Clemson’s coach Dabo Swinney is at a crossroads when it comes to the Tigers’ 2021 season.
Following Clemson’s 27-17 loss to the No. 23 Pitt on Saturday, the Tigers are now 4-3 on the season, the first time since 2014 that the Tigers have had three losses. However, the difference between the 2021 and 2014 seasons is that it took Swinney’s team until Week 10 of the 2014 campaign to lose their third game, and followed with three straight wins, including a victory in a bowl game, to finish. 10-3. This year, Clemson still needs two more wins to be bowl eligible.
MORE: Clemson’s Taisun Phommachanh briefly replaces DJ Uiagalelei in QB vs. Pitt
No play on Saturday better encapsulated the Tigers’ struggles this year than a pick-six spade pass early in the third quarter. The play, which gave Pitt a 21-7 lead, led Swinney to briefly bank DJ Uiagalelei, a far cry from the player who was ranked the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2020 by 247 Composite Sports Classification.
How did Clemson, No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25, get to this point in the season with five games to play? The cracks began to show in a 10-3 Week 1 loss to No. 5 Georgia. But it was evident even then that the Bulldogs were an elite defensive team, providing a cushion for the opening loss of the season. A Week 4 loss to NC State lifted the veil on this team’s shortcomings, further widening the cracks. The loss to Pitt showed that they were abysses.
It’s no secret that the struggles Clemson faces this season begin on offense. Despite the incredible talent available from the likes of Uiagalelei, Justyn Ross, and Will Shipley, it seems that the leap of Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Amari Rodgers, and more was much bigger than many expected. That and unexpected sloppy play have contributed to a season no one saw coming before the start of the 2021 campaign.
With that, Sporting News looks at the problems Clemson faces going forward as he tries to save his 2021 season.
Poor offensive output
Through seven games, Clemson averages 324 yards and 20 points per game. By ESPN, which ranks the Tigers 114th and 115th nationally on those metrics, respectively. Here’s how it compares to previous seasons, dating back to Swinney’s first full year on the job:
- 2020: 502.3 ypg; 43.5 ppg
- 2019: 528.7 ypg; 43.9 ppg
- 2018: 527.2 ypg; 44.3 ppg
- 2017: 429.6 ypg; 33.3 ppg
- 2016: 503.7 ypg; 39.2 ppg
- 2015: 514.5 ypg; 38.5 ppg
- 2014: 408.3 ypg; 30.8 ppg
- 2013: 507.7 ypg; 40.2 ppg
- 2012: 512.7 ypg; 41.0 ppg
- 2011: 440.8 ypg; 33.6 ppg
- 2010: 334.6 ypg; 24.0 ppg
- 2009: 362.4 ypg; 31.1 ppg
Although Clemson still has time to turn things around, his offense has never been this bad, statistically speaking; the closest team under Swinney was in 2010, when he averaged 10.6 more yards per game. Another stat that shows how much this offense has stalled:
Clemson has averaged 13.4 points per game in regulation against P5 teams this season (5 games). Clemson averaged 14.1 points per game in the first quarter of last season.
– Bill Trocchi (@billtrocchi) October 20, 2021
After Saturday’s game, Clemson is now averaging 14 points per game in regulation against Power 5 competition.
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DJ Uiagalelei fights
It is unfair and unreasonable to compare Uiagalelei, a sophomore, to Lawrence, a quarterback who was not only considered the best talent of his generation since high school, but also lived up to expectations to become the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Still, Uiagalelei has struggled objectively in his first full year on the job, briefly benching him against the Panthers. He has yet to throw more than 207 yards in a single game and has four games with interceptions, including leaving two picks on Saturday. Here are his game records through seven games in 2021:
- against Georgia: 19 of 37 passes (51.4 pct.), 178 yards, 1 INT
- against the state of South Carolina: 14 of 24 (58.3 pct.), 171 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 2 TD rushing
- against Georgia Tech: 18 of 25 (72 pct.), 126 yards
- in the state of NC: 12 of 26 (46.2 pct.), 111 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
- against Boston College: 13 of 28 (46.4 pct.), 207 yards
- in Syracuse: 21 of 34 (62.8 pct.), 181 yards, 1 TD
- in Pitt: 12 of 25 (48.0 pct.), 128 yards, 2 interceptions, 1 rushing TD
Part of that is the pressure Clemson’s offensive line puts on Uiagalelei from week to week. After the game against Pitt, Clemson now allows an average of 3.57 sacks per game, for a total of 76 yards of sacks. Prior to Saturday, Uiagalelei ranked last in the ACC in QB qualification among qualified passers.
MORE: Clemson lands where he hasn’t been in years with loss to NC State
But it’s also likely that Clemson’s offensive system, which hasn’t worked this season without the myriad elite talents it has enjoyed in years past, will simply come back down to earth after losing to Lawrence, Etienne, Rodgers and more. An opposing coach put it ESPN Here:
“Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne covered a lot of things a year ago,” the coach said. “The number of times in third and 18 last year that Etienne was checked down and he would make eight people miss and gain 26 yards, that happened all the time.”
This year, the most talented receiving threat the Tigers have is Ross, who missed the entirety of the 2020 season. He has 341 receiving yards and three touchdown receptions leading the team this year. Running backs haven’t fared much better, with Kobe Pace leading the team with 327 rushing yards plus three touchdowns. Will Shipley, the 32nd player in the 2021 category by 247 Composite Sports ClassificationHe has 263 rushing yards and leads the team with five touchdowns.
That relative shortage of talent has not only forced Uiagalelei to make mistakes with his readings and mechanics, it has resulted in a team struggling to find its offensive identity. That has been an important part of the Tigers’ offensive struggles and their 4-3 record.
How Swinney, Uiagalelei and company respond from now on will go a long way in determining how this team is remembered.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.