Clemson Football: The Smoldering Ruin – Too much to unpack

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during midweek interviews at the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex in Clemson, SC Tuesday, November 29, 2022.2022 Clemson Football Dabo Swinney Press Conference
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during midweek interviews at the Allen N. Reeves Football Complex in Clemson, SC Tuesday, November 29, 2022.2022 Clemson Football Dabo Swinney Press Conference /

This week’s Smoldering Ruin tries to make sense of what transpired with Clemson football in Death Valley on Saturday. It’s not easy to explain, and it shouldn’t be. It’s almost too much to unpack.

I try to be a rational writer when talking about Clemson.

I know that, ultimately, I am an early 30-something with a history of playing football that came to an end closer to 2 decades ago rather than one. I know I wasn’t the greatest athlete. I totaled a couple of tackles, a fumble recovery, and a sweet 1 handed catch against Greer. My point is this: I am just a fan who attended Clemson and loves college football.

What I am not is someone who can speak with the fervor of some people who act as if they have full knowledge of everything that happens within the doors of the Reeves Complex. So, I’ll start by saying I actually understand Dabo’s frustration with the constant barrage he has been holding off that came to a head on his call-in show on Monday.

He defended the staff, acknowledged that things aren’t going how he wants to go, and supported his quarterback, who has been the subject of more criticism than any other quarterback in Clemson history.

So, before I dive in, I want to acknowledge that. I understand that there are some Clemson fans who need to chill out and remember that the sky isn’t falling. Clemson still has goals to meet and can still finish the year with a trophy.

I get all of that.

But a wound has been reopened.

Perhaps it’s just me being a part of one of only 2 Senior Classes in Clemson history that finished undergrad without a win against SC. We were 0-4 during my 4 years there. I caught it from everyone- from my brothers and cousins who attended Clemson since I was the only one it happened to, from my other friends and family, and before the win streak, even my now-wife. When they win, you will know it.

So, when I walked through downtown back to my car on Saturday, with downtown now being literally taken over by Gamecocks filling up the streets to celebrate, I felt that wound reopen a little bit.

Maybe that sounds a little dramatic, but you need a little context. As I said, I went 0-4 in college, and, as any of my friends and family would attest to, I was a very outspoken critic of Dabo. He couldn’t beat Florida State or South Carolina, and, to me, that was enough to draw my ire. I was one of the dummies that would like tweets around that time with hashtags like “Dabo to Texas”.

I was a much more bitter person in 2013 as a whole with things happening in my life and Dabo was someone I could take it out on.

I’ve had to avoid social media since Saturday. I’m an adult with a wife, a child, and one more on the way so football shouldn’t be something that gets me feeling as fired up as it would have in my college days. I took a few days to breathe and settle down before I wrote this to be as objective as possible because rivalries games always bring out the emotion.

There are 3 consistent issues that I see a little differently than most people who are harping on why the Tigers inexcusably lost on Saturday. Yes, the offensive performance was not good. The quarterback play was once again a black hole. Turnovers were again a killer. And again, the secondary was exposed.

But to me, there are 3 things that make me think Clemson could have put this game away in spite of the issues it ran in to.  And these 3 things have been (to me at least) nagging issues that came to full roost on Saturday.

The biggest issue that has lingered this season (and for years prior even when Clemson was successful) is the lack of killer instincts since Chad Morris left. I’m not saying that this is an “every game” occurrence but as time has gone on, there’s been a tendency to not adjust or creatively find ways to stick with what’s working. I often times refer to this as “Dabo getting cute;” don’t worry I’ll hit on this more in a minute.

Think of the other games that could have been knockouts had Clemson just had more of a killer instinct at different points in games. You could make a case for a few games in 2014 and 2015 I can think of off the top of my head. There are a few in 2016 and 2017 I could tell you about but over time, more and more popped up from 2019-2022.

A killer instinct doesn’t mean running 5 wide and throwing deep balls on the first play of the possession. Quite the contrary. It’s having the gumption to stick with a run game when you are ripping off 7 yards a carry and maybe even going for it at odd times. It was mind-boggling how many times Clemson dropped back to throw the ball Saturday. This is not a knock on DJ, but at this point, if you’re going to keep trotting him out there then it should be assumed that Clemson was going to run the ball 90% of the time. The Tigers had 237 yards rushing with 3 backs who were absolutely toting the rock that day. Had Clemson actually committed itself to the run, then a couple of those turnovers may not have mattered. THAT is killer instinct.

Secondly, who is making the personnel decisions?

Look, I get the rationale that you want to play a lot of guys. When you have Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, Hunter Renfrow, Cornell Powell and the like in your Wide Receivers room, then yes. Absolutely do that.

But the truth is, you do not have that right now.

The focus should be on developing Antonio Williams, Adam Randall, Cole Turner, and (when healthy) Beaux Collins as much as possible at this point. If you have upper classmen who are consistently missing routes, running in to other receivers, not able to get separation, and (most importantly) dropping catchable balls, then at some point you need to focus on those who can. And maybe I’m off base saying this, but it needs to be said: If there is someone named “Swinney” on the field on offense when the game is still on the line, that is a problem. I guess if you could call my last point “killer instinct in game planning and playing calling,” this would be called “killer instincts in getting your actual best players on the field”.

Lastly, I want to point out that there is a piece of potential legislation that will allow for the possibility of unlimited coaches on the sidelines for teams. Why do I say this? It’s not for the reason you think.

If Dabo does actually read this, then please think about this: Hire a special teams coordinator.

It’s that simple. And look, Clemson has done a decent job this year. Outside of the costly fumble, Antonio Williams provides a spark on punt returns that Clemson hasn’t had in a while. But it’s not a threat. Clemson has struggled in punting, and as we saw from the other side on Saturday, a punter can be a weapon. I credit some of the hesitation on punt returns to Antonio Williams being a freshman, but I think Clemson hasn’t been as fun in that department since CJ Spiller graduated. Remember when Clemson won in Columbia with 2 blocked punts?  But if anything, hire a special teams coach to have someone to say, “Don’t run this trick play after a safety.”

And look, I get it.  I just harped on killer instinct. But that moment in the game reeked of “Dabo getting cute” and it cost Clemson dearly. If Shipley was able to hang on and get up field who knows what could have happened or if it would have led to the points that would have put the game away.

Its hard for Clemson football fans to not have a feeling of dread after the loss to South Carolina

It’s hard to not have a feeling of dread after that game. People have been waiting to claim that “the dynasty is over for Clemson.” And right now, it’s pretty hard not to have a negative opinion of things going on.

I’m not going to sit here and say, “hey guys, everything will be fine next year”.  Maybe this will lead to necessary change. I don’t know if it will, or if it will happen immediately, but I think Saturday was finally the bat signal to Dabo (or the red alert alarm) that he needs to adjust some of the things he’s used to doing.

And it’s easier to do that when you are consistently at 10 wins and a national brand than when you aren’t.

Anyway, onward.

Go Tigers.

Next. Tee Higgins turning into a star for Bengals. dark