National pundits are coming around on Clemson, especially those who can separate fact from fiction with stats and stereotypes.
Post-2012 Orange Bowl (you know, the West Virginia one), SB Nation’s Bill Connelly wasn’t quite sure where the program was going, citing “the wackiness that generally accompanies Clemson football.”
22 wins later, the Tigers have done more than enough to gain his respect.
“They've scored 1,055 points and allowed just 611,” Connelly writes in his in-depth preview. “They have built one of the best defensive lines in the country. They have held onto ace offensive coordinator Chad Morris. They have all but defeated the notion of ‘Clemsoning.’
“Stereotypes exist until they don't. Clemson has destroyed pretty much everything you had come to believe about Clemson in two years.”
One measure he uses has the Tigers as a preseason top-five team, alongside Florida State, Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State. Clemson’s personnel losses – mostly on the offensive side – has him not quite trusting the numbers to the fullest extent, but he believes there’s still reason to believe in Clemson.
“If you view projections as the best starting point for conversation, this projection hints at just how much Clemson returns and just how well Dabo Swinney and his staff have been recruiting,” Connelly said. “The Tigers are going to have an absolutely ferocious front six/seven on defense, and while they're replacing quite a few difference makers on offense, they're making replacements from a deep pool of former four- or five-star recruits.”
One of the “advanced” stats Clemson performed well in on both sides of the ball last season was adjusted line yards, which is based on the amount of yards gained rushing at the different levels (backfield to 10 yards).
The Tiger ‘D’ was one of only three teams to finish in the top-10 in adjusted sack rate (third) and adjusted line yards (ninth) last season. Clemson was fifth nationally in the per-down success rate and 11th in a red zone ‘D’ measure.
Connelly notes Brent Venables’ risk-taking defense gave up its share of big plays, but the payoff was there.
“When the Tigers allowed a big play, it was a huge one -- they ranked 44th in allowing 175 10+ yard gains but ranked 81st in allowing 28 30+ yard gains,” Connelly said, “but you can allow occasional big gains when you're forcing countless three-and-outs and 30+ turnovers. Clemson was fun and aggressive on defense in 2013, and while there may be a few more glitches in the secondary this year, the overall identity probably won't change much.”
Obviously, there’s a new look to the offense sans Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, Rod McDowell and more, which will bring a needed evolution to the Chad Morris offense. Talking Watkins’ loss and Boyd as a combo of Cam Newton and Brett Favre, Connelly says Morris’ version of the spread had its twists the last three seasons. He sees a more traditional look in 2014.
“Now, because of Morris' own abilities, and because of the blue-chip prospects around him, ‘less unique’ doesn't equal ‘bad.’” Connelly said. “There is enough depth at both running back and receiver to spread the ball around in a both effective and unpredictable fashion. It just won't be the same, is all.”
With the gauntlet early slate (trips to Georgia and Florida State in the first four weeks), he’s as wary as anybody of a playoff projection, but after some recent strong finishes, Connelly says that's highly likely again this year.
“The offensive line and cornerback positions give me pause,” he said, “but only Georgia and Florida State can fully exploit the former issue, and less than half the schedule can exploit the latter. This might not actually be the fifth-best team in the country, but I'll be shocked if a three-year streak of 10+ wins isn't four at the end of 2014.”