CLEMSON — There’s no doubting it anymore, no masking it as a fluke or aberration.
A once-promising Clemson football season has gone off the rails.
Following an 8-0 start, the Tigers are 1-3 since. The latest disaster? Saturday’s 34-13 whipping at South Carolina, which ensured the Gamecocks’ first three-game winning streak over Clemson since 1968-70.
Clemson limps into Saturday’s ACC title game against Virginia Tech 9-3, having fallen to No.21 in the Associated Press poll; only a furious comeback against Wake Forest separated them from a four-game losing streak and a likely trip to a low-rung bowl.
As is, the Tigers have a major crisis of confidence as they prepare for Charlotte and a surging Hokie outfit.
What did we learn from South Carolina 34, Clemson 13?
1. The offense has lost its confidence: Four weeks ago, the Tigers averaged 40.8 points per game, and Clemson fans were worried about when (not if) Chad Morris would bolt for a head coaching position. Surely, those fears have been quelled a bit. Since then, Clemson has averaged 18.5 points per game. The 153 yards of total offense Saturday were the lowest since 1998. The sprained MCL suffered by senior left tackle Phillip Price has hurt; he missed the N.C. State loss and played only one ineffective series Saturday. Junior tight end Dwayne Allen said he “can’t put his finger on” what’s wrong, but here’s an idea: the vertical passing game has struggled mightily.
Freshman standout Sammy Watkins returned from a sprained shoulder but was ineffective, catching four passes for 39 yards. Early on, he dropped a pass that could have (should have) been a 65-yard touchdown. USC’s defense is very good (the Gamecocks entered No.5 nationally in total defense), and it gets no easier this week against a nasty Hokie defense that held Clemson to its previous season low (323 yards) in the Tigers’ 23-3 win Oct. 3.
2. Tajh Boyd needs to settle down: Boyd had the worst game of his career (11-of-29, 83 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), and he was sacked five times. But he seemed to have happy feet at times, scrambling or leaving the pocket without serious provocation. Several drops (by Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins) didn’t help, but Boyd would be well-served to simply calm down at times and concentrate on moving the chains, rather than going for the home run on every play. Earlier this season, Morris built Boyd’s confidence by calling short passes and wide receiver screens to Watkins. Perhaps more of that should be in order this week, because Boyd’s confidence appears severely damaged and in need of repair.
3. The offensive line has issues which can’t be solved in a week: Price’s injury has clearly affected the line, but Price can’t play guard, a position which has been a problem all season, including Saturday night. With guard Brandon Thomas moving outside to fill Price’s spot and senior Mason Cloy sidelined by an arm injury, it was up to seniors David Smith and Antoine McClain to hold down the fort inside. Neither were particularly effective, and Clemson has developed no depth behind them. That’s the most frightening part of all; Cloy, Smith, McClain, Price and right tackle Landon Walker are all seniors. In other words, it could get worse before it gets better.
4. Kevin Steele’s defense still can’t defend a mobile quarterback: Steele knew this week that Connor Shaw would run the zone read – he called it South Carolina’s No.1 play, without question. So why did the Tigers’ defense look so flat-footed against Shaw, who ran for a career-high 107 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. He froze and eluded Clemson tacklers multiple times, creating several big pass gains merely from the threat of running. He is the third opposing quarterback to surpass 100 yards on the ground against Clemson this season, joining Maryland’s C.J. Brown (162 yards) and Georgia Tech’s Tevin Washington (176 yards). And with a healthy Logan Thomas on deck this week (think Cam Newton Lite), this is another problem that could get worse before it gets better.
5. With a loss this week, Clemson’s bowl destination could take a major fall: A month ago, Clemson looked like a lock for its first ACC title since 1991 and an Orange Bowl bid; fans were openly carping about being forced to face a bad Big East champion in Miami rather than a more worthy team.
Here’s guessing some of those fans would love that option now. With a loss Saturday night, the Tigers could fall well down the ACC’s bowl ladder. The Chick-fil-A is believed to favor Auburn; Clemson played the Tigers earlier this season and will face them to open next season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. If the Champs Sports Bowl, next in the selection order, passes on a team that has lost four of its last five, Clemson could fall to the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve in El Paso, the lowest a division champ can tumble. For a team that had an outside shot at the BCS national title game four weeks ago, it’s a humbling thought.