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Opportunity missed for Clemson, ACC

9/1/2014
Dabo Swinney and Clemson will try to move on after a Week 1 loss to Georgia. AP Photo/David Goldman

Before Todd Gurley ran roughshod over his defense, and before Jeremy Pruitt thwarted his offense yet again -- long before Saturday’s stumble at Georgia even kicked off, in fact, Dabo Swinney was preaching the message that one game wouldn’t define Clemson’s season. And of course, that’s true. In fact, Saturday’s 45-21 loss between the hedges won’t even define Clemson’s September, with No. 1 Florida State still looming in a few weeks.

“Every goal that we have is still in front of us,” Swinney said after the game. “We’re 0-1, and we have a long way to go. The season starts tomorrow. That’s the mentality that we have.”

But of course, the season started Saturday, and it started with a loss, no matter how Swinney wants to frame it.

Swinney is an optimist. It’s his nature. It’s how he shrugged off a thumping by Florida State last season by explaining that the lopsided score wasn’t indicative of the true talent difference between the two teams. It’s how he made peace with yet another loss to South Carolina last season, selling the notion that Clemson was the better team, undone by just a few too many turnovers.

And so Swinney was back to work Sunday, 11 games still left on the schedule and a litany of “what if” moments already in his rearview mirror.

If Clemson could’ve just tackled better, Gurley might not have run for 198 yards and three touchdowns, utterly embarrassing the Tigers’ defense for the second straight season.

“Todd Gurley was the best player on the field, and it wasn’t close,” Swinney said. “He’s a special player.”

It was Gurley who returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown to even the score at 21, and if Clemson could’ve brought him down before he reached the end zone, things might’ve been different.

All offseason, Swinney lamented the kicking game as his biggest concern, even with the losses of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, and of course, Ammon Lakip missed his lone field goal try that could’ve sent the Tigers to halftime with a lead. If only there hadn’t been so many dropped passes, so many mental errors in that first half, maybe that missed kick wouldn’t have loomed so large, anyway.

Clemson’s average starting field position in the second half was its own 17, and Swinney said the offense became too conservative while pinned deep in its own territory. If only that field position had been better, perhaps there wouldn’t be lingering questions today about Cole Stoudt and an offense that looked sharp early but disappeared late, mustering a woeful 15 yards and just one first down in the second half.

It’s Week 1, after all, and the “what ifs” are as meaningful a statistic as anything. But no matter what happens in the next 11 games, Week 1 did matter for Clemson and for the conference.

Yes, Gurley is a special player, but Clemson will face more of them, starting with Jameis Winston on Sept. 20. That the Tigers knew just what to expect from Gurley and still were incapable of slowing him down isn’t an aberration.

Yes, a few plays swung the game, but that’s how it goes against great teams -- and indeed, Georgia may be a great team. In fact, the Bulldogs will move forward with eyes on the College Football Playoff, and even if Clemson manages to upend Florida State later this month, it may find itself on the outside looking in thanks to those few bad plays between the hedges.

Yes, the field position was a problem. Adversity strikes in every game, but a team is measured not by the size of the obstacle but by its response. Clemson had none. For the second straight year, a Pruitt-coached defense appeared to have all the answers for the Tigers' up-tempo scheme.

Swinney said he’s learned more about his team from those rocky 60 minutes than he might've expected to learn in four weeks of a normal season, but there are still so many questions.

The offense had its moments, but Clemson had nine three-and-outs, and 12 of its 15 drives lasted six plays or fewer. That vaunted defensive line recorded just a single sack, while Georgia ran for 328 yards -- the most the Tigers’ defense has surrendered to a non-option team since Swinney took over as coach. Whether Stoudt’s line -- 16-of-29 for 144 yards and an INT -- was indicative of poor performance or too many drops by his receivers is of little consequence. Clemson needs to improve in both areas. Deshaun Watson looked impressive on one drive, perplexed on another, and the impact the freshman will make this week remains frustratingly unclear.

And then, of course, there’s the biggest question: What does it all mean for the ACC?

Fair or not, Clemson bore the weight of this new system, in which each team is evaluated within the context of its conference. A win over Georgia would've meant credibility for the endlessly discredited ACC. The loss removes perhaps the biggest safety net the conference might've had on what promises to be a razor-thin line it must walk for the next three months.

Florida State looked flawed against an unranked Oklahoma State team. NC State, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and North Carolina all struggled, to some degree, against FCS-level competition. And Clemson lost by 24 points to Georgia in a game that probably was far closer than the score indicated. The problem, however, is that no one knows whether the playoff selection committee will remember how close the Tigers came when it’s time to make a decision on who’s in and who’s out.

A lot can happen in the next 11 games, and Swinney is right to focus on what’s ahead. But the path to the playoff grew more narrow with Saturday’s loss, and for all the data Swinney accumulated and for all the film there is to study, there’s really only one thing that’s certain.

“All we know about our football team right now,” Swinney said, “is we’re not going to win them all.”