Is Clemson still among college football's elite? It all depends on Tigers' sputtering offense

Success has the potential to discourage evolution. In college football, repeated success under one model only serves to reinforce the approach; positive results can often strip away the impulse toward self-evaluation instead of promoting outside ideas or concepts.

This can make the high-performing programs of the Bowl Subdivision resemble large ocean liners: difficult to move, hard to steer and slow to turn.

There are examples in recent history of elite teams and coaches overturning an established offensive identity in favor of wholesale change. Most notably, Alabama's shift toward a spread-based scheme under coach Nick Saban has embodied college football's ongoing offensive revolution and maintained the Crimson Tide's place as the dominant program of the FBS.

One of Alabama's biggest foils has been slower to embrace an overhaul.

For the second season in a row, Clemson's underachieving offense has threatened to derail what was until recently almost preordained: that the Tigers would dominate the ACC, take home the conference championship and reach the College Football Playoff.

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) runs through the line as Georgia Tech's Ayinde Eley (10) and D'Quan Douse (99) close in during the second half Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Clemson, S.C.

Last year was the first time since 2014 that Clemson did not win the ACC, make the semifinals and finish in the top four of the final poll. It remains to be seen if that was a one-year blip or part of a trend.

Despite playing three nondescript opponents — Georgia Tech, Furman and Louisiana Tech — this year's offense ranks a pedestrian 63rd nationally in yards per play, 85th in yards per pass attempt and tied for 72nd in plays gaining 30 or more yards. Clemson is averaging 5.3 yards per play since the start of last season after averaging a combined 7.2 yards per snap across the previous three years.

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Once at the vanguard of offensive ingenuity in the Power Five, the Tigers are now behind the curve compared to the top contenders for the national championship. 

Ahead of this week's road trip to No. 16 Wake Forest, assessing what is to blame, what can be done and where does Clemson go from here.

Why Clemson has stayed the course

The program is still winning: Clemson is riding a nine-game winning streak and ranks No. 5 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll leading into Saturday's consequential divisional matchup against No. 16 Wake Forest. Recruiting is still on par with most of the elite programs. As a brand, Clemson still has enormous cachet under coach Dabo Swinney and has earned a place among the elite in the FBS.

That's created one obvious impediment toward a back-to-square-one evaluation of the offensive scheme.

It's not as if Clemson has reverted to the Clemson of old — the Tigers are still the favorite in the ACC even as the Demon Deacons, North Carolina State and others have worked to close the gap.

But other FBS teams in the Tigers' stratosphere are evolving on offense, including defending national champion Georgia, which in rolling through three easy wins has unveiled a scheme far more predicated on quarterback play than in the recent past.

And unlike these peers, Clemson has not invested in new offensive ideas. The Bulldogs hired former Oklahoma State and NFL coordinator Todd Monken in 2020. Alabama has paid top dollar for a parade of big-name coordinators: Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Bill O'Brien. In 2017, Ohio State tapped Ryan Day to overhaul the offense. After going 8-5 and missing the first playoff, Oklahoma hired Lincoln Riley from East Carolina to run its offense in 2015 and would make the field four times in the next five seasons.

Swinney changed the direction of his tenure in 2011 by hiring Chad Morris, sparking a massive uptick in production that paced the program's two recent national championships. Has the offense itself grown stale?

It has looked that way in the first halves against the two FBS opponents so far this season. The Tigers had just 14 and 13 points, respectively, against Georgia Tech and Louisiana Tech before eventually pulling away after intermission.

“I think we’ve settled in,” said Swinney. “We needed to kind of settle in a little bit and learn about our team, grow up a little bit. I’m thankful that we’ve been able to have some adversity and have some challenges and have to kind of battle a little bit. We’re a lot more battle-tested than we were starting out, that’s for sure." 

Impact of continued coaching turnover

Since losing Morris to SMU in 2015, Swinney has made in-staff promotions in an effort to retain offensive continuity.

Beginning with that 2015 season, the Tigers split coordinator duties between former assistants Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott. Driven by this offense, Clemson beat Alabama for the national championship in 2016 and 2018 and reached the championship game in 2015 and 2019.

Scott left for South Florida after the 2019 season. Elliott took over at Virginia after last season. Swinney promoted quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter to replace Elliott, choosing for the second time to tap an internal candidate rather than evaluate outside options with new ideas for reimagining the Tigers’ system that bottomed out last year by ranking 82nd in scoring offense at 26.3 points per game.

With Streeter calling plays, this year’s offense looked better in the opening stretch than last season. While skewed somewhat by a loss to Georgia in the opener that saw the Tigers manage just a field goal, last year’s team took six games to score 123 points; this year’s group has notched 124 points through three games.

“They’re much improved on offense,” said Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson.

Michigan State as cautionary tale

If not to the same heights as Swinney-coached Clemson, Michigan State won two Big Ten championships, reached two New Year’s Six bowls and made one playoff appearance under former coach Mark Dantonio from 2013-15.

But the Spartans’ offense grew tired, leading Dantonio to rearrange assignments among staff members without any changes in scheme or approach. From 2017-19, Dantonio’s final three seasons, MSU finished 107th, 125th and 104th nationally in yards per play.

No on-field factor contributed to the end of the Dantonio era more than this inflexibility and lack of inventiveness on offense. Given the small amount of space separating the handful of programs annually in playoff contention, Clemson’s inconsistency on offense may mean the difference between making the Orange Bowl and winning a national championship as usual blowouts become nail-biters that can swing in the fourth quarter.

Underwhelming quarterback play

This wasn't supposed to happen at Clemson. DJ Uiagalelei was pegged as college football’s next superstar quarterback after two nearly flawless starts as a true freshman in 2020, including a borderline historic line in Clemson’s close loss to Notre Dame during the regular season — 29 of 41 for 439 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.

His issues since taking over before last season has raised the question: What is Clemson’s offense without transcendent quarterback play?

Tajh Boyd set program records for career passing yards and touchdowns from 2011-13. Deshaun Watson led Clemson to the 2016 national championship and etched his name among the best passers in ACC history. Trevor Lawrence stepped onto campus in 2018 as one of the most ballyhooed recruits in the modern era and lived up to expectations, winning one championship and playing for another.

Kelly Bryant led the Tigers to the semifinals in his one full year as a starter in 2017, but they were overwhelmed by the Alabama defense in the Sugar Bowl. Bryant was replaced by Lawrence early in the following season.

Unfairly or not, Uiagalelei has struggled against this backdrop.

But he’s been better in his second full season under center. Uiagalelei had back-to-back games with multiple touchdown passes for the first time since his true freshman year and thrown just one interception in 88 attempts; only five Power Five quarterbacks have made as many attempts with one or zero turnovers. 

“I love how DJ’s competing,” Swinney said. “He’s making some really good decisions in the run game and he’s gaining confidence, man. He’s starting to get his swagger back, and it’s really good to see that."

Reversing offensive line and receiver issues

A bigger issue is the Tigers’ surrounding talent on the offensive line, in the backfield and especially at wide receiver.

Clemson appears improved up front after two down seasons. Four returning starters, led by all-conference left tackle Jordan McFadden, have paced a running game that ranks 42nd in yards per carry (5.1) and 12th in touchdowns (10).

The start comes after the running game averaged just 4.5 and 4.6 yards per carry, respectively, in 2020 and 2021, a rate almost two yards fewer than the previous two seasons.  

It’s still hard to gauge just how this group will handle the best teams in the ACC. Louisiana Tech gave up 323 yards and five touchdowns on the ground to Missouri in the season opener. Clemson’s first opponent, Georgia Tech, just allowed 316 rushing yards and six scores to Mississippi.

Two years after Travis Etienne's departure, the Tigers have also found a bell-cow running back in sophomore Will Shipley, who has scored twice in each of the first three games.

What’s again missing from the offense is a dynamic receiver capable of drawing attention, stretching the field and winning the one-on-one battles that catapult the Tigers’ passing game.

This year’s NFL draft was the first since 2015 to not include at least one Clemson receiver. The program had 11 receivers drafted from 2013-21, with four going inside the first 35 picks.

The lone veteran in this year’s rotation, senior Joseph Ngata, brought 47 career receptions into the season.

“We don’t have these old, established receivers at this point,” Swinney said. “Hopefully next year we will have that. We’re really talented, we’re just really young and inexperienced.”

What could force Clemson's hand

Beginning this weekend, Clemson will begin a month-long run that will determine whether this season continues into the playoff.

While Clemson has owned the recent series against Wake Forest, winning the last four meetings by an average of 38.3 points, the Demon Deacons could force the Tigers into the uncomfortable position of needing to keep pace with one of the top passing games in the Power Five.

Clemson then plays North Carolina State on Oct. 1, a struggling Boston College team on Oct. 8, erstwhile rival Florida State on Oct. 15 and surprising Syracuse a week later. Beyond deciding the winner of the ACC Atlantic, these four games will prove whether the Tigers' offense is good enough to spark a return to the national semifinals.

Swinney is committed to his program's offensive scheme and approach. However, a misstep in one or more of these key divisional games could force his hand in more ways than one.

The Tigers have so far been able to avoid any intense calls for Uiagalelei to be replaced by true freshman Cade Klubnik, a five-star recruit with 15 pass attempts through three games. A flop against the Demon Deacons or Wolfpack might lead to a quarterback change, which in itself isn't uncommon for the program: Swinney has famously swapped out a veteran for a true freshman twice in his tenure, promoting Watson in 2014 and Lawrence in 2018.

More broadly, another season-long swoon would almost demand an offseason reckoning. Having already given back ground to other elite FBS programs, could the Tigers then afford to head into 2023 without taking a hard look at the future of the offense?

"I feel like we’re where we need to be right now,” Streeter said. “I feel like our confidence was the biggest thing that we needed to get going these first three weeks and we’ve been able to do that and accomplish that."