Is Clemson football still elite? Tigers, Dabo Swinney enter 2023 on shakier ground

16-20 minutes 8/26/2023
Clemson
When The Associated Press released its preseason Top 25 poll in early August, coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson football team were in an interesting spot.
Coming off their seventh ACC championship in eight years and an Orange Bowl appearance, the Tigers debuted at No. 9 in the poll released Aug. 12. It continued a 12-year streak of being ranked in the Top 25 and an eight-year run of being top 10.
But Clemson also broke a seven-year streak of being ranked in the preseason top 5 — one that existed since the team’s first College Football Playoff appearance in 2015 and, notably, held strong last summer despite the Tigers coming off a relative “down year” in 2021.
While that’s only the aggregate opinion of 63 media members, it’s indicative of a larger trend: Clemson, despite a significant bounce-back in 2022 and loads of internal optimism, has lost a good bit of its luster outside of Upstate South Carolina.
The Tigers were voted as preseason ACC champions for the eighth time in the past nine years, but instead of their usual 90% to 95% of first-place votes, they got 59%.
National pundits are projecting Clemson for a New Year’s Six placement, but it’s all Peach Bowls and Orange Bowls as opposed to Rose Bowls and Sugar Bowls, this year’s CFP semifinals.
And, despite winning the ACC, holding a seven-game winning streak over Florida State and beating them head-to-head in Tallahassee last fall, Clemson ranked one spot below the No. 8 Seminoles in both of the major preseason Top 25 polls.
This isn’t a make-or-break year, per se.
But it’s a bit of a crossroads for a program now three seasons removed from its last playoff appearance (a 2020 loss to Ohio State) and five seasons removed from its last national championship (a 2018 win over Alabama).
And everyone’s feeling it: from veteran players passing on second-round NFL Draft grades for one more year, to a freshman class talking openly about trophies, to assistant coaches getting stark reminders they’re being evaluated just like the depth chart, to the head man himself.
Swinney said as much in a clip that made the rounds on social media this week. It was pulled from a YouTube video the motivational speaker Eric Thomas posted Aug. 21 after visiting Clemson during fall camp and showed a fiery Swinney pacing around the team meeting room and addressing the entire roster — specifically his “COVID year” seniors in their fifth and final year of eligibility.
“There ain’t no guarantees for what we’re chasing,” he said. “And we’re gonna chase it. This is your last shot. ... Y’all are on the clock.”
‘A matter of time’
Brandon Marcello, a national college football reporter for 247Sports, remembers watching Clemson’s steady rise to national power and being struck by one thing.
It wasn’t the wins, he said, as much as it was the losses. The fact that Clemson went from allowing 70 points to West Virginia in the 2011 Orange Bowl to beating LSU in a formative 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Or lost a gut-wrenching national championship game to Alabama in 2015 before turning around and winning it all against the Crimson Tide a year later in Tampa.
“You see it so often in college football, or college sports overall, with teams that come close but then fall short of it,” Marcello told The State. “They rarely rebound from that the next season or two seasons later and get back there and have another chance. But Clemson was doing that year after year after year. You just knew it was just a matter of time before they came through.”
In a sense, he said, that’s where Clemson is right now.
The Tigers, over the past two seasons, may have taken a step back from their staggering 2015-20 run of six straight ACC championships, six straight CFP appearances, four national championship game appearances and two national championships. But the sky hasn’t exactly fallen either.
After starting 4-3 and falling out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since November 2014, a banged-up Clemson team won six straight games to finish the 2021 season 10-3 and preserve its coveted streak of double-digit win seasons (now up to 12).
And last season’s 11-3 campaign certainly had its highlights. The Tigers went undefeated in the ACC. They ranked No. 4 in the first CFP ranking of the season. They routed UNC by 29 points in December’s ACC championship game to become the first team in an active Power Five conference to win seven outright conference titles in eight years since 1971-79 Alabama.
Thanks to strong recruiting, Clemson also remains comfortably on the plus side of 247Sports’ “Blue-Chip Ratio,” which the website has statistically proven to be the best indicator of which teams in college football can legitimately win a national championship.
According to that metric, 72% of the players on Clemson’s 2023 roster were either four-star or five-star recruits in high school, the fifth best mark nationally behind Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Texas A&M and ahead of schools like LSU, Texas, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
“They’re still winning double-digit games,” Marcello said. “There’s one or two weak spots that you can easily identify, and they’re going about it the right way and fixing those through recruiting and, obviously, through some staff changes. So why shouldn’t they be back in that championship picture as soon as this year? Because to me, it’s the same exact recipe.”
Coming up short
Those aforementioned “weak spots” were few and far early in the 2022 season as Clemson started 8-0. But when they flared up, they flared in late, season-derailing fashion against the Tigers.
Take the Nov. 5 Notre Dame game, when defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin’s unit got gashed for a season-worst 263 rushing yards by the unranked Fighting Irish and Clemson lost 35-14.
Or the Nov. 26 South Carolina game, when DJ Uiagalelei’s poor quarterback play and Antonio Williams late-game fumble on a punt return, among other mistakes, led to Clemson snapping a 40-game home winning streak and losing to its in-state rival for the first time since 2013.
Or the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl against Tennessee, when Clemson set program records for most first downs (34) and total plays (101) in a loss and then-offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter’s unit spoiled touchdown opportunity after touchdown opportunity in a 31-14 loss to the Vols.
All told, Clemson finished the season 3-3 after starting 8-0, and all three of its losses came to non-conference Power Five teams (key “prove-it” games for national champion contenders).
And had the Tigers snuck past South Carolina and into the CFP after winning the ACC — given that Southern Cal
lost the Pac-12 title game and TCU lost the Big 12 title game, a one-loss Clemson team certainly would’ve made it — they would’ve been a clear underdog to No. 1 Georgia, the most prominent team to jump ahead of Clemson in recent seasons.
From Marcello’s point of view, Clemson’s 2022 low points — and season-long 2021 struggles — laid a few structural issues bare, specifically with the team’s wide receiver play and offense at large. It was less of an Uiagalelei problem, he said, and more issues of offensive scheme and talent.
“I lay a lot of the blame there, one, with the offensive system and none of the adjustments working,” Marcello said. “And secondly, the receivers. The receivers just didn’t have that elite, game-breaking speed to break away from coverages. They were dropping passes and the scheme wasn’t really helping them.”
Swinney wasn’t satisfied either and made that clear on Jan. 12 by firing Streeter — a beloved staff member who spent 15 seasons at Clemson as a player and coach — after his first season as offensive coordinator and replacing him one day later with former TCU OC Garrett Riley.
Swinney had promoted Streeter to offensive coordinator to replace Tony Elliott in 2021 without interviewing any external candidates and said at the time the decision took him “30 seconds.” But in a matter of days — and with minimal leaks to the media — Clemson had executed what Marcello branded as “the biggest assistant coach hire in all of college football this offseason.”
The message was clear: Let’s win now.
‘Our best shot’
Cade Klubnik, the promising sophomore quarterback more attached than any other player to the Tigers’ success this year, hasn’t been shy about his ambitions.
“The reason I came to Clemson was for two things: It was for the culture and to win a national championship,” he said in July. “I believe that we’re going to be able to do that while I’m here.”
Klubnik, the reigning ACC championship game MVP, is one of many players outright establishing that as Clemson’s goal this season — a notable change for a team whose public messaging usually falls into the more standard “one game at a time” rhythm.
Clemson returns 15 of 22 starters from last year’s team and has preseason all-conference selections at running back (Will Shipley), defensive tackle (Tyler Davis), linebacker (Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter) and safety (Andrew Mukuba).
And Riley — who won the Broyles Award last year as the nation’s top assistant coach while coordinating TCU to an improbable national championship game appearance — is being tasked with revitalizing an offense that still needs to see improvement from its receivers in 2023.
Swinney is also expecting significant contributions from Clemson’s top 10 freshman signing class, which is headlined by star defensive tackle Peter Woods, the country’s No. 33 recruit, but includes a number of other defensive linemen and DBs and receivers that will see early snaps.
“I feel like every team is the best in their own ways, but me, coming into this year and just seeing everybody from top to bottom — the depth, the love for the game, the gel that we have — I feel like this is really our best shot,” cornerback Sheridan Jones.
A return to CFP contention falls not only on Clemson’s players but its coaching staff, too, a point made clearer in February where every returning on-field assistant got a routine one-year contract extension but only two (Mike Reed and Nick Eason) got raises.
The website TigerIllustrated.com reported around that time that “it hasn’t been a fun offseason so far for Clemson’s assistant coaches,” writing in part in the wake of Streeter’s firing a month earlier: “Just because the other assistants kept their jobs doesn’t mean (Swinney’s) not still evaluating them all closely, still fully committed to holding them accountable.”
Having lost six games the past two seasons after losing six total the previous five seasons, everyone in the Allen N. Reeves Football Center is well aware Clemson has entered the “don’t tell me, show me” portion of proving its college football blue blood status.
“I think there’s maybe 11 or 12 teams that have a serious shot to get into the College Football Playoff,” Marcello said, later adding of that grouping: “Clemson’s definitely in there.”
The Tigers get a chance to put their best foot forward next Monday, in a primetime season opener at Duke on Labor Day, and have marquee games against No. 8 Florida State (home), No. 13 Notre Dame (home), No. 20 UNC (home) and South Carolina (road) on their schedule.
Clemson will also be operating for the first time in a divisionless ACC scheduling model, which could potentially pit the Tigers and Seminoles against each other in a championship game rematch in December with a playoff spot on the line.
But they’re already on the clock in August, Swinney said, and only time will tell if the Tigers can remind folks in January that orange and purple still match with CFP gold.

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