Our opponent Q&A series continues this week with Ryan Kantor of Clemson’s SBNation blog, Shakin The Southland. Ryan was kind enough to answer my questions, and my answers to his questions about the Yellow Jackets will be posted over at STS tomorrow.
The usually-terrifying Clemson offense got off to a slow start this season, and we here at FTRS were feeling way better about this game until last week... so what caused their early struggles, and what seemed to click all of a sudden?
Obviously playing a weak FCS can make most ACC teams look good, but there's more to it than that. In an interview before last week's win over SC State, Deshaun Watson admitted feeling the burden of expectations and not having fun on the field. He vowed to changed that and it seems he was able to consciously change his attitude and that of his team. They were dominant and enjoying the moment (at one point a defensive lineman was dancing to stadium music while waiting for the opposing offense to get on the field).
From an execution standpoint, the wide receiving corps played much better last week than in the first two (they registered eight drops against Troy). Against SC State, Deon Cain had an acrobatic TD catch. Ray-Ray McCloud excelled in his first start (following the Hunter Renfrow injury). Diondre Overton, a highly-touted freshman, caught his first TD. This all goes hand-in-hand with Watson making better decisions and having better communication with his receivers. They looked much more in-sync on Saturday and I don't believe that's just a matter of competition level.
Despite seemingly putting their entire defense in the NFL last season, there doesn't seem to be much or any regression from that group - who's been the biggest play maker to emerge so far?
Brent Venables is among the best defensive coordinators in the nation. Since coming over from Oklahoma, you've really seen the rise and (slight) fall of the two programs. He's a big reason Clemson is able to continue to field top defenses while breaking in so many new players.
Clemson lost DE Austin Bryant in the pre-season to a foot injury (he may be back in a week or two). This forced one of Clemson's best defensive players, DT Christian Wilkins, to move to defense end to fill the void (losing Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford to the NFL and then losing Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd to the NFL in consecutive off-seasons will deplete your depth).
DT Scott Pagano, who would start for 90% of FBS teams, was expected to start in Wilkins vacated DT tackle spot, but instead five-star 340lbs freshman Dexter Lawrence has split the snaps with him and is listed on the first-team of the depth chart. This is where great recruiting plays a big role.
With Lawrence's size, he can stuff the run, but he's also shockingly quick and can get after the QB. He and Scott Pagano are two who have stepped up, and then you have to give a lot of credit to Christian Wilkins who has played well at a new position while filling in for an injured teammate. Wilkins is a great athlete and a great team player.
I liked this question, so I'll ask you the same, what position matchup gives you the most concern facing Georgia Tech this season?
We just discussed Clemson starting a defensive tackle, Christian Wilkins, at strong-side defensive end. Opposite him is first year starter Clelin Ferrell. Will they be able to play perfect assignment football against an option attack that preys on mistakes? Inexperience there may yield some big plays so we'll see if GT can take advantage.
After appearing in the National Title game last year, anything short of that will be a regression, so what are the fan's expectations for Clemson this year? I know they're a popular pick for champion, but it's almost unheard of to make a repeat in that game outside of the Crimson Tide... just looking at FSU and tOSU as recent examples. What's your realistic prediction for Clemson this season? Will fans be satisfied with anything less than a title?
In my season preview article I had Clemson at 11-1. Depending on where that loss falls, it could preclude Clemson from participating in another college football playoff. What's tough now as a fan, is to enjoy a really good season that doesn't top last year. We were so close and feel like we should have won the title, but had some key injuries, suspensions, and silly mistakes that Alabama (of course) capitalized on.
After this year, with most of the offense departing, expectations can reset, but it will be hard to feel satisfied without a national championship, as unreasonable as that may be, in what is likely the final year we watch Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Wayne Gallman in orange.
So what's stronger, Clemson's curse at Bobby Dodd Stadium, or Deshaun Watson? On a related note, how do see this game playing out?
As an Atlantan, this is among my favorite games we play each year. A home game against GT was the first Clemson game I attended and a year later a visit to Bobby Dodd was the first game in which Clemson football broke my heart.
We've come into Bobby Dodd as favorites and left defeated so many times in recent memory. There was the torn ACL in 2014. Of course we had the phantom holding call against Thomas Austin a few years prior. That said, I'm not superstitious. I don't believe in sports curses unless the players do and I think the coaches will be able to use past failures to focus the team despite Louisville looming.
Georgia Tech's offense looked good against Vandy, so I don't predict Clemson to hold the Yellow Jackets below 20 points, but I think this is the game (nationally televised) where Clemson's offense reminds everyone why expectations were so high.
Thanks again to Ryan for answering our questions. We’re looking forward to hosting this game Thursday night. Wear white.