The Q&A returns this week with a chat with Ryan Kantor, who’s among our friends over at Shakin the Southland. Make sure to check out my end of the Q&A over at STS right here. Otherwise, continue reading for his thoughts on replacing Trevor Lawrence, that Georgia game to open the season.
1. Were you able to learn anything about the Trevor-less Clemson offense between the first two games against wildly different teams? Are the preseason concerns about Clemson’s O-line warranted?
Clemson’s offense, at this moment, has taken a step back from the past few years. DJ Uiagalelei showed what he is capable of in his two starts last season so there’s no reason to panic, but he is off to a shaky start. Through two games he has just 349 passing yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs. He managed the pocket and used his legs much better last week, which is somewhat independent of the opponent so that’s encouraging. Part of the early struggle may also be on the receiving corps which is breaking in new starters and re-acclimating Justyn Ross (who was out last season with a spinal issue).
The offensive line should improve from a year ago. They looked bad against Georgia, but the Bulldogs may have the best defensive front in college football. They looked very good against SC State, but that’s an FCS team. I’m hoping Georgia Tech will give us a better gauge this weekend.
2. What did Georgia do well to hold the vaunted Clemson offense to 3 points? Was there anything beyond pure talent that stood out?
Eric Mac Lain explained this very well on the Gramlich & Mac Lain ACC Podcast (which I recommend for GT fans). Basically, Georgia played a lot of man defense with two high safeties. They didn’t need to blitz to get pressure on DJ and their defensive backs won their one-on-one matchups with Clemson’s receivers. They were also aided by Clemson’s own struggles with poor route running (the cause of the pick-six), poor pocket awareness by Uiagalelei (helping them get seven sacks), and play-calling that lacked creativity.
3. Venables’ defense looks as stout and complex as ever - who has made a name for themselves so far on that side of the ball early in this young season?
For all my complaints about Clemson’s offense through two weeks, this defense is ultra-elite. They have not allowed a TD yet this season. The defensive line looks significantly improved with last year’s top freshmen, DT Bryan Bresee and DE Myles Murphy, a year older. Although they lost their two primary back-ups at defensive tackle via transfer, DT Ruke Ohorohoro has stood out as a “first guy off the bench” that provides good depth in the middle. Clemson also got DEs Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster back after they struggled with some serious COVID-related health issues last year.
Getting LB James Skalski back for a sixth year was key. He is unfairly typecast as a slow physical college linebacker, but he is very fast, has a very high football-IQ, and will make a wise NFL team very happy next year. Baylon Spector is a fifth-year senior who is similarly overlooked. Trenton Simpson is a true sophomore who is starting at the SAM-linebacker spot. He is super athletic, but now is also playing under control.
As good as the front-seven are, the safety position was a concern coming into the season. It was an area where we thought there might not be enough depth. Then disaster struck as super senior Nolan Turner got hurt before the season (he has not played yet), and Lannden Zanders re-injured his surgically-repaired shoulder against Georgia and was declared out for the year. True freshman Andrew Mukuba started both of Clemson’s games and has looked superb. He has really made a name for himself and is a star in the making. Jalyn Phillips, Joseph Charleston, and RJ Mickens all seem to have improved from last year and have exceeded expectations after being called upon to play bigger than expected roles from the get go.
4. Clemson’s offense under Dabo has really only played at a championship level with generational talent at QB, whether that was Trevor Lawrence or Deshaun Watson. Does Uiagalelei have a high enough ceiling to get Clemson back to title contention?
Watson and Lawrence are obviously the two most memorable Clemson QBs, but don’t forget Clemson won the ACC Championship in 2011 and the Orange Bowl in 2013 with Tajh Boyd. Boyd is my favorite all-time Tiger and is now on the coaching staff, but I wouldn’t call him a generational talent. In 2017, Clemson was the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff with Kelly Bryant, a running-QB, at the helm. Given Clemson’s recruited talent and player development, the Tigers shouldn’t need a generational talent to win the ACC and make the College Football Playoff.
That said, here are the last seven non-Alabama quarterbacks to win a National Championship: Joe Burrow (LSU), Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Deshaun Watson (Clemson), Cardale Jones (Ohio State),
Jameis Winston (FSU), Cam Newton (Auburn), and Tim Tebow (Florida). Generally speaking, only Alabama has been able to win without elite QB play. Even Alabama, with their revamped modern offense, won their last two titles with first round draft picks at QB.
Does DJ Uiagalelei have the potential to play at that level? Considering he is a five-star prospect who did it in a small two-game sample last season, I think it would be silly to argue he doesn’t. He obviously hasn’t shown it during the first two games of this season, but there is a myriad of potential reasons for that: added pressure of being the starter, NIL distractions, O-line issues, WR issues, or simply a slow start. I’m not concerned about DJ not having a high enough ceiling. We’ve already seen it. Now we just need him to start playing his A-game consistently.
5. The line for this game has Clemson as a 28.5-point favorite, which feels about right to me. I don’t see any scenario where the Yellow Jackets win this game outright, but what weakness would Tech need to take advantage of to make the home crowd sweat a little this weekend?
I just don’t see Tech’s offense doing enough to make this game competitive. Clemson’s defense has not shown any weaknesses and I think it is more likely Georgia Tech goes without an offensive touchdown than them scoring 28+.
On the other side of the ball, the Yellow Jackets could slow Clemson’s offense down if they are able to take away the running game. They need to make DJ throw to win and then have their defensive backs beat Clemson’s receivers. When that happened against Georgia, DJ hung onto the ball too long rather than throw into tight windows and the result was seven sacks and just three points. I’m not sure Tech has the raw talent to do that, but it isn’t unfathomable either.
6. Despite the current dynasty happening at Clemson, we here at FTRS generally find your crowd to be some of the most pleasant away fans to host in home years... and regardless of the on-field results, we generally look forward to Clemson fans tailgating in Midtown Atlanta with us. I’ve also never heard anyone say anything but wonderful things about the hospitality of Clemson fans when attending games at Memorial Stadium. Why do you think that is? What sets Clemson fans apart from some of our other conference brethren in that regard? It’s like you guys and Miami fans are not from the same planet.
I’ve had some positive experiences with other fan bases (Louisville and Auburn come to mind) and some disappointing ones (Miami, Florida State, and NC State standout). I think it is largely based on the culture of the area (think Southern hospitality) and the fan base. It’s also a bit about the rivalry. Alabama fans likely don’t have as nice things to say about Auburn fans as I do. Likewise, Gamecock fans likely don’t have quite the compliments to give us as you do. Clemson fans are proud of our campus and University and generally want opposing fans to have a positive experience so I think you’ll once again have a positive experience in Clemson, at least during the non-game portion of your trip.
Thanks again to Ryan and STS for taking the time to chat with us this week. I’ll actually be attending the game up at Clemson this weekend, so if you see me and it looks like I need a beer, then I definitely do.
Otherwise, kickoff is at Clemson at 3:30 tomorrow.