Shakin the Southland's FIGUREFOUR and I got together again this year to discuss the rivalry game against the Clemson Tigers. Those of you who read STS know that while they wear orange and purple over there, they provide some excellent analysis on the Tigers. Here's what he had to say in response to my questions. I'll post a link to my answers to his questions when they go up. (UPDATE: My answers to his questions here.)
1. The narrative during Carolina's winning streak against Clemson has been that the Gamecocks have surpassed Clemson on both lines of scrimmage. Do you believe that perception is accurate? How will the two teams stack up on the lines this year?
I believe that South Carolina handily beat Clemson up front the past couple years. I hate to bore you, but I’ll go ahead and explain the root cause for these issues as well. The big overall driver (especially on the offensive side) is South Carolina’s decision to get really serious with their S&C program by bringing in Fitzgerald. Though he left several years ago, this change was the one that positively changed the Carolina S&C program and really escalated the SC offensive line. You’ll likely point out that this move coincided with the departure of John Hunt. I will agree that replacing Hunt should have been done much sooner and this did aid in offensive line improvement but still think there was a culture change with a new S&C regime.
Clemson, on the other hand, has chosen to stick with what hasn’t worked for quite some time. The combination of Brad Scott (as OL coach) and Joey Batson (S&C Coordinator) pretty much ensured we’d struggle up front—which we have. The replacement of Brad Scott with Robbie Caldwell has definitely helped but Clemson needs to make a change similar to the one SCar made when they brought in Fitzgerald.
Now that I’ve delved into the past, I’ll discuss the present. Clemson has been nauseously inconsistent on the offensive line for quite some time now and this season is not different. As a group, the Tigers have a tough time getting push up front running the ball. This issue is magnified in the Red Zone and in short yardage situations and has degraded to the point that Clemson’s lone chance of gaining a tough yard is a direct snap and Tajh up the middle. Pass protection has been pretty good on the left side of the line. The RT position, however, has been a circus.
South Carolina has managed to stay healthy on the offensive line this season and it is paying dividends when the Gamecocks run the football. Mike Davis is having a really good year and a lot of that credit has to go to SCar’s offensive line. The Gamecocks have the ability to line up in the I-formation and simply hand the ball off with great success.
3-4 years ago Clemson’s defensive line was experienced / talented up front but lacked key depth. Clemson’s defensive line recruiting strategy had its faults and when the talent graduated, the Tigers were left with a lot of depth but little experience. Now the Clemson defensive line is coming into its own with guys who have been in the trenches for a couple seasons and have the ability to play. Couple that with the emergence of a guy like Vic Beasley and I’d say Clemson is better now than it’s been on the defensive front in quite some time and I’m quite pleased with the overall performance of the DL this season.
I don’t need to tell you this, but I’ll point out the obvious anyway: South Carolina has done quite well with the defensive line. I don’t think many will argue that Clowney is at least the best defensive lineman in the country. A guy like that makes an already talented defensive line even better.
To answer the final portion of the question, I believe that Carolina’s defensive line has an advantage over Clemson’s offensive line. I believe that Clemson’s defensive line in pass situations has an advantage over Carolina’s OL. If Carolina lines up under center and runs the football, I’d give their line an advantage there. Overall, this matchup looks like a wash or maybe just a slight advantage to the Clemson DL.
2. Another perception I see bandied about regarding this rivalry is that because Clemson plays in the ACC and plays several games per season that it wins in blowout fashion over subpar opponents, it doesn't come into the game as "battle tested" as Carolina and struggles when Carolina offers it a rare challenge. Any truth to that perception, in your opinion?
While I do believe that winning close games is very important, I am not sure that I’ll agree there. I may have agreed a couple years ago but Clemson has its fair share of victories over SEC (I assume that is what you allude to here) opponents recently. Clemson won a close game against LSU last December, defeated UGa in a relatively close contest, and has defeated Auburn several times. While that is not a full slate, it does signify that Clemson can hang with those teams.
I believe that a large part of South Carolina’s recent success against Clemson is due to the vast OL/DL improvement and advantage we discussed earlier. While I can certainly understand the argument that SEC lines are better than ACC lines, I still believe that improvements in S&C combined with new OL coaching have been a bigger factor there. I also believe that Spurrier simply outcoached his adversary over this time period. South Carolina was able to methodically hold onto the football by impressively converting third and fourth downs to shorten the football game. Spurrier also knows how to rile up Dabo and seems to choose to do this in November. SOS clearly knows what he’s doing both throwing jabs through the media and setting up a third and four football play.
3. The CU defense has improved over a year ago, currently being ranked 18th in the nation in defensive efficiency to Carolina's 22. What's Clemson doing better on defense after struggling for the past few years? How do you feel about the job Brent Venables is doing?
I believe we were all a bit concerned about the Venables hiring when it occurred. Two years in, it is obvious that Clemson’s defense has improved dramatically. I think the overall verdict is still out (Venables is fortunate to have a much more experienced and talented group than in 2011) but you have to give him credit—at least to this point for the improvement we’ve seen. His predecessor, Kevin Steele, had a much more complex linebacker scheme that Venables has simplified. This, along with some highly touted LB recruits gaining experience, has improved LB play over the past two seasons. The biggest point of improvement, though, came through the development of a defensive line with both talent and depth (as discussed previously). Clemson is still having issues in the defensive backfield—particularly at the safety spot. We all thought that Travis Blanks was going to be a tremendous safety following a tremendous freshman season but that hasn’t exactly been the case this season. The safeties have trouble in a lot of areas including coverage responsibilities and attack/tackling angles.
4. On the other hand, Clemson's offensive efficiency is ranked 30th. The Tigers have continued putting up big numbers against the ACC's bottom tier, but have struggled somewhat against the better defenses in the league. Why the drop-off? How will the perceived advantage of South Carolina's defensive front against a struggling CU offensive line impact this game?
Clemson’s offense has been relatively inconsistent at different points of the season. I believe the offensive success revolves around three key but intertwined areas: Quarterback confidence, offensive line play, and playcalling strategy. This assumes that Clemson’s excellent receiving corps makes the plays it typically makes and that the backs/receivers don’t put the ball on the ground. Tajh Boyd is a good quarterback when he is comfortable. When he is uncomfortable, as you saw in last season’s Carolina game, he gets nervous in the pocket, stares down his receivers, and tries to force things. The Chad can help with this process by opening with simple passes to get Tajh into a groove. We’ve also seen Morris get pass-happy and forget he can call running plays (or even back to back running plays!). Getting the backs involved takes pressure off of Boyd and helps the offensive line. When the offensive line play gives up a sack or some pressure, Boyd has a tendency to look to either (A) force the ball down the field to a receiver he probably stared down or (B) looks to prematurely get out of the pocket and either tuck the ball to try and run or walk into a sack.
South Carolina’s defensive line definitely has the ability to create issues for the Clemson offense. Clemson will need to be smarter this year than last and provide help to the offensive line by going with maximum protection packages, putting an extra body on the line, chipping the ends, and/or keeping a back in for blocking purposes. Clemson will need to be committed to getting the running game going—specifically through Roderick McDowell. Last season Clemson looked to be cranking up the running game only to see The Chad inexplicably turn away from it. When throwing the ball, Boyd will need to be cognizant of his surroundings and stay confident throughout. It wouldn’t hurt for Morris to throw him a bone with some easy passes to get him going and in a groove. Clemson has a matchup advantage on the perimeter so if Boyd can remain calm, go through his progressions, then have faith in his receivers the offense can overcome this issue. If Tajh does get impatient/nervous in the pocket we may see a repeat of last year’s struggles and quarterback sacks.
5. If you could have one Carolina player other than Clowney, who would it be? Why?
Out of necessity, I’d likely take Brandon Shell. Clemson, as I’ve lamented earlier, has a definite issue at RT and Shell—who will play in the league—could help shore up that problem. What I’d really like is a couple offensive linemen but you only asked for one player and a tackle would definitely be the first place I’d start.
6. We here at GABA are well-acquainted with the analytical acumen you guys over at STS possess. Tell us: Do you think Clowney has struggled this year? What's your perception regarding the statistical drop-off?
I think the perception that Clowney has struggled is flat out ignorant. First and foremost, the hype was created by ESPN in large part because of the big hit in the Michigan game. The World Wide Leader went overboard with Clowney-mania. When the actual season started, teams built their offensive strategies around mitigating #7. Obviously this hurt Clowney’s core statistics—which many have pointed to as a "slumping season." In reality, Clowney will be drafted very highly this Spring because he is a tremendous player and physical specimen. Anyone who knows anything about football realizes that anytime all opposing teams game plan around one guy, the rest of the rest of the defense benefits—particularly the other defensive linemen and linebackers. When you take all of this into account, I ignore the statistics because the overall "Clowney Effect" on the defense is tough to quantify but definitely very real. That and if you don’t focus solely on Clowney, he will most certainly wear your backfield out.
7. What's your favorite moment from the rivalry? Least favorite?
If I had to pick one moment it would likely be Rod Gardner pulling down the long pass back in ’00. That obviously set up the Aaron Hunt game winner that year that capped a crazy sequence of events in the game that evening.
My least favorite was probably the Jamie Harper fumble early in the ’09 game. That fumble turned the tide in this series as Clemson was up early and looking to drive and take control of the football game. Following the fumble, Carolina seized the momentum and has not given it up since.
8. Give us a prediction for the game.
I don’t generally predict games but will say that I think Clemson is in a better position this season than in past years. This statement is made based on Clemson’s defensive improvement and South Carolina having to backfill some spots in its linebacker/defensive back corps. I am also less impressed with South Carolina’s wide receivers than in years past (though I really do like the TEs). Clemson can win if it can eliminate the methodical first downs given up to the Gamecocks the past two seasons and keep Tajh comfortable. Clearly both of those are easier said than done. Conner Shaw has done a good job managing this offense and not throwing interceptions while SOS clearly knows how to run an offense/call a few ball plays. JD Clowney and the defensive line are a very dangerous force. If Clemson cannot find a way to mitigate this attack, it will be a long day for the Clemson defense (as the Tigers will be punting a lot) and a sad day for Clemson fans. Overall, though, this one should be a close and entertaining football game—and one that Coach Dabo needs to win to avoid displeasure on the IPTAY circuit.