Clemson's defense is overrated

Clemson's Carlos Watkins, left, Stephone Anthony, center, and Corey Crawford tie up North Carolina State's Bryant Shirreffs (14) with Clemson's Robert Smith (27) nearby during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. Clemson won 26-14. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Dabo Swinney is too busy preparing for a prickly season opener at Georgia to get caught up in the hype. Or maybe he has seen too many 2013 replays of Todd Gurley busting through the Clemson line.

"All we are right now on defense is good on paper," the Clemson head coach said Saturday after the Tigers scrimmaged before a few hundred fans at Death Valley.

Swinney was referring to preseason ratings, rankings and polls. Every magazine and website except National Geographic and eBay have Clemson among the nation's best defenses going into the 2014 season.


Clemson is three-deep with veterans along the defensive line, with All-American Vic Beasley among six seniors in the group.

The Tigers have cut down on points allowed each of the last two years (22.2 last season).

Aside from Alabama, reliable defenses are hard to find in today's brand of college football. And given a month to prepare, the Tide was last seen losing to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, 45-31.

Yes, and Georgia will be favored Aug. 30 in Athens.

The Bulldogs still have Gurley, who rushed for 154 yards against Clemson while battling a leg injury during the Tigers' 38-35 victory in the 2013 opener.

"Let's don't anoint us now as a great defense," Swinney said. "Let's go prove that we're a great defense."

Note the post-scrimmage context; Swinney was answering a question about whether or not Clemson should operate more conservatively on offense with first-year starters at most of the skill positions and all that experience on defense.

"No," he said.

And: "We're going to be pretty good on offense, too. You all write that down."

The Clemson players seem to get it.

"We know that we haven't done anything this year," senior defensive tackle DeShawn Williams said. "We can't go by last year. It's a new year and we're a new team. We still have to work. We're humble about the situation."

Humble to the point of trying to use advanced reverse motivation techniques.

"There are teams out there that will gun after us because they read that we have a solid defense," Williams said. "We know we will get everybody's best shot."

But was Clemson good on defense last year? In the four big games, the Tigers lost to Florida State (51-14) and South Carolina (31-17) and edged Georgia (38-35) and Ohio State (40-35).

The South Carolina performance was solid: Clemson remarkably outgained the Gamecocks 352 yards to 318 despite a 0-6 turnover ratio.

But Georgia (545 yards), Florida State (565) and Ohio State (427) often moved the ball without resistance worthy of summer accolades.

On paper, it won't be easier for a Clemson defense taking turns with a Tiger offense minus Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Tajh Boyd.

Clemson is still looking for a running back to separate from a committee approach. Two of the top eight offensive linemen - guard David Beasley and tackle Shaq Anthony - are suspended for the Georgia game.

But Georgia will get a test concocted by defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Co. The front four is so evenly deep, Swinney said Saturday he expects a "Thursday decision" on starting assignments.

Redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander, perhaps Clemson's top recruit in the 2013 signing class, is a nice building block at cornerback.

Stephone Anthony clinched the Orange Bowl win over Ohio State by picking off a Braxton Miller pass with 1:18 left. He is determined to add leadership to his senior role.

"There's a reason why it's called 'preseason,'" Anthony said. "Nothing matters until December. If they still say we have a good defense in December, that's where we want to be."

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff