We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Ryan Kantor, a staff editor over at Shakin The Southland, SBN’s blog for the Clemson Tigers. We took some time to talk about how annoying it is that Clemson is still good, why this year’s Tigers are struggling, and of course cocaine.
TN: Nick Saban might be the exception to what now appears to be the new status quo in college football – that very successful head coaches rarely last in one place longer than ten years. The reasons for this are varied and many – difficulty in sustaining the culture and the preventing the coach’s message from getting stale, recruiting and on-field success, and on and on. Dabo Swinney is in his 11th year coaching Clemson and something like the 14th-longest tenured head coach in the FBS. By all accounts Clemson is a juggernaut with no signs of slowing down. Do you see any cracks or signs in the program that could indicate potential issues in the near-future or down the road, and could Dabo please just take the Bama job already?
STS: I think it is extremely unlikely that Dabo Swinney backfills Nick Saban when the latter retires. I also think it is unlikely that there is a culture rot because Coach Swinney’s philosophy is culture first and that culture is all about building up good husbands and fathers, not just great NFL players.
That being said, if Clemson were to one day get a new school president that clashed with his outspoken leadership style which has at times brought negative media attention (unwarranted in my view) or if new rules around paying players undercut Clemson’s ability to compete against huge schools like Georgia, Penn State, etc. then that could certainly change things.
TN: Clemson had won 14 straight games by 14 or more points, the first team to do that since FSU in 2012-2013, before squeaking by North Carolina by just a single point last Saturday. What gives? Was Clemson looking ahead to the ’Noles, just having a case of the September Struggles, or are there real concerns about this Tigers team? If so, what are they?
STS: I don’t think Clemson was looking ahead to Florida State, but maybe to their bye week. They historically struggle in the week before a bye which of course is where the trip to Chapel Hill fell on the schedule.
It’s not unheard of for Clemson to have some underwhelming performances against lesser competition in the regular season – though they usually sneak out a win. They nearly lost to Texas A&M and Syracuse last year before stream rolling through the rest of the year with 20+ point wins. In 2016, they nearly lost to Troy and lost to Pitt before hitting their stride and winning their first National Championship since 1981. Fortunately, Clemson generally improves throughout the season and I’d expect the same this year.
There are some legitimate concerns though. Right now, the offensive line is shaky. They’re not creating as many running lanes for Etienne who’s had four straight sub-100-yard games. They miss slot receiver Hunter Renfrow more than expected. The coaches aren’t attacking the middle, instead relying on throws to the outside and runs up the middle. They miss that variety in their passing game. Finally, as much as it pains me to admit it, Trevor Lawrence has been a little off which we’ll dig into in the next question. I’m less concerned about Lawrence’s struggles persisting, than the other two problems, but it has been a surprising reality.
TN: I think it would be a stretch to say he’s actually struggling, but Trevor Lawrence has five interceptions already this season after throwing just four all of last season. Or put another way, Lawrence has seen an increase in his interception percentage from an ungodly 1 percent last season to a very Jameis-Winston-in-2014-like 3.6 percent so far in this one. What do you think are the reasons behind such a spike in his turnover rate, and do you think it will continue as the season goes on?
STS: Several factors are playing into it. As mentioned, finding a replacement for Hunter Renfrow to attack the middle of the field and getting the running game back into gear are probably the two biggest. He also seems to be forcing throws. His arm is so strong he gets away with it sometimes, but I’ve noticed him locking onto receivers and unnecessarily attempting very difficult throws. His arm is so good he can trust it too much. There’s also far more tape on him now than his freshman year too. Finally, the coaching staff was emptying the playbook in those playoff games and everything has been pretty vanilla so far.
TN: David Hale recently pointed out on Twitter that while Clemson’s offense appears to be struggling a bit so far in 2019, this kind of start is not really off that much from recent seasons. Still, the short passing game has taken a noticeable dip in efficiency this season. Why might that be the case, what’s the outlook for the Tigers’ offense in 2019, and how can Lawrence and this unit be stopped?
STS: They have such great big play receivers in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, I think there is a temptation to just lob it to them. The short passing game is critical though. Being able to attack defenses anywhere on the field is part of what made Clemson’s offense so great during the second half last year. I think they’ll get back to that coming out of the bye week, and if they do, their upside is unlimited.
If I’m FSU, I’m bringing linebacker blitzes and forcing Clemson to attack the vacated middle of the field. That’s what UNC did and Clemson struggled in the run game and in pass protection and seldom attacked the middle of the field. You would assume Clemson adjusts over the bye week, but you’ve got to make them prove it.
TN: Gone are NFL first round draft picks Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and Clelin Ferrell. Is Clemson at the point where they can just reload after losing talent like that, or has the drop-off been steep? Who has impressed you the most in stepping in to fill that vacuum? What about the rest of the Tigers’ defensive unit?
STS: Clemson has adjusted their scheme, playing a lot of 3-3-5 instead of their more traditional 4-3, due to those losses on the D-line. With DC Brent Venables managing the defense and all the talent they bring in each year, they generally can mitigate drop off now, though we always seem to incorrectly predict it. There isn’t much depth at DT though. That’s a big reason for the change to the 3-3-5. The reason it’s gone so smoothly (aside from the back five being very good) is the emergence of true freshman Tyler Davis. Few expected him to start right away, but “Baby Dex” is making a huge impact. The job he’s done clogging running lanes has helped stave off major regression in rush defense. They’re allowing 2.8 YPC despite the poor performance against UNC. Last year they finished at 2.6 YPC. Not too bad considering what they lost.
The defensive player who has stood out most though is LB Isaiah Simmons. His combination of speed, strength, and size is unreal. He was a three-star out of Kansas who chose Clemson when Arkansas didn’t offer. He is arguably the best player on the team right now. I don’t know that I’ve seen a LB make such a huge impact, but he seems to be involved in every play. Check this one out. It may be my favorite:
TN: Clemson’s mascot has cocaine-pineapple eyes. That’s it, that’s the question. Oh, sorry, I do have a question – do you accept the North Carolina AD’s apology about the video board jokes?
STS: People make fun of the mascot’s eyes, but they should be making fun of his name – “The Tiger.” There’s also a Tiger cub named… “The Tiger Cub.”
As for the UNC in-game video where they called Clemson fans in Chapel Hill fair weather fans, it was obviously unclassy. It was also kind of funny. They probably shouldn’t be running videos like that in college sports, but they apologized and we won so yes, I accept the apology. I’m still waiting for their apology about cheating and stealing an education from their student athletes though.
TN: Alright, here comes the pain. I deserve it. Go ahead, give us a score prediction for this game. How do you see it playing out? Also, give us your prediction on how you see Clemson’s season playing out; is this a championship-quality team?
STS: It’s extremely difficult to repeat as National Champs. In the past 13 years, there have only been seven different programs to win a National Championship, but only Alabama has gone back-to-back (2011/2012). Clemson and Alabama have traded off using the prior year’s postseason loss as motivation. Without that this year, maybe a little adversity is just what this team needed. All they’ve been hearing is how they’re great and the rest of the ACC is atrocious. I think the close call against UNC was the best thing that could have happened to them and in turn worst for FSU.
The Seminoles also have the disadvantage of having a strong brand that gets opponents hyped up and focused to play them despite being in a down period.
I think Clemson bounces back and wins by three touchdowns. If Clemson struggles again and it is a four quarter game, then I’ll start to grow more concerned. As of now, I still think they have the best odds in the country to make the playoff and the National Championship game. I’m not sure I’d pick Clemson to beat Alabama in New Orleans where the Crimson Tide would have the revenge factor and the crowd on their side. Ohio State and Oklahoma are also scary, but Clemson will improve immensely between now and then. I think this is another ACC Championship and College Football Playoff season (which is amazing and more than we can ask for). Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot.
A big thank you to Ryan for taking the time to chat with us! Click here to read our answers to Ryan’s questions. Don’t forget to check out Shakin The Southland for your Tigers coverage needs.