it all every season, but they'll be back in the mix next year and likely the year after and the year after that.
What transpired in the Superdome on Friday was just different. It wasn't that a loss occurred to a fantastic program like Ohio State, which has high-level recruits and NFL talent all over the field.
Clemson getting demolished 49-28 and looking like a team that never saw it coming was the surprise. Ohio State had continuity and COVID-19 issues and played just six games, which was supposed to be a disadvantage. Instead, the Buckeyes were the more well-prepared team in every way.
The loss for Clemson also exposed some serious weaknesses, which can happen when playing elite teams. That's just one of the many lessons learned from the Sugar Bowl loss. Here are several more and how they fit into the big picture of the 2020 season:
Dominated in the trenches
For much of the season, folks questioned Clemson's offensive line. It just seemed off. There were times it wasn't as physical as it needed to be, and execution simply wasn't what we've seen in the past from this unit. Losing four starters from last year took its toll, and maybe this year's group wasn't as talented. There was little developed depth behind the starting unit, so that played a factor in Ohio State pushing the Tigers around.
Clemson's defensive line relied on too many young players who just haven't been in big games against elite competition. The lack of experienced leadership from Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas showed against the Buckeyes. It showed against Notre Dame in the first meeting. This season was a good learning experience for guys like Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, who are going to be stars, but in two of the three biggest games of the year, they couldn't stop the run or get to the quarterback.
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Secondary was a weak link
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is rarely off when he tells you a certain position group is going to have a big season or is the most talented he's had, but this year, it feels like he missed. Swinney loved his secondary during fall camp and went out of his way to compliment the back-end defense. However, it never rang true. Sure, injuries and suspensions played a factor, but against Notre Dame the first time and Ohio State on Friday, Clemson was constantly out of position and losing one-on-one battles.
It doesn't seem to happen often, and many of these defensive backs will play on Sundays, but this year, the secondary underwhelmed, and on the biggest stage, their inexperience was exposed in a big way. Corners Derion Kendrick and Andrew Booth Jr. are better than they showed in the Sugar Bowl, but there is a ton of work to do to fix this unit.
Coaching wasn't great
First off, nobody forgot how to coach. Swinney is arguably the best in the game along with Alabama's Nick Saban. The Clemson coach's track record (sixth consecutive CFP appearances, two national titles) speaks for itself. But this wasn't a great year for the Tigers' coaching staff, and the Ohio State game highlighted that. Swinney felt like his team was well prepared, but that didn't quite resonate on the field. Maybe part of it was Ohio State looked that much more ready, and they did things Clemson looked like it wasn't expecting.
Not having Tony Elliott (COVID-19) calling plays certainly hurt. Staff continuity was hard to come by in the pandemic season, but even Swinney's decisions seemed off. Looking back at the first Notre Dame showdown, he didn't manage the clock well late in regulation, opening the door for the Irish to rally and force overtime. Against Ohio State, he refused to be aggressive on fourth down twice in the first half, opting to punt when trailing and his defense looking like it couldn't get off the field. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables, for the first time in a long time, looked a step or two behind Ohio State all night. Whatever the reasons, and some of them valid, this just wasn't the type of in-game coaching season you're used to seeing from this staff.
Targeting is impacting big games
Clemson linebacker James Skalski was booted from a CFP game for the second consecutive season because of targeting penalties. This time, it was a low hit on OSU quarterback Justin Fields in the first half that landed Skalski on the sideline for the rest of the night. The hit itself was not helmet-to-helmet, but it was vicious and injured Fields' ribs. There didn't appear intent to harm as Skalski was trying to make a football play. The problem is, he led with his head and essentially speared Fields, which by the letter of the law deserved a flag.
However, kicking players out of games of this magnitude for plays that show little to no intent to injure is impacting these games too much. Would the outcome have changed if Skalski played the entire game? Probably not, but Clemson has looked lost without him on the field before. The veteran linebacker didn't deserve a disqualification, which is why the rule needs to be revised, even if it's just for CFP games. The issue, though, is college football doesn't want officials being put in the position of deciding what is intentional and what isn't, so it's unlikely there will be any change this offseason.
Legends miss opportunity
Clemson fans said goodbye to two of its all-time greats Friday night. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne could, and should, see their names go up inside Memorial Stadium at some point in their lives. Lawrence is arguably the best and most talented player Clemson's ever had. He'll be the first pick in the NFL draft and go down in history as one of college football's most successful QBs. Etienne, meanwhile, owns just about every record under the sun at Clemson and in the ACC, and he'll be compared to great RBs of this generation for years to come.
Both of those players, though, lost out on an opportunity to do more. Had they beaten Ohio State and then knocked off Alabama in the CFP title game, we're talking about multiple rings added to their collection and resumes. Friday's loss doesn't diminish their legacies in any way whatsoever, but enhancing them would've led to conversations about them being two of the best of all-time. Those debates can still occur, but it would've been a lot harder to argue had they won it all for the third time in two years.