In response to a question about barriers to his team’s success, legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight once said, “Your biggest opponent isn’t the other guy. It’s human nature.” While this pearl of wisdom generally applies to all teams, it offers a particularly accurate description of the issues that plague teams after their initial rise to prominence. Winning breeds complacency, intentional or not, with players relying on their past experiences to lead them to victory and external distractions impacting in-game effort.
This trend has emerged recently in college football, among teams that played in the national championship game the prior year. Both the 2014 Florida State Seminoles and the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes, who each won the championship one year earlier, stumbled through sloppy follow up campaigns. Though each team lost just once, their seasons were fraught with drama and less than inspiring victories. FSU in 2014 dealt with Jameis Winston’s off-the-field saga and turnover problems, while OSU in 2015 dealt with a quarterbacking controversy and off-field distractions from many players, including star running back Ezekiel Elliott. The common denominators among these teams were underachievement, given the talent on the rosters, and distracted future first-round NFL draft picks.
In 2016, the most logical candidate to succeed these disappointing teams would be Clemson (5-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast). Having started the 2015 season 13-0, before losing a tight championship contest to Alabama, and boasting a potential first round NFL draft pick, junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Tigers meet the profile of candidates for complacency. Indeed, throughout their first two games, far too close 19-13 and 30-24 victories over Auburn and Troy, Coach Dabo Swinney’s crew appeared to be well on their way to membership in the club.
Heading into Friday night’s primetime showdown with the Boston College Eagles (3-2, 0-2), the unbeaten Tigers have looked like a team resisting its natural urges towards complacency. After consecutive routs over South Carolina State and Georgia Tech, Clemson drove a convincing stake into the heart of the complacency beast with a 42-36 comeback victory over No. 3 Louisville (4-1, 2-1) and Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson last Saturday night. 2014 FSU and 2015 OSU certainly never beat an opponent of such stature, with that FSU team getting routed 59-20 by No. 2 Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Despite blowing a 28-10 halftime lead, the Tigers showed that their desire to win still burns brightly, with two fourth quarter touchdowns and a last-second defensive stop.
Though he has uncharacteristically struggled this season, Watson still pilots Swinney’s highly potent spread offense. He has thrown seven interceptions already, after throwing 13 in the 2015 season, and is completing just 60.8 percent of his passes, after completing 67.8 percent one year ago. Despite the turnover issues—including three interceptions against Louisville—Watson has begun to showcase his 2015 form in recent weeks. In the Louisville game, he made up for his mistakes with five touchdown passes and over 300 yards. He still possesses some of the best decision making skills in college football, with a strong and accurate arm that can make any throw in the playbook.
In addition, Watson spent Saturday’s game reminding everyone that he is one of the most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, with 91 rushing yards. Swinney uses Watson in read option plays, as well as on designed quarterback runs, as he possesses the vision and patience of a running back. Though he has rushed for just 211 yards thus far, there appears to be little reason for concern. The ground game typically becomes a bigger part of Watson’s performance later in the season. Last season, all five of his 100-yard rushing games and all four of his 20-carry games came in Clemson’s final seven games.
Perhaps the real cause for concern on Clemson’s offense is the offensive line and its abilities to open holes for junior running back Wayne Gallman. After averaging 223 yards per game on the ground in 2015, the Tigers are averaging just 167.8 yards per game this season. Much of that loss has been reflected in Gallman’s stat line. Given the nature of Swinney’s spread offense, it falls almost exclusively upon the offensive line to create lanes for running backs. Thus far in 2016, Clemson’s line has failed to live up to the challenge. Running lanes have been hard to come by for Gallman, a physical but not extremely explosive back, who needs a little help to get going. This deficiency, coupled with Watson’s turnovers, help explain Clemson’s 107th-ranked red zone offense. Gallman’s 110-yard performance against Louisville’s defense, on just 16 carries, could be a sign the line is finally rounding into form after a rocky start.
Fortunately, Watson has been able to lean upon one of the deepest and most explosive receiving corps in the nation. Junior Mike Williams has returned to form after a scary neck injury sidelined him for virtually all of 2015, leading the team with 373 receiving yards. Sophomore Ray-Ray McCloud has come into his own, after a rocky first season in Death Valley, with 271 yards. Used on short routes, McCloud’s elusiveness is deadly in open space. Possession receiver Artavis Scott, Clemson’s top receiver last season, and the speedy Deon Cain round out Watson’s receiving unit. The embarrassment of riches even covers the loss of sophomore slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and has helped Clemson score over 35 points per game.
On Friday night, expect the BC secondary to be in for a long night. With the rushing attack still scuffling a bit and the presence of BC’s stifling run defense, Watson will look to carve up the Eagles’ somewhat vulnerable secondary. The spread offense will either play BC’s linebackers off the field or force them to cover players like McCloud one-on-one in space. Expect a significant number of explosive downfield plays, especially to Williams and Cain. If BC needs to double-cover Tiger receivers, the game could be over, as this would allow Gallman the opportunity to make an impact on the game. The Eagles’ best chance at slowing Clemson is to make them one dimensional, eliminate the deep ball and be content with allowing short underneath routes, so long as they minimize yards after the catch.
All of this neglects Clemson’s stellar defense, which might be every bit as good as the one Steve Addazio relies upon. Led by defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, Clemson has accumulated the second most tackles for loss in the country, living in opponents’ backfields. This pressure has forced Clemson opponents into long third downs, a main reason why the Tigers are the 9th best third down defense. It also leads to fumbles and passes thrown under duress, which explains the whopping 12 turnovers the Tigers’ ball-hawking defense has forced, lead by safety Jadar Johnson’s three interceptions. According to Football Outsiders’ metrics, which account for difficulty of opponent, Clemson has the 10th best run defense in the nation and the 5th best pass defense.
Against BC on Friday night, look for Clemson to focus on stamping out the Eagles’ run game first. With their dominant front seven, the task should be quite doable. After making BC one dimensional, the Tigers will quickly make Patrick Towles uncomfortable in the pocket, blanketing his receivers and constantly making him see bodies. The evening will be a long slog for Addazio’s offense, which must avoid turnovers if it is to have any shot of cracking the Clemson defense.
With a unit like the one defensive coordinator Brent Venables presides over, Clemson can lay claim to the title of most complete team in college football. It certainly has one of the most talented rosters and experienced playmakers everywhere.
Even Addazio agrees, saying on Monday, “It’s hard to find any weakness when you look at them on either side of the ball.”
In all honesty, the only thing outside of Nick Saban that can halt the Clemson steamroller lurks within their own locker room. And even that insidious complacency might have been killed by Watson’s drive to prove himself on Saturday night. After hearing about Lamar Jackson and his presumed Heisman trophy all week, the Tigers quarterback took his victorious postgame interview as an opportunity to emphatically remind the nation of something: “Deshaun Watson’s still here.”
If Watson’s motivation burns at that level for the remainder of the season, Clemson fans should get a head start on booking their trip to the Championship Game in Tampa.
Featured Image by Rainer Ehrhardt / AP Photo