Yep, you read that right. The University of Pittsburgh is favored Saturday against the formerly formidable Clemson Tigers — the same team that made appearances in six College Football Playoffs in a span of six years, winning two championships along the way. With the way Dabo Swinney’s team is playing this season, they’ll be lucky to see the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
What happened to Clemson? It’s not even that Pittsburgh is a bad team — as a matter of fact, the Panthers pulled a shocking upset off on the Tigers in 2016, one of the years that Clemson went on to win it all. Pitt has proven to be an unexpectedly tough opponent in their ACC matchups on a semi-consistent basis. They pull off upsets. But that’s the thing: a Pittsburgh win this Saturday against Clemson would not be an upset — and that right there is a sentence that I never thought I would read in my lifetime.
The Clemson football team pretty consistently went above .500 throughout the 2000s, and really entered the spotlight in the early 2010s. The Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence eras were a thing of beauty, often providing full games of highlight reels. Swinney’s teams were able to give Saban’s Alabama squads a run for their money on a very consistent basis — a feat few, if any teams, had been able to achieve in the past decade. Sure, we all knew Lawrence was a once-in-a-generation talent (mostly because no one would shut up about it), but the team was stacked with incredible offensive recruits and a defensive line that put the fear of God in opposing quarterbacks. It was a new dynasty — we were all sure of it. As annoying as it was, at least there was someone to make ’Bama work for the crown.
When Trevor Lawrence was out for COVID protocols in 2020, true freshman backup DJ Uiagalelei stepped up and threw for over 400 yards with no interceptions in a double-OT thriller at Notre Dame. Though the Tigers lost, Uiagalelei looked more than ready to take the reins of the team Lawrence would leave behind as he entered the pros.
Even this year’s opener against Georgia didn’t ring the bells of doom for Clemson when they dropped the game, 10-3, in a defense-heavy battle. Was it a great offensive showing? No, but it was also a transition game against one of the best teams in the sport. They routed South Carolina State the following week, just as expected. Then came the Georgia Tech game.
Uiagalelei and the Clemson offense put just two touchdowns on the scoreboard and came within seconds of an upset. Just an off week? Not exactly — the Tigers dropped the game against N.C. State their next game in overtime. After barely pulling one out against Boston College, the Tigers dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2014. A three-point victory over Syracuse didn’t exactly convince the voters to put them back in.
Clemson is clocking in at a lucky 4-2 right now in what is, admittedly, not the toughest conference in CFB. They’re the unranked dogs against a top-25 Pitt team (as I might have mentioned). So where did everything go wrong?
First of all, it doesn’t really seem to be a defensive issue. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables — who often vaguely resembles a skeleton on speed on the Clemson sidelines — hasn’t dropped off in quality the way the Clemson offense has. The Tigers still boast a top-25 total defense, allowing less than five yards per play, and are second only to Georgia in scoring defense, allowing an average of 12.5 points per game.
But the offensive production is just not where it used to be, and it is certainly not anywhere near where it needs to be, even if we’re all just going to call this a “transition year.” Dabo and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott may have gotten too comfortable with creating and calling plays that centered around having the best QB in the game at their disposal. It would be kind to say Uiagalelei is still adjusting. He’s averaging just over a 50 percent completion rate against AP Top 25 teams, and throwing an average of under 180 yards per game against ranked opponents.
Now, it’s never fair to put all the blame on a young quarterback, so let’s look where else things are going wrong. The Tigers lost another offensive star in record-setter Travis Etienne, who joined his teammate Lawrence in Jacksonville in the 2021 Draft. Freshman Will Shipley seemed poised to be Clemson’s new breakout RB — until he was injured in the loss to N.C. State. Two more running backs entered the transfer portal this fall, leaving a skeletal depth chart in their wake.
Clemson also lost several big receivers to the draft this off-season in Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers, and the subs haven’t quite yet been able to step up. Uiagalelei is dealing with a 10.2 percent drop rate from his receivers when on target, according to PFF. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, boasts a top-five offense right now, averaging well over 500 yards per game. Clemson’s offensive line allowed seven (SEVEN!) sacks in the opener against Georgia, and while, yes, that was Georgia, the O-line’s struggles have continued, particularly when the struggles aren’t blurred out a bit by a talent like Etienne making everyone look good.
So, is this the end of an era of dominance for Clemson? I’ll be fair — this is a young team that has lost some big-name talents, and with them, that morale that comes with expecting wins. It could be a transition year. Maybe they will upset Pitt (still can’t get over that sentence) this Saturday. Swinney’s not Saban — no one is — but one has to wonder whether the offensive issues are too varied and wide-ranging to turn this roster around.