This football season was a strange one, wasn’t it?
Clemson finished 10-2 with marquee wins over Miami and Notre Dame (ACC Championship) and losses to Notre Dame (regular season) and Ohio State. It was Clemson’s 10th straight 10-win season and their sixth straight ACC Championship. All in all, Clemson’s season was a success. This is especially true considering in August there was a real threat that the entire college football season would be cancelled. Clemson players Trevor Lawrence and Darien Rencher got together (digitally) with athletes from other schools in other conferences to come up with a way to make it clear that the players wanted to play the season. They came up with the #WeWantToPlay movement and players from across the country took to social media to voice their support. Eventually the conferences that cancelled their seasons decided to play and we got a legitimate football season.
Gratitude may be a theme of 2020. With so much taken away amid the COVID-19 crisis, appreciating what we still had came naturally. If we’re being honest though, this season was far from the most fun. Clemson did an excellent job balancing COVID-19 safety and allowing people to have community and support the team. That said, the lack of tailgating and tempered atmosphere were less than ideal. Other schools had no fans at all which made for an awkward viewing experience even on television – which is where many of us watched rather than going to the games. Clemson didn’t play arguably their three biggest rivals: South Carolina, Florida State, and NC State. Political issues cast a cloud over some of the normal joy of a typical football season. Nevertheless, football was a much needed escape from the challenges of 2020.
Tigers start strong
When the season finally got underway Clemson looked sharp. After their first six games, Trevor Lawrence emerged as a clear Heisman front-runner. He had the advantage of starting the season slightly before the SEC began play and took advantage. The Tigers were 6-0 and had a dominant win over Miami. Back in August, Ohio State seemed like they’d be a huge road block. With the Big Ten mangling their season, they became an afterthought and a Clemson vs. Alabama clash began to feel inevitable.
Trevor Lawrence sidelined
Then the season took a weird twist. Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19. Although his symptoms were thankfully mild, he would miss the Boston College and Notre Dame games. Although Boston College didn’t seem like a huge threat, the game felt a bit scary because a loss at home to BC would almost certainly mean a loss on the road to ND the next week. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff. The BC Eagles didn’t allay those fears when they took an 18-point lead in the second quarter. Clemson rallied behind an excellent performance from freshman QB DJ Uiagalelei for a comeback win, thus starting his legacy as a Tiger on a great note.
The comeback also lent confidence to how the offense could perform against Notre Dame. Unfortunately, news broke in the days before the Notre Dame game that Clemson’s two most important defensive players, Tyler Davis and James Skalski, would be out with injuries. That vastly changed projections and in the end, the Tigers lost in double-overtime. Clemson’s defense simply couldn’t overcome mounting injuries and Notre Dame played an excellent game. Clemson’s offensive and defensive line play was exposed as the Irish bullied the Tigers.
Florida State bails
Clemson had an open-date followed by a trip to Tallahassee to face Florida State. They made the trip down to Tallahassee only to have the Seminoles cancel the game on gameday, because upon arrival, one of the Clemson’s players received a positive COVID-19 test. Coach Swinney and his players were extremely frustrated because they had prepared all week for the game and followed strict safety protocol. Moreover, ACC teams had agreed to expand travel rosters in case a player received a positive test at the last moment and some of the players that traveled cannot play. FSU’s cancellation seemed to go against this agreement. QB Trevor Lawrence and Coach Dabo Swinney indicated that FSU’s decision was not because of COVID-19 – or at least not the one positive test.
The media was quick to accuse them of not taking the pandemic seriously. Coach Swinney responded by doubling down, saying he isn’t going to take advice from Tallahassee where they’ve had three coaches in four years. The cancellation delayed Lawrence’s return and meant it was four straight Saturdays without football for him. He subsequently fell out of Heisman consideration for many. The situation fired up the Clemson/FSU rivalry, which will now have extra juice in 2021. It also further turned the national media against Coach Swinney. The situation seemed to galvanize the team though.
The Tigers finally returned after consecutive open dates to host Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving weekend. With many of the players that missed the Notre Dame game now back, the Tigers blasted the doors off the Panthers, 45-10. With a ACC Championship berth on the line (Miami would go if the Tigers lost their season finale), Clemson concluded their regular season by donning their orange britches and earning a somewhat sloppy, but still lopsided win over the Hokies in Blacksburg.
Finally the postseason started and the Tigers faced a rematch with the undefeated Fighting Irish. The Tigers were 9-1 with their lone loss coming against Notre Dame back in November. Because the Tigers had so many previously injured players back and were playing in a neutral site rather an in South Bend, they were 9 to 10 point favorites. Many in the national media couldn’t believe it. They called the spread “disrespectful.” The Tigers responded by winning 34-10 and covering that spread easily. It was the highlight of the year! Clemson’s offensive line played their best game of the season. Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott arguably called his best game too. Creativity in the run game helped it work and the Tigers seemed “back.” The defensive line even got pressure on QB Ian Book despite Notre Dame’s always excellent offensive line. The Tigers were ready for the College Football Playoff.
Sugar Bowl not so sweet
As expected, the Tigers were the No. 2 seed and would face the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes. An unexpected blow came when the venues were announced and Clemson was sent to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans rather than the Rose Bowl which had moved to Arlington for this season due to especially stringent COVID-19 regulations in California. The Tigers’ last two postseason losses had come in New Orleans and it felt like a bad omen. An even bigger blow came when Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott tested positive for COVID-19. Coach Brandon Streeter would have to call plays.
Despite the less than ideal situation, The Tigers were still favored by a touchdown and widely picked to win. The Buckeyes had only played six games and didn’t looked great in several of them. They struggled against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship and appeared vulnerable.
When the Sugar Bowl began, the Tigers were the first to score. On their first three drives, each team punted once and scored a touchdown twice. Tied at 14-14, the Tigers weaknesses began getting exposed. Clemson’s defensive line was losing in the trenches – badly. Ohio State was managing a balanced attack and whenever Clemson seemed poised for a big stop, one of the young players in their secondary would bust and give up a big play. Meanwhile the offensive line was playing like they had prior to the ACC Championship game win. Was their ACC Championship game performance an aberration? It snowballed and Clemson failed to gain any traction on the ground and were outscored 21-0 in the second quarter.
Abandoning the run in the second half gave the Tigers a chance. Trevor Lawrence did everything possible to carry the team, throwing for 400 yards in total – but without a running game to keep them off balance, the Ohio State defense began getting to Trevor Lawrence. He was hurried, hit, and fumbled three times (losing one). The Tigers played the Buckeyes even in the second half and fell by 21 points, the margin that was created in the Buckeye’s second quarter run.
The Tigers season ended a game earlier than expected. All-time greats Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne had played their last game in Clemson uniforms. While the end was bitter, preventing Notre Dame from winning the conference in their lone season as a full member was sweet. With that championship and another playoff appearance it is hard to see the season as anything less than a success.
Ohio State exposed weaknesses that go well beyond an off-night. That’s not to say Clemson can’t fix them as soon as next season, but they nonetheless are quite real. The most obvious may be issues on the offensive line. The Tigers lost four starters after 2019 and took a notable step back. Will this year of experience and another off-season of training make a significant difference? Four or potentially even all five could return, but will the same quintet start? Rising sophomore Walker Parks seems to have made a strong case to earn starter snaps. Clemson has arguably their best offensive line recruiting class in school history coming in. Could one or even two be starters by the season’s end. To me, this is the most intriguing thing to follow this off-season.
The defensive line was a bigger problem than expected. We knew it would be challenging to replace the Power Rangers in 2018, but it seemed that would be accomplished in 2020. Unfortunately, the unexpected losses of DEs Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph, and Xavier Thomas were too much to overcome. Rudolph moved on from football prior to the season, but will Foster or Thomas return with a bang next season? Will Bresee, Davis, and Murphy get even better? The Tigers lacked depth and gave a lot of snaps to KJ Henry and Justin Mascoll. They didn’t create much havoc for opposing offenses. Will they emerge in their fourth seasons at Clemson next year? Will other players step up and provide depth?
Finally, questions about replacing QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne, and fixing the secondary exist, but frankly are secondary to Clemson getting back to dominating in the trenches. The recruiting classes and past history shows they’ll return to dominance there and consequently on the scoreboard. Time will tell, but there’s reason for optimism, despite the bitter ending.
Writing for TigerNet
2020 was the first season in which I had the opportunity to write for TigerNet.com. My weekly article, which highlights some interesting statistics from the prior weekend’s game and discusses the implications, was published each Monday. In a year when I couldn’t attend games as I normally would, this helped make it special. Check out all my articles from the series below. I plan to do it again next season in a season that should feel much more normal.