Off-The-Beaten-Path Thoughts For The 2008 Football Season
Aug 19th 2008 - Written by: Bryan Morgan
I’ll be honest. I began scrounging the web for any discussion on the upcoming 2008 Clemson football season in April. Or maybe it was March. I pulled for the Tigers as hard as any one during their ignominious one-game tear through the NCAA Tournament…and then promptly began looking for pre-season prognostications on the upcoming football season, down-home quips from Coach Tommy Bowden in that classic aw-shucks Bowden family style, even glossy love-fest articles on James Davis, C.J. Spiller, and their kids. That pulled me through Memorial Day and into the dog days of June when a now-familiar pattern began to emerge….namely that this team has weapons but unfortunately they have no offensive line; they have talent but also a coach who fields underachieving teams; they have no linebackers and even the defensive line is not among the pitiful ACC’s best.
If you’ve paid attention to the pre-season publicity, you’ve seen the above analysis on the 2008 Tigers spun every way imaginable. At this point, if I follow the media’s narrative, I fully expect to see the Tigers give up 400 yards passing per game (all from short-to-intermediate route completions off three-step drops due to pressure from the D-Line), while rushing for 50 yards per game (all while possessing the best backfield in college football), and struggle to get over the hump (all while going 10-2 and winning the ACC). I’d like to thank the first national media member who came up with this narrative: you saved the other 500 paid writers a lot of work and freed them up to spend the rest of their summer texting with Brett Favre (am I the only one expecting Favre to finally miss games this year due to tendinitis of the thumbs?)
Meanwhile, there are some truly interesting keys to the team this season, all of which seem to have been ignored by everyone not on the Alabama coaching staff. Without further ado, I therefore give you my thoughts for the 2008 football season.
1. Every Randy Moss and Tom Brady Needs A Wes Welker
We all know Randy Moss and Tom Brady are first ballot Hall-Of-Famers. NBC and ESPN may just go ahead and induct Brady after next season if he wins another Super Bowl MVP. However, the guy converting critical 3rd-and-6’s into first downs and red zone field goals into TDs for the 2007-2008 Patriots was not Moss but Wes Welker. Consider this: in 2006-2007, the #2 Patriots WR was Troy Brown, who checked in with 43 receptions for 384 yards and 4 TDs. The Patriots pulled off a major upgrade at the #2 WR position in 2007 by acquiring Wes Welker from the Miami Dolphins. His 2007 numbers: 112 receptions for 1175 yards and 8 TDs…representing a 250%+ improvement above his wide receiver predecessor. For the 2007 Clemson Tigers, Tyler Grisham was that ultra-valuable #2, clocking in with 60 receptions for 653 yards and 4 TDs. It was an extremely quiet coming-out party for Grisham, so much so that perhaps only Clemson fans are aware of his value at this point. The sure-handed Grisham, however, holds one of the keys to the 2008 season as defense are sure to key on All-ACC WR Aaron Kelly and the blindingly fast Jacoby Ford. As one of the growing number of Clemson players from the state of Alabama, I think we can be sure that the August 30 date with Alabama is circled on Grisham’s calendar. If he comes up big in that contest, it won’t be long before the rest of the country is aware of him as well.
2. Special Teams Need To Start Being Special
For all the talk about “one play away from a division championship” for the past three seasons, one little factoid often gets overlooked: 50% or more of the teams in major conferences can say the same thing. What is unique about Clemson, however, is that they are literally a few special teams play per season away from division championships. The litany of breakdowns in this area over the past five years is enough to draw sympathy even from fans of opposing teams. Four missed field goals in a 2007 13-3 loss to Georgia Tech last year. 14 punts blocked since Bowden’s arrival in 1999. Virginia Tech’s 21 points off an interception, punt, and kickoff return in 2007 (who needs an offense when you can do that?!?) Thinking back on the 2007 season, my initial instinct was to assume that our own fantastic talent on returns evened things out…you know, the “win some/lose some” mentality. A quick look at the final 2007 NCAA statistics eliminated that, however: Clemson came in at 47th nationally in punt returns (perspective: South Carolina was 46th) and 15th nationally in kickoff returns. Meanwhile, on the flip side, Clemson was a brilliant 97th in net punting (your punt yardage minus the yardage they run back on you) and a depressing 88th in kickoff return yardage. I took enough math at Clemson to know that a #15 rank on offense is effectively cancelled out by a #97 ranking on defense. In terms of the national kick rankings, only one team ranked below Clemson had a better record than them (the fluky/pass-wacky 12-1 Hawaii team). Not... Good.
It’s entirely possible that the dropped pass against Boston College obliterated all my other bad memories from the 2007 season but did you remember we had punts blocked against Florida State and Georgia Tech (the FSU block almost turning the tide back in their favor)? Or that we missed field goals from inside the red zone multiple times last year? To take nothing away from Mark Bucholz’s 2007 attempt to play both soccer and football simultaneously, it’s difficult to imagine that simply focusing on one sport can’t pay tremendous dividends for him personally. In addition, one has to think that a couple of more games of instability from him could see a replacement trotted onto the field. More troubling, however, is the Tigers seemingly inability to truly prioritize special teams coverage. Despite my fifth thought (below) pointing to the bum rap that Tommy Bowden has gotten from fans and media alike, the special teams area is clearly one where any criticism is justified. Another season of non-performance in this area in key games will be indefensible.
3. Clemson’s Offense Is Not That Mercurial
If you asked me to summarize the numbers put up by the 2007 Clemson offense, I’d say this: “Explosive at times but struggled in big games.” A deeper look into the numbers revealed this: the team struggled to run against the teams that everyone struggled to run against. Did you know Boston College finished the season as the #2 ranked rush defense? Or that Virginia Tech was #5? Our two lowest rushing games, coincidentally, Boston College and Virginia Tech. I know, I know….in our collective fan brain, the offensive coordinator should adjust and put up stellar passing numbers but Harper’s numbers weren’t that bad in either game - add in the dropped bomb to Aaron Kelly against BC and you could fairly say he outdueled last year’s #3 draft pick, Matt Ryan. (Incidentally, has there ever been a more annoying nickname to a Southern football fan than Matty Ice? I almost liked the guy but then some Boston hockey fan came up with that.) I crunched the numbers to see how Clemson fared in the red zone and they were actually fairly effective (averaging only about 1.5 points less per opportunity in their losses than the record-setting 2008 New England Patriots based on my quick calculations).
My point here is simple: good teams do what Clemson did last year…struggle against the great teams. Great teams find a way around it. I think all will agree that 2007 was a good team. For 2008 to be great, they must find a way to drop a couple fewer passes (see: 2007 Georgia Tech and Boston College, coincidentally), make a couple more field goals, execute like an average team on special teams, and rely on a very stiff defense to do the rest.
4. Tommy Bowden Is Not Regularly “Outcoached”
Maybe it’s the aw-shucks attitude, maybe it’s the less-than-imposing physical presence, or maybe it’s the fact that it’s hard to fathom that THREE Bowdens seem to be pretty good daggum college football coaches, but the facts seem to show that Tommy Bowden teams have performed at or above their apparent level of talent (if we assume that the NFL is a pretty good barometer of football talent). Based on ESPN.com’s “NFL Players By College” listing (http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/college?), the following table shows the current number of NFL players from each of the schools in the ACC:
If you consider that the average career span of an NFL player is 3.5 years and this is Tommy Bowden’s 10th year at Clemson, one can consider that his career at Clemson mostly covers the professional careers of most players on NFL rosters. Taking a look at that list, Clemson is tied at #10 in terms of placing talent into the league which means that if Tommy is breaking even with the talent given him, his league records should also be about 10th best over that time period. Instead, Tommy has 42 ACC wins over his nine years in the league, more than any team other than Georgia Tech and Florida State.
In terms of preparation, only two coaches can be shown to have fielded teams that were consistently more prepared than Bowden’s Clemson teams: Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer and Boston College/N.C. State’s Tom O’Brien. Jim Grobe has developed a reputation as a miracle worker at Wake Forest but Tommy quietly has a 4-2 record against him. Despite fielding possibly inferior talent against his dad at Florida State from 1999-2007, Tommy is now 4-5 against the elder Bowden. In addition, two college football coaching legends – South Carolina’s Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier – have been dominated by Bowden’s teams since his arrival at Clemson (Tommy is 7-2 versus the University of South Carolina). Despite these facts, Tommy is regularly belittled in the media in item’s such as ESPN.com’s recent ACC coach rankings where he came in a head-scratching #7 out of 12 coaches. That’s right, folks, David Cutcliffe who “built an impressive resume during his time at Tennessee” as offensive coordinator, waltzes in with his conference 0-0 resume at Duke (DUKE!) as the #4 coach in the ACC. I suppose that as long as Tommy at #7 keeps winning 4 out of 5 games against that #3 coach that Clemson fans should take these rankings all day long.
The point of this thought is that Clemson fans have perhaps fallen into the trap of thinking of the current coaching staff as a liability, rather than a strength. I’m not saying Tommy Bowden is the second coming of Bear Bryant but he’s a very solid coach who has built a very good program that may be on the verge of great….if nothing else, it’s on the verge of something, which brings me to my final thought…
5. There Is No Margin For Error In 2008
One thing is for certain: 2008 will be the litmus test year for this coaching staff and perhaps for the program itself. In an ideal scenario, you’d like to see a gradual progression to the upper echelons of college football and Clemson had those chances in 2006 and 2007, opting instead however to hit a ceiling limiting them to good-but-not-great status. I say a gradual progression is ideal because it translates into staying power, dependable recruiting, and stability on the coaching staff. With bookend marquee games against solid SEC teams and an ACC schedule that may be the most friendly of the Tommy Bowden era at Clemson, the margin for error has been reduced to almost zero….virtually no follower of the program sees anything less than 10-2 as a successful season so the time has come to silence the critics. This means that a stumble to Alabama out of the gate puts the pressure on Clemson to go on a 10-1 tear, with at least three teams on the schedule who may be better than Alabama by the end of the year (in my mind: Wake Forest, Florida State, and South Carolina). We’ve heard about togetherness, character, and teamwork from a team of potential superstars for an entire offseason so it will be interesting to see what happens should they stumble early on. If they pull off the expected win, it will be even more interesting to see how they handle a 5-0, 6-0, or 7-0 start, should that occur.
I tried to explain this nervousness on my part to an Alabama alum friend of mine. His reply: “I hear what you’re saying but, remember, this is the way Alabama fans feel every week of every single year.” There truly is a mental hurdle to clear in any sort of role when you’re expected to be flawless and many simply can’t pull it off….seeing whether Clemson can is truly the ACC pre-season story of the year.
Bryan Morgan (email@example.com) is a graduate of Clemson University (BS Electrical Engineering, 1991) and a software architect for a major technology company. He is currently preparing to watch football for the next five glorious months.
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