Welcome to the home opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
One game in the books, 14 to go! I think the one word on all of our minds, as Jadar Johnson exhibited his volleyball skills on consecutive Hail Mary’s, was “whew!” On one hand, it’s hard not to feel troubled by the fact that it should NOT have come to that—Auburn having two shots at a game-winning Hail Mary. We’ve seen those be successful far too many times in recent seasons, and Clemson dominated this game on paper. They could have put the game on ice a couple of different times in the last few minutes but kept Auburn in it with poor clock management and a late hit by Ben Boulware on what would have been 4th and 10. Those were just a couple of the mistakes that kept the game from being a rout. On the other hand, the game demonstrated how far this program has matured and become one of those programs that always finds a way to win tough games—even when it is not at its best. Since the beginning of its 5-year run winning 10 games or more (only program to do so other than Alabama), the Tigers are now 12-2 in games decided by 7 points or less. One of those two losses is, of course, to Alabama in the National Championship Game. The Tigers are also now 67-4 under Dabo when leading after 3 quarters. Those types of records are the mark of an elite program. Another testament to the consistency and culture Dabo has maintained is the fact that Clemson has now won 40 consecutive games versus unranked opponents, dating back to that 2011 NC State game we all remember, after the Tigers had clinched the Atlantic Division. Folks, only Alabama has more (60) and the next closest are Ohio State (20) and Navy (17). That is an amazing disparity between Clemson and the rest of the nation when it comes to consistency, and it’s the antithesis of the Tommy Bowden era when we saw the Tigers win some big games but lose to inferior opponents with regularity. The Tigers won at Auburn for the first time since 1950, and it was Clemson’s first season-opening road win against a team currently in the SEC since 1903, John Heisman’s final year as Clemson Head Coach! That win was at Georgia, and later that season the Tigers won at Georgia Tech in Atlanta 73-0, prompting Georgia Tech to steal the Tigers’ head coach. Ironically, Heisman coached at Auburn before coming to Clemson.
Having said all of that, we were obviously expecting more fireworks and points out of this offense, given Auburn’s defensive numbers last season and the fact it was breaking in a new defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, who has given up lots of points in his past. Make no mistake, it looked like an opening game at times for this offense. There were several errors made, and it did not resemble the well-oiled machine we saw against Alabama. The Tigers’ school-record streak of 11 straight games with at least 500 yards of total offense was snapped, as they totaled only 399 on Saturday night. However, let’s also give Auburn the benefit of the doubt and see how they do going forward before concluding that the Clemson offense was a total disappointment. As I pointed out in my grades and analysis (you can read HERE), there were several positives to take away from the offensive performance as well. Most notably, the ability to drive the ball 58 yards, from the Clemson 25 to the Auburn 17, when Jordan-Hare was rocking and all the pressure in the world was on them, was an impressive display of poise and execution. Sure, the drive ended disappointingly because the coaches should have opted to take a knee on 3rd and 10 with 50 seconds left, and Gallman should have stayed in bounds rather than stopping the clock. But imagine if they went three-and-out, giving Auburn the ball at midfield with almost 3 minutes left! That scenario would have been a whole lot more stressful for the Clemson Family. Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, but I’d rather be optimistic about the game—especially given the upsets we saw over the weekend, with #3 Oklahoma and #5 LSU going down to underdogs and top-10 Tennessee lucking its way out of the second-most embarrassing home upset in college football history!
Speaking of the weekend’s other action, with Florida State’s school-record 22-point come-from-behind win over Ole Miss, the Noles are now sitting right behind the Tigers in the #3 spot. I mentioned weeks ago that we could potentially see one of the all-time epic #1 versus #2 showdowns between Clemson and Florida State on Halloween in Tallahassee, and we are one step closer to fruition thanks to Oklahoma’s upset loss. I know Alabama looked unstoppable in its 52-6 rout over USC on Saturday, but we all know that no team is the same every week, and it was just the first game for USC. Know what else? Bama has games at Ole Miss in two weeks—to whom they have lost the last two years—at Tennessee, at Arkansas and versus A&M before the Tigers clash with FSU. That is a bunch of opportunities for a loss, and it would not surprise me at all to see a #1 Clemson roll into Tallahassee to play #2 Florida State with the first College Football Playoff Selection Committee Rankings to be released just days later!
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves because there is way too much football to be played in the interim, and we’ve got the Death Valley home opener against Troy to look forward to in a couple days. Before I dive into it, I just want to remind you that Gary will have a list of recruits we expect to be attending Saturday’s game, and we will have pre-game photos of them for you next week as well as some reactions. As always, remember to visit the Recruiting Radar Screen forum for daily updates and recruiting news, and look for our weekly Recruiting Radar for the latest intel on the Clemson recruiting front! On to Troy…..
Clemson enters the game ranked #2 in both the AP and Coaches polls, receiving 16 votes for #1 in the former and 6 votes in the latter....Taylor Hearn and Kendall Joseph earned ACC Player of the Week honors for their performances at Auburn....Dabo Swinney won his 9th game versus an SEC opponent (3rd vs Auburn)....Deshaun Watson is 19-2 as a starter. That is best winning percentage in school history and includes a loss to Georgia Tech in which he left the game in the 1st quarter due to injury. He needs just 182 yards to become the 4th player in school history with 6,000 yards passing. His touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow at Auburn was his 50th career TD pass and moved him ahead of Charlie Whitehurst for 2nd on the Clemson career passing TD list.....Mike Williams had 174 reception yards against Auburn for his 5th game with at least 100 yards, including his previous full game against Oklahoma in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl....Wayne Gallman rushed for 123 yards against Auburn for his 13th game with at least 100 yards. Clemson is 13-0 in those games. Gallman needs just 2 more 100-yard games to match Raymond Priester's school record and needs just 21 yards to move into the top-10 for Clemson career rushing yards....Clemson and Troy have met just once, a 43-19 win for the Tigers in which true freshman Sammy Watkins caught a 33-yard touchdown pass on just the second play of the season....Clemson has won a school-record 16 consecutive home games and back-to-back 7-0 seasons at home. Clemson went 25 games with no losses and two ties between 1980 and 1984.....Dabo Swinney is 46-6 at home, including a loss to Georgia Tech in his debut as Head Coach in which the Tigers led in the 4th quarter.....During the Tigers' active 16-game home win streak, Clemson has an average margin of victory of 24.6 points, and only Louisville and Notre Dame have been within 10 points....Dabo is already 3rd on the all-time Clemson home win list, behind Frank Howard (81) and Danny Ford (53)....Clemson has played 5 consecutive games away from home dating to last season, and Troy will be the Tigers' third consecutive opponent from the state of Alabama, Dabo Swinney's home state....Clemson has set home attendance records in each of the last 3 seasons.....The 2016 Tiger Band is the largest in history with 356 members.....September 24th marks the 50th anniversary of the placement of Howard's Rock at the top of The Hill in Death Valley. The anniversary will be celebrated all season, beginning with a tribute to the S.C. Jones family during Saturday's game.....
Now that we can breathe a sigh of relief, having survived the test at Auburn, we can look forward to the Tigers honing and refining their offense and eliminating all of the hiccups we saw last week. I don’t want to say Troy is a cupcake of an opponent, and you would never hear the coaches or players say that, but let’s face it: the Tigers will have to play a lot more poorly than they did at Auburn to manage a home opening loss to Troy. That being said, it’s never about the opponent Clemson is playing. It’s about Clemson holding itself to the highest standard and performing at maximum capacity. Last season, if the Tigers did that, there was no team in the nation—including Alabama—that could beat them. I believe that is the case this season as well, but if they play like they did last week, the Tigers could lose more than just one game.
The Auburn game was eerily reminiscent of the Thursday night game at Louisville last season, in which the offense struggled the entire game, but the defense carried the team to victory. After that Louisville game in which they only scored 20 points, the offense responded by showing steady improvement. They scored 24 against Notre Dame in a hurricane (21 in the first 3 quarters), 43 against Georgia Tech (33 in the first half), 34 against Boston College (27 in the first 3 quarters) and 58 at Miami (42 by halftime). And all of that was without Mike Williams and much less experience across the board! Last week might be the best thing that could have happened to this team because it learned that it could win with defense on the road, and it was a big slice of humble pie for an offense that everyone had already coronated as the best offense in history. These next two home games are a perfect opportunity to work all of the bugs out. They are also a great opportunity to phase some of the talented true freshmen into the fold. Clemson fans have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of Tavien Feaster, Scout’s #1 RB in the nation last year, all spring and summer. We knew we wouldn’t see him make his debut in the pressure cooker at Auburn last week, but we will certainly get our first look this Saturday in the friendly confines of Death Valley. It will be the first time #28 has graced Frank Howard Field since hearing the crowd chant the name of C.J. Spiller in farewell after he helped the Tigers beat UVA and clinch its first berth in the ACC Championship Game back in 2009. Like Spiller, Feaster has elite track speed, but he is even more talented than Spiller was coming in as a pass-catcher and runner between the tackles. You can expect to see Tony Elliott call Feaster’s number on several wheel routes this season—maybe as early as this Saturday. Feaster will also be featured on kickoffs at some point, as will fellow true freshman Cornell Powell. In fact, I expect to see Powell return at least one kick on Saturday, and (score permitting) get a few plays at wide receiver. Powell is physically gifted as a true freshman wide receiver, and he had a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown that we recorded and posted for you from last year’s Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. Dabo told us that they still haven’t decided on true freshman DE Xavier Kelly, who had some stitches in his foot after a traffic accident a few weeks ago. After the way Wilkins and Ferrell played at defensive end the other night, and with Austin Bryant on the mend, Dabo will wait until the last possible moment to decide whether to red shirt Kelly this season. It’s a similar situation that we saw last season with Clelin Ferrell, who did end up with a red shirt. Dabo will also try to work Tremayne Anchrum into the mix, along with fellow true freshmen Trayvon Mullen, K’Von Wallace and Sean Pollard. We saw Tre Lamar get some playing time at Auburn at both linebacker and special teams, and he even recorded his first career tackle-for-loss. It's safe to say that the hype and expectations surrounding true freshman DT Dexter Lawrence (Scout's #4 overall player last year) were well-deserved, and he met or exceeded them! He recorded the team's first sack of the season and was second on the team with 10 tackles. He also batted a ball down and even helped pave the way for Wayne Gallman's touchdown in the first half. This kid is already one of my favorite players on the team. Big Dex has a completely unnatural combination of size and athleticism that you only see once in a generation, and he has a smile that lights up the room. He looks like a giant teddy bear and is just as affable. Dabo said that he's never been around anyone like him, and it's easy to see why. Dexter could honestly play in the NFL right now as a true freshman, and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us this season!
Speaking of freshmen and red shirts, redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell did a nice job in his debut. He set the edge all night long and was in on a tackle-for-loss and two quarterback hurries. One of his best friends on the team is Christian Wilkins, and Ferrell told me it felt great to be rushing the passer opposite his buddy in his first career start. I told you before the Auburn game that you would see a lot of Wilkins at defensive end in the absence of Austin Bryant and that I thought he should start there because it gave the Tigers their strongest defensive line. I think it’s safe to say that the experiment couldn’t have worked better, and Wilkins is in fact starting at end again against Troy.
The brilliance of Brent Venables was on full display last week, as he confused Auburn’s three-headed quarterback all night long and suffocated its run game to the tune of 87 yards and 2.1 yards per carry! Just like last season, the Clemson defense lost a ridiculous number of players to the NFL Draft—mostly underclassmen—and have shown the ability to reload with the talent it has recruited and the coaching staff it has assembled. The Clemson defense has led the nation in tackles-for-loss each of the last three years and is well on its way to a fourth after recording 13 of them on the road at Auburn. That was the fourth-best total in the nation last week, and 9 different Clemson players were involved in TFL's at Auburn. The Tigers have also recorded at least one sack in 31 consecutive games. That is the second-longest active streak in the nation. Auburn, by contrast, did not record a sack against Clemson last week. Clelin Ferrell gave us some insight into Venables’s uncanny acumen, telling us that he predicted exactly what Auburn would do, running a Wing-T formation early in the game and then falling back to formations they’ve run in years past later in the game. Ferrell said he was incredulous at first because he hadn’t seen anything on film to indicate that, but sure enough, Auburn did exactly what Venables said they would do, and that really reinforced Ferrell’s faith that the coaches know what they are doing and will put them in a position to win if they buy in and listen.
After one week, Clemson is #35 in total defense, allowing Auburn 262 total yards, also tied for #35 in rush defense (87 yards) and tied for #52 in pass defense (175 yards). The Tigers are tied for #31 in scoring defense, allowing just 13 points last week. Expect that ranking to go way up in the next couple weeks.
From an injury standpoint, the Tigers were fortunate to come away from a physical game at Auburn with no injuries, and there haven’t been any this week. I’ll provide a final injury report on Friday evening.
Players of the game against Auburn were Taylor Hearn, who graded at 90% in his first career start, Christian Wilkins and Seth Ryan, who made a great catch and hold on a high snap on an important second half field goal.
Troy is a program that plays a lot of big-time schools on the road, so this is nothing they won’t be accustomed to. In fact, most of us remember the 2011 opener in Death Valley when a young Tajh Boyd making his first start went into the locker room at halftime to a chorus of boos and a 16-13 deficit! That was coming off a very disappointing bowl loss to South Florida to conclude the 2010 season. The Tigers went on to win that game 43-19, win their first ACC Title in 20 years and go on a 5-year run of 10 or more wins that has been matched only by the Alabama juggernaut.
Of course, that was 5 years ago, and this is a different Troy team with different coaches and players. Troy beat Austin Peay last week 57-17, but it is coming off a 4-8 season in the Sun Belt conference. Looking at their Power Five opponents last season, they lost games to NC State (49-21), Wisconsin (28-3) and Mississippi State (45-17). They also had blowout losses to Georgia Southern and Louisiana Lafayette and lost a 44-41 shootout with App State, who Clemson beat 41-10 last season. They are obviously more of an offensive team than a defensive one, which means this Clemson offense needs to execute better than it did last week and use this game to re-calibrate.
Junior Brandon Silvers is the returning starter at quarterback, and he was 20-27 for 229 yards last week, with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Last season, he had a 61.2% completion percentage, throwing for 2,378 yards, 20 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Silvers was one of 30 QB's named to the Manning Award preseason watch list along with Deshaun Watson. As a freshman two years ago, he broke Sam Bradford's freshman record for completion percentage at 70.5%. The Trojans lost their 1,000-yard rusher from last season, but junior Jordan Chunn (#38) had 161 yards and one touchdown last week on just 13 carries. Junior Josh Anderson (#33) rushed for 68 yards and a TD on just 5 carries. WR Ishmail Saleem (#16) had 4 receptions for 104 yards and a TD last week. Again, bear in mind that this was against Austin P. You’ll see a lot of zone-read option principles from Troy on Saturday, which should obviously be very familiar to this Clemson defense.
Defensively, senior Rashad Dillard (#7 from Greer, SC) led the Trojans in sacks last season with 7. They recorded just one sack last week but had 9 tackles-for-loss and an interception. Clemson fans are very familiar with Troy's Defensive Coordinator, Vic Koenning, who served with Dabo Swinney on Tommy Bowden's staff as Defensive Coordinator at Clemson from 2005 until Bowden's departure in 2008.
This one isn’t rocket science. The Tigers are vastly superior from a personnel standpoint, and I feel a little sorry for Troy having to face an angry Clemson offense that intends to redeem itself and light up the scoreboard. The only thing that will mitigate the padding of stats for the Tigers will be the second half influx of backups and freshmen that you will see in the game. This one is over by halftime or, at the very least, early third quarter.
The Tigers extend their school-record home win streak to 17 games in Death Valley, and the prowl toward a repeat College Football Playoff appearance and second national championship continues.....
CLEMSON 55 Troy 10