Friedlander: Clemson has nobody to blame but itself for its demise
It won’t be the committee’s fault that Clemson is left out of the College Football Playoff for the 2nd year in a row. It won’t have anything to do with the national media’s infatuation with the SEC and Big Ten or any other external factor.
The Tigers have nobody but themselves to blame.
Dabo Swinney’s team didn’t just prove its detractors right on Saturday with a 31-30 loss to South Carolina that ended any hopes of sneaking into the top 4 of the Playoff rankings.
It also exposed several of the fatal flaws it had succeeded in hiding since the midway point in the season.
Getting away with spotty quarterback play and a penchant for turning the ball over against the likes of Syracuse, Louisville and a Miami team that has quit on its coach is one thing. But it was only a matter of time before those problems eventually caught up with Clemson and cost it a game.
It finally happened against the Gamecocks. At the worst possible time.
Besides the Playoff implications, the loss snapped both the Tigers’ 7-game winning streak in the Palmetto Bowl rivalry, along with their ACC-record 40-game winning streak at Death Valley. It also rendered next week’s ACC Championship Game against North Carolina into a virtual afterthought.
In retrospect, we should have seen it coming.
Clemson has been asking for something like this to happen for the past month. It averaged 3 giveaways per game in each of its previous 4 outings but was able to get away with it because of the caliber of its opponents.
Only Notre Dame on Nov. 5 was able to take advantage of the Tigers’ generosity.
It started out well enough. A pick-6 by linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and an impressive 8-play, 90-yard drive staked Clemson to an early 14-0 lead that was an extension of the past 5 meetings, in which the Tigers have won by an average of 31.8 points.
The breaks continued to go Clemson’s way, even after the Gamecocks ended a 9-quarter touchdown drought in the series midway through the 2nd quarter. A favorable call on what appeared to be a backward pass, a safety and an R.J. Mickens interception of Spencer Rattler in the end zone kept the Tigers ahead 23-14 at halftime.
But then their self-destructive tendencies began to kick in.
First came the ejection of Mickens on a targeting call that further depleted a secondary already in the process of being picked apart.
While Rattler was gaining confidence on the way to a 25-of-39, 360-yard, 2-touchdown performance, it quickly became clear that Swinney and his embattled offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter were quickly losing confidence in their quarterback.
Twice earlier in the season, the Clemson staff pulled Uiagalelei in favor of freshman Cade Klubnik when things weren’t going well for their starter. The results were varied.
If ever there was an occasion to try the move again, Saturday was it.
This time, though, Swinney and Streeter stayed with Uiagalelei. And it backfired.
The inconsistent junior completed only 4-of-10 1st-half passes for 78 yards, most of which came on a single 59-yard completion to Beaux Collins. He was even less effective after halftime, going 3-of-16 for 13 yards with a costly interception while forcing the Tigers to rely almost exclusively on the ground game and a defense that did everything it could to hold onto the lead.
It took until the 10:54 mark of the 4th quarter for that to slip away.
Even then, Clemson had several opportunities to rally for the field goal that would have pulled the game out and rescued, at least for the time being, its fleeting Playoff hopes.
The last of them ended when Antonio Williams fumbled the ball away on a punt return with just over 2 minutes remaining.
“Sometimes you get in the game and momentum can go against you, emotion of the game,” Swinney said. “I’m not sure we handled that very well.”
There’s no question that emotion and the desperation of a rival that hadn’t experienced a win in the series since 2013 played a part in the Tigers’ demise Saturday.
But there are other, more serious issues at play.
Issues such as Swinney’s decision to promote the untested Streeter after his previous play-caller Tony Elliott left to take the head coaching job at Virginia, the significant dropoff in the quality of the program’s receiving corps and its seemingly unwavering loyalty to Uiagalelei.
As was the case a year ago, this is not a vintage Clemson team. As the detractors have been saying all along, these Tigers aren’t worthy of a spot in the final 4.
The Tigers stand at 10-2 with an opportunity to win their 7th ACC championship in the past 8 years next week not because of the quality of their roster or their performance, but rather because this is the worst ACC season since 2013, when 9 of its 14 teams were just 1 game over .500 or less. But that year, FSU won it all.
The good news for both Clemson and the ACC is that the Playoff will be expanding to 12 teams sooner than later. And with automatic bids going to the 6 highest-rated conferences, the league’s champion is all but guaranteed of getting in.
But without some serious soul-searching by Swinney and improvement on the part of his fellow ACC coaches, the inclusion will be little more than a participation trophy.