The Q&A comes in hot this week, like the morning after eating at a Szechuan restaurant. We chatted with Matt Goldin of the esteemed Clemson SBN blog, Shakin the Southland.
Georgia Tech hasn’t beaten Clemson since 2014, but this year’s iteration of the Tigers are likewise 5-4 and missing the coordinators and QBs that rocketed Clemson into the National Title conversation for the better part of a decade. Is Dabo’s refusal to use the portal catching up with him? Was Tyler from Spartanburg a plant? Which Clemson are we expecting on Saturday - the team from the first 8 games of the season, or the one that upset a good Notre Dame team last week? Read below to find out!
1. Clemson looked like a different team against Notre Dame last week than they have all season. What changed? Was Tyler from Spartanburg a plant that Dabo used to help fire up his team?
A big thing that spurred Clemson was finally feeding running back Phil Mafah. Clemson is blessed with two talented running backs in Mafah and Will Shipley, but Shipley has struggled some this year while getting the lion’s share of the carries. Shipley was out with a concussion last week and Clemson fed Mafah 38 times and he racked up 182 yards and 2 TDs. Shipley is on track to be back this week, and I hope that Mafah’s performance means we’ll see him get used more. While I don’t think we can expect to see Phil get nearly 40 touches every game, I think we have to give him the bulk and find other ways to use Shipley’s athleticism in the offense.
From everything I have been told by folks in the know, Tyler from Spartanburg is a real person and the call was not planned. But I absolutely understand why people are skeptical. I do think as Dabo was listening to the call he knew he had a great opportunity to light a fire under his team and Clemson fans. I definitely felt like the whole team had a different attitude on Saturday. Sometimes I think people forget how Dabo can be a master motivator, so I definitely believe he knew what he was doing with responding as he did.
2. It’s no secret that Dabo eschews the transfer portal for developing his own players. While that has worked in the pre-NIL era, do you feel like Clemson is fighting with a hand tied behind their backs not utilizing transfers? I know much has been made, until recently, of Dabo insisting on hiring from within rather than bringing in outside coaches / coordinators, but this seems like a bigger handicap to us outsiders of the program. Klubnik has been good, but not great, in 2023, and then DJ was mostly a disaster the 2 seasons prior - why not go out and get a QB? This is a long way to say that I don’t see a way for Clemson to start competing for titles again unless Dabo adapts... Not that Clemson won’t be good, but it may look like a ceiling of 9 or 10 wins per season otherwise. What are your thoughts?
Yeah, the portal is a huge handicap. Over the last 5 years Clemson has had something like 48 guys transfer out of the program, and while the majority of those guys weren’t receiving significant snaps, that’s still 48 slots that could be used to fill problem areas. Instead the scholarships have mostly been given to walk ons, and while I can absolutely appreciate rewarding walk ons who work hard, it does handicap you when everyone else is replacing the guys they lose with equal or better talent.
I think some of Dabo’s lack of using the portal this year came because he did not expect so many of our defensive stars to return and that led Clemson to be over 85 scholarships for most of the offseason. There was simply no room to bring in outside players. I think seeing the struggles we have that Dabo and the staff will use the portal this off-season to fill some gaps. If Clemson doesn’t use the portal, I have to agree that the team probably isn’t going to be able to get back to that next level.
3. The same week that Paul Johnson was on campus for his HOF induction ceremony a couple weeks ago, Brent Key and OC Buster Faulkner told the press they had consulted with him to start incorporating more option concepts with Haynes King. We saw a lot of zone read and inverted veer against both UNC and UVA in the last 2 weeks. If Tech runs a rocket toss next week, is it going to bring on PTSD for the Clemson faithful? I know that was commonly referred to as the “Clemson killer” from my friends who are Tiger fans. More broadly, how do you feel about the flexbone / triple option offense in 2023? Is it a relic of times passed, or should P5 teams without the budgets of your Bamas, UGAs, and Clemsons be more open to it?
Clemson had gotten really, really good at smothering that option toward the end of Paul Johnson’s time, and if Tech was still a true option team I would feel pretty comfortable about defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin using Brent Venables blueprint to handle it. But it definitely makes me nervous that Tech is bringing back some option concepts, and I hope Clemson has worked on those.
It was such a good equalizer for Tech back in the day. I played high school ball in Georgia around the time CPJ began his time at Tech and it definitely led to a resurgence in option offenses in high school. And if nothing else, it assures your opposition has the most miserable week of practice imaginable. I think for some of the programs that lack what the Clemsons, UGAs, Bamas, etc. have it can absolutely be a great system in 2023.
4. From looking at point totals, the Clemson defense seems to be performing admirably this season. Who’s a star that we should look out for? What position group are you most worried about with the Yellow Jackets coming to town this weekend?
The defensive line is once again very talented and very deep. I expect them to continue to show out against Tech. Clemson’s defensive backfield is also very talented, but had some injuries before the Notre Dame game that meant some young guys had to step in. Those guys played great, but it definitely allowed Notre Dame to expose some things and keep them in the game. I think that will be the group to watch to see if Clemson is once again playing talented but young safeties or if R.J. Mickens and Jalyn Phillips will be able to make their returns.
5. For those of us heading to Clemson this weekend, which is a lovely, short trip from Atlanta, where should we be eating and drinking while we’re there?
I’d definitely say the world famous Esso Club is a must when in Tiger Town. It looks right now while Saturday will by dry, so their gameday set up in the parking lot is great with beer outdoor bar trailers and big TVs. The inside of Esso is also amazing but it can definitely get crowded in there so if you want to be inside, get there early. My favorite downtown bars are TD’s and Tiger Town Tavern. Tiger Town Tavern (commonly called TTT’s) can be crowded but also has a patio bar that might be easier to get food and drink orders at. TDs has a front and back bar and they usually can get something cold in your hand pretty quickly even with gameday crowds. Both TDs and TTT’s also have good bar food, particularly the wings. Backstreets is another favorite for wings, and is also know for their liquor drink pitchers.
6. Clemson is a 2 touchdown favorite this weekend, according to Vegas. Can the Tigers retain their momentum from last week against ND? Does Clemson cover?
After Notre Dame I feel better about Clemson covering 14 points, but I am not super confident either way on this one. Right now I’m thinking Clemson wins like 31-17, but definitely could see it being much closer. It’s hard to know with this team if they have turned the corner or if it will be another close one like the Miami or Wake Forest games.
Thanks again to Matt for taking the time to chat with us this week. You can read my end of the Q&A over at STS right here.
Kickoff is at noon on Saturday.