10 burning questions as Clemson enters the offseason
Clemson reclaimed the ACC Championship in 2022, capturing Dabo Swinney’s 7th conference title in 8 seasons after a rare year on the outside looking in during the 2021 season.
Clemson’s 11-win season did not include a trip to the College Football Playoff, though, with the Tigers missing the party for the second consecutive season after advancing to the previous 6 editions of the Playoff.
That alone was enough to make 2022 a frustrating one for some fans of Clemson’s program, and those frustrations were compounded when the Tigers were routed by Tennessee in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30.
While winning the ACC championship matters, Swinney’s program has become a victim of its own success in some respects. When you make the College Football Playoff 6 seasons in a row, and suddenly lose 6 games in 2 seasons, people begin to wonder what’s wrong.
It is a bit too on the sunshine pumping side of things to suggest nothing, but rumors of a long-term Clemson demise are likely too cynical. Nonetheless, the debate is fascinating, and it makes for a great discussion of 10 burning questions facing Clemson as the Tigers enter the offseason.
1. Is the Clemson “dynasty” dead?
After Georgia’s 65-7 win in the College Football Playoff championship game secured the Dawgs back-to-back national championships, is any college football dynasty outside of Athens, Georgia truly alive? Georgia’s dynasty is just beginning, and the ebb and flow of things means that naturally, Alabama and Clemson, the powers who dominated the sport’s prior decade, may be beginning to wane.
Then again, Dabo Swinney is only 53, just 6 years older than Kirby Smart at Georgia, and the chances his “dynasty” has staying power may be greater than what Nick Saban, now in his 70s, has built at Alabama.
The stark reality, however, is that Clemson has lost 6 games over the past 2 seasons. At most programs, that’s a cause for celebration. At Clemson, those 6 losses in 2 years equal the total number of losses in the 5 seasons that preceded them. That’s a drop-off, and it is one that has cost Clemson Playoff appearances in the prior 2 seasons.
Getting back to the top of the mountain, and back into the College Football Playoff, which will be a 4-team tournament just once more before expanding to 12 in 2024, is Clemson’s main priority in 2023.
2. What difference does Garrett Riley make?
Dabo Swinney fired Brandon Streeter, a bright offensive mind who had been with the Tigers’ program since 2015, a move that signaled Swinney’s refusal to let the Clemson dynasty burn out in the dead of night. He brought in Garrett Riley, architect of one of the nation’s most prolific offenses at TCU in 2022.
The move feels similar to when Swinney parted ways with a hot young offensive coordinator named Billy Napier after the 2010 season and turned things over to Chad Morris, who very quickly elevated the play of an offense that was talented but inconsistent under Napier. Championships followed, though Morris was gone by the time national titles arrived.
Riley’s job is to help Clemson compete for national titles once again.
To do that, Clemson must maximize the play of freshman Cade Klubnik (more below), while coaxing more consistent production out of a run game that ranked 47th nationally in rushing offense and 50th in success rate despite NFL type talents in Will Shipley and Phil Mafah at running back.
Riley has a host of playmakers at his disposal, which Streeter had to wait to mature for much of 2022. But the Tigers aren’t perfect. They could use the portal– something Swinney hasn’t done much of– to help.
Clemson could benefit from targeting a wide receiver and perhaps an offensive linemen or two in the transfer portal. Swinney has been reluctant to use the portal much, preferring, like Georgia, to recruit to fit and culture and develop, even as NIL has changed the sport. There’s no reason, however, to refuse to participate in the portal on principle, and the Tigers could use help at receiver and added depth on the offensive line in 2023. The Tigers finished 71st in sacks allowed in 2022, for example — the worst figure for the program in a decade. Why not find a proven player or 2 to fix that problem, even if the target is just a short-term transfer rental?
3. Which Cade Klubnik shows up next September?
Clemson did the right thing sticking with DJ Uiagalelei, as difficult as that was, for most the 2022 season.
The Notre Dame game proved Klubnik, the latest 5-star superstar prep quarterback to sign with Clemson, wasn’t quite ready to take the reins.
Benjamin Morrison picks off Cade Klubnik to put @ndfootball in great field position.
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) November 6, 2022
When the Tigers did turn the program over to Klubnik in the ACC Championship game in December, the true freshman was finally ready. Or was he? Klubnik’s ACC Championship game performance, which saw him throw for 279 yards and a touchdown and run for another score, was the type of masterpiece that left Clemson fans wondering “what if.” The thing is, Klubnik was inconsistent and subpar in the Orange Bowl, tossing 2 interceptions against a Tennessee defense that was adequate at best.
Klubnik needs to find consistency, and you don’t typically find that at the highest level of the sport as a true freshman. The best Clemson teams have been led by transcendental, All-American talents at quarterback. Deshaun Watson. Trevor Lawrence. Whether Klubnik attains that level of excellence may define Clemson’s 2023. The work to get there starts in spring practice.
4. Will Clemson max out its talent in 2023?
The Tigers issues weren’t just at quarterback.
Swinney talked frequently last summer about Clemson being “better around the quarterback,” and while the Tigers improved in that respect in 2022, they still have work to do, especially on offense.
This isn’t a talent issue.
Clemson is 5th in the 247 Talent Composite, behind College Football Playoff participants Georgia and Ohio State, Saban’s Alabama, and the nation’s most disappointing team in 2022, Texas A&M.
The largest issues for Clemson are at receiver, where the program’s best receiver in 2022 was Antonio Williams, a possession receiver without much explosive potential. Beaux Collins, a top-100 recruit out of prep power St. John Bosco, led the team in yards per reception at 17.6 but caught just 22 passes. They need more of that on the perimeter to open holes for the splendid Will Shipley in the run game in 2023. An explosive offense would help Clemson maximize what remains one of college football’s best rosters.
Garrett Riley will have to do that offensively if this program wants to play in the final 4-team College Football Playoff.
5. D-Line U … will it continue?
Clemson finished in the top 10 nationally in sacks, quarterback pressures, and quarterback hurries for the 9th consecutive season in 2022. Jeremiah Trotter Jr. will return in 2023, fresh off a 7 sack season and All-American honors at linebacker. But Myles Murphy skipped the Orange Bowl and he and KJ Henry are headed to the NFL Draft, meaning that the Tigers will be without their best pass rushers up front in 2023. The return of tackles Tyler Davis and Ruke Orhorhoro is a boon to the chances of maintaining the D-Line U reputation next autumn, and Clemson just signed the nation’s best defensive line haul on the recruiting trail. Who steps up?
6. Is Will Shipley a Heisman contender?
As great as Clemson has been in the Swinney era, the Tigers have yet to produce a Heisman winner. Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson were Heisman finalists, and running back Travis Etienne finished a well-deserved 7th in 2018 and 9th in 2019. Will Shipley is good enough to enter the chat here, as long as new OC Garrett Riley remembers to give his Christian McCaffrey clone the football in 2023.
Shipley tallied over 1,750 total yards rushing, receiving, and in the return game in 2022, with 15 touchdowns.
If he eclipses 2,000 in all phases and pushes his touchdown numbers over 20 in 2023, a Heisman Trophy could follow. Shipley doesn’t need to win the Heisman Trophy for Clemson to return to the College Football Playoff in 2023, but a Heisman-type season would show that Riley solved what was glaringly obvious to most neutrals in 2022: Shipley is Clemson’s best player and the Tigers are best when he touches the football early and often.
New offensive coordinator Garrett Riley just produced over 2,000 yards of rushing offense with Emari Demercado and Kendre Miller at TCU. What he’ll do with Shipley, a more well-rounded back than both of those terrific Horned Frogs backs, is an intriguing question.
7. Will the offensive line be better?
Clemson’s offensive line ranked 71st in sacks allowed, 75th in pressures allowed, and graded out as just the 9th-best unit in the ACC, per Pro Football Focus. Clemson’s biggest issue up front might be coaching or it might be a lack of talent panning out, but something is clearly wrong.
The 2020 class, heralded when it entered the program including 4 top-150 recruits, has produced just one regular starter, guard Walker Parks. The 2021 class has not been much better with only Marcus Tate starting up front as a true freshman (rare at Clemson) and again in 2022. Tristan Leigh, a 5-star tackle rated as one of the top 15 players in the country in the 2021 recruiting class, hasn’t played 50 snaps in his career. Why?
Whatever the reason for the failure to get the talent coming in to produce, offensive line coach Thomas Austin has his work cut out for him in 2022. The Tigers simply must be better up front.
8. Was the South Carolina loss a one-off?
Clemson’s 7-game win streak over hated South Carolina wasn’t going to last forever any more than Steve Spurrier’s vexing streak over the Tigers was going to last forever. The way it ended is what chafes Clemson fans, who weren’t expecting the nation’s longest home winning streak, along with Clemson’s College Football Playoff dreams, to expire at home against a 7-4 Gamecocks squad.
But here we are and it’s a new day in the Palmetto state. Or is it? Clemson winning in Columbia next November would certainly go a long way to restoring order to Clemson’s universe, and given the fact that 3 of Clemson’s last 6 losses have come at the hands of SEC football programs, it would help alleviate fears of Clemson falling behind in the regional footprint as well.
9. Can Clemson seamlessly replace the great BT Potter at kicker?
Forget, for a moment that BT Potter missed 2 early field goals in the Orange Bowl that hurt Clemson in its efforts to seize early momentum. The reality is the Clemson kicker was one of the best in program history, and he leaves school as the all-time leading scorer. Potter also holds the ACC record for PATs.
Potter was one of a handful of kickers invited to the NFL Combine, an accomplishment in its own right and a testament to just what Clemson is losing in terms of talent and stability at the position. Nolan Hauser, the nation’s No. 1 rated kicker in the 2024 class, committed to Clemson in November. But the gap to Hauser must be bridged by St. Petersburg, Fla., product Robert Gunn III, who has yet to kick a field goal in college. Yikes?
10. Will the secondary be the strength of the 2023 defense?
At D-Line U, the question has usually been whether the back end of the Clemson defense can hold up to the front end’s production. That trend may be reversed in 2023, where Clemson returns the bulk of a group that had a productive 2022, despite injuries. Nate Wiggins returns at corner after an MVP caliber performance at the ACC Championship, including this 98-yard interception return for a touchdown.
— Luke Winstel (@lukewinstel) December 4, 2022
The Tigers also return Malcolm Greene, a team captain and star nickelback who missed all 3 of Clemson’s losses after suffering an injury in the middle of the season. His leadership and tackling ability were sorely missed, especially in the Orange Bowl, when the Tigers started 2 freshman and a sophomore in the secondary. Sheridan Jones was the team’s top corner from a PFF grade standpoint, and he’s also back. Avieon Terrell is a player to watch in the spring — the younger brother of Falcons All-Pro AJ Terrell, he’s expected to push for playing time early in 2023. At safety, RJ Mickens is as capable a strong safety as any in the ACC and Jalyn Phillips, one of Clemson’s 2022 captains, will lock things down at the free spot. This is an outstanding group that has the potential to be the best unit on the defense.