CLEMSON — – It seemed a bit improbable, Clemson’s rise from 6-7 to 8-0 and the nation’s top 5, built merely on Chad Morris’ offensive system and a great recruiting class.
The last three weeks have shown that success is extremely tenuous – and that the Tigers still have work left to become a truly elite program.
Entering Saturday’s 7:45 p.m. rivalry visit to South Carolina, Clemson is a team in crisis.
The Tigers are 9-2. They’ll play in the ACC title game against either Virginia or Virginia Tech on Dec. 3, regardless of what happens this week.
But unless they wake up, they’re playing like a team destined for the Sun Bowl, not the sun-splashed shores of south Florida and the Orange Bowl. A 37-13 smackdown at the hands of a mediocre N.C. State outfit was the second loss in three weeks, with a comeback win over Wake Forest the only thing separating Clemson from total freefall.
As is, the Tigers dropped 11 spots to No.18 in this week’s Associated Press poll, and must confront major confidence issues.
Maybe they’re as simple as the guys who watched Saturday’s debacle from the sidelines.
If anything, the defeats have shown just how thin the Tigers’ depth really is. At Georgia Tech, Andre Ellington watched with an ankle injury as backups D.J. Howard and Mike Bellamy struggled, giving away two crucial fumbles.
At N.C. State, senior left tackle Phillip Price – a rock of the offensive line – watched with a sprained knee ligament while replacement Brandon Thomas and a reshuffled line flailed, giving up six sacks as Clemson rushed for only 34 yards.
And it’s no coincidence that Tajh Boyd’s first touchdown-less game of the season came with superstar freshman Sammy Watkins, the ACC’s best wide receiver, on the bench in sweats, nursing a sprained shoulder.
It felt a lot like the second half of 2010, after Ellington was sidelined with a foot injury that required surgery; sophomore DeAndre Hopkins was the only significant offensive weapon. Even junior tight end Dwayne Allen, considered the top tight end prospect in the 2012 NFL draft, suffered.
That’s a sign that more difference makers – at the skill positions and on the offensive line - are sorely needed. And with three starters and two more experienced reserves leaving the O-line after this season, next season looks troubling, considering the time it can take to develop linemen.
More urgent is the need to eliminate turnovers. Clemson had eight in its first eight games, but 11 in its last three.
At this pace, Clemson is in danger of blowing the goodwill its hot start generated.
In 2000, Tommy Bowden’s second team started 8-0 but lost three of its last four, including a 41-16 Gator Bowl beatdown at Virginia Tech’s hands.
Six years later, they started 6-1 and finished 8-5, losing four of their last six.
Time and opportunities still remain for Clemson to make this a great season, to win 10 games and the program’s first ACC title since 1991.
But as we’ve learned, the line between a winter of excitement and an offseason of discontent is incredibly thin.