CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney is an Alabama man through and through, and like many college football coaches, he has adopted the teachings of a relative newcomer to the Crimson Tide flock – Nick Saban. One of Swinney’s first significant hires was defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. And while Steele’s Clemson tenure didn’t unfold as expected, the Saban acolyte left behind words like “the process” and “playing to a standard” which still echo through Swinney’s words.
Those maxims ring true this weekend. No.10 Clemson is 7-1 entering November and playing a trio of games most reasonable observers expect it to win – at Duke, then home against Maryland and N.C. State – before the regular season ends with a clash against archrival South Carolina.
For the Tigers to fulfill their own expectations, November success is a must. Here are five things I’ll be watching as they begin the final month of the regular season at Duke:
1. Can Tajh Boyd spread the ball around: Two weeks ago, Boyd had one of the worst games of his college career, throwing for 160 yards in a win over Virginia Tech. Last week, Boyd had one of his best games, throwing for a Clemson-record 428 yards in a win over Wake Forest. What’s the difference? He completed passes to only three receivers against Tech. He threw to eight different receivers against the Demon Deacons, throwing five touchdowns to five different receivers. When Boyd makes all his receivers happy, it’s a good thing.
2. Can Clemson’s secondary survive the spread: A thinned-out secondary held its own at Wake Forest, but Duke’s spread offense will provide a stiffer challenge. Senior quarterback Sean Renfree left last week’s 48-7 loss at Florida State with a head injury but is expected to play. He has a host of targets, including ACC career receptions leader Connor Vernon. Clemson will likely have sophomore cornerback Bashaud Breeland back; he missed the Wake game with an abdominal strain. He, Garry Peters, Xavier Brewer and Cortez Davis will be tested by the Blue Devils, who will throw early and often.
3. What will Wallace Wade be like: Duke is bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994. Five years ago, Clemson fans were the dominant force at Wallace Wade Stadium, but that doesn’t figure to be the case this weekend. Two weeks ago, the stadium was sold out for a last-second win over rival North Carolina, and a similar atmosphere should prevail Saturday. Clemson talks about bringing its own energy on the road, but the Tigers should prepare for an engaged environment Saturday.
4. Can the run game get going: Offensive coordinator Chad Morris was critical of the offensive line after the Tigers gained only 101 yards on the ground at Wake Forest, saying he needed more physicality and push up front. Morris wants his offense to be based on a physical run game, and for success down the stretch, that’ll have to be the case.
5. Can defensive improvement continue: Clemson’s defense has taken a significant step forward over the last two weeks, allowing an average of 15 points to Virginia Tech and Wake Forest after yielding 37 points to the first three ACC foes. Pressure up front has been improved (seven sacks in two games) and tackling has been significantly better as well. The Tigers have moved up the learning curve for Brent Venables’ system recently, and that needs to continue against a dangerous Duke offense.