While this may not have been the matchup the ACC or ESPN thought it was when they put it on the schedule, the Syracuse Orange and Clemson Tigers still face off on Friday night with plenty on the line at the Carrier Dome. For SU, a win here would go a long way toward proving this year’s progress and getting closer to bowl eligibility. For Clemson, it’s almost essential to beat the Orange if they have any chance of remaining in contention for a conference title. So, totally the same...
Since we’re not Tigers fans, we went ahead and asked one about what to expect from Clemson on Saturday. Shakin the Southland’s Tom Dianora provides responses to our questions below. We provide some answers over there too, which you can check out.
This season isn’t going as expected for Clemson, clearly. And while you probably can’t put that all on just one thing, what’s the biggest cause for the Tigers’ struggles thus far?
This answer is easy at a macro level: It’s the offense, which has been anemic, although it did show signs of life in the last game against Boston College (19 points and over 400 yards count as progress these days; times are tough in Tiger Town).
More specifically within that, to your point, the issues reside pretty much everywhere, so I’m going to rehash a lot of what I said in my prior Q&A with BC Interruption. (It’s not plagiarism when you’re copying your own work!) When an offense is struggling this much, it’s never just one thing. The most obvious one is quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who has struggled as a signal caller in his first year as the full-time starter.
Uiagalelei has shown brief flashes of strong pocket presence, but all too often he looks tentative and jittery, especially when his first read isn’t open. We know the talent is there based on his recruiting profile and what we saw in his two starts last year, so a lot of it might be mental at this point, following a tough first game against an elite defense in Georgia, which might have shaken his confidence.
Beyond that, though, the cast around Uiagalelei has been underwhelming. That includes both players and the coaching staff. Of course, there’s no threat of Travis Etienne in the back field this year, and Clemson also does not have a true slot receiver like Amari Rodgers to serve as a safety valve for Uiagalelei. And the offensive line has not been good at all, especially in run blocking. It was similarly poor last year, but is somehow a bit worse this season. It might be time to stop blindly holding offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell in such high regard, because the OL has been a consistent weakness at Clemson beyond just the past couple of seasons, and it’s not as if the Tigers don’t have talented players on that unit.
Uiagalelei’s receivers haven’t been good either, as they are unable to consistently create separation. Sometimes when they do get open, Uiagalelei misses them by 10 feet, be it because of inaccuracy or miscommunication and misunderstanding of the route on his part. Then there are times when he throws an absolute rocket when instead a little more touch is needed. Other times, he makes a good throw, but the receiver has either not created enough separation, or he has run the wrong route. Meanwhile, the Tigers still have almost no threat with respect to the tight-end passing game.
Then, of course, there is the play-calling and overall offensive scheme. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott’s scheme is outdated, and with players struggling to execute, that issue is being magnified. At the same time, with these players not executing the most basic offensive plays, it’s also difficult for Elliott to call more exotic plays until they show proficiency with the basic stuff. But that doesn’t excuse him from not implementing a few fresh plays that aren’t difficult but also aren’t so predictable. I.e., something other than a sequence of inside zone run/wide receiver bubble screen/incomplete slant pass would be nice. That was most of the NC State game, which was absolutely brutal to watch.
Do you think that Clemson falling back to the pack a bit in the ACC this year is the start of a longer-term course-correction, or just a blip?
It can be a blip if Dabo Swinney and the powers that be want it to be only that, and are not afraid to make some changes. I think the offense will be better by next season, as the players (Uiagalelei in particular) will have grown more comfortable. And Clemson’s talent compared to the rest of the conference is still superior. But the Tigers could start trending down in the coming years if they aren’t careful. I will again reiterate a very slightly edited version of what I said in the BC Q&A:
I truly hope this is just a year of growing pains and development, and that the elite Clemson program we’ve seen for the better part of the past decade is back next season. But I think returning to that form requires some level of change, and I worry that Dabo Swinney will be reluctant to instill that change. With the talent Clemson has in place, this can be a quick recovery, but Swinney has to look at some staffing decisions, and some philosophical changes (e.g., taking transfers). If he is resistant to these types of changes, Clemson could be looking at long-term mediocrity down the road, as much as that pains me to say.
For this year, like I mentioned, it’s tough to see the offense getting to a championship level. The ACC is certainly still in play; even though the Tigers don’t control their own destiny thanks to the loss to NC State, that NC State team is not very good in my opinion, and will likely lose at least two conference games. The problem, though, is that Clemson does not look like a team that’s going to run the table.
I think the goal should still be another conference crown this season, but realistically, I expect a couple more losses and a record around 8-4, which may or may not be enough to get them into the ACC championship game.
If not Clemson, who do you think is the favorite to win the ACC this season?
It’s the ACC, so who’s to say? But at this point, if not Clemson, I would pick Pitt out of the chaotic Coastal division.
Syracuse’s last upset of Clemson was on a Friday night at the Dome. Do you see any similarities between that 2017 matchup and this one?
Yes. Besides the Friday night at the dome, Clemson is coming in with less-than-elite QB play (I’m sorry; Kelly Bryant was not that good) and their worst offense since 2017 (although that unit looks like the 1999-00 St. Louis Rams compared to this one). And Syracuse boasts a mobile quarterback who might give the Tigers trouble. It’s definitely a worrisome game.
While Clemson’s had the better rushing attack for pretty much all of the matchups with Syracuse since we joined the ACC, the Orange would appear to have the advantage this time around with Sean Tucker and QB Garrett Shrader. How do you think the Tigers shut down one or both players on the ground?
I alluded to it in one of my earlier answers, but the linebackers will be critical in limiting Shrader’s mobility and in stopping Tucker from consistently getting to the secondary. Clemson still has stud defensive ends in Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas (who was a monster against BC), but the depth along the interior of the line has taken a hit with injuries to Bryan Bresee (out for the year with a torn ACL) and Tyler Davis (out for another 4-5 weeks with a torn bicep tendon). Ruke Orhorhoro has stepped in capably, but depth is an issue there, so the linebackers (Skalski, Simpson, and Spector) will have to clean up a lot when it comes to stopping the run. They are more than capable, but it will be a challenge.
In general, the Tigers’ defense has still been pretty excellent despite offensive struggles. Where does Brent Venables’s group excel most?
The defensive line has traditionally been the strength of Venables’ great defenses at Clemson, but with the aforementioned injuries, the veteran leadership in the linebacking corps (namely Skalski and Spector) will have to take the reins. But for Venables, what has made him so successful is his ability to adjust to his personnel and disguise his blitz packages to find unique ways to bring pressure. His ability to adjust is something the rest of the Clemson staff should learn from, but I digress.
For example, in 2019, the Tigers no longer had any of the four “Power Rangers” from the defensive line in 2018 (Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant). But they did have a freak athlete at linebacker in Isaiah Simmons, and a good secondary, so Venables employed a 3-3-5 defense for most of the season, instead of his typical 4-3 base. Up until Clemson ran into the historically great LSU offense that season, the defense was elite once again. With the injuries along the defensive line this season, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more 3-3-5 alignments, but either way, Venables is flexible enough to do what’s going to put his unit in the best position to succeed.
Which unsung Clemson player should SU fans get a little more familiar with?
I’ll give you one on each side of the ball, and both are freshmen. On offense, running back Phil Mafah is someone to watch. He’s got a nice blend of size, speed, and shiftiness. Despite a strong showing in the spring game, he was going to be redshirted for this season given the Tigers’ prior depth at the position, but those plans changed when Lyn-J Dixon entered the transfer portal, and fellow freshman Will Shipley suffered a knee injury against NC State. (Thankfully, that one isn’t season-ending.)
Mafah debuted against Boston College on Oct. 2, and looked impressive in gaining 58 yards on just eight carries. Kobe Pace will likely still be the lead back, but Mafah will get some meaningful action
On defense, I’ve written a lot already about the defensive line and the linebackers, but in the secondary, freshman safety Andrew Mukuba has been a major bright spot for the Tigers. He looked great in his debut against Georgia, and that has continued. He’s a smart and athletic player who’s rarely out of position. He’s stepped up in a position group where Clemson’s depth was a question mark coming into the season.
Other than Tucker, which Syracuse player concerns you most?
Shrader being a dual-threat QB concerns me a bit. I think back to 2017 when Eric Dungey gave Clemson so much trouble. Shrader isn’t the player Dungey was, but his mobility is definitely worrisome. The interior of Clemson’s defensive line is depleted, so it’s all the more important that linebackers James Skalski, Trenton Simpson, and Baylon Spector keep an eye on Shrader if he has any time in the pocket and is looking to scramble.
Prediction time: Who wins this one and why?
This is going to be another tough game for Clemson, as all FBS ones seem to be this year. It’s a Friday night at the dome, which is spooky. I think the Tigers will squeak by thanks to a slowly improving offensive attack and a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort against Shrader, Tucker, and co. I also think there will be one or two turnovers in Clemson’s favor that swing the game. Clemson 23, Syracuse 16