ATLANTA — One advantage in preparing for a bowl game is that a coaching staff has time to reshape its team’s identity, if necessary. There are 15 practices leading up to a postseason game, essentially another spring practice.
When Clemson learned it was to play LSU on Dec. 31 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, it was immediately clear to coach Dabo Swinney what retooling his team required: Clemson must become more physical.
LSU possesses a top 10 defense loaded with first-round talent. The LSU offensive line is massive, averaging more than 315 pounds per player. LSU physically outmatched South Carolina in a win over the Gamecocks this fall, and it was South Carolina that won the line-of-scrimmage battles for a fourth straight year against Clemson last month.
So, this month Swinney ushered in the most physically demanding bowl practice in his tenure at Clemson.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s third and 10, (LSU) will run the power right at you, so you better be prepared for that,” Swinney said. “This is a (LSU) team that is going to line up and a lot of the time there is going to be one wide receiver on the field. You watch LSU play the game, and that’s how they play. Their style of play is a little different.”
How is Clemson attempting to become more physical?
Clemson has implemented more ‘good-on-good’ practice reps, featuring the first-team offense against the first-team defense. Swinney has allowed some live tackling, which means first-team defenders are permitted to tackle first-team offensive players in scrimmage situations. Swinney barred this practice completely under former coordinator Kevin Steele.
Clemson middle linebacker Spencer Shuey said the practices have often focused on Clemson — not LSU.
“It’s been more about correcting our mistakes,” Shuey said, “and a lot of time that’s about being more physical when you hit people.”
Some Clemson fans question Clemson’s strength and conditioning program, but Swinney has defended strength coach Joey Batson on numerous occasions.
A reporter asked LSU coach Les Miles on Friday how he has fostered a culture of physical toughness at LSU.
“It’s interesting, we practice a significant portion of every day against LSU,” Miles said. “And I think that kind of tunes us as best we can. And I don’t know that live tacking is the answer. I think it’s a small piece of that. (Most important) is a quality competitive practice that would require going against the best that you have and I don’t know that that’s anything special.”
Like LSU, Clemson has sent its first-team offense against its first-team defense often in bowl practice. But unlike LSU, Clemson runs an unconventional offense that might actually hinder its defense in preparing for a conventional attack like LSU’s.
Defensive coordinators paired with up-tempo, no-huddle offenses have privately grumbled that being paired with such offenses makes it more difficult to practice effectively.
Earlier this year, The Post and Courier found up-tempo offenses negatively affect a program’s defense.
Of the 31 teams to run more than 1,000 offensive plays in a season since 2008, 20 of the teams had defenses ranked 50th or worse in yards allowed, nine of those teams ranked 80th or lower and six ranked 100th or worse. Only four ranked in the top 20 of total defense.
Still, Swinney thinks both his offense and defense are well prepared.
“People think you have to line up in I formation to be physical, that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Swinney said. “We have elements of everything in our offense. We pride ourselves in being a very physical football team.
“I’m confident with how we have prepared. We have tried to give our guys the best chance to win on game day.”