Clemson football has been right there with Alabama on top of the mountain over the last 10 years in college football.
When you're at the top and you know everyone is gunning for you, you know that intense scrutiny is part of the deal. People are going to constantly try and find ways to pick you off and knock you down. It's inevitable.
But when you bring the attention on yourself, nobody is going to feel sorry for you.
There have been two pretty thorough stories published recently about Clemson's rather elaborate, secretive sign-stealing scheme. It's not technically against the rules, and I'm not sure it's even an unwritten rule, but it certainly doesn't help public perception around the integrity of the program. Some people just view it in poor taste.
Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated and Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports each have penned lengthy pieces about how Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has seemingly mastered the art. You can read the entire pieces linked above, but here are a couple of excerpts that are particularly interesting. What stands out most to me is how coaches around the country are simultaneously annoyed and amazed by how good Clemson is at doing it.
So how significant to the actual game is Clemson’s ability to swipe and communicate signs? A lot, according to multiple coaches and assistants that Clemson plays regularly who spoke anonymously to Yahoo Sports. One coach termed it this way: “They are incredible at it. When you play them, it’s not an even playing field, they have so many [analysts] who are able to do that.”
When you are watching Clemson’s defense against Ohio State on Friday, notice how all 11 defenders are facing Venables until the moment before the snap. Opposing coaches say that Clemson will steal your sign and then Venables will signal it with a counter call in the moments before the snap. One of the tells of Clemson’s approach with this, according to opposing coaches, is that Venables is the only one signaling in the Tigers’ defensive plays. That means he’s sending them so late, and the coaches assume in reaction to what they’ve swiped, that Clemson’s defensive coaches don’t even appear to worry about anyone stealing their signals.
“If they don’t have a plan for Clemson’s signal stealers, then Clemson is going to know every play,” said one of the coaches. “They should be in the KGB stealing communications, they’re that good.”
And from Forde:
Exactly how they do it, and how much it helps, remains a bit mysterious. But within a sport that is steeped in paranoia—play sheets routinely covered coaches’ mouths, back before masks did—everyone raises their guard a little higher when playing Clemson, which declined to comment to SI for this story. Swinney’s team has the Atlantic Coast Conference preparing for more each week than just the Tigers’ talent, toughness and gameplan.
“Clemson has that reputation,” said a staffer at another ACC school.
“Clemson is the best in the country at stealing signals,” said one ACC coach.
“They really utilize it on the defensive side of the ball,” added another coach in the league. “They are really good at it. One time we got in a formation that is 90% run, and they dropped eight (defenders in coverage). They knew it was a pass call. It was like, ‘Are they listening to our headsets?’ ”
Ryan Day professionally danced around the topic in his press conference on Monday, saying that he "doesn't really know" why they seem to always have the right defense called.
“He's one of the best defensive coordinators in college football,” Day said of Venables. “He does a great job calling the game. Seems to always know exactly what the other team is doing in terms of the plays that they're running, each play. Seems to call the right defense into that play a lot. Why that is, I don't really know, but I can tell you he's been doing it for a really long time and it's a good challenge.”
Might it help that the Buckeyes played Clemson last year? Might it help that Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson worked with Venables at Oklahoma for nine seasons? Perhaps. But Ohio State also had a 16-0 lead on the Tigers last year before losing 29-23.
One thing is for certain - nobody, including the Buckeyes, will be taken by surprise that Clemson has been playing a different kind of game. We'll see if Ohio State can come up with the right formula to punch a ticket to the national championship in Friday's Sugar Bowl, or if Clemson will steal away the Buckeyes' hopes and dreams for a second straight season.
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