Clemson Football: Three biggest areas of weakness

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Clemson football rolled over the Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech, defeating its ACC competitors by a combined score of 120-24. Last weekend, Syracuse gave the Tigers a surprise, scoring 21 points and entering halftime only down by 13. Early in the third quarter, the Orange even drew within six points of the Tigers before Clemson scored 20 unanswered points.

The game against Syracuse reminded college football fans across the country the Tigers aren’t untouchable. There are chinks in the armor well-coached, disciplined teams can take advantage of. Three issues stand out six games into the Clemson football season.

Keep in mind Clemson is the top team in the nation with Alabama not too far behind. There isn’t another program on par with either of these schools, except maybe for the 1-0 Ohio State Buckeyes. So, most of these selections could qualify as nitpicking. However, no team, not even the Tigers, is without flaws.

Special teams

I hate to call out B.T. Potter because he’s been perfect on extra points this year, but the Tigers have some issues regarding field goals. Potter hit all 120 of his extra point tries with Clemson. Unfortunately, his field goal record is shaky at best. The junior is 8 of 12 on attempts this season and 22-34 throughout his career.

Clemson’s field goal woes worked their way into the game against Miami, where the Hurricanes blocked two of Potter’s attempts, one of which they returned for a touchdown before halftime. Those missed opportunities let Miami hang around and even gave them momentum heading into the locker room. That won’t fly against Alabama, Georgia or Ohio State.

After a rocky first few seasons with Clemson, punter Will Spiers is averaging a career-high 47.7 yards per attempt. He’s Clemson’s brightest spot on special teams, but Syracuse blocked one of his punts on Saturday. At least it’s good to see Spiers developing into a weapon for the Tigers in his final season.

Third down efficiency

Against their two toughest opponents this season, Miami and Syracuse, the Tigers went a combined 16-34 on third down. They went for it on fourth down once in each game, converting both attempts, but the main issue comes from Clemson’s inability to keep those drives going.

With Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon in the backfield, the Tigers should have no trouble picking up yardage on third-and-short situations. This hints that for Clemson’s third down conversion rate to be so low, the Tigers find themselves in many third and long scenarios. These issues might not matter against weak ACC opponents, but they could become fatal in the College Football Playoff.

Even against Georgia Tech, Clemson only converted nine of its 17 third down opportunities. Granted, the Tigers pulled their starters by halftime, which might explain the third down struggles. While Hunter Helms, Taisun Phommachanh and D.J. Uiagalelei have made some nice plays this season, they’re nowhere near Trevor Lawrence, and Clemson’s second-string offensive linemen have struggled throughout blowout games.

It’s hard to tell whether or not Clemson’s low third down conversion rate is the result of actual struggles or backups simply adjusting to life at the college level. Either way, it would be nice to see those conversion rates go up a few notches.

Establishing the run

Etienne is the most talented running back in college football. Najee Harris and Chuba Hubbard are superstars, but neither bring the same mix of speed and power as Etienne. Despite his history of big plays, Etienne and Clemson’s running game haven’t stomped opponents this year. The team’s rushing averages are down significantly from last season.

In 2019, the Tigers averaged 240.5 rushing yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry. Etienne personally averaged a whopping 7.8 yards per attempt, which helped him win back-to-back ACC Player of the Year awards. However, Dabo Swinney’s team is only averaging 176.7 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry this season despite handing the ball off more times per game.

Etienne’s numbers have suffered too. He dropped from averaging 107.6 rushing yards per game in 2019 to 87 in 2020. Some shifts in the offense’s game plan might explain these changes. For instance, the Tigers are attempting roughly seven more passes and seven more total offensive plays this year than in 2019. A larger percentage of Clemson’s first downs are coming through the air as well.

The Tigers are slowly shifting their offense more in Lawrence’s direction, relying less on Etienne’s legs to win games. However, the stud running back is also playing a larger role as a pass catcher, which opens up more opportunities for Lawrence.

My biggest concern about Clemson’s dip in rushing yards is that it reflects on the offensive line. The Tigers replaced four starters in the offseason, meaning this unit is extremely inexperienced and still dealing with some growing pains. Hopefully, it won’t come back to bite Clemson football against tougher opponents.

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