CLEMSON — It was an offhanded but potentially significant comment by one of the sport’s most famous analysts.
Sunday night upon the release of the latest BCS Standings which unveiled Clemson as a short riser to No. 6 in the national pecking order, longtime ESPN commentator Kirk Herbstreit was asked about the top one-loss teams.
“If you look at all the teams that are ranked this week, there’s nobody on that board that Clemson’s been able to knock off,” Herbstreit said, correctly indicating Clemson has zero wins against the current top 25. “We’re splitting hairs here; it’s sad we have to put down a team who’s having such a great year.”
It’s true, by any standard, Clemson (10-1) is having a great year. But this remark was added to Herbstreit’s assessment.
“I love Clemson’s offense,” Herbstreit said. “I still have questions about their defense in a big game.”
An interesting statement.
While it’s Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris who won the AFCA National Assistant Coach of the Year award, it could be argued he hasn’t even had the finest performance among the coordinators on his own team.
Second-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables has transformed his unit quickly. Now the No. 27 total defense in the country, Clemson was No. 64 last year and 71st the year before (in an ACC Championship year.)
Forever offense-minded, Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney hasn’t been able to suppress a smile all season long when asked about the development of his defense.
But the facts do remain, to relative outsiders like Herbstreit who haven’t intently watched every moment of every Clemson game. The Tigers have played two games in the limelight in 2013.
Georgia scored 35 points and gained 545 yards in the Tigers’ 38-35 win. Florida State scored 51 points on 565 yards in throttling Clemson 51-14.
“We’re always going to have a hard edge and play with great effort,” junior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “but things just might not go our way certain times.”
That’s an average of 43 points and 555 yards gashed in two marquee matchups. Even the two Thursday night games — N.C. State had 378 yards and Georgia Tech had 440 yards — were not Clemson’s finest efforts of the year, whereas games against Wake Forest, Boston College, Maryland and Virginia were noticed more locally.
Perhaps that’s where Herbstreit was coming from. Either way, Swinney defiantly doesn’t want to hear it.
“Those 10 wins weren’t big games? If we’d lost them, they’d be big games,” Swinney said Tuesday, mocking the Herbstreit comment.
“All I know is, we are much improved defensively, and anybody who doesn’t recognize that, they just have their own agenda and don’t want to recognize that,” Swinney said. We’re much improved defensively. Our front seven has been tremendous, they’ve been consistent all year long. Big games? I think we’ve shown up. LSU wasn’t a big game last year? Georgia wasn’t a big game this year? It was at the time. Then you win it, and nobody wants to give you any credit for it. You lose it, well, it was a big game and you didn’t play well.”
For his part, Venables didn’t touch the subject, simply saying “No,” he didn’t have any questions left about his defense in big games.
“We don’t feed too much into that. That’s just the popular thing to say out there,” said Jarrett, the defense’s primary leader. “We know how we’ve performed each week. We know we can handle business. We have a very good defense here at Clemson, and we take pride in it.”
The most notable changes on this year’s defense involves third-downs: the Tigers are sixth in the country in that department (29.6 percent), a bump from No. 24 last year. Clemson has also collected 26 turnovers through 11 games, tied for 10th nationally; the Tigers had 23 in 13 games last year, tucked inside the top 50.
“We weren’t top anything last year; we were just one of the worst, and we’re one of the best this year in a lot of things,” Swinney said. “Are we the best defense in the country? We haven’t earned that. Not yet. Are we on our way? Have we improved greatly? Absolutely. I think we’re much better than we were this time last year, without any doubt.
“Offensively, we’ve done a lot of great things again this year, but the best part of our team this year has been our defense.”