Who: Virginia Tech at No. 16 Clemson (5-1, 2-1) When: 12 p.m. Saturday Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson Television: (ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC)
CLEMSON — Clemson is at the halfway point of its season, sporting a 5-1 record and ranked 16th in the country. Here’s a look at the Tigers’ interim grades before they begin the second half of the season Saturday against Virginia Tech.
Clemson possesses the ACC’s leading passer (Tajh Boyd), rusher (Andre Ellington) and receiver (DeAndre Hopkins). The Tigers are 10th in the nation in total offense, averaging 528 yards per game, and Clemson is accomplishing all of this with minimal contributions from its most talented player, receiver Sammy Watkins. An offensive line with three new starters has exceeded expectations, and as a young line gains experience, and assuming Watkins contributes more, there is remaining upside for what has already been an elite group the first half of the season.
The numbers are in many cases worse than a year ago. Clemson ranks 98th in total defense. The Tigers rank 117th in yards per play allowed (out of 124 FBS teams). The problems start with a suspect front line, unable to make disruptive plays, and the issues continue into the linebacker and defensive back groups, where players have struggled to make tackles. Clemson changed defensive coordinators after last season, meaning the issues are more tied to personnel than coaching or scheme. The defense ranks better in scoring — 73rd in points allowed (27.3 per game) — and has only cost Clemson one game.
Chandler Catanzaro hasn’t missed a field goal but Clemson ranks in the bottom half of the country in both kickoff and punt returns, and covering kickoffs and punts. Clemson has plenty of room for improvement.
This is an area where Clemson has drawn criticism in the past, but the development of three new starters along the offensive line is something the program can be proud of. Boyd has made strides in managing the game and running the football. Hopkins appears more explosive. Conversely, Stephone Anthony has not performed like a five-star prospect at linebacker and Clemson’s defensive ends have been disappointing.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris implemented the Pistol formation and worked more packaged plays into the Clemson offense, essentially giving Boyd post-snap run and pass options. Both elements have made the Clemson offense more explosive. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ hybrid position and more reliance on zone principles was supposed to lead to a more effective defense but the results have remained similar to last season. Dabo Swinney’s team has done a better job of playing to a standard and not to an opponent in the first half of the season.