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Reviewing Clemson / Why We Lost and Other Thoughts

First off, let's give credit where credit is due; we may hate Clemson, but you have to admit that they executed and we didn't. I’m not going to spend too much time reviewing this game, because there’s not a whole lot to say other than that we lost because of poor QB play by Chris Smelley. Granted, there were other problems, but QB play was the main one. You could say that the defense didn’t play well, but they actually came out and played hard early and gave us good field position that we couldn’t take advantage of. If we had built a lead, we would have played better defense throughout the game. Our defense basically did the same thing Auburn’s defense did last night in the second half of the Iron Bowl: they wilted under the pressure of having to do everything because the offense was so pitiful. You could say that we never established the run like we should have against a team with a poor run defense, but we actually ran the ball better than we have at other points in the season. With better QB play, we could have had something resembling a balanced offense yesterday. Poor special teams play—particularly, a holding call that gave Clemson a first down on their first punt and took away great field position for us and a blocked punt later—was a big problem, but you have to expect some things like that to happen in poor playing conditions. Plus, would we have done anything to take advantage of the good field position? Probably not. Spurrier pointed out that Jared Cook wasn’t giving a good effort, but can you blame him? Smelley has to be the only QB in the SEC who can consistently overthrow a 6’5 monster like Cook. You could blame Smelley’s play on the rain, but Cullen Harper only had minimal trouble with it.

These issues were all problems, but Smelley was the main one. His performance was truly pitiful, maybe worse than Tommy Beecher’s game earlier in the season against NC State. Smelley overthrew his receivers several times, mainly because was throwing the ball too early and his receivers couldn’t get to it. Some of his passes in traffic were truly perplexing, as there didn’t appear to be anyone on our team in sight to catch the ball. Some of these problems may have been the receivers’ fault for not running routes correctly, but is Smelley so set on getting the ball to a certain place on the field that he isn’t capable of adjusting when a play goes awry?

I defended Spurrier’s decision to go with Smelley based on what I had seen on the field the past couple of weeks, but I’ll now admit that I was wrong. Garcia should have played this game. Even if he had played poorly, he probably wouldn’t have thrown as many picks. One thing you can say for Garcia is that, unlike Smelley, he’s capable of adjusting when there’s no one open, even if that only means scrambling for a two yard gain. His scrambling would have really helped us when the receivers didn’t run routes correctly. And even if we hadn’t won, at least Garcia would have gotten some experience playing a rivalry game. The truly perplexing thing about Spurrier’s coaching yesterday was that he left Smelley in even after it became clear that Smelley was way off his game. In past games, notably NC State and Kentucky, Spurrier has been quick to pull his starter out before it was too late. Why he didn’t do that yesterday was beyond comprehension.

The question now is what this game means for the state of the program. I said before the game that this was a must-win game that would define the Spurrier era thus far. Clemson is down, we had a chance to get to eight wins and finish the year ranked, and we could rake in a good recruiting class with a solid performance. The result? Not only did we lose, but we lost in embarrassing fashion. Winning the bowl game would assuage some of the pain and might net us some momentum going into next year, but beating Clemson was much more important.

In my view, this lost is a serious indictment of the job Spurrier has done here. Should he be on the hot seat? Perhaps, although I’m not exactly ready to see him forced out. By our standards, Spurrier has been fairly successful and deserves some goodwill for that. He hasn’t had a losing record, has beaten Tennessee twice, and is the first Carolina coach to beat Florida in decades. Moreover, next year could be better if Garcia lives up to his potential. We also have a solid recruiting class in the works, although you have to wonder if we’ll retain all of the players we poached from Clemson after Bowden resigned.

Despite those positives, though, the program’s development has stalled significantly after a promising first two years. The fact that the SEC and Clemson are down this year and were ripe for the taking only serves to highlight the lack of development. Moreover, the reasons we haven’t moved forward don’t speak well for Spurrier. We got the few big wins we’ve gained over the past two years with defense. However, Spurrier coaches the offense and leaves the defense to his assistants, so does he deserve the credit for those wins when our offense has gotten progressively worse since the heady days of late 2006? Not really, I would say, although I guess one could make the argument that Spurrier’s name helps us attract talented assistants and recruits that we build the defense around.

Granted, part of the problem with the offense owes to the fact that Spurrier hasn’t yet found a QB worth his salt. Garcia (or even Aramis Hillary) might be that QB next year, so perhaps there’s reason for optimism. Some people have suggested that Spurrier should look into finding a new offensive coordinator, but I don’t think that’s the case, as Spurrier’s offense doesn’t seem to me to be outdated. We had open receivers all day yesterday against Clemson; Smelley just couldn’t get them the ball consistently. Another commonly cited problem is the offensive line, but again, they didn’t play terribly yesterday. We ran the ball better than usual and Smelley had time to throw. Spurrier might do well to consider looking into finding a new line coach, but the problems yesterday all go back to Smelley’s inability to hook up with his receivers. We can hope for better play under center next year.

All of this is to say that Spurrier shouldn’t be forced out right now but should be on the hot seat going into next year. If we can’t get to eight or nine wins next year, then I say it’s time to look into young blood like Mark Dantonio, a Carolina graduate who has Michigan State playing great football this year. If Garcia comes through, though, I see potential for major improvement next year. I should add that Garcia’s training should start right now; if Smelley starts the bowl game, then I’m officially giving up on Spurrier.

Let's hear it Garnet and Black Attack readers. Is Spurrier still the man for the job? How do you feel about the state of the program?