Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is at a crossroads as far as the Tigers’ 2021 season is concerned.
Following Clemson’s 27-17 loss at No. 23 Pitt on Saturday, the Tigers are now 4-3 on the season — the first time since 2014 the Tigers have three losses. The difference between the 2021 and 2014 seasons, however, is that it took till Week 10 of the 2014 campaign for Swinney’s squad to lose their third game, and it followed up with three straight victories, including a bowl game victory, to finish 10-3. This year, Clemson still needs two more victories to get bowl eligible.
MORE: Clemson’s Taisun Phommachanh briefly replaces DJ Uiagalelei at QB vs. Pitt
No play on Saturday better encapsulated the Tigers’ struggles this year than a shovel pass pick-six at the start of the third quarter. The play, which gave Pitt a 21-7 lead, led Swinney to briefly bench D.J. Uiagalelei — a far cry from the player who was ranked the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2020 per 247Sports’ Composite rankings.
How did Clemson, ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25, get to this point of the season with five games still left to play? The cracks started showing themselves in a Week 1 10-3 loss to No. 5 Georgia. But it was evident even then the Bulldogs were an elite defensive team, providing some cushion to the season-opening defeat. A Week 4 loss to N.C. State lifted the veil on this team’s deficiencies, further widening the cracks. The loss to Pitt showed them to be chasms.
It’s no secret the struggles Clemson faces this season start on offense. Despite the incredible talent available in the likes of Uiagalelei, Justyn Ross and Will Shipley, it seems the jump from Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Amari Rodgers and more was a lot bigger than many expected. That and unexpected sloppy play have contributed to a season no one saw coming before the start of the 2021 campaign.
With that, Sporting News breaks down the issues facing Clemson moving forward as it attempts to salvage its 2021 season.
Poor offensive output
Through seven games, Clemson averages 324 yards and 20 points per game. Per ESPN, that ranks the Tigers 114th and 115th nationally in those metrics, respectively. Here’s how that compares to previous seasons, dating back to Swinney’s first full year on the job:
- 2020: 502.3 ypg; 43.5 ppg
- 2019: 528.7 ypg; 43.9 ppg
- 2018: 527.2 ypg; 44.3 ppg
- 2017: 429.6 ypg; 33.3 ppg
- 2016: 503.7 ypg; 39.2 ppg
- 2015: 514.5 ypg; 38.5 ppg
- 2014: 408.3 ypg; 30.8 ppg
- 2013: 507.7 ypg; 40.2 ppg
- 2012: 512.7 ypg; 41.0 ppg
- 2011: 440.8 ypg; 33.6 ppg
- 2010: 334.6 ypg; 24.0 ppg
- 2009: 362.4 ypg; 31.1 ppg
Though Clemson still has time to turn things around, their offense has never been this bad, statistically speaking; the closest team under Swinney was in 2010, when it averaged 10.6 more yards per game. Another stat that shows how much this offense has stagnated:
Clemson has averaged 13.4 points per game in regulation against P5 teams this season (5 games). Clemson averaged 14.1 points per game in the first quarter last season.
— Bill Trocchi (@billtrocchi) October 20, 2021
Following Saturday’s game, Clemson now averages 14 points per game in regulation against Power 5 competition.
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Struggles from DJ Uiagalelei
It’s unfair and unreasonable to compare Uiagalelei, a sophomore, to Lawrence, a quarterback who not only was considered the top talent of his generation dating back to high school, but also lived up to the hype to become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Even so, Uiagalelei has objectively struggled in his first full year on the job, leading to him briefly getting benched vs. the Panthers. He has yet to throw for more than 207 yards in a single game and has four games with interceptions, including Saturday’s two-pick outing. Here are his game logs through seven games in 2021:
- vs. Georgia: 19 of 37 passing (51.4 pct.), 178 yards, 1 INT
- vs. South Carolina State: 14 of 24 (58.3 pct.), 171 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 2 rushing TDs
- vs. Georgia Tech: 18 of 25 (72 pct.), 126 yards
- at NC State: 12 of 26 (46.2 pct.), 111 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT
- vs. Boston College: 13 of 28 (46.4 pct.), 207 yards
- at Syracuse: 21 of 34 (62.8 pct.), 181 yards, 1 TD
- at Pitt: 12 of 25 (48.0 pct.), 128 yards, 2 INTs, 1 rushing TD
Part of that is the pressure Clemson’s offensive line places on Uiagalelei on a week-to-week basis. Following the game vs. Pitt, Clemson now allows an average of 3.57 sacks per game, surrendering a total of 76 sack yards. Prior to Saturday, Uiagalelei ranked last in the ACC in QB rating among qualified passers.
MORE: Clemson lands in a place it hasn’t been in years with loss to N.C. State
But it’s also likely that Clemson’s offensive system, which hasn’t worked this season without the myriad elite talents it has enjoyed in years past, is simply coming back down to earth after losing Lawrence, Etienne, Rodgers and more. One opposing coach put it to ESPN this way:
“Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne covered up a lot of things a year ago,” the coach said. “The amount of times on third-and-18 last year that they would throw a checkdown to Etienne and he’d make eight people miss and gain 26 yards, that happened all the time.”
This year, the most talented receiving threat the Tigers have is Ross, who missed the entirety of the 2020 season. He has 341 receiving yards and a team-leading three touchdown receptions this year. The running backs have not fared much better, with Kobe Pace leading the team with 327 rushing yards on top of three touchdowns. Will Shipley, the No. 32 overall player in the class of 2021 per 247Sports’ Composite rankings, has 263 rushing yards and leads the team with five scores.
That relative dearth of talent has not only forced Uiagalelei into mistakes with his reads and mechanics, but has resulted in a team struggling to find its offensive identity. That has been a major part of the Tigers’ offensive struggles and 4-3 record.
How Swinney, Uiagalelei and Co. respond from here on out will go a long way in determining how this team is remembered.