I spoke with Tom from Shakin’ The Southland about Clemson, which, contrary to what you may have heard, does in fact have a problem or two! None that will affect the outcome on Saturday, most likely, but still.
BTP: Clemson’s got some problems, uh, probably. I assume. Uptown problems, but problems nonetheless. What are they?
STS: Haha, well, I’d start with the College Football Playoff committee disrespecting Clemson with a ranking of No. 5 despite the Tigers being undefeated defending national champions. But maybe that’s actually not a problem at all, and a good thing, as the Tigers should be easily motivated to prove the doubters wrong from now through the end of the season.
Beyond that, I and many Clemson fans had some concerns with the team’s offense earlier in the season, as they seemed to lack cohesion and were not performing as smoothly as all of the returning talent from last year’s 15-0 team would suggest. But they seem to be finding their groove in recent weeks, with Trevor Lawrence making better decisions and co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott calling more balanced games with more designed runs for star running back Travis Etienne.
Assuming Clemson can keep the offense rolling, I’d like to see them continue to improve with respect to their rushing defense, which ranks 21st in the country in yards allowed per game (their pass defense, by comparison, ranks second).
BTP: Where do you think NC State can give the Tigers some trouble?
STS: Not to sound arrogant, but it’s hard to really say. NC State’s inconsistent quarterback play is obviously a bad matchup against Clemson’s elite passing defense. While there could be some opportunities for the Wolfpack on the ground, their rushing attack isn’t as imposing as others the Tigers have managed to limit, like that of Boston College.
For Clemson offensively, I think they will continue their much more efficient play of late, especially against an NC State team that has struggled on that side of the ball and has some key injuries that have exacerbated their issues.
If anything, I think things could get interesting if NC State manages to force an early turnover or two and get the nighttime crowd into it. From there, momentum could take hold. But it’s hard to see Clemson struggling to quell it for an entire game.
BTP: Based on the results, it looks like Clemson has been playing better over the last month or so. Where have the Tigers been improving?
STS: Per my earlier comments, the Tigers have been consistent all year defensively, but the offense was a bit tumultuous until this last month or so. Ever since the scare at UNC, Clemson has been rolling offensively, with the exception of some first-half struggles for Lawrence and co. at Louisville before they settled in and pulled away in that one. Lawrence has been smarter and more patient with the ball, taking more check-downs when that’s all that’s there. The play-calling has sprinkled in a few more designed runs instead of just RPOs, and playing around with Justyn Ross in the slot at times has helped Clemson use the middle of the field to its advantage more often.
I think the UNC game was a good wakeup call for this team (and thankfully still a win), and they’ve appeared more focused and motivated ever since.
BTP: Who are some of the younger guys on the team that you expect to be standouts in the near future, if they aren’t there already?
STS: Joseph Ngata, a freshman wide receiver from California, is a great talent. You’ll see him out there a good bit, even though he’s clearly behind Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Amari Rodgers on the depth chart. He also handles kickoff return duties. He’s already a physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, and that combined with his raw talent should make him one of the next great wide receivers at Clemson.
Freshman Frank Ladson is another great wide receiver talent, though he’s still a bit more raw than Ngata. On the other side of the ball, freshman defensive tackle Tyler Davis has stepped in immediately to help fill some of the void left behind by the Tigers’ star-studded defensive line of yesteryear. Sophomore Derion Kendrick has also been excellent at cornerback this season after converting to that position during the offseason (he was a wide receiver last year, but Clemson is clearly stacked there).
BTP: So how bad is this game going to get for us? What’s your final score prediction?
STS: I think this one could get out of hand quickly. NC State seems to be having a down year, and the Tigers will be motivated following the initial CFP rankings, even though they’ll publicly downplay that as a factor. Prediction: Clemson 56, NC State 10