Assessing Clemson: What Can We Take From the Tigers’ First Two Games?

Clemson Has Looked Good Through Two Games This Season, But Are Looks Deceiving? We Discuss.

The Clemson Tigers have looked pretty impressive through two games, but of course, we know there are concerns, too — some of which may not fully come to light until their big matchup with Florida State on September 22. Recognizing this, resident Clemson fan Joel Penning and I had a quick chat about some of the pressing issues thus far, addressing offensive tempo, Sammy Watkins‘s return, the run game and more. Check it out below, and enjoy the game this afternoon!

Clemson OC Chad Morris has promised to push the tempo even more. Is it possible?

Joel: When he arrived at Clemson, Chad Morris said he’d like to run 75-80 plays per game. The Tigers met that mark last year at 75.4. Morris’ offenses weren’t much quicker at Tulsa, where the Golden Hurricane ran 77.4 plays per game in 2010.  But the more plays you run, the more chances you have to score. Clemson is on track to match last year’s results, but the length of the game and the persistence of a defense that has trouble getting off the field will limit the offense’s effectiveness. The most effective hurry-up offenses are paired with competent defenses; otherwise, every quick score can easily be matched by a slower, more plodding score that eats up the clock. It’s just a question of game management. So ultimately, I have a hard time seeing Clemson top 80 plays per game.

John: I’d agree with that. Competing directly with amazing defenses like Florida State and Virginia Tech, I find it hard to believe that shootouts are the way to go. Against a shoddy defense? Sure, bombs away, and dare them to score on you. But against teams like that, you’re giving them opportunities to create turnovers, and letting you beat yourself at your own game. Running 75 plays per game has worked pretty well to this point, and I think it’ll yield better results as the defense improves.

The run defense is a travesty. Will it end up being the team’s undoing once ACC play begins?

JP: Brent Venables was hired to shore up a shaky defense, but two games into 2012, the Tigers are giving up more yards per play than last year. Kevin Steele largely failed during his three years to check option-based offenses, whether the triple-option of Georgia Tech or the zone-read of Cam Newton-led Auburn or the new Steve Spurrier attack. This year in Atlanta, Clemson did pretty well against that type of play, although maybe the departure of Gus Malzahn has accelerated Auburn’s return to a more traditional pro-style. Two games into the season, it’s hard to make a definitive judgment, but my general impression is that defenders are more willing to give up short runs in order to avoid being gassed by option plays. Georgia Tech on October 6 will determine Venables’ success in the minds of a lot of Clemson fans. But to answer the question more directly, Clemson had its most successful season in 20 years despite an awful defense. The Orange Bowl sticks in everyone’s mind, but it was offensive ineptitude that lost games to NC State, GT, and South Carolina.  With the inauspicious start for the Wolfpack, I’m still confident slotting Clemson second in the Atlantic, despite its weakness against the run.

JC: The run defense is a huge concern, especially when seeing that Ball State racked up over 250 on them. While running back may not be the strongest position the ACC has to offer, there are plenty of mobile quarterbacks, plus (as Joel mentions) Georgia Tech’s triple-option. Until we get to the Florida State game, it’s going to be very difficult to properly gauge the D-line. But so far, I’m giving them a a failing when it comes to stopping the run, and I’m nervous to see their first real test against the ‘Noles attack (averaging 226 yards per game against FCS teams, so still a mystery).

Does the Auburn win to open the season mean a lot less now that they’re 0-2?

JP: In a perfect world, Auburn would have gone on to win the SEC. But despite that 0-2 start, and 3 more likely losses on the schedule for the Tigers of the Plains, Auburn still has the SEC label, and it still won the national title less than two years ago. Clemson was a lot more dominant statistically than the final score showed, and I think it’s still a signature win for the program and the ACC.

JC: I thought Clemson would beat Auburn – even without Sammy Watkins – but never thought they’d be humiliated by Mississippi State the way they were. And while I know it may seem like the trendy thing to do right now, I’m unsure they can beat UL-Monroe on Saturday, either. They have very little offense to speak of, and their first two opponents appear to be running laps around them. Again, still very early, but that said, it’s hard not to “sell” hard on Auburn, and as a result, also do the same with Clemson.

Thoughts on Sammy Watkins’s ability to contribute right away when he returns this weekend?

JP: Nuk Hopkins’s emergence as a star has been exciting, although not unexpected for Clemson fans who have watched him for the past two years. Sammy will of course become a major part of the offense once he rejoins it, but ultimately his suspension might have been a good thing. With Hopkins, Clemson might have the best pair of receivers in the ACC (and the homer in me says they only trail USC nationally). Watkins’ return can only help an already potent offense, and this week’s game will be a nice tune-up before the showdown with Florida State, where every playmaker will be necessary.

JC: If they were going to work Watkins back into the receiving rotation, this is absolutely the week to do it. A brisk warm-up against Furman to allow him to get back into the swing of game speed and maybe allow the “Hopkins or Watkins?” situation to sort itself out naturally is perfect, in my eyes. I’m not even a Tigers’ fan, and I’ll fully agree with you that Clemson’s duo is the country’s second best, Joel. Watkins will not match the numbers he posted last year, but that’ll be due more to his counterpart, Hopkins’s, emergence than any sort of post-suspension lag.

Best performance so far this season: Andre Ellington, Tajh Boyd or DeAndre Hopkins?

JP: Ellington, by a hair.  And credit has to go to the big uglies up front as well, my greatest source of concern for 2012. The weak spot in Clemson’s offense last year was running back, and when the passing game just wasn’t working, as at NC State, the run wasn’t a reliable option.  It’s nice to be able to count on it again. Some of Ellington’s runs against Auburn were a thing of beauty.

JC: For me, it’s Hopkins, due to the consistency of his efforts. If not for his two scores last Saturday, Ellington’s Ball State game would’ve been written off as a bust (just 41 yards on the ground). Hopkins, on the other hand had two fantastic games, and through two contests, is the featured weapon on offense. Take a look at his stats:

vs. Auburn: 13 catches, 119 yards, 1 TD

vs.  Ball State: 6 catches, 105 yards, 3 TD

He’s one of the country’s leading receivers, and the only reason they haven’t missed Watkins to this point. While I do love Ellington’s efforts to energized the rushing attack, just more praise to throw at Hopkins right now.

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