Many can say the Clemson Tigers exceeded expectation.
They won yet another Atlantic Division title and are in position to win their first ACC Championship since 1991
And yet, things have never looked so bleak in Tigertown.
After putting so much toward beating their rival South Carolina Gamecocks, spirits and morale are drastically lower after a horrid 34-13 loss. The Tigers were not only again overpowered in the trenches, but also got outmatched psychologically by a team that had more drive and desire to win, despite not being in any sort of championship competition.
The Gamecocks looked like the team that deserves a place in a championship more than the Tigers.
This loss places the Tigers at 9-3, but the record does not tell the story of the lower morale that has plagued them since Georgia Tech, and led to Clemson losing three of its last four games. Like NC State, Clemson's performance was way under the higher marks they received earlier in the season.
Unless head coach Dabo Swinney can rally the troops and arouse the spirit of Clemson Tiger faithful, they will quickly find themselves without an ACC Championship, a BCS Bowl bid and be sitting at home in January with a 9-5 record wondering where to go next.
What else can you say about Tajh Boyd? He is on the path from riches to rags.
After a stellar eight weeks—one in which Boyd looked like a perfect fit for the offense and the quarterback that could take Clemson to that next level—he has looked worse than many expected at the start of the season.
He has been unable to take care of the football and read deep coverages, and he picked up bad habits flushing out of the pocket. He has put Clemson's offense in a hole that they have been unable to dig themselves out of.
The wide receivers' production has decreased because of Boyd's inability to throw the ball, and the offense has lost its spark over the last month.
Boyd has not been the quarterback he started out as.
In today's game, Boyd struggled to complete 50 percent of his passes, and threw one touchdown and one interception. Boyd is the piece that the offense needs to function, and unless he's fixed, the Clemson offense will remain broken.
In a game where Andre Ellington showed plenty in terms of running in between the tackles, catching out of the backfield and performing the duties of a running back, he had no offense to help him. Ellington was the lone offensive player who played the hardest with better results.
While he had 66 rushing yards, it did little to help alleviate Clemson's poor performance at quarterback and offensive line.
Ellington, along with both DJ Howard and even Mike Bellamy, performed the best out of everyone on an offense that could not find any kind of rhythm outside of one good touchdown drive.
The entire offense could simply not get it done, including a promising receiving corps that returned wideout Sammy Watkins to the mix.
The wide receivers produced little in the passing game, with tight end Dwayne Allen having the lone touchdown the entire game. It was difficult for the offense to produce anything or make the said adjustments needed to counter the Gamecocks' aggressive defense.
There were too many dropped balls from DeAndre Hopkins, and Watkins had only 39 receiving yards and dropped a surefire touchdown early in the game.
Clemson's offensive line has not lived up to the expectations set for them, especially in the running game. And with the loss of senior Philip Price at left tackle, the play declined even more. It definitely showed against the Gamecocks, who kept Tajh Boyd pressured all day and forced him to make mistakes, stuffing the running game for most of the night.
Clemson's line play has not been stout at the point of attack in both the running and pass protection.
The only highlight of the night: defensive end Andre Branch's two sacks early in the game.
It was one of the few times quarterback Connor Shaw was truly face down in the dirt. Brandon Thompson played well on the inside as well.
Other than that, the defensive line play was soft. Against a questionable South Carolina offensive line, the defensive proved unable to disrupt the zone reads that South Carolina ran with impunity all night long, and the defensive line failed to successfully get to Shaw.
For nigh on three seasons now, Clemson's biggest disadvantage on defense has been its play at linebacker.
The linebackers continue to be outmatched against South Carolina, and they continuously fail to make tackles on both quarterback Connor Shaw and running back Kenny Miles.
At middle linebacker, freshman Setphone Anthony saw a lot of time at middle linebacker, along with Corico Hawkins and Spencer Shuey. But all three fail to have any kind of consistency, with Johnathan Willard proving to be the most consistent of all the linebackers, and even then he made no kind of plays on defense.
This has perhaps been the worst showing at linebacker from Clemson all season, and their play is pointing to both execution and coaching.
Head coach Dabo Swinney noted that he was "extremely disappointed" with the play of the defense in Saturday's loss to the Gamecocks.
The secondary was no exception.
The secondary allowed Connor Shaw, an average passer, to throw three touchdowns and virtually pass the ball at will for the few times the Gamecocks actually decided to pass the football. The secondary, like the linebackers, take bad angles on running plays and fail to properly tackle the ball carrier.
The secondary failed to force any kind of turnovers, nor were they aggressive in any way. Not even a personal foul, which shows some kind of aggression, was called in this game.
The best part of the night was special teams. But it does nothing when the Tigers lose three straight to the Gamecocks and lay an egg to end the season.
Sure, Chandler Cantanzaro looks like a he has a firm job as kicker by making both of his field goals. Running back Andre Ellington looked the part on kick returns, but unless the Tigers put the other two phases of the game into play, Clemson will continue their free fall to what could end as a 9-5 season.
Execution was not the only thing not up to par against South Carolina. Many are raising the questions about coaching now.
Head coach Dabo Swinney was clearly passionate about this loss, and many can bet that Swinney will have some serious decisions and thoughts to make on the staff, and more specifically on the defense.
Under a first-year offense, the Tigers have exceeded expectations, and Chad Morris will get better as an offensive coordinator. But last night, and over the course of several weeks, he has been more conservative calling plays.
The Tigers have gone away from running the football. A large part of the offensive sputter can be attributed to Boyd, but Morris must get back to the first eight weeks and get the offense back on track.
The defense holds the most decisions for Swinney. The biggest issue thus far has been the team's poor ability to tackle the ball carrier, the lack of instincts and most of all, the lack of aggressive play from the defensive line, linebackers and secondary.
In three years, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele still can't contain a running zone-read quarterback, and his responsibility over the linebackers has not improved their play at all. Swinney may once again have another building process this offseason, but his focus may not be on finding a more consistent defensive coordinator.
But to do that, he must found out what he wants his defenses to do. Because now, Clemson's defense has no kind of identity.
The same fire that fueled Clemson's offense has diminished to little more than embers after the loss to South Carolina.
The defense is possibly on the verge of collapse, while the offense has been in a flunk for the past month. The defense cannot tackle and finish plays, while the offensive line has failed to adequately protect Tajh Boyd, who in his own right has not played at the level he did the first eight games of the season.
The talent for Clemson is always there.
But the Clemson coaching staffs of the past have never been able to develop and teach said talent of those players. Last offseason, Dabo seemed to finally have the offensive staff set to do both. But all season long, the defense has underperformed at all positions and players not named Andre Branch or Brandon Thompson have not stepped up to the plate.
The linebackers continue to plague the defense in the running game, and have not gotten any better under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele in the past three seasons.
Head coach Dabo Swinney is the right head coach for this team, and he is not the source of the issues facing Clemson right now. But, he will have an offseason to make more tough decisions on the defensive side of the ball, and question whether Steele should stick around or not.