Originally found on CBS Sports:
Dabo Swinney is, without question, the greatest coach in Clemson football history. He’s won two national titles in four College Football Playoff National Championship appearances. In total, he’s led the Tigers into the four-team field six times. His 165 wins as Clemson coach are tied with Frank Howard for the most all-time in program history, but Swinney has needed 87 fewer games to get there.
It was understood before the season that Swinney would surpass Howard’s win total. The problem is that it wasn’t supposed to take this long.
Clemson lost to NC State 24-17 on Saturday, dropping to 4-4 on the season. The loss dropped the Tigers to 2-4 in ACC play with their lone wins coming against Syracuse and Wake Forest — two of only four teams below the Clemson in the ACC standings thanks to their combined record of 1-8. Clemson’s other wins have been against Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic.
Its losses have come to Duke, Florida State, Miami and NC State. Four programs have been among the ACC’s best in recent years, but those are programs Clemson hasn’t had much trouble with during its run as the conference’s supreme being.
So what’s gone wrong, and what must Clemson do to fix it? Well, that’s the problem. There isn’t one thing you can point to as the fatal flaw here, nor does this seem like an outlier season. While I wouldn’t anticipate Clemson fighting for its bowl life in years to come, its grip on the league has loosened, at a minimum, and may have been lost entirely.
Last year, when Clemson failed to reach the College Football Playoff for the second straight season, it still managed to go 8-0 in the ACC. Losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina derailed its season. The scapegoat was an offense that had grown stale and predictable behind D.J. Uiagalelei and offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter. Both were gone after the season and in stepped Garrett Riley. It was a move welcomed by Clemson fans and media alike, myself included, who had long been calling for Swinney to make changes to his offense — to go outside the family and bring in fresh eyes and ideas. Hiring Riley did that.
SeasonPoints per possessionSuccess rateYards per playEPA per playPass EPA per playRush EPA per playExplosive play ratePoints per red zone possession
But it hasn’t worked. Cade Klubnik has struggled to find consistency and the program that once routinely sent receivers to the NFL (did you see DeAndre Hopkins catch three touchdowns Sunday?) hasn’t seen a difference-maker emerge at the position this year or any year since Amari Rodgers in 2020. The offensive line has been extremely underwhelming for what feels like the 100th straight season; only three of the last 50 Clemson players selected in the NFL Draft have been offensive linemen, and of those three, only Jackson Carmon was taken in the first four rounds. There are still great players on the defensive side of the ball, but the standard seems to be slipping ever so slightly there as well.
If Swinney wants a quick fix, he’ll have to break character this offseason and utilize the transfer portal. It’s something he’s been allergic to doing until this point, but this approach has undoubtedly played a role in his team’s struggles the last few years. While it’s not the sole cause, It’s probably not a coincidence that Clemson hasn’t made the College Football Playoff since the NCAA introduced new transfer rules in 2021 allowing players to switch schools without sitting a season. While other national title contenders have been spackling holes and duct-taping cracks via the portal, Clemson’s been looking to what’s already on hand: the “OKGs” (Our Kinda Guys).
I admire Swinney’s old-school approach, but it’s the kind of approach that only works at schools that are winning games or have a different level of expectations on the field. I don’t know how much longer it can work at Clemson if the Tigers keep losing games and continue to miss out on the playoff.
Clemson is at a crossroads, and the greatest coach in program history might have to try another new path this offseason.
Postgame Interview of the Week
Never believe a coach when they tell you they don’t pay attention to the media or what anybody is saying about them or their program. They pay more attention to it than many fans, and I wouldn’t mind if they were as open about it as NC State’s Dave Doeren following his win over Clemson, which helped inspire the first 750 words of this column.
Of course, Steve Smith, the former Utah Ute and Carolina Panther, wasn’t in a studio, nor was he on the network on which NC State’s game was broadcast. But we’ll ignore that because it’s the thought that counts.
We’ll also ignore it because Doeren’s right. NC State is not a basketball school right now. It may be traditionally, but Doeren’s football program has been far more successful during his tenure. Doeren’s a win away from having the most wins in NC State football history, while the basketball team has reached the NCAA Tournament four times in the 11 seasons he’s been in Raleigh.
Illusion of the Week
There’s been a notion spreading around the college football universe this season that we’re seeing parity on a level unheard of in the College Football Playoff era. As my Cover 3 Podcast co-host Bud Elliott points out in the tweet above, it’s not so much parity as it is a lack of drama regarding the best teams in the league being beaten. The 15 schools atop this week’s AP Top 25 have 12 losses between them, and 10 of those 12 losses have come to another team among those top 15 schools (the exceptions are Louisville’s loss to Pitt and Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas).
And it’s not just the top 15. Teams favored by at least 10 points against other FBS schools this season have won 90.1% (191-21) of the time in 2023. Last year, they won only 83.4% of the time. Over the last four seasons prior to 2023, they won 86.6% of the time.
We’re confusing the lack of drama for parity, and if you needed somebody to wake you up from this delusion, I hope you watched Georgia dismantle Florida 43-20. The two-time reigning national champions got off to a “slow” start this year but have begun to look like the same old death machine we’ve seen the last few years.
The Dawgs’ next two games are against teams in the top 15. My suspicion is they’ll continue to dispel the notion of parity in the sport this year.
Wet Goalposts of the Week
While we’re on the subject of a lack of drama, we should probably discuss one of the few significant upsets we’ve seen this season. Kansas beat Oklahoma. In football. The Jayhawks’ 38-33 win over the Sooners ended an 18-game losing streak in the series (Kansas’ last win was a 20-17 victory in 1997; the two didn’t meet in Kansas’ fabled 12-1 2007 season).
While it was an upset and qualified as a surprise, it wasn’t that much of a surprise. That fact sums up the incredible job Lance Leipold has done in Lawrence better than anything else can. Leipold received a new contract at Kansas following last season when the program reached its first bowl game since 2008 and climbed as high as No. 19 in the AP Top 25. It’s hard to imagine he won’t find himself on the receiving end of another raise this offseason.
Text Message of the Week
“We all steal signs but Michigan was doing it with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.”
That’s a text message I received from a Big Ten assistant last week that was too funny not to share. Yes, coaches are talking about this story as much as everybody else.
Jarring Image of the Week
I’ve worn glasses since I was 7 years old. Sure, there was a period in high school and college when I went with contact lenses, but I found them to be too much of a hassle and went back to the glasses in my mid-20s.
At no point in my childhood would I have considered wearing them playing football, but I suppose Wyoming’s DeVonne Harris is built different. I don’t know if this was the first time he’s done it all season (I haven’t noticed it when watching Wyoming in prior games), but when he showed up on screen during Wyoming’s loss to Boise wearing them, I was taken aback.
How do they not break!? And what might happen to DeVonne if they do!?
He’s a defensive lineman! He’s getting hit in the face nearly every snap! Please, DeVonne, reconsider this choice. Well, unless you get a sweet NIL deal out of it.
Catch of the Week
This man is out here imitating the Jumpman logo on his jersey with this catch. I mean, how?! How have we evolved as a species that we’re now capable of doing stuff like this and it doesn’t cause the entire planet to stop what it’s doing and marvel at it.
Bounce-back Team of the Week
Virginia Tech went 3-8 last year during Brent Pry’s first season in charge. It was the lowest win total the Hokies had in any season since finishing 2-8-1 in 1992. It was the program’s second season in the Big East, and the following year, it won nine games en route to becoming one of the best programs in the country for the next two decades.
It didn’t look like Pry’s second season was going the route of Tech’s 1993 season when the Hokies opened the year 1-3 with losses to Purdue, Rutgers and Marshall. Fortunes have changed since. The decision to switch to Kyron Drones at starting QB didn’t pay immediate dividends (he started the losses to Rutgers and Marshall), but we’re starting to see some nice returns.
The Hokies beat Syracuse 38-10 at home Thursday night, and it was nice to see Lane Stadium rocking again. The win improved the Hokies to 4-4 on the season, but more importantly, they’re now 3-1 in ACC play. They play at Louisville this week with the chance to move into second place in the ACC standings with a legit shot of reaching the ACC Championship Game with a win.
I don’t know if that says more about the Hokies or the state of the ACC right now, but it’s been an incredible turnaround in Blacksburg either way.
College Football Playoff Projection of the Week
The first set of College Football Playoff Rankings will be released Tuesday night. I’d like to thank the CFP for choosing Halloween as the date to begin because it allows me to tell my wife she’s on trick-or-treater duty all night because I’ve got work to do. Sorry, babe, my hands are tied!
Anyway, now that we have actual rankings, these are my predictions for what the rankings will look like Tuesday night. Not at the end of the season, or where I would rank teams.
Ohio StateGeorgiaMichiganFlorida State
Until the next Monday After!