We are very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of blogs to work with during game weeks. This fortune even extends to bye weeks before division rivalry showdowns! Ryan Kantor of Shakin The Southland agreed to do a Q&A with us this week as well as next. We focused on more general questions about our respective teams and seasons so far, with more detailed match-up breakdowns to come next week.
TN: The Tigers dispensed with their week two cupcake last week after suffering a tough week one loss in Athens. How are you feeling about the 2014 Tigers after these first couple of weeks? What are your expectations for the rest of the season?
STS: Honestly, my expectations remain the same as they were at the start of the season. I projected Clemson to win nine regular season games with two of the losses likely coming at Georgia and Florida State. The Georgia game was a reminder of how much we lost at receiver. I was a bit surprised by the lack of explosiveness from our offense and disappointed that nobody stepped up to fill the void left by Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant, and Roderick McDowell.
Week 2, albeit against FCS competition, did highlight at least one potentially explosive player. Freshman Artavis Scott, our backup slot receiver, absolutely torched SC State. Again, I know it's only SC State, but he set the school single-game record for the most receiving yards by a freshman with 164. There was one particular play where Stoudt threw an almost certain interception, and Scott had the awareness to stick his hand in to bat it down. His performance was the biggest positive for me. If we have no threat to beat teams deep, I believe defenses can adjust and make the short passes more difficult.
I was also encouraged by Charone Peake who looked healthy and ready to make plays at receiver and freshman QB Deshaun Watson who was excellent. Between them, I think there is some good talent on this offense and there could be enough explosiveness to win 9+ games.
TN: Clemson has featured a two-headed attack at quarterback this season with Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson. What does each bring to the table? How do you feel about the approach the coaching staff has taken in playing both this year? Do you hope that one ultimately garners the lion's share of playing time by season's end?
STS: I absolutely loathe when writers say "I trust the coaches" as a cop-out for giving an answer to a challenging question. That said, I don't feel Watson's limited game action has given us enough sample size to form a strong opinion so I do think we're forced to trust the coaches to a large extent here, at least thus far.
I will say that Watson is already showing a higher ceiling due to his speed and arm strength. In extremely limited action (less than half of just two games), he has been excellent and frankly the best QB on the team. He has experience (in high school) with the zone read, and you'll likely see more of that when he's in the game. He also has had more success (again, limited sample size) passing downfield while Stoudt has looked more comfortable with the shorter passes. Stoudt, for his part, brings seniority, poise, a calm demeanor, and the willingness to make the smart play instead of the flashy one.
I love the way the coaches have brought Watson along: giving him opportunities in big moments, while not throwing the true freshman to the wolves until he is ready. I believe the coaches should and will start Cole Stoudt against FSU, work in Deshaun Watson at the appropriate time, and go with the hot hand as the game progresses. I believe that strategy gives Clemson the best chance to win and Watson the best chance to develop into a great Clemson QB in the years to come.
TN: The Tiger defense seems to be the strength of the team this season, somewhat turning what I believe to be the national perception of Clemson's program as an offense-driven one under Dabo Swinney and Chad Morris on its head. Do you feel that Venables' unit has been and will continue to be the strength you believed that it would entering the season?
STS: Brent Venables can get overlooked on a team with the highest paid offensive coordinator in college football, but it needs to be mentioned how great he has been since coming to Clemson. Vic Koenning, the current defensive coordinator over the UNC dumpster fire defense (I assume that's what they call it), was the Clemson DC when Dabo was promoted to head coach. Because of his bend-but-don't-break style and Dabo's preference for a more aggressive strategy they parted ways. Dabo brought in Kevin Steele from Alabama (John Chavis was also looked at, but chose to take the LSU job). Given his roots with Alabama, this seemed to be a good hire, but the results didn't bare that out and he was replaced by Brent Venables after the 2011 season and 2012 Orange Bowl.
Though it's much more telling to look at yards per play when comparing to other programs (because Clemson plays more snaps per game) for simplicity and access to data I've compared Clemson's points allowed per game over the last three seasons below.
When Clemson won the ACC with Kevin Steele as the DC, they allowed 26.2 point per game, a big chunk of which came in the Orange Bowl. Since Venables has taken over, we've seen improvement in each of the last two years, and this year is expected to be his best defense yet. While there are some significant losses from the linebacking corps, the defensive line returns six seniors (Jarrett, Watson, Williams, Barnes, Crawford, Beasley), and the secondary is showing signs of slight improvement.
Although my spirits were lifted by some of the playmakers I mentioned in my response to question one, I agree that the defense may be ahead of the offense this year.
TN: Clemson's game with Florida State kicks off a six-game stretch for the Tigers in which they play UNC, Louisville, and at Boston College following the Seminoles. How pivotal is the game against the ‘Noles to this stretch and the balance of Clemson's season?
STS: I don't think many Clemson fans are expecting the program's first road win over a #1 ranked team when they travel to Tallahassee. Obviously, to reach our goal of winning the ACC we probably need to win, but I think it's somewhat silly to call this a do or die game. In our season preview we got nine SB Nation writers to share their win probabilities for each of Clemson's games. In aggregate, the percentage for this one was 19%, and that feels about right.
After Florida State Clemson will likely be favored in eight or even all nine of their remaining games (Louisville and South Carolina will be close). Clemson can have an satisfying season by beating FSU and going on to win the ACC - which seems fairly unlikely - and/or winning 9-10 regular season games while recapturing the Palmetto Bowl (SB Nation writers gave Clemson a 23% chance of an 8-0 streak between Clemson and South Carolina - here.) Given the loss to Georgia, Clemson will have to beat FSU or South Carolina to feel good about the season, but I think most are putting their eggs in the "win 9-10 games including the Palmetto Bowl" basket.
TN: What's your favorite Clemson/FSU memory?
STS: I remember the 2007 and 2011 Clemson wins especially fondly. In 2009, Clemson won at home en route to winning the division, but the Atlantic was very down, a win over FSU didn't mean what it normally does, and Clemson ended up losing to Georgia Tech in the title game. The blaring of "We Will Rock You" from the fans in that game was what I remember most. It was so special the AJC had a blurb about it the next week.
In 2007, it was a hard fought win on a hot Labor Day. As soon as the clock hit 0:00, students began emptying the hill to rush the field and celebrate. Before I could head down, a friend grabbed me and said "wait, they need to review this." Sure enough, they went to the replay booth and fans were sent back to the hill. It was a long wait from the replay booth, or at least it felt like it, but once it was confirmed that the game was over, we rushed the field - the second time in a two minute span for those that didn't wait. That was the only time I've ever rushed the field in a truly wild exuberance.
My favorite memory though has to be the Rennie Moore Jr. sack of Clint Trickett to seal the deal and essentially send Clemson to what would become our first ACC crown since FSU joined the conference ('91) in 2011.That was a very good Florida State team that would end up beating Notre Dame in the Champs Sports (now Russell Athletic) Bowl and that win meant a lot for the program.
Big thanks to Ryan for answering our questions this week! You can find him on Twitter @ryan_kantor. Head on over to the new-look Shakin The Southland for all things Clemson. Our answers to their questions are here.