One of the biggest debates today is whether the Golden Age of Clemson Football is over, or simply taking a small pause.
There are multiple perspectives why Clemson has taken a small step back from their peak in 2018. Some believe the advent of the transfer portal and NIL have changed the landscape of college football, and Clemson’s reluctance to embrace both as much as other programs has caused the Tigers to take a step back on the national stage.
Others point to the hiring practices of Dabo Swinney over the past half-dozen years. With the exceptions of Garrett Riley and Nick Eason, Swinney has promoted from within to fill openings on his staff. There is a concern that a lack of experience among the coaching staff has led to a drop in the program’s success in developing the talent they recruit from high school.
Yet others believe the problem comes long before the development process, and that misses in recruiting have been a bigger contributing factor.
All fair opinions in some way, shape, or form. I don’t think Clemson has been negligent in any of these areas, but will acknowledge that there are areas in each of the three subjects – Portal/NIL, coaching hires, and recruiting evaluations – where I wouldn’t mind Coach Swinney making some adjustments.
I do, however, think there is one encompassing issue that has created challenges for Clemson in multiple ways that most people don’t think about much anymore: COVID.
I completely understand why people don’t think about it and prefer not to think about it, but my opinion is that Clemson’s program was negatively impacted by COVID-19 in ways that still linger to this day.
The one that most people have discussed is that Clemson’s recruiting was negatively impacted. The Tigers were unable to bring Class of 2021 prospects onto the campus during the summer and fall of 2020. They were unable to host prospects from the Class of 2022 during the spring of 2021.
Many people acknowledge the ability of the Clemson staff to sell prospects in person and how the campus itself can be a powerful draw for recruits. That was particularly impactful for the Class of 2022. Many of the top prospects in that class were already headed elsewhere before the ban on visits was lifted. The Tigers never had a chance to sell them on campus.
What hasn’t been spoken of much is how the inability to host players on campus to see them up close has impacted the team’s evaluation efforts.
Some Class of 2021 players were evaluated as rising juniors before the ban on visits was put into place, but the Tigers couldn’t evaluate nearly as efficiently with rising seniors as they would have preferred.
For the Class of 2022, the Tigers had even less opportunity to evaluate. From the spring when they were rising juniors until the mid-summer when they were rising seniors, they couldn’t visit Clemson, and the staff couldn’t visit them.
Then there was the extra year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA for anyone who played during the 2020-21 athletic calendar. Essentially, that season didn’t count towards eligibility, allowing players to play a fifth season if they so chose. If a player redshirted prior to 2020, they could spend six years in a program. A handful of players have been in football for seven or eight seasons because of injuries and other one-off situations.
This has made the impact of not exploiting the portal impactful for Clemson. There are a lot of players who decided to use their extra seasons at a new program or been more willing to try to start over somewhere new knowing they would have two seasons after they got their undergraduate degrees instead of just a single season. The extra player movement has brought more parity into college football.
It has also impacted the normal cycles for programs that classify themselves as developmental. The cycle that is classically 3-5 years has now extended an extra season. NFL talent still leaves after three, but sometimes players who would normally move on after four years are staying five. Some who redshirt and would normally exhaust eligibility in five years are staying six.
This in turn is motivating younger players who thought they would get their opportunity to start after 2-3 years to realize they might be better off going elsewhere because the incumbents who should have moved on are still there.
COVID’s negative impact on Clemson Football won’t be completely flushed out of the system for a few more years
The Class of 2020 was the last class that is allowed to exercise an ‘extra’ season. Most players from that class are either seniors or redshirt juniors this season. We could still have ‘super seniors’ in college football for another two seasons.
The two classes most impacted by the ban on visits – 2021 and 2022 – could theoretically be in the program until at least 2026.
Here’s part of the conundrum: I would be lying to you if I said that the Classes of 2021 and 2022 have lived up to expectations in the big picture. I don’t think that a portion of those classes were as strong as they likely would have been had visits not been banned for nearly sixteen months between spring 2020 and summer 2021.
Yet I also have to acknowledge that holdovers from the Classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020 haven’t always allowed the players from the Classes of 2021 and 2022 to develop normally because they aren’t moving into positions where they get playing time nearly as quickly as they would if it wasn’t for ‘extra COVID seasons’.
It’s kind of a chicken and/or the egg situation. The pandemic might be over, but COVID is still impacting college football, and that will continue for three more years before the effects are naturally flushed from the system.
I am not saying that I think all the problems that Clemson Football faces today are due to the COVID pandemic, but I do think Clemson was more negatively impacted than most programs, and my opinion is that when all the impacts are flushed from the system, we will see an improvement in the program.
The players entering with the Class of 2023 and beyond will not have been negatively affected by the visit bans, and the turnover cycle will be less disrupted as they progress towards being upperclassmen.
I am definitely ready for the COVID era to be over and in the past. I don’t think the Golden Age under Swinney is over, but it might take a little more time before college football reaches complete post-COVID equilibrium. When it does, I think we see a resurgence. I like what I see from the Class of 2023 that wasn’t impacted by COVID rules, and I think things get better from here.