Why Clemson's season is starting to feel a little like 2014 Florida State
Three weeks ago, I went to bat for Clemson.
I argued that by beating Texas A&M in the fashion that it did — the Aggies didn’t score a touchdown until there were 6 seconds left in the game — we could put to bed the narrative that Clemson would struggle against an SEC schedule.
That was against an A&M team that heading into that matchup looked plenty worthy of being in the top 15, not a team that held on for dear life against Arkansas.
Also keep in mind that was coming off one of the most dominant seasons in the 21st century, during which Clemson beat 3 SEC teams, including a blowout victory against Alabama. You don’t win 2 of the past 3 national championships and go 8-1 vs. a conference during a 3-year stretch by accident.
But after what we saw from the Tigers on Saturday in that down-to-the-wire game against UNC, I can’t help but wonder if this is 2014 Florida State all over again.
For those of you who’d rather continue to read this column instead of Googling “2014 Florida State,” I’ll save you the trip.
The Jimbo Fisher-led Seminoles completed one of the most dominant seasons in the 21st century in 2013 and started as the 2014 preseason No. 1 with Jameis Winston. And then week by week, FSU struggled to put its foot on the gas like it did the previous season. It got through a relatively down ACC and went unbeaten in the regular season with 7 wins by 2 scores or less to close out the 13-0 start … only to get blasted by Oregon in the Playoff semifinals.
Isn’t it starting to feel like Clemson could be heading down that path? Strictly in an on-the-field sense, the Winston/Trevor Lawrence comp about their Year 2 regression is already playing out.
Winston, who won the Heisman in 2013, became an interception machine the following season. Even as FSU racked up the wins, Winston’s numbers took a nosedive, which was partially why FSU dropped out of the No. 1 spot in the second weekend of October (Clemson just dropped from No. 1 to No. 2):
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Now I know what you might be thinking. This is a different situation because FSU returned 3 offensive line starters and lost key offensive weapons in Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman. Lawrence, on the other hand, returned his top 3 offensive weapons in Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Travis Etienne and had 4 of 5 starting offensive linemen back.
But based on what we’ve seen from Lawrence, would one even know that? Look at his numbers through 5 games compared to last year:
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Lawrence won’t throw 18 interceptions this year like Winston did in 2014, but the accuracy and efficiency have certainly not been at the levels we expected when he entered 2019 as the Heisman Trophy favorite. And that’s not to say Lawrence won’t figure it out. He certainly could. It just feels like now that there’s more of a book on how to defend him, coordinators are preparing better and forcing him to fit the ball into tighter windows.
And here’s the bizarre thing — it’s not all on Lawrence. A Clemson running attack that returned Etienne and 4 of 5 offensive line starters from last year’s unit — which didn’t allow a sack against Alabama in the national championship — is only ranked No. 26 in the country in rushing.
After the UNC debacle, Clemson offensive linemen expressed their frustrations that they only had 4 carries go to tailbacks in the 2nd half. On the whole, Etienne’s numbers are solid (93 rushing yards per game, 6.9 yards per carry). But after he racked up 205 rushing yards in that absurd opening weekend performance against Georgia Tech, Etienne averaged 64.3 rushing yards on 14 carries per game.
It’s strange. Though I suppose unlike Winston’s negative headline-filled offseason that preceded FSU’s 2014 season, there’s not necessarily an easy, all-encompassing scapegoat for Clemson’s rather lackluster 5-0 start.
It would be one thing if we were talking about Clemson’s defensive line really struggling after the mass exodus it experienced this offseason, but that hasn’t been the case at all. The Tigers are allowing 12 points per game, which is actually a shade better than last year’s No. 1 defense, which allowed 13.1 per contest.
Even a vulnerable Clemson team still looks plenty capable of rolling through the ACC, much like Florida State did in 2014. A home game against No. 22 Wake Forest is the lone remaining game against a currently-ranked opponent. Well, besides a potential ACC Championship game in which the Tigers would face some borderline Top 25 team from the worst division in Power 5.
We didn’t know it at the time, but in the final 9 games of the regular season, 2014 Florida State faced 1 team that finished in the AP Top 25. Only 2 of those wins were by 3 scores.
If I’m a Clemson fan, that’s my biggest concern. This, clearly, is a flawed team. It isn’t 2018 anymore. And even if the Tigers figure some things out on offense and start winning a few more blowouts, could they be in for a rude awakening come Playoff time at the hands of someone like Ohio State or Alabama? Maybe. Or maybe we’re all just overreacting to Clemson narrowly winning against UNC because it now faces Alabama-level scrutiny with every game it plays.
Time will tell if that’s the case. Time will tell if Clemson follows the path of 2014 Florida State.
Whatever the case, now would be a good time for the defending champs to change course.