Final two games define Tigers’ season

Clemson’s 2014 season really didn’t have a defining moment … until the final two games. But those two games were so positive that they give the Tigers plenty of momentum going into 2015.

Clemson’s first 11 games were solid. The Tigers sat 8-3, but those three losses were pretty frustrating. There was a fourth-quarter meltdown at Georgia, a gift handed to Florida State and an injury- and turnover-filled disappointment at Georgia Tech.

But the final two games washed away any disappointments from those games and give the Tigers plenty of warm feelings heading into the offseason. Clemson finally ended its losing streak to South Carolina with a dominant performance, and then the Tigers blew one of the nation’s top programs – Oklahoma – off the field in the bowl game.

The future is bright with Deshaun Watson's return in 2015. (Getty)
OFFENSE
The offense had some hit-or-miss moments throughout the season, and that started in the season opener. The first half was terrific, but then the second half was a huge letdown, and Georgia took advantage.

Cole Stoudt eventually lost his job as the starting quarterback, and Deshaun Watson was dynamic when he was able to stay healthy. When he wasn’t, Stoudt was solid – except for the loss to Georgia Tech when he was terrible and the win over Oklahoma when he had one of Clemson’s best ever bowl performances. In short, the Clemson quarterback position had a roller-coaster season, and the rest of the offense went along with it through the ups and downs.

Another key to the problems – when there were problems – was the play of the offensive line, which continues to struggle in short-yardage situations. That said, running back Wayne Gallman stepped up to grab the starting spot and had a really good redshirt freshman season, highlighted by a strong performance against South Carolina. And freshman Artavis Scott combined with Mike Williams to form a dangerous one-two punch on the outside, especially when Watson was playing.

GRADE: B



Vic Beasley leaves Clemson as the school's all-time career sack leader. (Getty)
DEFENSE
The defense never really had the ups and downs that hit the offense … after the season opener. The senior-led group struggled in the second half of that game and just couldn’t slow down the Georgia running game. Still, the issues that struck after halftime in that game never resurfaced, and the defense had one of the best seasons in program history.

That started up front with maybe the best defensive line that the program has put together in one season. Vic Beasley was dynamic on the outside, and Grady Jarrett was dominant on the inside, and they got plenty of help in a terrific performance throughout the season.

The linebackers were just as strong with Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward leading the way in their senior seasons and Ben Boulware making plenty of plays, as well.

And the secondary had the best season it has had in some time as Mackensie Alexander became a star at one corner spot and Garry Peters solidified the other. Robert Smith was a strong leader at safety, while Jayron Kearse, Jadar Johnson and Korrin Wiggins added plenty of versatility to the defense.

GRADE: A++



Ammon Lakip was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist. (Getty)
SPECIAL TEAMS
The season got off to a terrible start with bad misses on field goal tries at Georgia and Florida State in the first three weeks.

But after that, Ammon Lakip really grew into his role as the place-kicker and gave the Tigers a solid weapon. Punter Bradley Pinion had a strong year throughout and helped the Tigers control the field position battle for most of the season.

There were a couple of highlights in the return game, but mostly that aspect was best at not turning over the ball and putting the team in a bad spot, and the coverage teams were solid throughout.



GRADE: B

Dabo Swinney has now won 10 or more games four years in a row. (Getty)
COACHING
This was probably Dabo Swinney’s best coaching job since taking over as the head coach.

Even after losing so many offensive weapons after last season and then enduring so many injuries this season, Clemson rebounded from a 1-2 start to win nine of its final 10 games. After the loss to Florida State, the coaching staff could have lost this team and let things go off the rails. Instead, the Tigers kept things together because of the job the coaching staff did and the strong senior leadership on the team.

GRADE: A+

OVERALL
This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for the Tigers, but they found a way to extend their string of double-digit win seasons to four, and it doesn’t look like they will be slowing down any time soon.

The losses at Georgia, Florida State and Georgia Tech were all disappointing in their own way, but how the Tigers responded to those losses has to be encouraging.

And the most encouraging part of the whole season came down to the final two games. Needing a way to define the year, the Tigers got just that with their blowout wins over South Carolina and Oklahoma.

GRADE: A

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.

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