Did the Tigers get caught looking ahead?
Let’s hope so.
Once upon a time this was a pretty good football team. But that’s not been the case for a while – for the most of the last month, in fact.
From their 8-0, No. 5 in the BCS Standings pinnacle, the Tigers have, unfortunately, “pulled a Clemson” – the very distasteful phrase that Dabo Swinney is so intent upon removing from the school's football vocabulary.
Swinney, his coordinators and his players will tell us this week that the Tigers still have everything to play for.
But nothing good is likely to come from it unless the Tigers manage an immediate about-face.
Somewhere along the way, the Tigers have lost their focus, momentum, confidence and ability to execute.
That’s on the offensive side of the ball.
Clemson's defense has been inconsistent all season, except for four strong quarters against Virginia Tech and some late-game stops that complemented the offense’s ability to make timely, game-deciding plays.
It’s unlikely at this stage of the game that Clemson’s defense will become magically dominant.
That puts the focus back on the offense.
Swinney and Chad Morris said all the right things on Saturday about doing everything they can to get things fixed. And they, and their players, most certainly will try.
But their comments were lacking in conviction and specificity. If they knew exactly what to do to make things better, they’d have done it already.
As long as a battered and suddenly vulnerable offensive line is getting manhandled the way NC State did on Saturday, the Tigers are going to have problems making their offense work. And that’s true not only if Sammy Watkins returns, but even if he could manage to clone himself into two more players just like him.
Clemson’s prospects of keeping the likes of Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney from wrecking their offensive plans are dubious at best.
The Tigers and Gamecocks have reversed fields several times during the course of the season, and Game 12 suddenly finds the door swinging sharply in USC’s favor – playing at home with its plan to win based on a defense that, unlike Clemson’s, has been consistently dominant.
Clemson fans are suddenly looking at the very real possibility of enduring another year-long chapter in what would be a three-game losing streak to South Carolina – something that hasn’t happened in more than 40 years.
Losing three straight state championships wouldn’t set well with Dabo Swinney, either. But the big-picture implications of the state's backyard, every-family feud will take a back seat this week to getting under the hood of the Tigers’ suddenly clicking-and-clacking engine and finding something to fix.
It would be a relief, really, if the diagnosis turns out to be something as simple as an attitude problem.