Friday, December 11, 2015

Clemson's biggest enemy is still Clemson

But DeShaun Watson looks more incredible than ever

Posted by Vincent Harris on Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 3:45 PM

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson rolls out against UNC in the ACC Championship Game - GWINN DAVIS MEDIA / SC NEWS EXCHANGE
  • GWINN DAVIS MEDIA / SC News Exchange
  • Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson rolls out against UNC in the ACC Championship Game

When we started out this season with 40 freshmen, Notre Dame on the schedule, DJ Reader missing in action, and a lot of general uncertainty about DeShaun Watson's health, it's hard to imagine any fan, no matter how dyed-in-orange, was thinking national championship. I mean, I felt like we were going to be good; we'd rattle off six or seven straight wins, maybe drop one to Notre Dame or Florida State, end the season with 10 or 11 wins, and go to a good bowl game. The real year to watch this young team would be next year, I told myself.

And that's why I don't do well in Vegas. Watching the Tigers stand tall after a shaky, mistake-filled ACC championship game, a game that any previous edition of this team would've lost in one of four or five different ways, it was stunning to think about what they've accomplished this year, particularly in the last few weeks after vanquishing their most dangerous rival, Florida State.

Except for the 33-13 win over Wake Forest, there were moments in each of the final games of the 2015 season where Clemson could've given it all away. But each time, they bore down and got the job done, led by the best overall defense in college football and a quarterback who apparently cannot be rattled.

I watched every game of the 2015 season, and I do not recall seeing Watson acting unsure of himself. Not when Notre Dame fought back to within two points in the 4th quarter, not when the Tigers went into the locker room without the lead for the first time all season against the Seminoles, and certainly not when UNC threw everything they had at him during the ACC championship game. He simply handled each possession as best he could, sometimes with near-mechanical precision and sometimes with mystifying mistakes. But even during the most disastrous few minutes against the Tarheels, after punter Andy Teasdall made one of the worst decisions I've ever seen on a football field and the Tigers offense got hit with two false-start penalties in a row, turning a second-and-two into third-and-10, Watson simply refused to panic.

But that awful few minutes of football does bring me back to something I've been saying all season, and it's no less true now than it was in September. Clemson's biggest enemy is still Clemson. They've found a way to win every week, they're ACC champs, and they're headed to the playoffs, but there are still way too many moments of miscommunication, overthrows, fumbles, defensive lapses, and carelessness to make me feel like we're a lock for anything. The phrase "found a way to win" has been creeping into Dabo Swinney's post-game interviews more and more since the blowout against Miami, and that's disturbing for a team this talented.

Yes, this is a young team, but these are mistakes that the Tigers' next opponent or opponents will not let slide. Oklahoma is a fascinating matchup simply because of these two teams' recent history and the fact that Sooner QB Baker Mayfield might be the only quarterback in the country who can match Watson pass-for-pass, though Mayfield is a far inferior when he has to run the ball. But the higher up the mountain Clemson climbs (and they're only two steps from the top now), the more rarefied the air becomes and the less fallible mortals will be tolerated.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Steve Spurrier's sudden resignation was all about besting Vince Dooley

The Old Ball Coach's Oldest Enemy

Posted by Karl Brenkert on Thu, Dec 3, 2015 at 4:48 PM

Say what you will about the Gamecocks this year, but there's no denying they've been interesting. How many SEC coaches have ever quit in the middle of the season? On Tuesday, the Old Ball Coach published an open letter to all South Carolina fans with an assessment of the season and his reasons for quitting on the team when he did. While I can't disagree with his assessment of the Gamecocks season, he's not telling the whole truth about why he quit. I've got the numbers to prove it.

FLICKR USER KEITHALLISON
  • Flickr user keithallison

Before we get to the numbers, we have to start at the beginning. All the way back in 1964, Steve Spurrier's sophomore year at Florida. (In those days, freshmen were prohibited from playing on the varsity squad). It also happened to be the year that Georgia hired a young coach named Vince Dooley. After trading wins in '64 and '65, Spurrier and the Gators were an undefeated 8-0 heading into the game against Dooley and Georgia in 1966. Florida had never won a SEC championship and all hopes were riding on the eventual Heisman winner.

Coming into the game, Georgia was also undefeated in SEC play, with their only loss coming at the hands of Miami. The game started well for Florida as they took a 10-3 lead into halftime; however, Dooley employed a seven-man pass-rush in the second half that forced Spurrier to throw two interceptions, including a pick six that gave the Bulldogs a 17-10 lead the Gators never came back from. To add insult to injury, Dooley called a quarterback keeper from the three-yard line with one second left in the game to run up the final score to 27-10. Georgia won the SEC title. The Gators' undefeated season was over. It was a humiliation Spurrier never forgot.

Vince Dooley retired as head coach to become Georgia's full time athletic director after the 1988 season. Two years after he left the sidelines, fate brought Steve Spurrier back to Florida. While they never coached against one another, their rivalry was reborn.

Like the Count of Monte Cristo, Spurrier's revenge on Dooley has been systematic and deliberate. He's not been shy about running up the score. In 1995, when the Cocktail Party was moved because of the Jaguars' renovations in Jacksonville, Spurrier called a flea-flicker in the 4th quarter to make the final score 52-10. After the game he bragged about being the first coach to put 50 on the board in their stadium. In 2011, Gamecock defense tackle Melvin Ingram scored on a 67-yard fake punt in a game South Carolina won 45-42. His career record against Georgia is 16-6. He has more wins against Georgia than any other coach they've played.

Now, flash forward to July 2015 and the bizarre "enemies" press conference Spurrier put on to prove to the recruits he was committed to coaching the Gamecocks. Ostensibly a press conference to chide The State newspaper for printing a column written by a Dooley lackey from Atlanta, most of the media understood it was a press conference meant to reassure recruits. But if you listen closely, you can hear more. He repeatedly references Dooley slights about him over the course of his career. Spurrier's enemy is, and always has been, Vince Dooley.

Which brings us back to the numbers and Spurrier's legacy as a head coach. Spurrier and Dooley both have six SEC titles, one national championship,and one Heisman winner. Spurrier was named SEC Coach of the Year six times, Dooley only five times. Spurrier passed Dooley in total wins back in 2012 and is currently ranked 13th all-time to Dooley's number 16 ranking. So, there could only be one more statistic Spurrier needs to complete his revenge. Winning percentage.

Winning percentage is thought to be a better way to compare coaches from different eras than simply looking at total wins, especially now that the pretense of scholarship has been abandoned in college and teams routinely play 14 games per year. Vince Dooley had a career winning percentage of 71.33 percent while at Georgia. At the beginning of the 2015 season, Steve Spurrier had a career winning percentage of 72.52 percent. At the time Spurrier suddenly retired, his winning percentage had dropped to 71.7 percent Assuming the same 3-9 season, Spurrier's would have ended this season all the way down in Pat Dye territory at 70.77 percent.

Twenty years from now, few people outside of South Carolina will remember how Spurrier retired. Now, all people can say when they look back in the history books, is that Spurrier's name is ahead of Dooley in both wins and winning percentage. Was it classy of him to quit to secure his legacy? I don't know, is it classy to sit the final game of the baseball season to preserve a batting title? It's not unprecedented in sports. Somehow it seems a fitting end for a feud that began with Dooley running up the score back in '66.

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Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Gamecocks will leave it all on the field against Clemson

Nothing Left to Lose

Posted by Karl Brenkert on Sat, Nov 28, 2015 at 11:19 AM

South Carolina quarterback Perry Orth lets it fly - BOB SOFALY/THE ISLAND NEWS
  • Bob Sofaly/The Island News
  • South Carolina quarterback Perry Orth lets it fly

It's not the size of the Gamecock in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the Gamecock. That cliche, or at least one very similar to it, is something that every football player hears again and again from the first time he straps on a helmet. The Gamecocks wound up on the wrong side of this cliche on Saturday with a surprising loss to the Citadel that left some fans crying in the street.

While it would be understandable if the Gamecocks lost heart when Steve Spurrier quit on them, it's unfair to say that these players have not fought through this season. Every game they've played has come down to the final whistle. They simply have the unfortunate habit of playing to the level of their opponent. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself heading into this weekend's game with top ranked Clemson.

Clemson can't help but feel nervous about this game. "Clemsoning" is like the yips. It could rear it's ugly head at any moment. And Clemson isn't only playing for an undefeated season. They are playing for the reputation of the ACC, as well. Can you imagine an ACC Championship game in which both teams have lost to South Carolina? By the way the college football playoff committee has disrespected North Carolina due to their "bad loss" to the Gamecocks, Clemson can expect to drop out of the playoffs if they lose this game.

Looking at the Dabo years, it's amazing that Clemson hasn't been able to beat South Carolina more often. Nuk is the best receiver in the NFL. How could Clemson lose with that guy? They've also had Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington and Dwayne Allen and Martavis Bryant and CJ Spiller and still they lost! It's incredible that these players, who are dominating in the NFL, were losing to the likes of Bruce Ellington, Mike Davis, and Dylan Thompson. Dabo's troubling 2-5 record against South Carolina should also cause Clemson fans to worry.

The pressure of high expectations combined with the burden of overcoming previous failures is generally a recipe for indigestion. I suspect Clemson fans will consume fewer helpings of turkey this Thanksgiving, while the Gamecocks will be busy stuffing themselves. The Gamecocks have nothing left to lose this season. The fate of interim coach Sean Elliott was sealed with the loss to the Citadel. Junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper has already announced he will leave early for the NFL, and there will be no bowl game this year. The Gamecocks will leave everything on the field in this game.

There is no winning this game for Clemson; they can only avoid losing it. Winning is expected. But, if they lose, all the talk of Clemsoning returns, Dabo is humiliated, and Clemson fails to make the playoffs.

Happy Thanksgiving, Tigers. See ya Saturday.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Clemson's home schedule ends with a case of the 'blahs'

Grinding Towards Destiny

Posted by Vincent Harris on Wed, Nov 25, 2015 at 1:02 PM

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson pushes toward the endzone - JERRY HALMON, THE ADVERTIZER HERALD
  • Jerry Halmon, The Advertizer Herald
  • Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson pushes toward the endzone

It was Senior Day. It was the last divisional game of the season. It was a chance to be the first 11-0 Clemson team since 1981. So why did it seem like, for about two-thirds of this game, no one cared that much? Certainly, Wake Forest didn't seem to care, though their defense fought hard down to the final minutes. Certainly Clemson's defense came to play, given their shaky showing against Syracuse last week, it seemed like a given that they would make this a statement game. But oy vey, was this a grind to get through.

The score going into halftime was 30-7. The final score was 33-13. That's one scoring drive that ended in a field goal for the last 30 minutes of the game. Yes, the Tigers racked up 552 yards of offense, but no one on the team seemed the least bit engaged in the second half. Initially, upon looking at the box score, I didn't know exactly how we got 171 rushing yards, because all I remembered seeing was Zac Brooks run into a human wall every time he got the ball, but then I recalled that DeShaun Watson and backup Kelly Bryant had some pretty good runs.

We also had four turnovers to go along with our 33 points, though, and never has the importance of Wayne Gallman been more apparent. Without him, there is no running game unless we want to repeatedly send our Heisman-candidate quarterback into heavy coverage to get pummeled, and I'd rather we didn't do that. That having been said, it was nice to see some second- and third-stringers get some time to shine, and it's reassuring that even when they feel flat, the Tigers can still win big.

And now all that's left before championship games and playoffs is Carolina. Poor, poor Carolina.

I must admit that since he took over after Steve Spurrier totally screwed over ... sorry, since Steve Spurrier retired ... I'd really been impressed by interim head coach Shawn Elliott's effect on the Gamecocks. Yes, they were losing, but given the mid-season coaching drama and some key injuries, that was to be expected. What I saw was a team re-energized and playing above their talent level under a fired-up new leader.

But you can't lose to the freakin' Citadel, even on a questionable penalty. You can't let one of your gimmes (and this was a gimme, no matter what Nick Saban says) hang that close to you, and you certainly can't let them go up 14-3 on you in the first quarter.

USC gave up 350 rushing yards against The Citadel. The Gamecocks were so bad at stopping the run that the Bulldogs' QB Dominique Allen only needed to make three passing attempts. If Gallman is back and even running at 75 percent, he shouldn't have any trouble getting through this line.

That being said, rivalry games are never safe bets, ever, and anyone whose blood runs garnet-and-black has got to be salivating at the idea of not just taking Clemson out, but taking them out of the playoff hunt. If Clemson's offense doesn't snap out of that odd malaise that took over during the second half of the Wake Forest game, you never know what could happen.

But really, USC is just awful and I'm thinking Clemson wins it going away.

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Friday, November 20, 2015

A tough away game may have just taught the Tigers a valuable lesson

Threat Level Orange

Posted by Vincent Harris on Fri, Nov 20, 2015 at 5:23 PM

So far, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has led his Tigers to a perfect season - GWINN DAVIS / FOR POST AND COURIER
  • GWINN DAVIS / FOR POST AND COURIER
  • So far, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has led his Tigers to a perfect season

Well, that was ... tense. Syracuse was a 30-point underdog going into last Saturday's game against Clemson, and that spread apparently hurt their feelings. After seeing lesser versions of the option offense earlier this year from Wofford and a hampered-by-injury Georgia Tech, the Tigers seemed downright stunned when sophomore walk-on quarterback Zach Mahoney cranked up the Orange Wave's fast, misdirection-heavy scheme.

Quite simply, Clemson defense wasn't ready. They repeatedly gave up big-yardage gashes to Syracuse RB's George Morris and Jordan Fredericks, but Mahoney was the real star of this show, repeatedly pulling off QB-keepers that left heads spinning and showing some serious guts with a 28-yard, possession-saving bomb to Steve Ishmael that left his hand just as DE Shaq Lawson was taking him to the ground.

Other than a couple of fumbles, one of which came courtesy of third-stringer Kelly Bryant, and an interception, the offense was next-level for most of the game. Clemson QB DeShaun Watson was single-handedly responsible for 461 yards of offense, and there was a refreshingly automatic feel to the way the Tigers clock-chewing, game-icing final drive unfolded down the stretch.

But it was a tough game, and it was not without casualties. Big ones. Wayne Gallman, the cornerstone of the Tigers' ground game, rolled his ankle and as of Monday is day-to-day. Mackensie Alexander is also a question mark, as is Ray-Ray McCloud.

Will those injuries be felt against Wake Forest at home this weekend? Honestly, probably not. Zac Brooks should be an effective enough replacement if Gallman has to sit out, and though Alexander has been a vital part of the Tigers defense, particularly in the secondary, his teammates will no doubt be far more ready to play than they were against Syracuse.

John Wolford has been an effective QB at times for Wake Forest this season, and his stats from the Notre Dame game are surprisingly solid: 19/30 for 219 yards. The Deacons' ground game is somewhat one-dimensional, relying mostly on freshman RB Tyler Bell for the last few games. WRs KJ Brent and Tabari Hines have both been big targets this season in the air, but let's face it: Clemson's biggest obstacle right now is Clemson.

The position this team is in right now is something they're not used to. All season, the motivating factors for the Tigers have been simple: To get and keep the respect they felt like they deserved, to overcome their past missteps, and to beat everyone they were supposed to beat and maybe a couple of teams that they weren't.

Well, all of that has been accomplished now, and there's never been a bigger bullseye on the team's back. Syracuse played on a level they haven't reached all season, and it was because they had a shot to take out the No. 1 team in the country. That's what fired them up. How can anyone expect Wake or Carolina to play any differently? The work it takes for a football team to get to the top of the mountain is exhausting, but it's not even close to the amount of work it takes to stay there.

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