Clemson Football is at a crossroads. It seems clear to most people that the team needs a makeover, and hopefully, Dabo Swinney understands that as well.
Listen to this clip of Swinney following the loss to USF in the Meineke Car Care Bowl to send the Tigers to 6-7 in 2010.
Notice how even then after the season was over, and he would eventually dismiss his offensive coordinator, he still wasn’t willing to throw anyone under the bus?
That’s not going to change this season. What I wonder about is which staff members are likely to change. If you review fan opinions online, there is some agreement about names that are likely on the hot seat.
One name usually not included in that speculation is offensive coordinator Garrett Riley, and I do find this curious, but also not completely unexpected.
There is no reason he shouldn’t be on the hot seat. That doesn’t mean I think he should be replaced, but it is mind boggling that he isn’t taking more heat for the lack of coordination in this offense. He is the coordinator, after all.
He’s only been the coordinator for one year? So was Brandon Streeter.
Remember who was the coordinator when Swinney made the above comments in 2010? Billy Napier, but he wasn’t the coordinator for long after that.
Let’s compare Riley’s offense this season to the offense Streeter produced a year ago.
Average points per game:
- Streeter in 2022: 33.1, 24th in the FBS
- Riley in 2023: 23.4, 82nd in the FBS
Average total yards per game:
- Streeter in 2022: 412.9, 41st in the FBS
- Riley in 2023: 379.1, 66th in the FBS
Third Down Conversions per game:
- Streeter in 2022: 7.4, 3rd in the FBS
- Riley in 2023: 6.1, tied for 28th in the FBS
These statistics are from teamrankings.com, and are only for games against FBS competition.
If you dig hard enough, you might find examples where 2023’s offense is better than 2022’s, but you won’t find many.
Let’s be fair and note the other differences between 2022 and 2023:
- Quarterback: DJ Uiagalelei vs Cade Klubnik
- Left Tackle: Jordan McFadden departed
- Tight end: Davis Allen departed
- Antonio Williams and Walker Parks have been injured for much of the season
The balance of the offensive coaching staff remained consistent.
Why isn’t Garrett Riley taking more heat? I have a couple of thoughts.
Riley was the Broyles Award winner as the best assistant coach in football in 2022 when he was the offensive coordinator at TCU. That is a nice bullet point on the resume, and justly gives him credibility.
Some big names won the Broyles Award. Brent Venables won it in 2016. Steve Sarkisian, Lincoln Riley, Kirby Smart and Gus Malzahn also won the award.
Some other names aren’t that impressive. Just one season before Riley’s award, Josh Gattis won it for his work at Michigan in 2021. He took the payday to move to Miami. A year later he was fired. He is now with Maryland.
In 2019 Joe Brady won the award. He wasn’t even a play caller, but he got the bulk of the credit for LSU’s offensive explosion. He took the promotion to be the offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers. A year and a half later he was fired. Today he is the quarterbacks coach for the Bills.
Tony Elliott won it in 2017. Remember the things some Clemson fans said about him on his way to Virginia?
Mike Locksley. Tom Herman. Bob Diaco. Pat Narduzzi. All winners. Not all of them have been terrible, but the lesson learned here is that the next big thing doesn’t always turn into a big thing. Sometimes they turn out to be meh.
I think there is a more precise reason why many Clemson fans aren’t putting Riley in the crosshairs: it would mean they would have to admit they were wrong.
Riley was the ‘outside the family’ superhero. According to a lot of fans, the problem with Swinney’s hires and promotions after the 2021 season was that he only promoted Clemson alums and his buddies.
Riley was the exception. He was the guy who had no affiliation with Clemson, and many fans thought he was exactly what the offense needed. Those other guys (except Nick Eason) hadn’t cut their teeth at other P5 programs. I said it myself several times this past offseason: Riley and his offense had “proof of concept”.
Now that we can see the offense has moved in the wrong direction, I’m willing to admit my beliefs about Riley’s magic touch were exaggerated due to excitement.
Many of those fans who thought he was going to change Clemson’s fortunes are directing the finger elsewhere. Cade Klubnik is an easy target, even though many of those same fans swore he was an upgrade from DJ Uiagalelei.
Today, you are likely to hear them say that Uiagalelei is still not very good, it’s just that Klubnik is worse. You don’t often hear that Streeter is still not very good, but Riley is worse, but that’s what the numbers tell us.
Those fans will point the finger at the other members of the offensive staff and say they are the problem and have been the problem for years, but what they can’t explain is how all those bad coaches had more success under Streeter than under Riley. The lone exception is Tyler Grisham. CJ Spiller, Thomas Austin, Kyle Richardson – each of their groups performed better with Streeter.
For the “Riley wasn’t allowed to bring in his own staff” crowd, remember that Chad Morris wasn’t allowed to bring in his people either. There were two changes to the offensive staff that season.
- Brad Scott retired from active coaching, and was replaced by Robbie Caldwell
- The special teams coach left, special teams duties were transferred to Danny Pearman, which opened a spot that was filled by Tony Elliott (one of those Clemson alums).
That staff didn’t stop Morris from elevating the Clemson offense and helping the team win the ACC Championship in his first season.
Then there is the last one that everyone blames: Swinney. Even though multiple Clemson insiders (that people usually trust) have confirmed that Riley is the play-caller and both Swinney and Riley have both confirmed that Riley is calling the plays, fans still want to believe that Swinney is the real play-caller.
When fans see Swinney talk into his headset while holding a laminated play card to cover his face, they like to assume that he is calling the play, and he might be doing that every once in a while. All head coaches do that every once in a while.
Other times, he is probably briefing his staff on contingencies of how they will handle a certain situation based on the outcome of the next play. He is possibly letting Riley know they will go for it on 4th down if they don’t get it on 3rd down, or that they will try to draw the defense offsides and then call a timeout, or something like that.
Those are all real possibilities, but that doesn’t fit with the fan narrative, so no one really thinks that is what is happening. Remember the lesson of Michigan sign stealing: someone is always watching. Swinney doesn’t need to be calling plays to think its a good idea to hold something over his face when he is communicating strategy to his staff.
For many fans, admitting Garrett Riley hasn’t helped Clemson Football would be admitting they were wrong
Think about this if you still doubt me: were you upset that Clemson was running shotgun plays from the opponent’s one yard line? Tell me which is more likely:
- Riley wanted to line up with Klubnik under center and hand off the ball and pound it in, even though he doesn’t run any other play from under center, and it was Swinney who insisted that they run it from the shotgun.
- Riley was the one who chose to run shotgun plays from the 1 yard line and it was finally Swinney who stepped in before the NC State game and said “No, you’ve had your chance, next time we’re doing it this way.”
Spoiler alert: the correct answer is option 2, and if you don’t believe that, you are one of the fans that doesn’t want to admit you were mistaken.
Blame Klubnik, blame the other coaches, blame Swinney – anything but admit that Riley hasn’t been the savior they thought he would be, because then they would have to admit that they were wrong.
Will Riley be in Swinney’s crosshairs? I don’t know. I’m not an insider, so I don’t know what the vibe has been between the two this year. There is a logic that says Swinney should keep him for at least one more season.
The first offseason for a new offensive coordinator who is completely new is mostly loaded with installing the new system. Streeter may have tweaked things in 2022 but he didn’t have to teach a completely new playbook. Riley and his staff didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on fundamentals, details and fine-tuning. A second offseason should be a little different in that regard.
If the relationship between Swinney and Riley is sound, then I could easily see Swinney retaining him for another season.
This is all assuming one big thing: that Riley wants to stay at Clemson. There is no guarantee that he wants to be the coordinator next year. Riley might not get the head coaching offer that so many thought would come, but he might conclude the Clemson experiment didn’t work and decide to move on himself.
We fans can speculate about this until we are exhausted, but only Swinney knows what he is thinking, and that final opinion might not be clear for another month or so.
What is clear is that Riley’s offense has taken a step back from Streeter’s offense, but not many people are putting as much of the responsibility for that on Riley as I am. I am not rooting against Riley, but I can’t find a single thing that he has accomplished that is a notable positive for Clemson.