CLEMSON, S.C. — Saturday afternoon, Clemson fought through an uneven effort for a 40-27 win at Maryland. Saturday night, the Tigers got a boost from an unlikely source in in-state archrival South Carolina.
While Clemson flew home from Maryland, the Gamecocks erased a 17-0 fourth-quarter deficit for a stunning 27-24 double-overtime win at then-No. 5 Missouri.
When the new Bowl Championship Series rankings were released Sunday night, Clemson moved up one spot, from No. 9 to No. 8, with Missouri slipping behind to No. 9. It was another boost for Clemson’s hopes of an at-large BCS berth, the Tigers’ best path to the BCS this season.
Clemson can still win the ACC Atlantic Division and represent the Atlantic in the ACC title game, but it would require beating Virginia and Georgia Tech, while No. 3 Florida State loses two of three to No. 7 Miami, Wake Forest and Syracuse.
Clemson has a legit shot at its second BCS game in three years. But are the Tigers BCS-worthy? With a little improvement, yes.
With a win over 2-6 Virginia Saturday, Dabo Swinney’s group could rise three spots by the time it hosts Georgia Tech on Nov. 14 with little work on its own. No. 7 Miami visits Florida State Saturday, and No. 5 Stanford faces off with No. 2 Oregon on Nov. 7. That same night, No. 6 Baylor receives its biggest test to date against No. 10 Oklahoma.
Neither Miami nor Stanford will be favored, and Clemson could surpass both if they fall. Missouri fell four spots this week from No. 5 to No. 9.
So what makes Clemson a BCS-worthy team, and what can the Tigers work on?
The Offense Remains Potent
Saturday marked the fifth time this season that Clemson has scored at least 38 points. The Tigers are 24th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 37.4 points per game. They’re 18th nationally in total offense, averaging 495.5 yards per game. Their 319.9 yards passing per game also ranks 18th.
Those numbers are down a tick from 2012 but not much. Last fall, Clemson averaged 41 points per game (sixth nationally), 512 yards of total offense (ninth nationally) and 321.6 yards passing per game (13th nationally).
Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd and junior wideout Sammy Watkins are one of the nation’s most exciting passing-game duos; Saturday, Boyd became the third ACC quarterback ever to reach 10,000 yards passing for his career.
And all this without a true No. 2 receiver behind Watkins. Watkins has 58 receptions for 813 yards and five touchdowns; Saturday, he set Clemson’s single-game receptions record with 14 catches for 163 yards. Behind him, junior receiver Martavis Bryant has 24 catches for 450 yards and three touchdowns, while fellow junior Adam Humphries has 30 receptions for 368 yards and two scores.
Senior tailback Rod McDowell has shown recent improvement, gashing Maryland for a career-high 163 yards Saturday and his first two rushing touchdowns of the season. He averages 5.1 yards per carry and 75.1 yards per game.
The offense isn’t perfect, but it has shown the ability to score points in bunches.
The Defense Is Improving
In his second year as defensive coordinator, Brent Venables has the Tigers defense on the right track. Clemson leads the nation in sacks (3.63 per game) and is second to Baylor in tackles for loss. Even after allowing 51 points to Florida State, the Tigers are 30th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 21.9 points per game, and 38th in total defense, allowing 374.8 yards per game.
A year ago, Clemson was 48th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 24.9 points per game and 63rd nationally in total defense, allowing 396.3 yards per game.
Junior defensive end Vic Beasley leads the nation in sacks at 1.3 per game and is fourth in tackles for loss at 1.9 per game. He has emerged as a major force on the edge of the line. Saturday, his fourth-quarter strip-sack of Maryland quarterback Caleb Rowe essentially ended the Terps’ hopes of an upset.
Chunk plays remain an issue: When Levern Jacobs sprinted for a 71-yard touchdown, it was Clemson’s seventh play allowed of at least 60 yards this season and the fourth consecutive game allowing such a play. But the defense looks more assured and steadier than it was last season and far more collected than it did in 2011 in Kevin Steele’s final season as defensive coordinator.
Improve the Red-Zone Offense
A year ago, Clemson had the nation’s top red-zone offense. The Tigers converted 95 percent of their red-zone trips into scores—43 of the 56 scores were touchdowns, a 76.7 percent clip.
This year, scoring inside the 20 has turned into an issue. The Tigers are 58th nationally in red-zone scoring, converting at an 83 percent clip. Touchdowns are lower as well—24 of the 37 scores have been touchdowns, 64.8 percent.
Saturday, Clemson’s first four trips to the Maryland red zone resulted in three field goals and a punt (the result after Boyd took an intentional-grounding penalty that pushed the offense out of field-goal range.
“Those are things we can definitely improve on,” Swinney said Sunday. “You look at what we did, moved the ball all night, two three-and-outs, 551 yards of offense, ran the ball the best we’ve run all year. I was very encouraged when I watched the film. Frustrated last night. You punch a couple field goals and turn them into TDs, you get ahold of that game quickly.”
Hang On to the Ball
Turnovers have become a major concern over the last three weeks. In the first five games, Clemson committed four turnovers. In the last three weeks? Nine—two against Boston College, four against Florida State and three against Maryland.
Florida State turned a Stanton Seckinger fumble on the game’s first play into a touchdown. Mario Edwards Jr. followed by scooping up a Boyd fumble and rumbling for a 37-yard score and 17-0 lead. Clemson never recovered.
Saturday, McDowell and Watkins fumbled on back-to-back third-quarter drives inside their own 25. The defense bailed out their offensive counterparts, holding Maryland to a pair of field goals and keeping a 16-13 lead. However, such sloppiness proved deadly against Florida State and certainly can again if the trend continues.
The End Game
With four games, Clemson is in excellent position to make another BCS bowl game. If Florida State makes the national-title game, the Tigers would almost certainly be the Orange Bowl’s selection to replace the Seminoles as its ACC representative if they finish 11-1.
They’ll be favored in every game except the season finale at South Carolina, and the aforementioned Top 10 matchups ahead will offer the Tigers a chance to move up in the standings if they take care of their business.
Clemson is just one of six teams to spend the last 39 weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The others are Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma and South Carolina. In a topsy-turvy season, the Tigers have displayed consistency. With a little improvement and four more wins, they’ll be rewarded for it.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
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