Clemson football got back into the winner’s column with a 31-16 victory over Louisville at Death Valley Saturday night.
Was it a perfect performance? No. There were plenty of mistakes. There have been plenty of mistakes all season. It doesn’t change the reality that this team is 9-1 and has won the Atlantic Division title.
That is important to note and stands above all else: Clemson has taken a step forward this season over where they were in 2021. A step forward despite two new coordinators. Despite the continuing injury bug, albeit not as serious as last season. Despite continuing criticism because they aren’t the machine they were a few seasons ago.
It is fair to be critical of both coaches and players. Sometimes it is deserved. It was deserved after last week’s poor performance against Notre Dame. Clemson was simply beaten by Notre Dame in every way. Many questioned if Clemson could bounce back.
I questioned that myself. Considering how long it took Clemson to overcome the opening season defeat by the Georgia Bulldogs in 2021, I wasn’t sure this team possessed the mental fortitude to right the ship.
What I saw from Saturday’s game was a team that wasn’t perfect but was able to gather themselves and deliver a winning performance. I am fully aware Louisville is not a great team. There were plenty of times last season when Clemson faced teams that weren’t very good, but the Tigers still had trouble creating and executing a game plan.
Sometimes the Tigers still had enough talent to overcome their opponent and win. Sometimes they didn’t. Their two losses against ACC competition effectively took them out of contention for a division title by mid-season, even though there was a mathematical chance they could get into the championship game late.
This is another imperfect season, but this year they wrapped up a spot in the ACC Championship game by Week 10 and insured an outright division title in Week 11.
You can say the defense isn’t as good as last year or hasn’t lived up to expectations this year. You can say the schedule isn’t as difficult as last year. You can say the wide receivers and offensive line haven’t improved significantly. You can say the coaching staff isn’t as good.
You can say all those things if you like. I could debate you on some of those statements, but not all.
The 2022 edition of Clemson football is an improvement over the 2021 version
What you can’t say with any objectivity is that the 2022 Clemson Tigers aren’t an overall improvement over the 2021 team.
You might hate Coach Swinney’s off-season hires, but this staff led this team to a better season than last year’s staff.
You might hate that DJ Uiagalelei is still the quarterback for this team, but he has led this team to a better finish in the ACC than last year, despite the negativity from the lunatic fringe that has quite often crossed the line of integrity and decency.
You might hate that this team isn’t playoff caliber, and I can’t blame anyone for hoping they could ride that 8-0 start to a CFP Top 4 ranking. I was hoping for the same but knew the odds weren’t in the Tigers’ favor. I said so before the season began.
You might hate that you aren’t getting instant satisfaction. You might hate that us ‘sunshine pumpers’ don’t hate like you hate.
You can hate all those things, but the rest of us will recognize this staff and these players for what they are: a step forward after two steps back in 2021, and I have no reason to believe they can’t take another step forward in 2023.