In the second in our summer series taking an in-depth look at the Clemson football program and the season ahead, our panel breaks down the challenges in the Tigers’ path (both this season and beyond) and what’s the standard for a successful season after winning 11 games two years in a row…
We touched on it a bit in the last roundtable, but while success has come everywhere else seemingly, the Tigers have struggled mightily with Florida State and South Carolina. We've heard the coach speak (5 out of 10, etc.), but in your mind what has to happen for Clemson to turn these two games in Clemson's favor, not just in 2014, but also for the future?
O&W editor Kerry Capps: Back in 2000, after the second Bowden Bowl ended in a 54-7 debacle at Doak Campbell Stadium, Bobby Bowden walked to midfield, shook his son's hand, and offered a word of fatherly advice: "Go recruit, son."
Tommy Bowden followed his dad's advice, made inroads toward recruiting at a higher level, and ended up winning four of his final four games against Florida State.
At that point, in reaction to its own downward spiral, someone might have offered FSU the same advice. And certainly, after a century of Clemson domination, South Carolina faced the same challenge: recruit better, or continue to be owned by the Tigers.
So recruiting is part of the picture - a big part. At FSU, Jimbo Fisher has put the Seminoles back at the top of the recruiting map as the most consistent challenger to Alabama for the nation's top talent.
At South Carolina, Steve Spurrier has worked a historical miracle, recruiting outstanding football players, class after class, and in the process banishing the Chicken Curse and making Gamecock football nationally relevant.
These are not your parents' or grandparents' Gamecocks. Wins against FSU and South Carolina aren't going to come easily, simply because those are currently two of the best football programs in the country.
To win games against equal, or in some cases better, talent, any team has to play well. And that's precisely what Clemson has not done the past five years against South Carolina and the past two against Florida State.
The USC turnaround is, of course, the most troubling to Clemson fans, who long for the good old days. Disgruntled fans always look for someone to blame, and it's easy enough to hang this one on Dabo Swinney, whose teams have been outplayed - decisively - by Spurrier's crew for the past five seasons.
Are the Gamecocks in the Tigers' heads? Quite possibly. And if that's the tipping point, you can be assured Spurrier will do everything in his power to keep jabbing and irritating, in addition to preparing a solid and talented team for its and-of-the-season big game.
As for Dabo's 'five-out-of-10' comment after last year's FSU game, he'd do best to just let his team do the talking. What he said may or may not be true, but either way, no one wants to hear it.
O&W beat writer Brandon Rink: The Florida State and South Carolina games are different animals, but both oh-so-crucial to bragging rights and taking most any substantial accomplishments by season’s end.
The countdown clock is in the 140s now for the regular season finale in Death Valley, where the Tigers look to keep the Gamecocks’ series streak to one hand. Against South Carolina, it’s not a matter of talent – the ratings show Clemson outperforming their downstate counterpart comfortably even in the Steve Spurrier golden age. It’s a matter of coaching and execution – and South Carolina has had the nod far and away the last five years.
After blowouts in 2009-11, the last two have been within a possession in the fourth quarter. The telling stat? Clemson is minus-four in turnover margin just in the final quarter of those games – outscored 21-0. In fact, the Tigers haven’t scored in a fourth quarter against South Carolina since 2009 (and it’s been since 2007 for a score with the game in question, Mark Buchholz’s gamewinner). It’s hard to spin that other than being a bit mental, in addition to South Carolina playing better.
The keys in short to a turnaround: 1) Control the tempo – Chad Morris hasn’t really had his grasp on this series yet. 2) Be disruptive – The Clemson ‘D’ has to be everything it’s cracked up to be. The sacks and tackles for loss typical of Brent Venables’ scheme have to be there, but they need to force turnovers as well. Over the last two seasons, Clemson has averaged over two turnovers forced per game, but hold just one in two games against the Gamecocks. 3) Finish – The last two years the game has been within their grasp, but as evidenced above, they haven’t handled the pressure well. There’s a very good chance it’s a one-score game after 45 minutes of football again – how do the Tigers handle it this time?
The answers aren’t as easy for Florida State.
They are a juggernaut squeezing every bit of production out of the talent they’ve amassed under Jimbo Fisher. Even with a freshman QB and tons of staff turnover, Florida State came in under the radar and dominated 2014 – and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
The upside is Clemson is starting to recruit on par with the ‘Noles, making the series more interesting starting next year in all likelihood. This season’s trip to Tallahassee is about throwing a few more punches a la 2012’s shootout (49-37 FSU win) and making a statement it’s still a two-team division. Much like this year’s South Carolina game is critical, the ’15 showdown between these two is critical on and off the field for the program’s standing under Dabo Swinney.
O&W contributor Marty Coleman: There seem to be two different forces at work with these two teams. In my mind, top to bottom, Florida State has been more talented and deeper than Clemson. Certainly, the Seminoles have recruited at a higher level more consistently than the Tigers over the last several years. Clemson is making a move this year, but it remains to be seen if that can be sustained year in and year out over a period of time.
South Carolina is a good team, but not one at the level of Florida State or one that should have beaten Clemson five straight years. I believe the Gamecocks and Spurrier are in the Tigers heads to some degree. Swinney is 6-6 against the SEC, having beaten Auburn (twice), LSU and Georgia along the way, so the Tigers can compete against the SEC, but have not played well in the rivalry and you have to give South Carolina credit for that.
Much as I believe recruiting runs in cycles, I also believe rivalries can run in cycles. It wasn't that long ago that we were talking about a supposed curse that befell the Gamecocks against the Tigers.
There's no doubt the Tigers need to play better in this series, but I believe the scheduling favored South Carolina for several years and that advantage has been removed with the Tigers now scheduling a non-conference team prior to the South Carolina game beginning last year and this year, too.
In a few words my answers are: Recruit consistently on a level with Florida State and play better and get mentally tougher against South Carolina. Both are easier said than done, but if this program wants to take the next step this has to happen.
Sticking with that theme, Dabo Swinney was locked up pretty good with his latest contract - and his coordinators are amongst the highest-paid in the country. What effect, if any, would another loss in the South Carolina game have on the program's future?
Rink: I know you don’t want to think about it, but recent history as our guide, it’s certainly a possibility (more highly possible if you’re not sporting orange and white with regularity). Perception is reality sometimes and another loss in the series would be borderline disastrous even after all of the goodwill Swinney has built of late.
A loss on any scale will have zero effect on Swinney thanks to that new deal, but the discontent around the program could trigger a coordinator or combination of assistants to skip town, leading to a 2010-like turnover. In the last roundtable, we talked the recruiting impact, which is certainly a factor. Clemson has a lot to sell right now, but it’s also not that far away from everything turning on its head.
Regardless, Clemson will be one of the ACC’s best programs, but Swinney’s built the program to be a national factor – wins in this series play a big factor in that.
Coleman: The rivalry is more for fans and alumni than players and administrators. Rare is the coach that will get fired for going 32-8 with a conference title in three years, but losing to his (non-conference) rival. Do the players care? Absolutely. Do the administrators care? Absolutely. The question is, is it a deal breaker? There are so many positive things happening in and around the Clemson program right now that I don't believe it'll make a difference short term. For fans, it's huge. For administrators dealing with the totality of the program, dollars and cents, the universities image, etc, it's one piece of a very large puzzle.
On the other hand, a 6-6 season and a 6th straight loss to South Carolina could be a different animal and will increase the pressure. The question is what exactly would you do? Fire a coach who has led the team to 3 straight 10 win seasons? Get rid of one of the coordinators? Those don't seem like logical, well thought out decisions to me, but rather short sighted, reactionary responses. I'd love to hear what the readers believe the answer is.
Capps: Obviously, no one will like it if the Tigers lose to the Gamecocks again this fall. But I think there's a huge gulf between fan angst and administrative decision-making on this issue. If Swinney keeps winning 10 or 11 games a season, but loses to South Carolina when the Gamecocks are ranked in the top 10, the powers that be will likely grit their teeth and bear it - until it starts affecting the financial bottom line, anyway.
Losing the playmakers Clemson has, what record (combination of wins) determines a successful season for the '14 Tigers?
Rink: At least 10 regular season wins. Win over South Carolina. Competing for a playoff bowl slot.
You walk into the Clemson indoor facility and in big lettering around midfield it reads: ‘BEST IS THE STANDARD.’
The facilities are in place – or being modified – or are soon to be built that there’s no going back to single-digit win years without repercussions. It’s an idea that’s not only the case on the outside, but this is what the coaches are pushing and instilling in their players. It’s a mentality – and it makes this season fascinating with the amount of turnover on offense.
Coleman: The Tigers are going to be favored in at least 9 games and I believe that is the minimum number of regular season wins for the season to be considered successful. A win in one of the other 3 would be a bonus, but a loss to anyone besides Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina means almost certain disappointment.
Assuming a victory over Florida State means a division title that is the most important game sitting here in July, but if the Tigers lose to Florida State (which is highly probable) in my mind the South Carolina game becomes the most important to me. Why? A loss to Florida State would mean FSU needed to lose 2 conference games for Clemson to have a chance to reach the ACC Championship Game. That's not going to happen, so the next important step (besides beating the teams they should along the way) is to end the South Carolina dominance of the last 5 years.
Less than 9 wins means the Tigers have lost to someone they should have beaten. Couple that with a 3rd straight loss to Florida State and a 6th straight loss to South Carolina and I don't see how you can consider that a successful season.
Capps: This one is tricky to answer, again because it's a spot where perception and reality intersect and don't necessarily agree. Over the past two seasons, the Tigers have raised their own expectations, and that of their fans, by delivering consecutive 11-win seasons - let us remember, for the first time in history. What if the Tigers win nine games this season? Some people will see that as a failure, a step back, a portent of decline.
I don't think it's possible to stand on this side of the season and throw out a viable defining number.
In terms of personnel cycles, the Tigers will be in rebuilding, or reloading, mode offensively, while they'll be at the top of an experience cycle on defense. How that plays out over the course of a dozen games is anybody's guess at this point.
I think it would be unrealistic to expect the Tigers to step on the field against Georgia and perform offensively at an elite level. It's going to take time to figure out who can do what, and who can deliver consistently, especially in replacing primary playmakers like Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. I do think they have a chance to be just as effective - and even improved in some areas - over the long haul, by mid-season.
Another factor at play is the schedule, which deals the Tigers as brutal a start as anyone in college football. Clemson could play two good road games and still come home from Tallahassee 1-2. At that point, they would face a nose-to-the-grindstone task of sustaining improvement and finding ways to win against a string of capable teams, including North Carolina, NC State, Louisville and Boston College.
If they can successfully battle through that stretch of games, they'll go into a lighter second-half schedule as a grown-up, battle-tested football team.
And if they take some unexpected lumps along the way, they'll still go into the second half as a grown-up, battle-tested football team.