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What We Learned About Clemson in Offensively Futile Loss to Georgia

Following No. 3 Clemson's 10-3 loss to the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., can the Tigers make the College Football Playoff, turn the offense around and have the defense shoulder the burden?

Of all the ways No. 3 Clemson's monumental season opener against No. 5 Georgia could've gone, no one could have predicted that neither offense would score a touchdown. 

With two Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback, coaching staffs that know what they're doing and playmakers all over the field, there's no way the end zone should've stayed dark in this offensive era of college football.

Yet, here we are, discussing a game where the only 6-point score came on a pick-6 by Christopher Smith. That was the biggest play of the game, but it wasn't the biggest storyline in the Bulldogs' 10-3 victory Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C. 

Week 1 always presents a host of unexpected occurrences, but this game opened up cans and cans of worms nobody thought of just a few days ago. Here's a look at what we learned about Dabo Swinney's squad in just the third regular-season loss in the last five seasons: 

Clemson doesn't look like a playoff team

Week 1 is Week 1. There's plenty of time to improve and get better as the season goes along. All is not lost. Yada, yada, yada. 

Those things very well may be true, but what also appears to be a fact is that for the first time since before the 2015 season. the Clemson Tigers don't look like a team that can be in or should be in the College Football Playoff. That might be the hardest thing for fans of Clemson and all of college football to grasp. 

It just hasn't been the case in so long, but there's no question that losing back-to-back games, including the end of last year, hasn't helped the narrative that the Tigers are losing their grip in big games. And the playoff committee will undoubtedly take notice. Clemson doesn't have another currently ranked team on the schedule. Could an N.C. State or Boston College get ranked before those matchups? Possibly. Will a Coastal Division foe in the ACC title game be good enough to enhance Clemson's resume with a win? To a certain degree, sure. 

However, the optics are not good, and because of that poor offensive performance, the committee might not care if the Tigers rebound and put up 40 points a game against the likes of Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. And even if Clemson wins the ACC with a one-loss record, is the committee going to put the Tigers in the same four with Georgia? They're certainly not going to put Clemson in over the Bulldogs. Sure, a ton of scenarios can play out where the Tigers can sneak into the CFP, but right now, it feels less promising than ever. 

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Offense is a liability 

The fact that Clemson's offense totaled just 180 yards, the lowest output since 2011, and put up a futile effort was imaginable before the game. Sure, Georgia has arguably the best defense in the nation, but the Tigers had only been held out of the end zone one other time in the CFP era, a 24-6 loss to Alabama in the 2018 Sugar Bowl. 

The Tigers finished with two measly rushing yards and looked out of sync all night. Again, give Georgia a ton of credit. That defense made life miserable for offensive coordinator Tony Elliott for 60 minutes. Whether it was an offensive line that couldn't hold up or quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei hanging in the pocket too long, there was zero rhythm. Oh, and the running backs had nine carries. Joseph Ngata's 110 receiving yards were the only highlight on this side of the ball. The thing is, Clemson has won plenty of big games without an All-American caliber offensive line, but this time, they couldn't scheme around it.

There won't be another defense on the regular-season schedule as nasty as Georgia's, but there will be some matchups throughout the season that the Tigers will be at a disadvantage. Bank on it. How much they improve up front and behind center will likely decide whether this team runs the table from now until December or not. 

D.J. never got off the mat

Uiagalelei had an incredibly difficult time getting comfortable in the pocket. It didn't help that he had to start in the shadows of his own goal line in the first two drives or that the scripted plays did little to advance the football. 

But there were question marks surrounding him coming into this game that wasn't vocalized very loudly: What would happen when he got punched in the mouth? How would he respond to adversity? Last year against Boston College and Notre Dame, it actually came fairly easily for him, even though he did have to rally against the Eagles and the Tigers lost in South Bend. He wasn't the reason. Saturday night, however, Uiagalelei looked slow, both in how he read the Georgia attack and how he reacted. He got hit a lot. Clemson gave up seven sacks, and he had to know where the pressures were coming from.

He didn't handle it well, and it's difficult to understand. He came to Clemson last fall with a huge pedigree and all kinds of national attention. Why didn't this cool, confident, California kid deal with getting this offense on track better? Why did he drift so much in the pocket and then just try to sling the ball into receivers at the last second? Why didn't he take off running more or get out of the pocket to create? Again, a ton of questions but few answers. 

Defense is a monster 

Let's not overlook the real positive from last night: Clemson's defense is back, at least in Week 1. Brent Venables had his team focused, ready and fast. They weren't overwhelmed this time. 

Clemson limited the Bulldogs to 256 yards and forced an interception. They adjusted well, too. Georgia really tried to test the Tigers' speed on the edges, constantly getting the ball out quickly to receivers in space. It worked early in the game, but Clemson started taking it away and quarterback J.T. Daniels started having to take more chances. 

The Tigers tackled well and began anticipating plays much better as the game went along. However, Georgia didn't take any deep shots. It appeared once head coach Kirby Smart realized how vulnerable Clemson's offense was, he just wanted to make sure his offense didn't give the Tigers any easy opportunities. Still, Clemson's defense answered the bell following an offseason of asking what went wrong against Ohio State last year. The problem is, they're going to HAVE to shoulder the burden of being the best side of the ball while the offense tries to play catchup. Will it wear on them?

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