This week, I exchanged messages with Eric Downing of the Clemson blog Shakin the Southland. We discussed the ceiling for this Tigers team, Tajh Boyd, DeAndre Hopkins vs. Sammy Watkins and the Hokies' chances as they go down to Death Valley this weekend.
TKP: Okay, let's just get this out of the way. We both know that Clemson beat the hell out of the Hokies last year, but that was before WVU hung 70 in the Orange Bowl (sorry, had to bring it up). What I want to know is this: how is this team different than last year's team? Is it essentially the same, or are there some noticeable differences?
STS: The WVU comments are finally starting to subside since they've been putting up nearly 70 on everyone this year, sans Texas Tech. But back to your question...no, this team isn't a whole lot different than last year's group. On the offensive side of the ball we're a little bit better. The OL, although they are very young and inexperienced, is better and more talented than last year's senior laden group. Andre Ellington is considerably more healthy this year than last year and has shown the burst that Clemson fans were used to seeing during his sophomore year. And DeAndre Hopkins has taken his game to another level and become one of the best WRs in the country. The offense averages over 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game while putting up over 41 points per game. It's one of the 10 best offenses in the country, which is slightly better than last year's group.
Defensively, however, their probably slightly worse than last year's defense. As bad as last year's defense was, there was talent in the front 4 with Brandon Thompson and Andre Branch. This year's group doesn't have an impact player up front. With the DEs unable to generate any sort of pass rush, a very suspect secondary has been exposed week in and week out. Bashaud Breeland does a pretty good job at one corner spot, but Darius Robinson has been abused at the other corner back spot. He was replaced during the BC game with Gary Peters. Last week against GT didn't give Peters an opportunity to show if he is truly an upgrade or not, so VT will be his first real test in coverage. The safeties also consistently find themselves out of position and take poor angles to the ball.
So, basically it's the same story as last year. The offense is great and can put up points on anyone, but it's always going to be a question of whether or not the defense can get enough stops to get Clemson the victory.
TKP: What is the feeling from Clemson Nation about Tajh Boyd? He puts up huge numbers, but in Clemson's last five losses he averages a little over 225 yards 1 TD and 1 pick. Pretty paltry numbers. Is it safe to say that the Tiger offense stops and starts with him?
STS: Tajh definitely struggled down the stretch last year. I'm not going to completely excuse his play. When Clemson fell behind in games at the end of the season he made a lot of careless mistakes by pressing. Chad Morris tries to preach to Tajh that it's okay to take a sack or throw the ball away and live to play another down. But when Clemson fell behind, that advice seemed to go out the window and he'd force the issue to try to get CU back in the game.
But another big issue is that the offense suffered a few key injuries that just so happened to coincide with Tajh's declining numbers. LT Philip Price suffered a knee injury that kept him out of most of the games down the stretch. Sammy Watkins suffered a shoulder injury that held him out of one game and limited his production in other games, as he wasn't able to left his arm over his head. And Andre Ellington was battling a nagging foot injury that forced him to miss some time and kept him under wraps when he did play. Injuries to those 3 guys put even more pressure on Tajh's shoulders to carry the team.
This year he's made a lot better decisions with ball and is putting up huge numbers. He dropped about 20 lbs in the offsesaon which has allowed him to be more mobile in the pocket and pick up first downs with his legs. His running ability adds another dimension to this offense. Clemson runs a lot of QB power plays in short yardage situations and Tajh always seems to pick up the needed yardage.
TKP: So....Sammy Watkins. He has nearly as many rushing yards (99) as receiving (118). I know he missed the first two games with the suspension, but what's going on? Has DeAndre Hopkins passed him as the best receiver on the team?
STS: It's debatable. A lot Clemson fans already felt the two were neck and neck, but Sammy received a lot more hype last season. Nuk Hopkins was able to get an entire offseason to dedicate himself to football for the first time since he's been at Clemson. He's stronger and faster than he was a year ago and he's been torching defenses all year long.
Sammy Watkins missed the first 2 games with a suspension. In the 3rd game he only played the first half because it was a blowout. Then, apparently, he came down with a stomach virus the Friday before the FSU game. He missed the ensuing game against BC as a result of the virus. Then he still didn't look like himself against GT. The coaches say he lost 8 lbs and is just now starting to feel like himself again. A lot of fans are waiting for him to have his breakout game this year. With his talent, you'd expect that it's only a matter of time. But he needs to get back into playing shape and get his strength back in order for that to happen. The bye week came at a perfect time to allow him to get better. I get giddy just thinking about how much better this offense can be when Watkins starts showing out the way he did last year.
TKP: So now on defense...it's been another year of pretty high opposing scores. Can Tech attack this defense? If so, how should they go about it?
STS: Like I said earlier, this defense is terrible. It's one of the worst BCS conference defenses in the country. In the BC game they seemed to have turned the corner stopping the run. But when you take a closer look at it, BC hasn't been able to run the ball against anyone this year. So I'm not sure they're really capable of stopping the run. But the biggest weakness of this defense is defending the pass. We can't generate a pass rusher with our front four, but also can't risk sending extra guys with a secondary that can't cover. Our DBs have shown complete ineptness at playing the ball in the air. We've had many a pass interference when our DBs A) don't locate the ball, or B) don't have the athletic ability to make a play on the ball. To be honest, if Mike O'Cain doesn't call a terrible game like he did twice last year, VT shouldn't have much trouble putting points on the board.
TKP: On a bigger scale, what is the ceiling for this team? They currently only have one loss to then #4 FSU. Do they still have a chance to make it to a BCS bowl?
STS: The ceiling for this team this year is 11-1 and a BCS bowl. If you look at the schedule, South Carolina will be the only game where Clemson faces a ranked opponent from here on out. All the tough games are at home (VT, NC State, Maryland, South Carolina) and the only road games are against Duke and Wake Forest. That being said, Clemson generally finds a way to lose games that they should not. So I'm not completely ruling out 8-4 or 9-3 either. But when you look at the schedule, it's tailor made for a run at 11-1.
The highest ceiling for this team is next year. Clemson will return Tajh Boyd, 4 of 5 on the OL, 3 RBs (but do lose Ellington), and all their WRs (assuming Hopkins doesn't go pro). The defense returns 7 of 11, but with the influx of talent (Robert Nkemdiche will start from Day 1) , I expect the departing seniors to be replaced by more talented and capable underclassmen.
TKP: Okay, on a scale of 1-10 how confident are you in Clemson's chances on Saturday, and why?
STS: I'm at a 6.5 right now. I have a lot of respect for VT's program. Whenever you underestimate them (after Boise St and JMU losses) they seem to pop right back up and surprise you. I'm hoping the fact that we are coming off a bye and playing at home will keep us from having a letdown game. From what I've seen from VT's defense this year, I don't think Clemson will have trouble moving the football. If Tajh Boyd protects the ball, I think our offense will be able to hold on in a shootout.
TKP: Finally, who wins and what is the score?
STS: Clemson 42 - VT 31