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Opponent Q&A: Clemson

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Talkin’ about some Tigers for the third week in a row.

NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the final regular-season edition of our Opponent Q&A, where we linked up with our furry friends over at Shakin’ the Southland to get a read on the Clemson fan’s perspective heading into the Palmetto Bowl. We had a year off, but the rivalry vibes are as feisty as ever; many thanks to Ryan Kantor for his time and insights.

Clemson has been an interesting story this year, starting with a stunning tumble from the rankings which then evened out over recent weeks, culminating in a big win over Wake Forest (boy is that an interesting sequence of words). What’s been behind the turnaround?

To understand turnaround – if you’re ready to call it that– it is worth starting by diagnosing the problem. Clemson has had an especially high number of injuries this season. The top four receivers are all out right now (more on that in a bit). DT Bryan Bresee is out. DT Tyler Davis has missed time. The offensive line has been riddled with injuries. The list goes on and on. A lot of that you just have to chalk up to bad luck. The degree to which injuries have hurt Clemson though, is at least a little bit our own fault.

Clemson has seven original walk-ons on scholarship counting towards the 85-scholarship limit (i.e., excluding super seniors). That’s >8% of the 85! Some of them may have legitimately earned their scholarship and that is great, but the broader issue is Clemson wasn’t accurately projecting attrition – like Chez Mellusi transferring to Wisconsin after signing day. As a result, they’ve offered and subsequently signed fewer recruits than they could have for the past few seasons. Furthermore, they didn’t accept any transfers to remedy it after the fact. I went into more detail on the issue here.

Consequently, when injuries hit harder than anyone could have imagined and cut into their depth, it was a double whammy. It has forced Clemson to heavily rely on freshmen and walk-ons. They started a true freshman at left guard against Georgia. It went poorly. Last week, original walk-ons Will Brown and Will Swinney started at punt returner and slot receiver, respectively.

Recently, Clemson has benefitted from several things, most importantly “the light coming on” for some freshmen pass catchers. Clemson also seems to have finally found the right combination for the offensive line. Running backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace each missed time at various points throughout the season, but they returned last week (both missed the UConn game) and shredded Wake Forest.

Clemson’s two best wins of the season were their last two FBS wins: at Louisville and vs. Wake Forest.

Still, I’m hesitant to call it a turnaround because sandwiched between those wins was a real struggle against UConn. A decisive win over the hated Gamecocks would be enough to call November a turnaround and somewhat change the perception of this season.

Related to the previous question, and on a more meta level, how concerned are CU fans that the dynasty is over, or at least that the window is closing? It’s hardly fair to presume it dead after one up-and-down season, but I imagine this year has been a shock to the system all the same.

This is probably true of most fanbases, but Clemson fans seem to quickly divide into the “I’m all in and you’re not a good fan if you’re unhappy or worried” camp and the “sky is falling” camp. I had one Facebook user tell me that “Dabo makes $10 million dollars per year” so they find it “disrespectful” to question him. Perspective is important though. This is one injury riddled season and Coach Swinney has always adjusted when something has gone awry.

With NIL, schools in smaller markets like Clemson and U of SC could be at a disadvantage. I live in Atlanta and drive by billboards of Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis along the highway. I also saw a Malik Cunningham billboard for Planet Fitness in Louisville. Perhaps we’ll see a Will Shipley billboard in Greenville next year, but we’ll see.

With more attrition in the transfer portal era, Clemson’s conservative roster management strategy is more punitive. There’s also more quality in the transfer portal than ever before, so abstaining is a bigger disadvantage than it was years ago.

Will Clemson adjust? I think so. Clemson already announced some of the players who are leaving early, which makes me think Dabo has recognized these issues and got ahead of it. There are only 13 recruits in the incoming class, but I expect them to add about four more and then supplement with their first legitimate transfers. Of course, I’m certainly worried that I’m wrong and this won’t happen, but right now, I’d bet on Coach Swinney making the right adjustments to put Clemson back on course to be an annual ACC-favorite and playoff contender.

The Tigers will come into this game very thin at wide receiver after a rash of injuries. How worried are you about that?

I was very worried about this last week against Wake Forest and it led me to pick the Deacons to win the game. Clemson was without wide receivers Justyn Ross, Joe Ngata, EJ Williams, Frank Ladson, and Brannon Spector and will be without all of them again.

I’m less worried this week because the running game appears to have taken a big step forward and, as I alluded to earlier, several freshmen have had “the light go on” and are ready to contribute. Chief among them is Beaux Collins. He is a true freshman who didn’t look overly spectacular early in the season, but has 281 receiving yards in his past three games. He had just 97 yards all season prior to this stretch.

Tight end Davis Allen has also elevated his game and may be the next most important pass catcher for the Tigers headed into this game. Additionally, true freshmen TE Jake Briningstool and WR Decari Collins have emerged, albeit not in quite the full breakout form like Beaux Collins, and give Clemson some other options. Obviously, Clemson is short of pass catchers, which isn’t ideal, but it seems less dire after last week’s performance.

The Clemson defense has remained a strong suit of this squad, anchoring the Tigers in spite of the offense’s fits and starts. It’s a big question with how anemic the USC offense has been itself, but are there any areas of weakness the Gamecocks could attack here?

Honestly, I’m not so sure. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables is a genius. Despite new injuries every week, this defense has been great all year and incredibly clutch. They secured game clinching defensive stands in five of Clemson’s ACC wins. The most notable came against Louisville when the Cardinals had a first-and-goal and couldn’t punch it in.

If Clemson’s offense returns to their anemic ways from September and October, U of SC’s best bet may be to just wear the defense out with a high snap count. That’s how NC State and Pittsburgh finally got some points. If the offensive is playing complementary football though, I’m not sure there’s a clear weakness to exploit.

The Tigers are 11.5-point favorites, which may seem a little high to the Gamecock faithful and perhaps too low to CU folks. How do you see this one playing out?

Vegas has humbled me to the point that when I see a spread looks wrong to me, I usually assume they know something I don’t. Last week, when I saw Utah favored over Oregon, I thought “that seems silly,” but then correctly picked Utah to win because Vegas knows best. I should have done that for the Clemson vs. Wake Forest game, but I reasoned I knew better when it came to Clemson.

In this case, I think that spread actually looks about right. With an over/under of 43 points, the implied score is about 28-16. I think Wake Forest’s defense is really bad and I don’t see Clemson’s offense completely rolling over U of SC like they did to Wake Forest in that second half.

Clemson’s defense vs. U of SC’s offense will be the biggest mismatch of the game though. As long as Clemson’s offense is marginally competent, a 28 to 16 Clemson victory sounds about right.