Clemson’s National Championship Window 2015-2016 is a series examining Clemson’s prospects of winning it all during the 2015 or 2016 season. It will take into account roster composition, recruiting, player development, coaching, and anything else that may be a factor in Clemson realizing the ultimate dream. It will not necessarily compare which season has a better chance to win it all or look beyond 2016.
Clemson last won a championship in 1981, assuming you had to be 10 to fully appreciate it, the youngest fans to enjoy that experience are now 44. Winning championships are not easy. So much has to fall into place in order to win a National Championship in college football — the perfect storm of talent, depth, leadership, a few lucky breaks, and so much more. Unlike basketball, where we’ve seen two of the last four National Champions prosper on the talent of a few one-and-doners, football has many more moving parts. You don’t have to be great at every position, but every position group has to, at a minimum, be good.
If there’s a trademark for Clemson Football over the last decade, it is that we’ve had talent — sometimes gaudy-ESPN-highlight-reel talent — think CJ Spiller, Sammy Watkins, Daquan Bowers, and Vic Beasley. Where Clemson has struggled is finding balanced and talented depth throughout the roster. This invariably leads to endless casual fans stating “Clemson always has a lot of talent but they never win championships”. While you can win at a relatively high level in the ACC with uneven talent spread throughout your roster, those weaknesses are always bound to rear their ugly head as the level of competition rises — see Clemson’s secondary in the 2011 Orange Bowl against West Virginia.
Of course, just like the 2011 secondary was exposed due to an inconsistent, sometimes non-existent pass rush, much of one position group’s success relies on another. Gary Peters looked like Richard Sherman last year and Mac Alexander played at a Darrell Revis level with his ability to completely shut down his side of the field. This was, at the least, a small byproduct of having a pro at nearly every position in the front seven.
The point here is that skill players can do amazing things — see CJ Spiller 2009 — but the extent of their impact can be limited or enhanced by the performance of the guys in the trenches. Tajh Boyd still receives criticism by Clemson fans for questionable decision making. My experience in Clemson as a 18-22 year old was a series of questionable decision making and I didn’t at any point have Jadveon Clowney and his 4.5 speed chasing me unblocked.
So, on a year to year basis, with player and coaching turnover, recruiting misses, and players just not reaching their potential, what gives a major college program the best chance to remain at an elite level and compete for National Championships?
The answer lies in the big men up front.
It’s not as if Clemson and Dabo are ignorant to this recipe for success. It’s just that the focus on acquiring these big men has intensified in recent years, all culminating in the 2015 recruiting class. This is an excellent class in both quality and quantity and sets a standard for Clemson recruiting in the trenches. The coaching staff HIT on both sides of the ball, but the reason for immediate excitement and what I am focusing on in this piece is the offensive line.
Two reasons this O-Line class is so significant: 1). Clemson fans have not seen a dominant O-line in quite some time and this is the first step, and 2). The offensive line was desperate for an influx of game ready talent. Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen in particular, give the Tigers a couple of high upside pieces that are ready to go from the start. It’s rare that offensive linemen are ready to go in their second year, much less in their freshmen campaign. If Clemson wants to compete for a title in 2015, it will rely on these two true freshmen for depth. Without them, Clemson was one injury away from Deshaun Watson serving as a glorified tackling dummy.
Looking deeper into the 2015 O-line class that also includes high 4-star/low 3-star recruits Noah Greene and Zach Giella, you’ll find an intangible that can sometimes supersede talent, and that’s attitude. This is a group of guys that have all enrolled early and are pushing for playing time. Green and Giella may not possess the same level of talent as Hyatt or Fruhmorgen, but their attitude and desire to compete is just the same. The result is a trickle-up leadership type effect. One of the most talented men on the roster, senior left tackle Isaiah Battle, has stepped up his game, arriving to camp over 20 pounds more than his normal playing weight and with a new-found passion. His motivation may have more to do with the millions he has at stake in getting drafted in the first two rounds versus not at all. Regardless, this is the first time Battle has had a legitimate talent pushing him on the depth chart, and while his ceiling might be first round draft talent, his floor is average left tackle.
The other effect of having such a highly regarded class in 2015 is that the 2016 class of O-linemen have taken notice. Clemson is in the mix for multiple four star O-linemen for this upcoming class and have already secured a commitment from talented 4-star guard Sean Pollard out of Georgia. These recruits will see Hyatt and Fruhmorgen getting significant playing time as freshmen and that gives the coaching staff another selling point. Continuing the momentum in O-line recruiting is very important and will have a profound impact on Clemson Football in 2016 and beyond. We’ve never had issues landing top skill players; just imagine guys like Ray Ray McCloud and Tavien Feaster running behind an army of big nasties for the next four years.
Ultimately, what does this mean for Clemson in their National Championship pursuit this season and next? In 2015, Clemson should have one of the best O-lines that we’ve seen in years, the coaches said it themselves, this is especially important because they will be blocking for one of the best quarterbacks in college football. The hurry-up-no-huddle offense that we run doesn’t require your offensive line to be great to perform at a NC level, but in the case of injuries, it will help offset the drop-off in talent. With the return of Jay Guillermo, this should give Clemson the right combination of depth and talent for the O-line to establish a decent running game. And the running game will save the defense from breaking down (i.e. Georgia 2014 or any loss during the 2011 or 2012 season).
The 2016 edition will likely be more talented but with a significant less margin for error due to the lack of depth. There’s still a lot to be determined here by the 2016 recruiting class but there are no Mitch Hyatt’s in the mix so this could be a cause for concern. This is something to keep track of but our O-line should be in good shape for 2016 and beyond due to the signings in the 2015 class. Again, this goes beyond talent and relies on the attitude and culture that will continue to persist. Having talented O-linemen is new territory for Dabo and Co. and you have to wonder if this can be what puts us into the perennial playoff conversation. At the least, this ensures Clemson is a force to be reckoned with and they’re not going anywhere as long as Dabo Swinney is the man in charge.