Under head coach Dabo Swinney, the Clemson Tigers have become one of the most successful teams in recent college football history. Yet, things are not okay in Clemson, South Carolina, right now.
Already with its most conference losses in a decade, the program is teetering on turmoil in 2023, a victim of expectation and stagnation. What is going wrong at Clemson Football?
What is Wrong with Clemson Football? A Victim of Expectation and Stagnation
After coming out on the wrong side of an overtime dual with the Miami Hurricanes, Clemson is 4-3 in the 2023 college football season. All three of those defeats have come in conference play, with the program just one loss away from matching the worst ACC record of Swinney’s dynasty-esque tenure at the program.
Questions are swirling around Swinney and his Tigers team. It’s been over a decade since Clemson lost more than three games, and they’ve still got five more to play with 14th-ranked Notre Dame and 17th-ranked North Carolina on the schedule. They’re staring down the barrel of the worst season of his tenure, and everyone wants to know why and what is wrong with Clemson.
On the field, there are several very clear issues with this Clemson team. Averaging 30.4 points scored per game, this is one of the lowest-scoring Tigers teams of Swinney’s tenure. Only the 2021 (26.3 PPG) and 2010 (24.0 PPG) teams have scored fewer points than this current Clemson team.
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Without being the harbinger of doom, the 2010 team finished with a 6-7 overall record, the worst of any team under Swinney. They’re the only team not to finish in the AP Poll Top 25, with the Tigers currently unranked right now. The 2021 team has the unwanted recognition of being the squad that snapped a run of six consecutive seasons appearing in the College Football Playoff.
During the run to two national championships, eight ACC titles, and 10 ACC Atlantic Division titles, Swinney’s teams — despite his coaching background being firmly rooted in the offensive side of the ball — have been built around defense. The 2021 Clemson team might have struggled on offense, but they were bailed out routinely a scoring defense that ranked second in the nation.
Despite boasting elite playmakers like linebackers Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr., this isn’t the Clemson defense that we’ve come to expect year in, year out. The Tigers have allowed 20.6 points per game, ranking 40th in the nation ahead of their Week 9 clash with NC State. Even the 2010 defense allowed fewer points, only five of Swinney’s 15 teams have given up more.
Inability to Convert is Killing Clemson
What is wrong with Clemson, and what is causing these issues?
There are two rather substantial and clear problems with the Tigers right now, and they’re issues that win and lose games if you’re on the right or wrong side of the line. Right now, Swinney’s team is firmly over the wrong side of it, with no real answers as to how they steady the ship and get it turning in the right direction.
The offense has been able to move the ball. They’re a top 50 unit in total offense or yards per game. Not earth-shatteringly good, but good enough. The issue is when they move the ball inside the 20, they simply can’t get the job done. The red zone offense is catastrophic and calamitous, and it’s costing the Tigers their reputation as one of the best teams in college football.
Need an idea of the size of the problem? Clemson currently converts red zone opportunities to a score — not a touchdown, just a simple scoring play of any sort — just 68.42% of the time. Only four teams have been less successful in the red zone.
One of those is new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley’s former team, TCU.
Riley replaced Brandon Streeter, who was fired after his first full season as offensive coordinator for Clemson. Incidentally, Streeter’s offense had a red zone conversion of 93.5%, which ranked fifth in the nation, while converting 72.58% of trips into a touchdown.
The offense currently sits outside the top 100 teams in the country, with 52.63% of trips resulting in a touchdown.
Riley was hired after a mesmeric offensive performance that took TCU to the College Football Playoff. Yet, this Clemson team is converting red-zone opportunities to a score at a lower clip than any Clemson team under Swinney. Remember the 2010 team, the 6-7 stain on Dabo’s Tigers tenure? They converted 73.91% of red zone trips to a score, and 54.35% into a touchdown.
So, is Riley the issue?
Well, no, it’s not quite as straightforward as that. As we said before, the offense has been able to move efficiently through the field, picking up plenty of first downs and converting well on third down.
Yet, red zone play-calling has been suboptimal at times. There have been some questionable plays in big moments, in big games, that have ultimately cost Clemson dearly and contributed to their abysmal red zone production.
In these moments, mistakes are amplified, bad calls lead to bad results, and there’s certainly been plenty of them for the Tigers this season.
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However, there have also been some less-than-stellar decisions made by the players on the field. Cade Klubnik was viewed as the next great quarterback for the Tigers, unseating D.J. Uiagalelei who incidentally is leading an Oregon State Beavers team who are ranked in the AP Poll and in contention for the Pac-12 Conference title. We digress.
Klubnik has had his struggles this season.
In a sign, perhaps, of the internal tension developing inside a program where success is the standard, Swinney called out his quarterback for not sticking to the play call on the busted play in second overtime that saw the Tigers fall to Miami for only the second time in Clemson head coaching career.
“It was a handoff 100%,” Swinney told the media in the aftermath of a play that needed inches but ended up losing eight yards as Klubnik kept the ball and tried to get into he end zone himself. “And we didn’t hand off. I got no answer. I mean, just trying to do too much. … It’s a give. We just didn’t do it. Made a lotta plays but, again, we gotta play within the system.”
Do you know which other Clemson team lost to Miami under Swinney? You probably guessed it when it took me to write this paragraph, but it was the 2010 Tigers team.
The Tigers’ inability to convert in the red zone is both a creation and execution issue, a coaching and player issue. Meanwhile, the players on the field are contributing to another significant issue. They’re failing to win the turnover battle, which is costing Clemson games — especially with the number of close-fought defeats in this most difficult of seasons for Dabo and his team.
At the height of their defensive success, Clemson was picking off passes with aplomb and forcing fumbles for fun.
While the defense has been active in that regard, they rank sixth in the ACC for interceptions secured and percentage of forced fumbles recovered. For context, they’ve forced 11 fumbles in 2023. In their 2018 title-winning season, the Tigers forced 33.
While the defense might not be at its dominant best, the offense is the real contributor to Clemson’s most negative turnover percentage since, wait for it, 2010. The Tigers have fumbled an ACC-high 15 times this season, with 10 of those — another ACC-high — being recorded by their opponent.
On such turnovers are games lost, and they are certainly losing them.
Expectation and Stagnation
It simply isn’t what we’ve come to expect from Clemson under Swinney, and that is a part of the problem. During his tenure, the Tigers have become one of a select handful of measuring sticks for success. Clemson, Alabama, and now Georgia are the bastions of brilliance, the team to beat, their model the one that athletic directors around the nation look to copy.
As such, they operate under a microscope of scrutiny far more than any team with three defeats on their résumé might. Alabama feels it every single season. Clemson went 8-0 in the ACC and won the conference title a year ago, in a campaign that was deemed a failure by most mainstream media — and probably a subsection of Tigers fans.
Such is the evil of expectation.
College football isn’t the NFL. Building sustained success should theoretically be a little simpler once you’ve attained it. Being a prominent and consistent force in the sport isn’t penalized by draft position; in fact, it’s bolstered by the pull of potential glory when you hit the recruiting trail.
The best players want to play for the best teams, and a vicious success circle is born.
Clemson has thrived in that area under Swinney. If you’re a defensive lineman who wants to develop into an NFL Draft first-round pick while winning a national title or two, you head to Clemson. If you want to be coached by one of the best running backs ever to do it, you head to Clemson.
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On-field success leads to strong recruiting, which leads to on-field success.
Except in the ever-evolving world of college football, there’s a wrinkle in the rinse-and-repeat cycle.
You cannot simply win, recruit, win some more. One of the biggest variables in college football right now is the transfer portal, and one of the most successful teams at mining said portal is the one sat at the top of the ACC while we discuss what is wrong with Clemson.
You have to adapt or die, embrace or stagnate.
Clemson is doing the latter right now. While the players or the offensive coordinator are in the crosshairs of criticism for how the 2023 season is playing out, the sights are firmly trained on Swinney where this issue is concerned. He’s a vocal opponent of the portal and isn’t shy about being vehemently opposed to using it.
“If I’m constantly going out every year and adding guys from the transfer portal, I’m telling all those guys in that locker room that I don’t believe in them, that I don’t think they can play,” Swinney told ESPN in 2022. “We’re also not doing our job as coaches and recruiters if we’re bringing in a bunch of transfers. We’re not going to build our roster on transfers.”
“We’ve recruited well,” Swinney doubled down on his stance during ACC Kickoff Weekend. “So we’ve been a developmental program for a long time, we signed a couple of quarterbacks out of the portal that have filled a need for us. And we’ve actually tried on a couple other guys along the way … But if you look at our roster and we just had a lot of retention.”
In some respects, it’s noble to be so stoic in the face of criticism. Taking the “my way or the highway” approach is a lot easier when you’ve proven that it can be successful. Swinney has earned the right to be so confident. The proof is in the pudding.
Yet, he simply cannot stagnate while the college football world changes around him. If Swinney doesn’t ultimately embrace this new reality, as many of his contemporaries have, the expectation that he’s built at Clemson will untimely crush him — and the program.