Welcome to the Atlantic Division Champions edition of What We Are Hearing! What a thrilling game in Death Valley on Saturday, as Clemson ran down The Hill as the #1 team in America for the very first time. Death Valley was rocking, but after Dalvin Cook ran 75 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the game, it felt for a moment like 2013 all over again. I wouldn’t say the crowd was nervous but certainly pensive. Even though the play was a bust by the defense, Cook resembled Todd Gey a little bit in that first quarter. Fortunately, the defense responded, preventing the Noles from entering the end zone for the remaining 59 minutes of the game and allowing only two field goals. The offense also had a rough start, only managing 6 points in the first half—the first time all season the Tigers failed to score a touchdown before halftime. However, they rebounded as well and were finally able to put the game out of reach with a long Gallman touchdown run in the 4th quarter. Give credit to the Death Valley faithful as well. A lot of crowds might have eased up after the bad start, but the Clemson fans were in full throat every time the Florida State offense lined up. In fact, you could tell that the noise was getting to the young offensive line and Sean Maguire in his first career road start because the Noles were penalized six times for false starts and delays of game. And some of those penalties came on very critical downs and distances. The impact of the crowd on the game wasn’t lost on Dabo, as he said that Clemson has the best fans in America.
Dabo also feels Clemson has the president in America. At his press conference Tuesday, he spoke very highly of Clemson President Jim Clements. “We've got the best president in America,” Dabo said. “He's one of the most genuine, energetic person. He's just a normal guy. You would never think college president. But he is so smart and passionate about what he does and a family man. Just a great fit for Clemson. We're gonna have to work on his dance moves though.” Clements has been very visible at all of Clemson’s home games this season and also very vocally supportive of Clemson Athletics on social media.
Getting back to the FSU game, although Clemson clearly has the better team this season, as indicated by the rankings, the Seminoles still represented that one big hurdle that stood in Clemson’s way to realizing its destiny as a College Football Playoff team and national title contender. It was more psychological than physical. Clemson seemed to have everything going for it in 2013, when it was a top-5 team at home against redshirt freshman Jameis Winston. Clemson had its doors blown off and saw its hopes of an ACC Title and National Title vanish in the night. Last season, the Tigers went into Tallahassee and completely outplayed Florida State but literally gave the game away with about a dozen mistakes, losing the game in overtime. It cost Clemson another ACC Title. This time, Clemson would not be denied and was able to eradicate any psychological impediments it might have possibly had against their divisional nemesis. And what a way to clinch the Atlantic Division! It’s the first time Clemson has clinched the division title by beating Florida State. To truly be the champs, you have to beat the champs, and that is exactly what Clemson did. It just exemplifies how far the culture of this program has come under the watch of Dabo Swinney. It is no longer merely a program with lots of talented skill players that wins 10-11 games and beats a top-10 team each year. It is truly a juggernaut that expects to win EVERY game. Folks, Saturday was the first time in Florida State’s 23 years in the ACC that it has been a double-digit underdog in an ACC game! Think about that. Lo and behold, the Tigers obliged and won by 10. Incidentally, it was also the first time FSU had been an underdog in any regular season game since 2011 and the first time they were an underdog in an ACC game since 2009. I believe this Clemson team proved once and for all that it has learned how to handle success and the hype of being highly ranked. It was the program’s first #1 ranking since winning the 1981 National Title, but they went out and played like the #1 team on Saturday. Even some of veteran players like Eric Mac Lain acknowledged that the 2013 team wasn’t really mature enough to handle the hype, but this team clearly is. The leadership and maturity of veteran guys like Mac Lain, Blanks, Lawson, Kearse, Boulware, Dodd and Norton has trickled down to the younger players like Wilkins, Hyatt, Cain and McCloud. This team has tremendous chemistry and a great mix of veteran wisdom and talented youth and exuberance.
As expected, the turnout from Clemson recruiting prospects was enormous. In fact, it was even bigger than the Notre Dame game, despite the fact that the Alabama/LSU game likely stole a few potential visitors. You can see our list of 52 visiting recruits on Gary’s Recruiting Radar piece that we posted last week. Gary will post his recruiting wrap up tomorrow, complete with photos, quotes and inside info. He has great stuff, guys, so be sure to look for that tomorrow! Here is a little sample of some of the responses we have gotten since Saturday:
Clemson Commit OL Sean Pollard:
“Clemson went out and did their thing. Had no doubt that Clemson was going to come out on top.”
Clemson Commit LB Baylon Spector:
“I had a great time. It’s always a blast when I come up there. Didn’t really get to talk to Coach V, but said hey to Coach Swinney. Just excited to be a Tiger right now!”
Clemson Prospect DE Xavier Thomas
“It was just straight out guts. Just like Coach Swinney said, that’s championship football at its best. They did not let the ranking distract them. They just went out and played their hearts out and that’s what it’s all about.”
On the subject of 5-star DE Xavier Thomas, the 2018 prospect was blown away by his visit, as was 4-star DB Malcolm Askew from Alabama. Askew updated his top-three on Sunday, to include Clemson along with UGA and Ole Miss. We all know which school is having the best season of those three. 5-star DT Dexter Lawrence from NC was probably the biggest fish in the pond on Saturday, and we know he had a blast as well. He will be making his announcement on December 14th, and Clemson is in excellent shape here, as his brother (RB) also holds a Clemson offer. Gary will have much more on all of these guys in his big Recruiting Radar piece tomorrow. Look for that tomorrow and every week going forward!
Also, we have inside info that Clemson is close to receiving another commitment in the near future, so stay tuned as we track the development of that!
You can review the monstrous list of recruits in Death Valley on Gary's RECRUITING RADAR from last week.
Players of the game against Florida State were Leggett on offense, Goodson on defense and Huegel on special teams....Clemson has won 12 consecutive games, which is the second-longest streak in the nation behind Ohio State....Deshaun Watson is now 13-0 in games in which he started and finished....Clemson has won 36 consecutive games versus unranked teams--more than any school except for Alabama....Clemson is 2-1 in the all-time series with Syracuse, winning the last two meetings. Cuse won the first meeting behind Donovan McNabb....This will be Clemson's second trip to New York since 1952. Clemson is 1-1-1 all-time in the state of NY, beating Syracuse two years ago, tying Fordham 12-12 in 1952 and losing to Army 21-6 at West Point in 1937.....With a win Saturday, Clemson will have 10 or more wins for 5 consecutive seasons. Only 13 Power Five programs in the history of college football have accomplished that feat....Clemson's long snapper and recent scholarship recipient is Jim Brown, and one of the greatest running backs in history of the same name played for Syracuse. Dabo announced that he will name Jim Brown one of the captains for Clemson on Saturday.....Brown is not the only name of coincidence in this game. Syracuse has a redshirt freshman free safety named Rodney Williams and a kicker named Ryan Norton....Syracuse LB Coach Clark Lea played FB at Vanderbilt under Clemson Offensive Line Coach Robbie Caldwell......Cuse H-Back Ben Lewis and Clemson Center Justin Falcinelli played high school ball together in Maryland....This will be Syracuse's 11th game versus the AP #1 team since 1936. They are 1-9 all-time in those games. Their lone win is against Nebraska in 1984 at the Carrier Dome....Clemson is the 5th #1 team to play in the Carrier Dome. The others were Nebraska, Miami (twice) and Florida State.....Syracuse has exactly 700 wins all-time, which is 19th among FBS programs....Syracuse has not defeated a ranked team since 2012 when it beat #10 Louisville.....If Clemson beats Syracuse and Wake Forest, it will have a chance to tie the longest win streak in school history (15) by beating South Carolina in Columbia. Clemson's opponent in the ACC Championship Game could be determined this week if UNC beats Miami at home and Pitt loses to Duke....
Again, despite a rough start by both the defense and offense, the Tigers were eventually able to exert their will on both sides of the ball. The defense limited the Noles to only 3 points and 158 yards in the second half. They held Cook to only 65 yards on 18 carries after making adjustments in the first half. They held FSU to just 2 of 12 on 3rd down conversions for the game and came up with a huge stop on 4th down with the outcome still in doubt. They were able to generate 2 turnovers against an offense that only had ONE turnover all season! Offensively, Watson probably had his worst first half of his career. He missed two easy passes that should have gone for touchdowns and made a costly mental error before halftime, spiking the ball on 3rd down resulting in a field goal rather than a touchdown. However, Watson did not let it rattle him and exhibited why he is arguably the best quarterback in the nation. He had a terrific second half both running and throwing the ball, and the offense was able to put up 17 points in the second half and run out the clock to end the game. The Wayne Train was able to rush for over 100 yards for the 6th time in 7 games, and it was probably the hardest-earned 100 yards in his career to this point. He had to fight for just about every inch against a physical and athletic FSU defense. The determination he displayed on his game-breaking touchdown run in the 4th quarter was pretty much the epitome of his personality as a running back. There may be other backs in the nation with bigger numbers than Gallman, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger competitor with a bigger heart than the Wayne Train. I’m glad he’s on our side! Deon Cain is just improving from game to game. It’s hard to believe he was a high school quarterback who is just learning how to play wide receiver! He has become a consistent big-play threat, scoring long touchdowns in his last two games and coming just short of a 70-yard TD in a third! It’s scary to think how good he could be come January, let alone next season.
Jordan Leggett set a career record for receptions and yards in a game. He is tied for the nation's most touchdowns this season at tight end (6). Tony Elliott attributes Leggett's success this season to the change he has seen in his work ethic since last spring. Elliott used to refer to Jordan as "Lazy Leggett," but he is anything but these days, and Leggett is now reaping the success of all that hard work.
B.J. Goodson had his second monster game in a row, recording a team-high 9 tackles and 3.5 tackles-for-loss, including the team’s only two sacks. He also made a pivotal fumble recovery on the strip by fellow linebacker Ben Boulware, and Goodson is among the nation’s leaders for career fumble recoveries. Goodson has always been solid, but it seems like he is coming into his own and really playing at another level right now. Let’s hope that continues! I asked Venables about Goodson’s play, and he obviously lauded B.J.’s work ethic and play. One thing I thought was interesting, though, was that Venables said Kendall Joseph looked better than both Goodson and Boulware at the end of the spring, and it really wasn’t close. Joseph had injuries throughout August camp, and Venables said that they really set him back. However things worked out, both Boulware and Goodson have been a force in the middle of this Clemson defense.
Greg Huegel went up against arguably the greatest kicker in the history of the NCAA, Roberto Aguayo, and all he did was go 3-3 in a very tight game! Huegel admitted to me that he was nervous going into the game, but it sure didn’t show when the spotlight was on him. I am completely confounded by the fact that Huegel was omitted from the Groza semifinalist list. He may not have many long FG’s, but the guy is 15-17 and 13-13 in ACC play, including several clutch kicks against Notre Dame (in the rain), FSU (in the rain) and on the road at Louisville. Not to mention he’s a redshirt freshman and former walk-on! His story and percentage alone should get him in the top-20. Someone will have to explain that to me.
I asked Hunter Renfrow about the drop on the deep ball in the first quarter on Saturday. It looked like he tried to catch it one-handed, and he told me that the DB was holding his other arm. He said it probably should have been pass interference but that he has also benefitted from a PI or two that shouldn’t have been, so things have a way of evening out.
You can read my grades and analysis of the FSU game HERE.
Clemson is now ranked 15th in scoring (38.7), 21st in rushing (217.8) and 20th in total offense (488.1). That’s after going against some pretty good defenses—BC, NC State, FSU and Notre Dame. Even App State is one of the better defenses in the nation for a mid-major team. Speaking of App State, they are now 7-1 aside from the Clemson loss and headed to a bowl. Defensively, Clemson is #20 in rush defense (118.9), #9 in scoring defense (17.1), #7 in pass defense (168.4) and #5 in total defense (287.3), #1 in 3rd down conversions and #1 in three-and-outs. The Tigers remain the only team in the nation that ranks in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Clemson was ranked #1 in the AP Poll on Sunday, which is the first time it has been such since January of 1982 and only the third time in history. Clemson also moved up to #2 in the Coaches’ Poll and, most importantly, maintained the #1 ranking for a second week in Tuesday night’s CFP Selection Committee rankings. It’s amazing how much excitement is generated by that #1 ranking, by the way. Vice President Joe Biden was on campus giving a speech to the student body, and Eric Mac Lain was given the honor of introducing him. As expected, Mac Lain did a superb job. The Vice President autographed a Clemson helmet for Mac Lain and said to him, “Remember me when you are president one day.”
Adding to the vibe around campus, it came out that Deshaun Watson will be featured on the next issue of Sports Illustrated, the first time Clemson has been on the cover as the #1 team since the famous Perry Tuttle issue in 1982. Watson’s image is captured in a Heisman-like pose, and the publication pegged Watson as the Heisman front-runner this week.
As if that weren’t enough, Buffalo Bills Head Coach Rex Ryan donned a Clemson helmet at his press conference yesterday, and went on to deliver a Clemson recruiting spiel at the podium. The proud Clemson dad’s son, Seth Ryan, is a reserve WR and place kick holder on field goals and PAT’s. Rex said that not only is Clemson the #1 team in the country, but they had “arguably the best holder in the country.” Rex Ryan visited Clemson a few years ago on a scouting trip to get some offensive ideas from Chad Morris and fell in love with the place, as so many do. He now coaches a few Clemson players for the Bills, including Sammy Watkins. Clemson could soon reinforce its NFL familial connection, as Keyshawn Johnson’s son, a WR from California, has Clemson at the top of his list. It will be very interesting to see what kind of recruiting product this publicity begets. For most high-profile recruits, the #1 factor in their school selection is his probability to ascend from a particular school to the NFL. The week-in, week-out performances we are seeing from former Clemson players on Sundays, compounded by this recruiting pitch from one of the high-profile NFL head coaches, is going to have recruits begging to visit Clemson. And once they get on campus--especially after the $55 million dollar football complex is completed--Clemson is going to be flooded with 4-star and 5-star commits. As Dabo said the other day, the best is yet to come!
Injury-wise, Clemson is in pretty good shape. Knock on wood! They will get Jabril Robinson and Trevion Thompson back this week. Tyrone Crowder and Ray-Ray McCloud will be out against Syracuse, but both should be back relatively soon. Crowder has a case of turf toe, and Ray-Ray has an MCL sprain. Neither will require surgery.
Finally, being that this is the first collegiate game in a dome for many of the players, I asked a couple of them what their thoughts were about playing on an artificial surface. Naturally, (pardon the pun) they spend a lot of time in the indoor practice facility, so the feeling is not totally foreign to them, and they also played on turf at Louisville this season. Gallman said he actually prefers playing on an artificial surface. I think it enables him to make better cuts. Deshaun told me it doesn't make much of a difference to him one way or the other. This will be Watson's second collegiate game on turf and first in a dome, but he also played in the Georgia Dome in high school. I think all of the players will be happy to be dry for a change and handling a dry football!
The Orangemen….Sorry, Orangepeople, have had a rough year. They are 3-6 overall and 1-4 in the ACC. They had back-to-back heartbreaking losses to UVA in overtime and Pitt, 23-20. Since then, they have been thumped a couple of times on the road—45-21 by FSU and 41-17 by Louisville. However, Clemson was very fortunate to survive with a win against them last year in Death Valley. Granted, Deshaun Watson was out and the offense was at the height of its struggles with Cole Stoudt, but the Cuse still played very tough. They also gave LSU a good fight—it was a one-score game in the 4th quarter back in September. Those two facts might bode better for Clemson than it does for Cuse, as it should mean they will have the Tigers’ full attention this week.
Offensively, Cuse is sort of a mixed bag with no true identity. You could see anything from a Power I to a West Coast offense. They are a little like NC State, in that they are very multiple in their formations. Dabo said because they do a little bit of everything, there’s not much to zero in on from a defensive scheme standpoint. In fact, we don’t even know who will be lining up under center for the Orange. Starting quarterback Eric Dungey took a blow to the head against Louisville last week, and his status for Saturday is still unknown. Dungey had completed about 60% of his passes for 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has 5 interceptions on the season. His QBR is 136.55. The alternative would be Zack Mahoney, who has played in 5 games but is only 25-50 on the season. He has 4 touchdown passes against one interception. The practice of preparing for an unknown QB is something to which Clemson has become accustomed this season. It happened against Louisville, Boston College and Florida State. And the Tigers faced a backup QB against both Miami and Notre Dame. Syracuse is a run heavy offense, though, as they only pass the ball about 25 times per game. In fact, QB Eric Dungey would be Cuse’s leading rusher, running over 10 times per game for 459 total yards. However, when you adjust that for sacks, he has 351 net yards rushing. Their leading RB, Jordan Fredericks, has 426 yards on 5.2 yards per carry. George Morris has averaged 5.1 yards on 42 carries. Their most dynamic WR, Steve Ishmael, averages 15.3 yards per catch and has 5 touchdowns. He also leads the team with 30 receptions. H-Back Ervin Philips would be another player to watch—he has 23 catches, with 4 touchdown receptions and one rushing touchdown. Philips is also the fourth-leading rusher on the team. Both QB Dungey and RB Fredericks--their two leading rushers--are true freshmen. Cuse's offensive line has done a good job in pass protection, only allowing 15 sacks on the season. They haven't been very good on 3rd down, only converting 36.2% of the time. Clemson leads the nation in 3rd down defense and only allowed 2 of 12 3rd down conversions to Dalvin Cook and Florida State last week. A look at Cuse’s statistical ranks give you an idea why their record is what it is. The Orange are #74 in scoring offense (27.9), #81 in rush offense (157.9), #110 in passing offense (173.7) and #116 in total offense (331.6).
Defensively, things haven’t been a whole lot better for the Cuse—particularly in the last two games at Florida State and Louisville. They are #92 in scoring defense (30.7), #62 in rush defense (163.8), #110 in passing defense (ironically, the same rank as passing offense, 274.2 yards/game) and #100 in total defense (438.0 yards/game). They play a traditional 4-3-4 scheme. Junior DE Ron Thompson leads the team with 6 sacks, and Junior Captain Luke Arcieniega has 4. Arcieniega, however, was injured in last week's game and is questionable for Saturday, so that could be big. The Orange had several other players injured last week against Louisville, including backup OL Alex Hayes, backup LB Alryk Perry, backup TE Kendall Moore and starting LB Parris Bennett. Sophomore Strong Safety Antwan Cordy leads the team in tackles-for-loss with 10, which tells you they like to bring a lot of safety blitzes. Cuse has generated 16 turnovers on the season, one less than Clemson has. Cuse, however, only has 19 sacks on the season--about 2 per game.
On special teams, Cuse has one of the best punt returners in the nation in Brisly Estime. He averages 19.2 yards per return and has taken 2 for touchdowns. I’m not sure why the Orange hasn’t figured out how to incorporate him into the offense more because he is clearly the best athlete they’ve got. In fact, he leads the team in all-purpose yards but only had 6 rushes for the season and 15 catches. In his 15 receptions, he has averaged 17.0 yards per catch and has 2 touchdowns. Cuse’s kicker is only 11 of 16 on the season, with a long of 43 yards. Their punter averages 44.0 yards, and their kickoff specialist (Ryan Norton) gets touchbacks on about half of his kicks. Shafer has a proclivity for tricks in the kicking game, so be on the lookout for a fake punt, onside kick, fake FG, etc.
All of the data on this game point to a singular conclusion. One of the Clemson teams of yesteryear might have been susceptible to losing a game like this on the road to an inferior opponent, but those days are long gone. This Clemson team has proven to be impervious to those types of let downs—even going on the road for the first time with a #1 ranking. Cuse is simply out manned in this one, and the score will be indicative of that. Keep in mind that despite their record, the Orange have played well at home this season. This will only be their 3rd time playing in the Carrier Dome out of the last 7 games. In their last two home games, they lost 23-20 to a good Pitt team and were in a one-score game in the fourth quarter with LSU. Clemson has been getting every team’s best crowd and best game for the past several years, but I expect the #1 ranking carries a little extra allure. The temperature outside will be frigid, but the climate in the dome will be hot and loud. However, talent and physical superiority will prevail, and we will see a similar outcome to Clemson’s 49-14 win in its last trip to the Carrier Dome. The only question will be whether Syracuse Head Coach Scott Shafer throws another fit over Clemson "running the score up" before halftime. Syracuse will have fits trying to move the ball against this Clemson defense. They may break a long play or two, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if Clemson is able to pitch another road shut out. Expect to be on a first-name basis with Riley Dixon, the Syracuse punter. We should see a high frequency of three-and-outs from the Orange offense. Clemson wins its 13th in a row and 37th straight over an unranked team. Clemson remains #1 for the third straight week and is possibly a unanimous #1 for the first time since 1982.
The prowl toward the CFP and a 15th ACC Title in ’15 continues…..
CLEMSON 55 Syracuse 13