How Clemson Went From Punchline to Playoff Favorite

The Tigers have long been ridiculed for their inexplicable losses to unranked teams. But that Clemson is history thanks to a dominant defense and an offense powered by Heisman hopeful, Deshaun Watson.

It didn’t take Clemson’s historic 58-0 beatdown of the Miami Hurricanes last Saturday to bury the “Clemonsing” corpse.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and his Tiger squads killed that Internet meme years ago. In an October 10 press conference rant that would make Mike Gundy proud, Swinney lambasted critics, reminding them that his team has not lost to an unranked opponent in four seasons.

“I’m sick of it,” Swinney said of the Clemsoning concept. “I don’t know why people even bring up the daggum word. How about some of these other teams out there that lose to unranked opponents all the time? We ain’t lost to anybody unranked since 2011, but I have to come to a press conference in 2015 and get asked that. And that’s all media bullcrap.”

It’s easy to understand Swinney’s frustration. It’s unfair to continually ask this group of players to don a Scarlet Letter for previous teams’ sins. This is especially true when you consider that Clemson -- according to a variety of advanced metrics -- may be the best team in the country.

“Everybody does seem to be going out of their way to talk themselves out of Clemson, to some degree,” said statistics guru, Bill Connelly, on his weekly SB Nation podcast.

“If they are wearing Florida State’s helmets, there is no second thought here. They are absolutely considered the number one team in the country. But for whatever reason that orange makes us doubt.”

Doubt? There shouldn’t be any based on the story the numbers tell. The Tigers are now second in numberFire’s team efficiency rankings based on nERD, the expected point differential for a given team against an average opponent on a neutral field. The Tigers rank behind only Baylor, a team that just lost its starting quarterback for the season. Football Outsiders’ F/+ rankings -- which combine Connelly’s S&P+ and Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) ratings -- have Clemson firmly entrenched atop its FBS standings.

Defensive Dominance

Coming into the season the driving concern was how coordinator Brent Venables would replace seven starters on a defense that ranked second in S&P+ ratings. In particular, there appeared to be gaping holes along the line left by tackle Grady Jarrett and NFL first rounder, Vic Beasley, pass rusher extraordinaire. In all, Clemson came into the fall camp needing to replace six of its top seven contributors along the defensive line.

According to Sports Illustrated, Venables called the offseason effort a “rewrite” -- not a rebuild of the defense. Three months later perhaps only the optimistic Venables could have predicted that a ferocious line would so quickly return the Tigers to their 2014 dominance.

The unit is led by Shaq Lawson who has been college football’s version Hurricane Patricia. The junior has stormed opposing offensive lines, recording 6 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, good for 9th in the country.

Behind Lawson, our site ranks the Tigers as the most efficient defense in the nation, including second against the run and third versus pass. Other advanced metrics systems are equally bullish on Clemson’s defense. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) has Clemson as the second most efficient unit in the country. The S&P+ metric ranks the Tigers fourth in overall defense, but first in the FBS against the run and first in IsoPPP+, which measures explosiveness. Brian Fremeau’s FEI numbers list Clemson as the fourth best defense in the nation, including first in First Down Rate.

After steady performances through the first half of this season, Clemson’s defense made a national statement in blanking the highly talented Miami offense last week. Lawson suffocated the Hurricanes, and the Clemson defense held Miami to 146 yards while forcing 3 turnovers. Miami -- which had just 6 first downs and managed a paltry 2.4 yards per play -- had not been shut out since 2007.

The exclamation point was the pass rush knocking Miami’s star quarterback, Brad Kaaya, out of the game and coach Al Golden out of a job.

Offensive Efficiency

The Tigers’ defense has not been alone in exceeding expectations after facing skepticism heading into 2015. The departure of Chad Morris -- chief architect of Clemson’s prolific offense -- to Southern Methodist University raised questions about the continued development of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson and the explosive Tiger offense.

Clemson opted for consistency rather a big-splash hire. New co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted from within, and the early returns suggest that the demise of the Clemson offense was greatly exaggerated. This despite the loss of the team’s top playmaker -- wide receiver Mike Williams -- in Week 1.

Through seven games, Watson has proven to be accurate and efficient. His 69.5 percent completion percentage is second-best among Power 5 quarterbacks, and he averages 8.2 yards per pass attempt. FEI rates the Clemson as the 14th best overall offense, and numberFire’s offensive efficiency rankings show a balanced Tiger approach, ranking 14th in passing and 23rd in rushing.

Perhaps the Tigers’ most impressive offensive performance of the season came just two weeks ago when it ran up some staggering numbers against Boston College, a team featuring one of the nation’s elite defenses (S&P+ and numberFire currently rank the Eagles as FBS’ second best defense). Watson used the contest to state his case for the Heisman, leading the Clemson offense to 523 yards of total offense against a defense that had been giving up 140 yards per game. The Clemson quarterback rolled up 420 yards passing and 3 touchdowns.

The eyeball test suggests Deshaun Watson still has yet to reach his full potential. He has shaken off the “fragile” label by managing to stay on the field in each of Clemson’s first seven games, after struggling with collarbone, hand, and knee injuries last season.

Coaches were noticeably conservative in their early-season play calling as Watson was recovering from a knee injury suffered late in the 2014 campaign. But Watson has shown off his running ability over the last few games, including 98 yards and a touchdown on just 8 carries against Miami. A true dual-threat option will likely make Clemson’s offense even more dynamic down the stretch.

Remaining Schedule

With a marquee win against Notre Dame to its credit, Clemson’s path to the College Football Playoff is navigable. Following their road tilt against North Carolina State this week -- where Clemson is a 10.5-point favorite -- the Tigers face only one remaining regular season opponent with a winning record: Florida State. But ESPN’s FPI doesn’t give the Seminoles much of a chance: Clemson is projected to win that game nearly 73 percent of the time. And according to nERD, Clemson (32.41) is significantly better than Florida State (15.71) in a vacuum.

Currently, three surprise teams with unblemished conference records are tied atop the Coastal Division, and one will likely await Clemson in the ACC championship game. Duke (26th in nERD), North Carolina (16th), and Pittsburgh (29th) all have bested preseason prognostications but appear to pose little threat to Clemson’s title run, according to ESPN’s FPI. That metric gives Clemson a 61 percent chance of winning the ACC and a 33 percent chance of entering the College Football Playoffs undefeated.

A new era for Clemson football is here. It’s time for college football talking heads to find a new daggum punchline.