CLEMSON — Halfway through the regular season, Clemson enters its bye week with a number of factors working in its favor, factors which could set up a second-half surge:
The Tigers are back in the Atlantic Division race after N.C. State upset Florida State on Saturday night, hours after Clemson’s 47-31 victory over Georgia Tech.
No. 16 Clemson is expected to be favored in the remainder of its conference games. The ACC again appears to lack impact teams, with only Clemson and No. 12 Florida State ranked in the Associated Press poll. The only game Clemson might not be favored in on its remaining schedule is when No. 3 South Carolina visits Clemson on Nov. 24.
Clemson (5-1, 2-1 ACC) is relatively healthy. The only significant player who is out for the season is defensive back Martin Jenkins. Brandon Ford (ankle) is expected to play when Clemson returns to action Oct. 20 at home against Virginia Tech.
Four of the Tigers’ six remaining games are at home.
And there is reason to believe the Tigers still have growth potential. Sammy Watkins, an All-American last season, has just 118 receiving yards through six weeks. Clemson’s struggling defense has faced two of the more difficult offenses on the schedule in Georgia Tech and Florida State the last three weeks. Clemson does not face a top-40 ranked offense the rest of the season.
Despite the favorable second-half outlook, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is taking a one-game-at-a-time approach to the second half.
“It’s college football and you have to come to play. It’s that simple,” Swinney said during his Sunday teleconference. “(Florida State’s loss to N.C. State) kind of gets you one step closer to being back in the hunt, but it has nothing to do with us having a great season. It’s all in our control as far as us having a good season.”
To secure another double-digit win season, Clemson might need to become a more complete team.
The first half revealed a team that is gifted offensively — Clemson ranks 10th in the nation in total offense, averaging 525.8 yards per game — but a team that remains defensively challenged, ranking 117th in yards per play allowed (6.56).
The Tigers again missed a number of tackles against Georgia Tech, even after allowing live tackling in practice the last two weeks for the first time under Swinney.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables was asked if tackling is the team’s biggest issue.
“I don’t know,” Venables said. “How much time have you got?”
Venables moved freshman Travis Blanks from the SAM-nickel position to safety on Saturday, in place of Rashard Hall, but declined to say whether the move was permanent.
Swinney said the defense can improve at “everything.”
Even with a suspect defense, Clemson is projected to play in the ACC’s No. 2 bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl, in ESPN’s latest projection. But with improvement, and help from the schedule, earning another BCS bowl berth is possible.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said the key is finishing.
“We had a great half of the season last year and it’s not going to be the first half you are going to be remembered by,” Morris said, “it’s the last half.”
Follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter: @travis_sawchik.