As Clemson has emerged as one of the pre-eminent programs in college football the past decade, Dabo Swinney’s folksy optimism became the soundtrack of Lil Ol' Clemson’s rise to the top of the sport.
So it was jarring to listen to Swinney after Clemson’s 27-21 double-overtime loss to unranked North Carolina State on Saturday. Swinney summed up the Tigers’ sputtering offense with an assessment that could double as a diagnosis for the last time we remember Clemson flailing like this: “It’s been a long time, man. It’s been a long, long time.”
And it left a bigger question that looms over one of the sport’s dominant brands and the fleeting relevancy of the ACC: When will Clemson look like Clemson again?
It may be a while. As it has been a long time since Swinney sounded like this:
“We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“We got what we got. We can’t go sign free agents right now."
"We have to get locked in, flush this and learn from it."
Swinney pushed the narrative forward, saying it was on the coaches to teach better to pull Clemson from the offensive quagmire, defensive self-destruction and a pedestrian offensive line that would struggle to dominate the Sun Belt. Clemson finished with just 214 total yards and struggling quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei threw for just 111.
One of Dabo’s other big-picture observations about the deluge of mistakes — "That’s not who we are" – resonates as Clemson falls to 2-2 and are a whisker from 1-3. The Tigers haven’t just lost to No. 2 Georgia and a solid road opponent in the Wolfpack. They just looked impotent offensively and wholly undisciplined with a migraine-inducing 13 penalties on Saturday.
One-third of the way through the schedule, it’s becoming fair to say that this is who Clemson is in 2021. Even their win at Georgia Tech unfolded about as smoothly — especially on offense — as a three-mile tricycle ride over a gravel driveway. There’s little sign that the sum of the talent has coalesced to be greater than the individual parts, and it’s reasonable to predict that it may not until 2022 or beyond.
The christening of Uiagalelei as a sure-fire star must be pulled back, as he’s flashed the struggles of a lot of young quarterbacks — inconsistency, inaccuracy (56.2% completion) and lapses in big-moment execution. Swinney complimented Uiagalelei’s work getting Clemson back in the game and giving them a chance to win and made clear there’s no quarterback controversy.
It’s too early to declare this era of Clemson dominance over. And it’d be naïve to cancel them from the ACC race, as only Boston College and Wake Forest are undefeated on the season and there’s no dominant team that’s come close to emerging from a muddle of mediocrity.
Counting out Clemson, completely, would be naïve. The Tigers have, after all, won six straight ACC titles, reached six straight College Football Playoffs and won the national title as recently as their curb-stomping of Alabama during the 2018 season. They are also the most talented team in the league. But they need to quickly start playing like it.
With a flurry of injuries — starting tailback Will Shipley, star defensive lineman Bryan Bresee and stalwart linebacker James Skalski on Saturday alone — there’s a dimming case for Clemson to suddenly look synchronized and operating at a high level.
And that’s why it’s fair to characterize Clemson's and the ACC’s playoff chances as trending toward flatlining. With Clemson regressing to the pack in the league, it’s hard to see another program emerging. UNC made a case as the season's biggest flop by losing at Georgia Tech, NC State looked garish losing at Mississippi State and both of the undefeated academics (Wake Forest and Boston College) lack the horsepower to blitz through the entire season.
Clemson being back in the pack doesn’t mean anyone necessarily has emerged ahead of them. The difference is that it'll be tested every week, including when Boston College heads to Clemson on Saturday, a game the Tigers nearly lost last season (a pandemic scheduling quirk puts the game at Clemson in back-to-back seasons).
Obituary writers for Clemson in the macro should be wary. But it’s fair to say the Tigers are just like everyone else in 2021, and that’s going to be a jarring adjustment for college football fans — just like listening to Swinney on Saturday sounded almost foreign. And it seems like there will be some wholesale changes — staff, talent added by portal and recruiting upgrades — before we see Clemson looking like Clemson again.
What’s one reason not to eliminate teams like Clemson from the College Football Playoff conversation?
This 2021 season is amid a rollicking free fall to the spiral of 2007, the generational standard for giddy and persistent chaos in a college football season. (Les Miles’ LSU team won the title despite two regular season overtime losses and famously campaigned that it was undefeated in the regular season.)
So far this season, Ohio State has looked vulnerable on defense, Oklahoma’s offense has regressed and Clemson has lost its edge. Those slippages have opened the door for new faces. Could that be Arkansas, the best story of the season after thumping Texas A&M on Saturday? Could it be Iowa, which quietly has a 10-game win streak? Could it be BYU, Cincinnati or Coastal Carolina, which have better CFP chances than many of the typical contenders?
If we are careening toward 2007, the only safe prediction is that no declaration is safe. The teams ranked No. 2 that season, which gave them a shot at the Bowl Championship Series, included California, South Florida, Boston College, Kansas and West Virginia. Of all the mind-benders that season, Missouri and Kansas played a game with both ranked in the top five that featured significant national title implications.
So with Arkansas coming up from the ashes, Wake Forest looking like the best team so far in the ACC and both Michigan and Michigan State looking competent again, there’s the best chance in the College Football Playoff Era for true unpredictability to arrive.
Boston College knocks off Mizzou, wants Clemson
After the Boston College students stormed the field on Saturday afternoon, posed for Instagram at midfield and raucously celebrated a 41-34 overtime victory over Missouri, the chant echoed through the concourse of Alumni Stadium: “We want Clemson! (clap, clap….clap, clap, clap.) We want Clemson! (clap, clap….clap, clap, clap).
Well, the Eagles fans will get what they wish for next week. They head to Death Valley undefeated against suddenly vulnerable Clemson. BC is 4-0 for the first time since Matt Ryan’s senior year (2007), poised to be ranked for the first time since 2018 and are just one of two undefeated teams remaining in the ACC, joining Wake Forest (4-0).
“If you look at last year, we were in these games and we lost,” BC coach Jeff Hafley told Yahoo Sports after the game. “And everybody gave us credit for being in them. We were all kind of tired of that. We had a chance to beat North Carolina, and we didn’t. We had a chance to beat Clemson, and we didn’t. Today was one of those games where I felt this team took a big step, and they believe in each other.”
BC won after a wild flurry of events to close the game, as tailback Travis Levy blew through Missouri’s Jaylon Carlies for a go-ahead touchdown with 25 seconds left. Missouri countered to tie the game on a 56-yard field goal by beefy 236-pound kicker Harrison Mevis, fueling his mythology as the "Thicker Kicker."
But BC didn’t flinch at the end-of-game momentum shift. The Eagles opened overtime with backup quarterback Dennis Grosel hitting All-ACC receiver Zay Flowers for a 10-yard score. Veteran defensive back Brandon Sebastian picked off Connor Bazelak to seal the game, sending thousands of students onto the field in celebration.
Hafley called the storming “one of the coolest moments I’ve had as a coach,” as his first season as BC’s head coach in 2020 didn’t feature any fans in the stands. BC had only hosted Colgate so far this year, which was a little different than beating an SEC team in overtime and needing athletic director Pat Kraft and the Massachusetts State Police to fend off onrushing students.
“It was very emotional,” Hafley said. “Like really emotional. I had a hard time speaking just in there [in the news conference]. I had a hard time speaking after the game. A lot of stuff came out of me.”
Amid the back-and-forth game, BC found an identity in the wake of an injury to starting quarterback Phil Jurkovec, the best player on BC’s roster.
“We have a lot of guys out. We have a lot of people who don’t believe in us,” Hafley said. “We had a lot of people who kind of, I thought, gave up on us. It wasn’t just the win, it was the way our kids fight.”
What will BC look like against Clemson? The Eagles averaged 5.6 yards per carry against Missouri’s pedestrian run defense, highlighted by Patrick Garwo’s 175 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Dennis Grosel, a former walk-on, threw an interception on his first snap but settled down to go 18-of-29 for 175 yards and throw for two scores.
If BC is going to challenge Clemson, it'll need the veteran offensive line, highlighted by left tackle Tyler Vrabel and left guard Zion Johnson, to get a push against Clemson’s defensive front. BC’s own defensive front is middling, but Clemson’s offensive line is the glaring weakness of that program.
“We gotta run it,” Hafley said of the team’s identity. “Last year, I think we tried to do a lot of different things in the run game, and we didn’t know what we were. Today it was [simple]. We ran two plays, over and over and over again. We formationed it. But we ran two plays over and over. It was awesome. It was what we wanted to see.”
As for seeing Clemson next week, Hafley appreciated the enthusiasm and chuckled at the chants. “One win at a time,” he laughed a few hours before the Clemson loss. “One win at a time.”
One of the most remarkable turnarounds in the sport this season has come from Syracuse’s defense. The Orange slowed down Liberty’s Malik Willis on Friday night to upset the Flames, 24-21, on a last-second field goal by Andre Szmyt.
Last season, Syracuse’s defense finished No. 112 nationally in total defense. The 1-10 Orange hemorrhaged 463 yards per game, weighed down by an offense that quickly gave the ball back to the opposition.
With Syracuse of to a 3-1 start, Syracuse entered the weekend with the country’s No. 4 defense. Hugh Freeze’s Liberty team managed 369 total yards, more than 60 below their average. While Syracuse will drop a few spots once the statistics settle in on Sunday, it’s still a testament to how Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense has helped inject energy into the program in White’s second season on Dino Babers’ staff.
The Orange were both stout and opportunistic, as they managed to make both a goal-line stand and force a key turnover in the fourth quarter to preserve and eventually seize the victory. Defensive lineman Kingsley Jonathan stopped Willis on a quarterback run at the goal-line and his line partner Cody Roscoe, a McNeese State transfer, made a stop that allowed linebacker Marlowe Wax to force a Willis fumble.
The narrative on Syracuse football is shifting, as the Orange will likely be favored at Florida State next weekend. That could lead to an important home game with Wake Forest the following weekend, as the Demon Deacons have a home game against Louisville before heading there.
While Syracuse’s offense is still mediocre, the Orange got a lift from Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader, who rushed for two touchdowns in his first career start at quarterback. Syracuse passed for just 77 yards, but got 169 yards rushing from star second-year tailback Sean Tucker.
While the offense searched for balance, the defense has clearly benefitted from a full year, including a spring ball, in the new scheme. And that’s leaves the Orange halfway to a bowl game and much further along this season than anyone expected.
Rank them, you wimps
It’s always more difficult for teams outside of power leagues to earn a national ranking.
The first team that’s earned a national ranking is San Diego State. Brady Hoke’s Aztecs have beaten Utah, topped Arizona on a neutral field and handled both New Mexico State and Towson on Saturday.
The Aztecs have a pair of back-to-back tricky road games at San Jose State and Air Force, which will lead into a huge home contest with Fresno State on Oct. 30.
It’s not intuitive for voters to have multiple Mountain West teams not named Boise State in the rankings. But SDSU has earned the honor.
Rank them, you wimps II
The team that won the biggest statement game amid Group of Five programs on Saturday was UTSA.
Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners overcame a 21-0 deficit to win at Memphis, 31-28. UTSA prevailed on a 42-yard game-winner by placekicker Hunter Duplessis as time expired on Saturday, fueling his reputation as one of the country’s most reliable and clutch kickers. “Our kids never go away and they always battle,” Traylor said by phone late Saturday.
UTSA opened the season with a victory at Illinois. They dispatched Lamar and Middle Tennessee before beating an excellent Memphis team in the Liberty Bowl.
Traylor has shown a knack for winning close games. Four of UTSA’s seven wins last year came by a combined nine points. This is the most impressive win of his tenure, as UTSA came up short in one-score losses to UAB, BYU and Louisiana last year.
Traylor credited Duplessis, punter Lucas Dean (50.8 average on five punts) and workhorse back Sincere McCormick (42 carries for 184 yards). He was thrilled with the win because of how much respect he has or the Memphis program, which entered the game with a 17-game home win streak.
“When I got here, Memphis was one of the programs that [athletic director] Lisa Campos and I studied,” Traylor said. “Some of the Group of Five schools are built to last. Memphis is built to last.”
If UTSA does get ranked, it would mark the first time in school history.
Hail to MAC-tion
One of the most endearing streaks in college football continued on Saturday afternoon. Bowling Green pulled off the season’s biggest upset — via point spread, which was 31 — at Minnesota on Saturday. The Falcons beat the Gophers, 14-10, and carried on a tradition of the MAC harassing the Big Ten.
It marked the 15th consecutive year that MAC team beat a Big Ten team, a streak that stretches back to Ohio beating Illinois back in 2006. (That 2006 victory was Frank Solich waterskiing past the immortal Ron Zook, 20-17, if you were curious.)
The win marks a momentum boomerang for the Gophers, who went to Colorado and shut out on the Buffaloes in Boulder last week. They’d appeared to figure out a way to win without star tailback Mohamed Ibrahim, the Big Ten’s top tailback, who got injured in the opener against Ohio State and is out for the season.
Of all the potential MAC upsets this season, this one loomed as one of the most unlikely. Bowling Green lost to both of its FBS opponents — Tennessee and South Alabama — and were tied at the half with Murray State before pulling away last week.
The win comes after a winless 2020 for Bowling Green and not having beaten an FBS team since topping Akron in November of 2019. And it’s the biggest of Scot Loeffler’s tenure, as he has a hallmark win that emerged as the buzz of Saturday afternoon in the sport.