CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney glanced at the boxscore from his Clemson football team's 28-26 win at Texas A&M on Saturday night, and while the head coach was thrilled to walk away with a gutsy victory, he quickly noticed an outlier statistic that raised a red flag.
Clemson's offense ran just 59 plays. And even then, only 55 of them were "worth a darn," by Swinney's own assessment.
For a team that averaged 75 offensive plays per game a season ago, that's a problem.
For a group that ran about 81 plays per contest the year it won the national championship game in 2016, that's a problem.
And for a style of offense that thrives on efficiency and speed, that's a problem.
"That's the offense I played in," Swinney only somewhat jokingly said Tuesday, referencing his days as a reserve wide receiver at Alabama in the 1990s. "You got 50 snaps when I was playing man, we were throwing a party. I mean, holy cow. Just poor. We just didn't play with details.
"Just a lot of missed opportunities. A lot of missed opportunities."
Indeed, Clemson is spending this week cleaning up some execution issues that prevented the Tigers from ever fully putting Texas A&M away, a task the coaching staff thought Clemson was well within reach to accomplish early in the game.
By Swinney's count, Clemson had three dropped touchdown passes and a bust up front on a third-and-one situation. Then there was a Kelly Bryant fumble on fourth and goal and the Tigers also punted the ball eight times when the offense struggled to extend drives.
Shorter drives means fewer offensive plays, which means more time Clemson's defense stays on the field. That leads to more time the Tigers' thin secondary is vulnerable to the opposing passing game.
The reality of fewer offensive plays also prevents Clemson from doing what it likes to do best — pouncing early and often — to set the tone right out of the gate.
"You just can’t live in third-and-long all night," said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. "Obviously it took us a little while to figure it out, playing cat and mouse."
The good news for Swinney's team is that it was able to collect a signature win on the road in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a Clemson football game despite the offensive inconsistency.
The more sobering news is the Tigers likely won't be able to win an ACC Championship and march back into the College Football Playoff running 59 plays a week. Running back Travis Etienne only had eight carries for 44 yards against the Aggies and that won't work moving forward.
"We’ll get better ... but you know what? We won. We won. And we won a tough, gritty game with a million mistakes," Swinney said. "We could have played Mary Poppins last week and alright we smash 'em and we’re 2-0 and everybody feels so good.
"But we went to College Station."
And it taught the Tigers just how much work there is to be done.