There was an extended period of time where it looked like the Big Blue Nation was barreling toward a bowl game rematch in Charlotte against Virginia Tech. Kentucky fans received a pleasant surprise on Sunday, learning the Wildcats would actually be traveling to Florida to take on one of the biggest names in college football.
Clemson dominated the sport for years, but experienced a back-slide in 2023. The Tigers finished 8-4, their first season with single-digit wins since 2010. Even though this is not the Clemson of old, Dabo Swinney still has an exceptional football team that will present quite a challenge to Kentucky in the Gator Bowl.
Still Searching for Answers on Offense
Most successful people resist change. After all, they’ve been successful operating a certain way, why would they do anything differently? That mindset has gotten Dabo Swinney into trouble.
The most successful coach in Clemson history made the Tigers a surprising powerhouse and reserved himself a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame. Since his last trip to the CFB Playoff in 2019, things have been slipping. Resistant to NIL and the transfer portal, the latter policy in particular has slowly depleted the Tigers’ depth chart.
However, Dabo did buck one norm this offseason when he branched outside of his own coaching tree to hire Garrett Riley from TCU. The younger brother of USC head coach Lincoln Riley rose through the ranks while learning under Sonny Dykes and helped the Horned Frogs finish with a Top 10 offense in a National Runner-Up finish.
Riley’s expertise was supposed to turn former blue chip quarterback Cade Klubnik into a star. It has not gone according to plan for the first-year offensive coordinator. Rather than spreading the field, the Tigers have been dinking and dunking, averaging an ACC-worst 6.2 yards per pass attempt. They’re scoring less than 30 points per game and average 5.3 yards per play (92nd in FBS). The Clemson offense ranks No. 51 in efficiency according to SP+.
The Tigers do not have explosive playmakers at wide receiver, instead relying heavily on running back Will Shipley for production. The junior has tallied 1,139 all-purpose yards this fall, the sixth-most in the ACC, and scored seven touchdowns.
Dabo Swinney vs. Clemson Fans
You cannot tell the story of Clemson’s season without mentioning Tyler from Spartanburg. The aforementioned grievances with Swinney’s stubborn ways turned into loud criticism following a 4-4 start. During his weekly call-in show, one Clemson fan took direct aim at the head coach.
“But after that 2018 national title, something changed,” said the now infamous caller. “There seems to be a lot of arrogance that came in. There’s a lot of friends and family. I mean three of the 10 on-field football coaches are external, experienced hires. Everyone else is an internal hire that had no experience before or was a former player or friend. So I’m curious, why are we paying you $11.5 million to go 4-4? And it’s not just this year. It’s been just the refusal to accept…”
Swinney cut off Tyler from Spartanburg and gave a fiery response.
“You’re part of the problem, to be honest with you. Because that is part of the problem. It’s people like you, that all you do… the expectation is greater than the appreciation. And that’s the problem.”
Oddly enough, it wasn’t too different than Mark Stoops’ ‘pony up’ comments. In Clemson’s case, the Tigers used the criticism to fuel a strong finish. Later that week they upset No. 15 Notre Dame to finish the season with four straight victories.
Clemson Still has an Oustanding Defense
One thing has remained constant throughout the tumultuous 2023 Clemson football season: they have a really good defense.
The Tigers rank fifth in pass defense (162.2 yards per game) and seventh in yards allowed per game (278.7), all while holding opponents to less than 20 points per contest. Thy rank No. 13 in defensive efficiency, according to SP+.
Clemson has a stout defensive line, led by potential first round defensive tackle Ruke Orhorhoro. They do not create a bunch of sacks, but only ten college football teams have more tackles for loss (89) than the Tigers. The Clemson secondary has an even better draft prospect. Cornerback Nate Wiggins is currently projected to be a top 15 pick in April, leading a unit that has produced 14 interceptions, the second-most in the ACC this fall.
Yards will be hard to come by for the Kentucky offense that leaned on Ray Davis to create explosive plays. The Cats will be without their star running back against a defense that prides itself on limiting chunk plays. Only five teams have allowed fewer plays of 10+ yards than Clemson. The Gator Bowl is shaping up to be a slobber-knocker.