Clemson Wins 10 for 11th Consecutive Year
Clemson football over the last decade has become a picture of consistency. Since 2010, the Tigers have not had a season with less than 10 wins (Wednesday night’s 20-13 victory over Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl helped propel them to their 11th straight 10+ win season). They have been maintaining a level of success rivaled only by Alabama under Nick Saban. Are they a dynasty? No. But, this is definitely still a heck of a run the Tigers are on; one that many fan bases would be totally envious of, and one that could easily spoil a fanbase (not to say you are, Clemson fans).
Needless to say, when you are having this kind of success, the bar is set fairly high. There was good reason to be excited about this season coming in. DJ Uiagalelei was in the early Heisman talks. The defensive was possibly going to be even scarier than they were in 2018. Justyn Ross was returning to anchor a young but still talented receiving corps.
In spite of losing a generational talent at QB in Trevor Lawrence, top tier receivers Amari Rogers and Cornell Powell, and Travis Etienne, things felt like they would be fine. After all, Clemson is one of those programs that just reloads rather than rebuilding, right?
Clemson opened the 2021 campaign in one of the most anticipated week 1 matchups ever with a big test — the Georgia Bulldogs. In short, if you were looking for offensive fireworks, this game was not for you. Georgia’s defense dominated the Tigers, limiting them to just 180 yards of total offense (an average of only 3 yards per play). The rushing attack that is usually such a big threat for Clemson mustered only 2 rushing yards. The Tiger offensive line struggled, with DJ being sacked 7 times. Uiagalelei was 19-37 with 178 yards passing and a pick.
The positive from the 10-3 loss was the defense. They most certainly lived up to the preseason hype, as the Tiger D held UGA to just two 20+ yard plays and an average of just over 4 yards per play. They also forced 2 turnovers. James Skalski and Mario Goodrich both notched double digit tackles with a combined 26.
The story would continue to be the same over the next 6 weeks. Clemson laid a 49-3 beating on Buddy Pough’s SC State Bulldogs (who went on to win their conference and upset Deion Sanders’ heavily-favored Jackson State in the Celebration Bowl). The Tigers narrowly escaped with a 14-8 win over Georgia Tech in their ACC opener. In spite of NC State blowing multiple opportunities to win sooner, Clemson lost on the road 27-21 in double overtime to the Wolfpack. They rebounded from that with back to back narrow conference wins it seemed the Tigers lucked into over Boston College (19-13) and Syracuse (17-14).
After taking a 27-17 road loss to eventual ACC champion Pittsburgh, the Tigers sat at 4-3 (2-2 ACC). Any hope of making the playoff for the 7th straight year was gone. It was clear DJ Uiagalelei was not going to live up to the Heisman level expectations placed on him preseason. They were likely not going to make it to the ACC Championship for the 7th consecutive year. Many Tiger fans were approaching games they once were so confident they should win by 40 with just merely hoping to scrape out a win. They were at a point where they would be satisfied with just making a bowl and beating South Carolina again.
Thankfully for Clemson, the doom and gloom outlook on things would not end up coming to fruition. The Tiger offense found a rhythm along with a slight ease in the schedule (over the final 6 games of the regular season, they would face just 1 ranked opponent — Wake Forest, who was #10 prior to their meeting). They managed to rattle off 6 in a row.
Florida State embarrassed themselves on the last play of the game to help Clemson back door cover and make for a really hilarious “bad beat” for the Noles. Clemson went on to win it 30-20. The Tigers followed that up by knocking off Louisville 30-24 on the road. The next week was a glorified scrimmage, as one of the 2 worst teams in FBS came to Memorial Stadium and only mustered 7 points by running the opening kickoff back for a TD. From there Clemson scored 44 unanswered. Next, the Tigers dominated Wake Forest 48-27.
In a rivalry week with the most buzz around it in the last 8 years, Clemson played their most dominant game all season, in control from the opening whistle. The Tigers marched right down the field easily on their first drive to set the tone and crush the hopes of South Carolina fans who had thought they had a legitimate shot this year. In the end, Clemson came to Williams-Brice Stadium and held the Gamecocks scoreless. The 30-0 shutout was the first time in over 30 years the Tigers would do so to their in-state rivals.
Over the course of the 7 game win streak the Tigers closed the season with, the once-struggling offense outscored opponents 202-91. On the season, they would end up outscoring their opposition 322-180. The Tigers averaged about 27 points per game while their defense held others to an average of just 15 with an average of 308.4 yards total offense per game. Clemson defenders combined for 41 sacks and forced 19 turnovers.
Offensively, DJ finished the season with over 2,000 passing yards with 187 completions on 342 attempts with 9 picks and 9 passing TDs. Will Shipley developed into quite the reliable running back, toting the rock 131 times for 685 yards and 10 TDs and an average of over 75 roaming yards per game. Justyn Ross led the team receiving with 46 snags for 514 yards and 3 TDs. Joseph Ngata was also a key contributor with 438 yards and a TD on 23 catches.
On the defensive side of things, James Skalski led the way with 97 total tackles. Myles Murphy led the team in sacks with 7 as well as tackles for a loss with 13. Andrew Booth logged 3 interceptions.
Overall, though Clemson did not meet expectations in 2021, especially on offense, the team still accomplished a lot. After the 4-3 start, it would have been easy for things to have kept going as they were and the Tigers probably could have ended up 6-6. But, they found their stride against opponents they should beat up on. They managed to win 7 in a row. They were still in the hunt for the ACC Atlantic title down to the last few weeks. The Tigers managed to shut South Carolina out for their 7th consecutive win in the series. Clemson won 10 games for the 11th straight season, capping it all off with a good win in the Cheez-it Bowl.
All in all, if you have to complain about that kind of season, you have “caviar problems.” Looking ahead, Dabo Swinney will face his toughest challenge since 2012, after Brent Venables departed for the Oklahoma head coach job and Tony Elliott left to become UVA’s head coach. He opted to promote from within and named Wes Goodwin the new DC and Brandon Streeter OC. There is little doubt to me, especially after the turnaround this season, that Clemson will be fine next year. They have a lot coming back. The question is whether or not Dabo will embrace the transfer portal as well as he can to fill the holes that showed on the team in 2021, particularly on the O line.
If he can do that, this “down year” will be a unicorn. Clemson will be back to the top of the mountain again. Maybe not national champions. But they will be back in the discussion, and they will run through the ACC. Only time will tell.