CLEMSON — Last month, Dabo Swinney said college football teams don’t get a preseason – you see the positives and negatives unfold in real time, and everything matters.
Which is true. Mostly.
It is difficult to say that going 3-0 against what looks like a bad Auburn team, Ball State and FCS foe Furman will define Clemson’s 2012 season.
What happens Saturday night in Tallahassee will go a long way towards shaping perception. Clemson moved into the Associated Press top 10 just in time to face off with No.4 Florida State in an 8 p.m. tilt nationally televised by ABC.
It is Clemson’s first top-10 matchup since, well, No.4 Florida State whipped the No.10 Tigers 54-7 in 2000, and the ACC’s first top-10 matchup since Miami and Virginia Tech faced off in 2005.
Swinney’s bunch enters with confidence, but also lingering questions brought up by Saturday’s 41-7 rout of Furman. Here are five things we learned this week:
1. Sammy Watkins still has it – and then some: Watkins’ return from a two-game suspension was the most anticipated event this week, and the reigning national freshman of the year did not disappoint. His first touch – a 12-yard completion on the second offensive play – brought the crowd of 81,500 to life, but the real fun came on the second possession. Tajh Boyd delivered a perfect fake to tailback Rod McDowell and handed right to Watkins, who blazed 58 yards down the sideline for his first career rushing touchdown.
A year ago, Watkins had 32 carries for 231 rushing yards, so rushing the ball is nothing new to him. However, the big play further signifies how he can change a game in a moment’s notice, something that’ll be badly needed in Doak Campbell Stadium.
2. The defense has issues: Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said his unit’s effort was “sporadic” and that the first half “made him want to throw up.” The day was summed up by normally-steady senior defensive back Xavier Brewer giving up a completion that erased Furman’s second-and-33 hole, which earned him a fiery sideline rebuke from Swinney.
“It’s second and 33, and he’s a fifth-year senior,” Swinney said. “You can guess what we were talking about.” The rush defense, which had allowed 216 yards per in the first two games (98th nationally), was improved, allowing 110 yards on 32 carries. But big plays remained an issue; Clemson gave up “chunk” plays of 33, 37 and 39 yards; fellow DBs Bashaud Breeland and Rashard Hall were burned for a 37-yard score that drew more sideline ire.
With Florida State’s offense rolling, the defense will need significant improvement to compete this week.
3. The offensive line remains unsettled: Clemson finished two yards from opening the season with three consecutive games of 500 yards total offense, but questions remain about the offensive line. The line paved the way for 184 yards rushing, but 58 of those came on Watkins’ dash; tailback Andre Ellington gained 59 yards on 15 carries. The only constants were junior left tackle Brandon Thomas and senior center Dalton Freeman. Starting left guard David Beasley missed the game with a sprained knee ligament, but is expected back against FSU. Right guard Tyler Shatley left the game with a sprained ankle, and right tackle Gifford Timothy (who missed the Ball State game with knee soreness) was benched briefly for inconsistent play. The optimist says the line will look better with all its starters healthy and playing together. The pessimist says going against Florida State’s deep, talented defensive line is no place to find out.
4. The pass rush is lacking: Clemson had no sacks Saturday and has only three in three games.
Dabo Swinney took umbrage to a question about the lack of rush, noting the line’s youth and saying that Da’Quan Bowers and Andre Branch overcame “average” sophomore seasons and were excellent contributors as upperclassmen. What he didn’t say? In the preseason, he used senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman in evoking the same comparisons. Goodman has nine tackles and no sacks in three games.
“Ask the question again two years from now, when all these boys are full-grown men,” Swinney said.
Nobody expected DeShawn Williams, Josh Watson, Grady Jarrett and Corey Crawford to be immediate world-beaters. But they do need more from Goodman as the only upperclassman on the line.
5. Brandon Ford can be a weapon: Some soured on senior tight end Brandon Ford after he had multiple drops against Auburn. Ford bounced back with a solid effort against Ball State, and made perhaps Saturday’s most impressive catch, a 30-yard over-the-shoulder grab down the left sideline. He has tremendous speed and athletic ability, and can be a difference-maker in this offense. Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins (who had another seven catches for 95 yards Saturday) will get the accolades, but Ford and fellow senior Jaron Brown (who made several tough grabs, piling up 76 yards on four catches) will make their presence known this fall, too.