One year ago, life was good for the coaches in the ACC Championship Game. Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson had already won 11 games and was headed to the Orange Bowl to play the Iowa Hawkeyes. Win or lose, it was the Jackets' best season since the national championship year of 1990. Clemson's Dabo Swinney was coming off a Music City Bowl victory over Kentucky. He'd won nine games, and led the Tigers to the ACC Atlantic Division Title.
This year they both lost to their in state rivals, Georgia Tech to Georgia and Clemson to South Carolina. They both had disappointing bowl losses too. Georgia Tech went down 14-7 to Air Force and Clemson lost 31-26 to South Florida. Both coaches went 6-7 this season. How much can change in just one year. How did it all go wrong so fast?
First, there were some similarities. Both Johnson and Swinney lost tremendous playmakers from last year's offense. Johnson lost his leading running back, Jonathan Dwyer, and wide receiver, Demaryius Thomas, to the NFL. Swinney did too in RB C.J. Spiller and WR Jacoby Ford. They also lost their best returning offensive players during the course of this season. Georgia Tech found itself without QB Joshua Nesbitt the last four and a half games of the season. The Jackets went 1-4 in those contests. The Tigers went 2-3 after their star RB Andre Ellington went out with a toe injury. That's a tremendous amount of offensive talent gone. Clemson and Georgia Tech are certainly not programs at the level of just re-loading. Those are huge personnel losses, but there's more to it than that.
If you watched the third quarter of the Independence Bowl, that was a microcosm of Georgia Tech's season. A seven-minute opening second half drive ended with a red-zone fumble. Then there were two muffed punt returns by the special teams. That was the ball game.
Which Team will return to the ACC Title Game Sooner?
It was season full of special teams blunders, and red zone turnovers. I have a theory about this: Paul Johnson is an experienced head coach, but he's never coached a team that just lacked focus. When he was at Navy and Georgia Southern, he didn't have to motivate those teams. Those teams always played with a chip on their shoulder. This Jacket team made so many mental mistakes all year that I found them often just beating themselves. Johnson simply never found the right buttons to push and didn't have the talent to overcome those deficiencies.
In Clemson's bowl games against South Florida, you also saw a snapshot of their season. Kyle Parker rolled to the right and threw across his body. It was picked off. The Tigers got the wind knocked out of them and never recovered. Swinney, I hope, learned an important lesson this season. No player is bigger than your program. Swinney begged QB Kyle Parker to come back, and when it was obvious Parker was simply a liability on the field at quarterback, Swinney had already let the season get away. All year Parker looked every bit a player that missed a ton of practice time, which he did. He was inaccurate and mistake prone, and Swinney went with him. The offensive play calling was mess. With Parker struggling, Clemson couldn't figure out if they were a running team, a passing team, or both. Losing Ellington hurt too. So, the big question is can they turn it around?
Well, that's a tough one. With Georgia Tech, the problem is a lack of playmakers not scheme, and with Clemson, it's scheme not play makers. I think the Jackets can recover in 2011 and win eight or nine games. Next season the Jackets have seven home games with three winnable non-conference games against Kansas, Middle Tennessee St. and Western Carolina. The Jackets still led the nation in rushing, and will certainly be better on defense after a second year under Al Groh's 3-4 system. The key will be to cut down on all the mental mistakes and play with and edge that often wasn't there in 2010. A 6-7 season should be plenty motivating. Down the road, to get beyond that 8-9 win plateau, Johnson has to upgrade the talent by recruiting, recruiting and recruiting some more.
Clemson will get Ellington back, which will be a big boost. QB Tajh Boyd will get all the first-team snaps. The schedule, however, is daunting. Virginia Tech is on the road. Florida State will be very good. Games with South Carolina and Auburn dot the schedule too. Now, here's the hard part, Swinney is recruiting well and there are some studs who could help right away, but the offensive scheme needs a complete overhaul. Swinney might want to take a trip to Oregon and watch how they run the spread option. Drop the passes on 3rd and 1 and the draw plays on 3rd and 9. Create an offensive identity because Clemson has none now. If it means letting go of offensive coordinator Billy Napier, then do so.
Now, if you could combine Georgia Tech's coaching with Clemson's players, you might really have something...
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