Clemson is no longer among college football’s elite.
You know, as the vocal consensus stuck in the past or on anti-ACC propaganda snidely suggests, if it ever were.
Six straight CFP Playoff appearances from 2015 through 2020? Pffff, lucky.
Five national-title game appearances in that run? Big deal.
Two championships, over Nick Saban’s reputably unbeatable Alabama machine? See that, the Tigers only went 2-3 in the BIG ONE. Stiffs.
With last season’s 10-3 effort ending that string of success, fluky as it apparently was, the knocks, the digs, the questions have only grown louder.
In response, Clemson and its supporters have dug in, clinging to the reality that no one within the program was bailing. Its all-in, we’re-a-family cry – today’s progressive us-against-the-world approach, if you will – has kept Dabo Swinney’s program relatively intact, at least within the locker room.
Indeed, from the end of last season until the start of this one, “the transfer portal” wasn’t just an unspoken phrase among the orange-and-purple crowd; it was an unknown one.
But that has changed. In the 10 days, two players have left the program – and, frankly, the vibe here is that more will. Probably sooner than later.
And we’re not talking “guy behind the guy … behind the guy” bit players.
We’re talking top-notch talent at the Tigers’ strongest, deepest position – running back. (Sorry, gatekeepers of “Clemson has the nation’s best defensive line,” it’s just reality.)
Not for nothing, but anyone else see Will Shipley’s reaction to scoring on a 32-yard scamper on Clemson’s first offensive play of the second half in the Tigers' closer-than-it-should-have-been, 48-20 win against Louisiana Tech? The dude went bat-shit crazy, almost like he had just been told that KFC was bringing back its potato wedges.
It went far beyond any expression of happiness for getting into the end zone. It was all about the frustration of being an elite back who, finally, almost desperately got another “touch” following yet another half of offense for Clemson spent trying to make quarterback DJ Uiagalelei “comfortable” and to build his confidence.
Three games into season, Swinney and offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter, have devolved into the caretakers of Uiagalelei’s apparently fragile ego.
That may cost the Tigers sooner – with a trip to fellow unbeaten and ACC Atlantic Division rival Wake Forest looming this Saturday – AND later – with the real possibility of, if not Shipley, then his backups, Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah, deciding that their buy-in to Dabo’s culture isn’t worth it if their chances of getting the ball are at the mercy of Uiagalelei’s psyche and the coaches’ overkill with trying to protect it.
Clemson slipped into the locker room at halftime the other night, up just 13-6 to Louisiana Tech, with Uiagalelei not only having attempted 23 passes, but leading the team with six rushing attempts.
It’s not just the numbers. It’s that the offense’s pace is so damn slow with him running. It’s basically all Uiagalelei, with maybe a few crumbs for Shipley and lord only knows what miniscule grub will get thrown in the direction of Mafah and Pace for them to “feast” on.
Shipley’s burst, fortunately for the Tigers, kickstarted a 21-0 third quarter, which saw him rattle off 27- and 26-yard runs in a second half in which he tallied 104 yards on eight carries, and Mafah and Pace add TDs as well.
The difference between the halves was like night and day. The moment Swinney and Co. went to its strength – the running game, with three backs that could start anywhere in the country – the Tigers took off.
Even with that, though, Shipley only has 32 carries this season, Mafah 20 and Pace 15 … with Uiagalelei having 27.
If that second-half attack only proves an aberration, expect changes in both the won-loss column and in amount of players entering the transfer portal.
BASKETBALL SCHOOLS, HUH
The quartet of elite college hoops entities – North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas – all being 3-0 at this point may have John Calipari nodding in approval or disgust at this point, and no doubt it’s kinda cool to see the shift in balance of power, or propaganda, at certain campuses.
But let’s keep it real for a bit. Kentucky and North Carolina are not exactly new to success on the gridiron. The Tar Heels, in fact, are a regular bowl entrant, and the Wildcats have been steadily climbing up the SEC respect ladder for several years now under Mark Stoops.
But Duke and Kansas. That’s different. The Devils have a dynamic QB in Riley Leonard, who has to be the youngest-looking kid in college football (he could pass for 12 or 13), and the Jayhawks have one of their own with that (Jalon Daniels), as well as pretty dynamic coach in Lance Leipold, at least in terms of success.
Dude won six Division III national titles with Wisconsin-Whitewater in one eight-year span, won 10 games at Buffalo and directed the Bulls into the top 25 in Covid-crunched 2020, and now has Kansas looking like it has turned the corner in just his second season after quality back-to-back road wins at West Virginia and Houston.
Got three for ya: Southern Cal, Penn State and Washington – ranked seventh, 14th and 18th, respectively, in the latest AP poll after 3-0 starts in impressive fashion.
Being honest, didn’t buy the Trojans’ hype coming into the season. The Lincoln Riley love from the national media can make anyone give pause to whatever the consensus of it says, but it really does appear USC may go from near-dumpster fire to legit CFB Playoff contender in less than a year’s time thanks to Riley and the QB prodigy Caleb Williams who moved right along with the coach from Oklahoma to Los Angeles.
Penn State? Considering the elite recruiting level James Franklin seems to live at, without ever wavering, that the Lions were not ranked coming into the season was silly. Yeah, OK, they have 17-year, meh-at-best vet Sean Clifford still running the show, but even he’s stepped up his play when it has mattered.
Washington may be the biggest surprise, though – and Michael Penix transferring in from Indiana wasn’t going to change that for me. But anyone who dared to check out No. 11 Michigan State’s visit to Seattle on Saturday was provided a visual clinic on how to completely confuse an opponent, a supposedly superior one, with movement, play-calling and just sheer energy and effort.
NOT SO SURE
Hmmm, gotta be Syracuse, N.C. State and Arkansas – all 3-0. The Orange are unbeaten only because Purdue gifted them a victory this past weekend, the Pack have endured growing pains in all three games they’ve played, and the Razorbacks were in danger of losing to Missouri State and their former coach/motorcycle enthusiast, Bobby Petrino, in Little Rock.
The Hogs likely lose this week to Texas A&M and N.C. State the next week at Clemson, while Syracuse eventually may be staring down the barrel of closing the season on a seven-game losing skid, with games against N.C. State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Wake Forest and Boston College remaining – in succession, starting Oct. 15 – on the Orange’s slate.
Can we, once and for all, knock off this silliness that Nebraska is this prestigious, coveted job for a head coach anymore? It’s ridiculous. The program hasn’t been relevant for more than two decades. Arizona State, which now has a vacancy after Herm Edwards was shown the door this week, is a better gig, and Auburn, which will have a vacancy of its own once Bryan Harsin gets the boot this fall (word is, he's not even recruiting anymore with a pink slip a certainty), is a much better gig – and neither of those two programs are considered among the elite in their own conferences.