Are Clemson’s days at the top of the sport numbered? This offseason has had all the takes about the Tigers. Dabo isn’t adapting to the times. Clemson is falling behind on NIL and the transfer portal. Both coordinators are gone, and Dabo is going to the internal promotional well one too many times. Seriously, do you know how bad DJ’s numbers were last year? Clemson’s reign is over.
To quote our friend Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”
Clemson took a step back last year, sure. And they still finished with 10 wins and were 6th in our postseason version of The Binion Index. Heading into 2022, TBI has Clemson 3rd, with an elite 30.6 rating. Bill Connelly’s ratings put slightly more weight on the immediately preceding season, but still, SP+ has Clemson 6th.
It’s too early to be throwing dirt on the grave of this outstanding era of Clemson football. They sit at 36th in Connelly’s returning production numbers and 4th in 247’s Team Talent Index. They have the kind of track record that makes “progression to the mean” their likeliest outcome this season. Let’s take a look at the roster and potential areas of strength and weakness.
Brent Venables and Tony Elliott?
These are the two losses that are first to come up in most offseason Clemson conversations. After almost a decade of unheard of stability on its coaching staff, Clemson finally saw two of its mainstays receive long-anticipated head-coaching opportunities, as Venables has assumed the head post in Norman, and Tony Elliott will try to reboot things at UVA. Both coordinators were replaced from within the Clemson staff, as Wes Goodwin takes over the defense, and Brandon Streeter will run the offense.
It’s hard to project the impact of these changes, but personally, I see them more along the lines of the nearly perpetual coordinator replacements that Nick Saban has had to make than I do some kind of program-altering loss for the Tigers. One data point in that direction: Clemson lost almost nothing to the transfer portal. Like it or not, Dabo is the architect and cultivator of the Clemson culture, and guys continue to buy into it even after the coordinator departures.
WR Justyn Ross
A mediocre receiving corps lost its most productive member, as Justyn Ross left Clemson following a 46-513-3 season. His explosiveness had certainly decreased from before his injury, but Ross was still DJU’s favorite target, and Clemson will have to find their newest dynamic receiver this year if the offense is to rebound from last year’s doldrums.
LBs James Skalski and Baylon Spector
The two mainstays in Clemson’s linebacking corps have finally moved one, with Spector getting drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the seventh round of the NFL Draft. Their replacements are almost certainly more talented, but these guys were such an extension of Venables’s mind on the field that there may be a growing pain or two during the transition.
CBs Andrew Booth Jr. and Mario Goodrich
The biggest personnel loss is likely this one. Clemson’s top two cornerbacks are gone after an outstanding season of pass defense. PFF loved this duo, grading Goodrich at 84.4 and Booth at 78.4. Despite injury concerns, Booth still went in the second round of the NFL Draft, while Goodrich will try to make good on a UDFA deal with the Eagles. There’s still plenty of talent here though, and David Hale ranks Clemson’s defensive backs second in the conference:
Really like the 3 groups at the top, really concerned about 2 at bottom. Middle is tough to rank.— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) June 15, 2022
DB rankings (w/breaks for tiers)
1. NC State
3. Boston College
6. Florida State
That terrifying, stupefying, unfair defensive line
Dabo Swinney has commented that this group will have seven NFL draftees, and it’s hard to argue against him. Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy are the headliners; Xavier Thomas, KJ, Henry, and Tyler Davis would be the best defensive lineman on all but about 10 teams. Speaking with my Georgia Tech goggles on, the offensive line questions/concerns/failures that have plagued the Jackets and persist into 2022 are probably not going to be alleviated on September 5th. This group is as good as any CFB position group that I can remember in recent years.
TE Beaux Collins and WR Joseph Ngata
If one of Clemson’s returning pass-catchers is going to become a true playmaker, it is likely one of these two guys. Collins put up 31-407-3 last year, while Ngata posted a line of 23-438-1; that 19.0 yard per catch average for Ngata is the headline. These are two guys with outstanding pedigrees and athleticism. One of them, if not both, needs to double their 2021 production to help Clemson regain some offensive footing.
LB Trenton Simpson
Here’s the number one reason why the Skalski and Spector departures likely won’t be too painful. Simpson is awesome. After putting up 12.5 tackles for a loss last year while splitting snaps, he looks to move inside and play more of an every day kind of role. He’s a leading candidate for first-team All-ACC honors and will be the coach of the defense. Playing next to Barrett Carter, Simpson will join to create quite an imposing pair of linebackers.
RB Will Shipley
Shipley had an injury-plagued true freshman season but still managed to dazzle. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns behind a mediocre offensive line. He’s a shifty back but needs to develop into more of a threat receiving to increase his potential impact. Last year’s mediocre line returns 79% of its snaps; Shipley looks healthy. How far can that combination raise the floor of this offense?
QB Cade Klubnik
The lauded true freshman turned some heads in spring practice and has the Clemson faithful wondering whether DJU to Klubnik in 2022 will be the new iteration of Bryant to Lawrence in 2018. Is it just a matter of time until Klubnik starts? Is DJU a placeholder for the benign September schedule that Clemson faces? Will Swinney and Streeter get Klubnik some reps throughout those first four games and turn things over to him for NC State week? If DJU looks anything like he did last year, the staff has to hand the car keys over sooner than later. That’s the decision that will likely define Clemson’s season. The head coach made the right call last time, and it will be fascinating to see how he handles this version of the QB question.
The Binion Index pegs Clemson as the 3rd best team in the country and projects 11 wins against a schedule that looks quite manageable outside of a trip to South Bend in November. The odds of a Clemson rebound are far higher than a further performance dip. This defense could rival the output of the UGA defense from last year, and there are certainly enough pieces on the offense to provide a compliment for that wrecking ball on the other side.
For the season opener, TBI would make Clemson a 35 point favorite against GT. Subjectively, that seems a little high to me given the offense question marks, but GT will be hard pressed to move the ball against that Clemson front.
Are you buying or selling the 1% chance that TBI gives GT to win in the Benz on Labor Day night?