Grading the Tigers

Through six games, the Clemson football team is about what most people would have predicted going into its off week.

Clemson won the five games it was expected it to win and suffered a loss in the toughest test to date at Florida State. While the loss to the Seminoles was difficult to take, the Tigers have bounced back nicely from that and won their past two games to put that behind them.

And with N.C. State's win over Florida State on Saturday, the Tigers (2-1 in the ACC) again have real hope that they can win the Atlantic Division for the second straight year. But before we look ahead to what they have to do the rest of the season to make that happen, let's look back at how the Tigers have played so far with a midseason report card.

It's hard to be upset with or critical about much this unit has done this season.

The Tigers are averaging 41.3 points per game to rank 13th in the country, while they are averaging 324.7 yards passing (11th nationally) and 201.2 yards rushing (31st), putting up more than 500 yards per game.

Four times this season, Clemson has scored more than 40 points, and even in the loss to Florida State, the offense did its part, scoring 37 points.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd has completed 137-of-201 passes (68.2 percent) for 1,748 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has only five interceptions and a quarterback rating of 159.2 and has continued to grow as the leader of the offense (and the entire team).

After the loss to Florida State, Boyd showed his leadership and called a team meeting to make sure the young roster didn't get too discouraged after that loss and let it carry over past that game. That worked to perfection as the Tigers rolled through Boston College and Georgia Tech to take plenty of momentum into their off week. Andre Ellington has been terrific on the ground, rushing for 597 yards on 116 carries (an average of 5.1 yards per carry), and he has six touchdowns. Ellington's highlight game so far came against Auburn (25 carries for 228 yards) in the season opener, and he has run strong throughout the season, giving the offense the balance it needs. Boyd has run the ball well, also, as has Rod McDowell, who really has improved this season with 154 yards and five touchdowns.

At receiver, a lot of fans are speculating about Sammy Watkins and why he hasn't been able to get on track. Watkins has been slowed by a suspension and an injury/illness (he has 16 catches for 118 yards and no touchdowns), but the off week comes at a great time for him to get back into shape and get ready for the second half of the season.

With Watkins slowed some, DeAndre Hopkins has stepped into the go-to role with 49 catches for 777 yards and eight touchdowns, and he is averaging 15.9 yards per catch. Hopkins has made big catch after big catch in key situations and has had huge games against Auburn, Boston College and Georgia Tech.

Tight end Brandon Ford (20 catches), Adam Humphries (18), Charone Peake (17) and Jaron Brown (12) all have had important catches and give Boyd plenty of options on the outside. Finally, the offensive line, which was a big concern going into the season, has been solid. Boyd has had plenty of time in the pocket, and the running game has been pretty good and much better than in past seasons in short-yardage situations. That said, there can be improvements and growth with this group, which hasn't exactly overpowered Boston College and Georgia Tech the past two weeks.

As good and steady as the offense has been, the defense has been just as inconsistent in defensive coordinator Brent Venables' first season with the team.

The Tigers have allowed 27.3 points per game, ranking 73rd in the country, and they have surrendered 445.5 yards per game. That adds up to 2,673 yards total (1,216 rushing and 1,457 passing) through the first six games.

Clemson has allowed 5.4 yards per carry and a 60.6 completion percentage, numbers that the defense certainly would like to see go down in the second half of the season. Some numbers that need to go up are the team's sacks (just seven) and forced turnovers (seven interceptions and four fumbles).

Sophomore linebacker Stephone Anthony leads the team with 51 tackles and has had three games with at least 10. Jonathan Willard is next with 41, followed by true freshman Travis Blanks (32), Jonathan Meeks (32), Bashaud Breeland (28) and Xavier Brewer (27). Rashard Hall has been his usual ball-hawking self with a team-high three interceptions.

The Tigers' defense has been at its best in the fourth quarter, allowing only 30 points in the final quarter of games. And that unit has been pretty solid on third downs, as well, allowing teams to convert just 32.9 percent (27-of-82) in those situations.

Still, there are several ways for the defenders to improve on all of those numbers. They need to tackle better, cut down on blown assignments and just be more aggressive overall as they move forward. Venables, however, should have some confidence that those things will happen because it looks like his young group has improved the past couple of weeks, especially in the second half.

In the wins over Boston College and Georgia Tech, the defense has struggled in the first half only to play much better in the second half. In each of those wins, Clemson has surrendered only 10 points, and one touchdown in each game, in the second half. That has to be encouraging for this group, which fell apart in the second half at Florida State after Clemson had the lead in that game.

The defense certainly isn't great, but it's a young group, and it seems to be getting better as the team enters the second half of the season.

If we were just focusing on Chandler Catanzaro here, we'd give this group an A++.

Catanzaro has made all 11 of his field goal tries, and that's amazing considering how much he struggled two years ago as a freshman. But he is an example of how a player can grow through simply maturing from a freshman to a junior and putting in the hard work to become a better player. Catanzaro has made his short kicks, hitting seven from 11-29 yards, but he also has made two from 40-49 and one from 50, so his streak is certainly not a fluke. He has become a true clutch kicker, and that's something teams really need to be able to depend on.

Catanzaro did miss one extra point of the 26 he has tried, so he will have to be punished for that, for sure. That's something the coaches simply can't put up with and will have to take him down a peg or two because of it (#sarcasm).

The other aspects of the special teams, outside of the Florida State game, have been solid but certainly not spectacular. The Tigers' punters are averaging 41.7 yards per punt (41.2 on 20 punts for Spencer Benton and 43.8 on five punts for Bradley Pinion). Benton, who had one of the special teams highlights of the year with a 61-yard field goal, has handled most of the kickoff duties with 21 touchbacks in 36 tries. Pinion has seven touchbacks in 10 tries.

The Tigers have just three punt returns for 10 yards, while they're averaging 19.6 yards on kickoff returns. The coverage teams have been pretty good, allowing 22.4 yards on kickoff returns and 8.0 yards on punt returns.

Again, outside of Catanzaro, none of those numbers are spectacular. They're OK, but they have to improve. At some point, the Tigers need to get something out of their return teams, and they can be even better on their coverage teams.

Through six games, 5-1 isn't bad, and it's about where most people would have thought this team would be entering the season. Only a second-half meltdown against Florida State has kept the Tigers from being undefeated and probably ranked in the top five in the country.

They have played fairly well, considering how young this team is (something some people tend to forget). Just look at the penalties and turnover margin for proof of that. Clemson has only 29 penalties total (that's 4.8 per game), and while it has only forced 11 turnovers, it has committed only seven of its own. Teams that avoid penalties and win the turnover margin typically have strong, and maybe even special, seasons, and that's where this team is right now. It has not been great, mainly because of the defensive lapses, but the Tigers have to feel good about themselves going into the off week and preparing to play Virginia Tech.

Even if Florida State had defeated N.C. State, Clemson had plenty to play for the rest of this season, but the Wolfpack's upset of the Seminoles on Saturday ramped that up another notch.

After Virginia Tech, Clemson travels to Wake Forest and Duke before hosting Maryland, N.C. State and South Carolina to close out the season. The Tigers should be favored to win the first five of those, and it's hard to say what will happen in that rivalry game with the Gamecocks (although it would lead to a special November day if both teams keep winning up to that game).

Dabo Swinney's team is right where it should be through six games. Sure, the Tigers would love to be 6-0 like they were last year, but even with the one loss already on the schedule, this team has a chance to be special and even match or surpass last year.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley Top Stories