The Clemson Tigers are incredibly similar to the 2014 FSU team, showcasing the same strengths and vulnerabilities.
On Saturday in Tallahassee, fans will watch an undefeated team with both championship game experience and a former Heisman finalist at quarterback try to prove that, despite a bunch of too-close-for-comfort victories, it is still a legitimate title contender.
It’s a scenario that the Florida State Seminoles found themselves in just about every game two seasons ago, only this year the team with title aspirations is on the other sideline wearing orange and white: the Clemson Tigers.
The similarities between this year’s Tigers and 2014’s Seminoles are striking. They traveled almost identical paths in their respective prior seasons: give a former No. 1 quarterback recruit the full-time starting gig, pair him with a loaded defense and deep set of skill players, and watch as that talented gunslinger leads your team to the national championship game (with a pit stop at the Heisman ceremony along the way).
Yes, the Seminoles won the national championship while Clemson fell short. And yes, former FSU superstar Jameis Winston took home the bronze, stiff-arming statue while DeShaun Watson finished third in voting a year ago. But there’s no denying the resemblance.
Clemson still has legitimate title aspirations—something they proved when they outlasted fellow title hopeful Louisville three weeks ago in Death Valley.
However, what the Tigers have shown with their close calls against Auburn, NC State and even Troy is that they are far from the juggernaut many expected.
Clemson lost key players from last year and has proven that replacing two first-round caliber edge rushers and three out four starters in the secondary is not an easy task. Yet, unlike the Seminoles in 2014, it’s hard to blame the Tigers’ shortcomings on defense, as their scoring defense has actually improved.
Neither today’s Tigers nor that Seminoles club were ever going to win a title on a string of 9-6 games. It always comes back to the offenses, which is where Clemson needs to learn the lesson that Florida State didn’t figure out soon enough in its bid for a repeat championship.
Despite having a Heisman-trophy-winning quarterback under center, Florida State was a run first team in 2013. They leaned on the shifty Devonta Freeman and used the bulldozer that was Karlos Williams as a change of pace. They had four players that carried the ball over 80 times (including Winston himself) and they averaged almost six yards per carry as a team.
That strong foundation largely eroded the next year, as the loss of Freeman caused the Seminoles to put more and more on their quarterback’s plate. Winston threw the ball six more times per game in 2014 and—especially without Kelvin Benjamin and his 15 touchdowns—the results weren’t what the Seminoles would’ve hoped for.
Winston’s completion percentage fell from 67% to 65%, his touchdowns plummeted from 40 to 25 and his interceptions skyrocketed from 10 to 18.
While it’s understandable that the FSU coaching staff felt Winston was ready for more responsibility in his second year as starter, their failure to maintain their running game from 2013 put too much pressure on him until the pipes finally burst in the playoff game against Oregon.
Watson has also seen his attempts per game rise this season, going from just under 33 per game as sophomore to almost 37 this year. Like Winston, the increased workload has hurt his efficiency, as his completion percentage has gone from over 70% this time last year, down to just under 64% in 2016. Interceptions are also up for the Tiger signal-caller this year, jumping from one every 38 attempts to one every 32. Watson is being asked to do more while not getting a similar effort form those around him.
Like FSU two years ago, this can also be largely attributed to a disturbance in the balance of the offense along with a mismanagement of their personnel. After averaging over 45 rushing attempts last season, the Tigers have failed to break that mark in any of their games. Moreover, in four of their seven they haven’t even run the ball 35 times. With an offense like Clemson’s that relies on play-fakes and misdirection, not having a healthy running game makes everything else easier to defend.
The downturn in the running game can be looked at as issue of depth more than anything. Wayne Gallman has been a true bell cow for Clemson the last two-plus seasons, resulting in the Tigers not developing much depth behind him. As of now, Watson is the only real spell they’ve had for Gallman. Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced Gallman off the field a lot—as he’s registered less than 10 carries in four of the Tigers games—and it’s reflected in Watson’s numbers.
After averaging 5.3 yards/carry last season, Watson is under four yards per carry this season didn’t find the end zone at all until the NC State game. When Watson is the only threat to carry the ball, Clemson’s offense becomes pretty easy to read.
Should it be able to navigate Saturday’s matchup in Tallahassee, Clemson will once again have the chance to waltz into the playoffs undefeated. However, the Tigers can’t expect to beat likely opponents Michigan or Alabama playing the way they are now.
They are trying to maximize Watson’s talent at the expense of the rest of the roster. There must be more of a balance. Bring Tavien Feaster more into the fold and create more opportunities for the likes of Deon Cain and Jordan Leggett. After Florida State, the Tigers have four games where they should be heavy favorites. If they want to go as far as they can they need to spend those games fully integrating all their players into the offense.
Watson, by himself, can take them far, but sooner or later he will crack just as Winston did. So unless the Tigers want to be sitting on their couches January 9, they must learn from the 2014 Seminoles and embrace the fact that an offense must contain more than just DeShaun Watson.