The dynasty isn't necessarily dead. Let's get that out of the way right now.
This isn't one of those stories.
Even great programs on historic runs are entitled to a mulligan every now and then. But Clemson's dramatic fall this season could very well be a sign of further struggles to come, and the days of the Tigers' dominance feel largely behind them. At least in the moment.
If this is a mulligan, it's a major one. There is no possible way to sugarcoat just how disappointing Clemson has been relative to expectations this fall.
And it's not just one bad week or one bad month. It's been a constant throughout the year.
The issues that have plagued Clemson all season long were all on display against Pittsburgh on Saturday. The offense couldn't muster up enough points or long drives. Mistakes and drops were once again a prevalent theme. And the defense, which has kept this season afloat, finally broke against a quality offense and a potential Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
Kenny Pickett looked in complete control against Clemson, elevating his Heisman resume with another 300-yard passing game, two more touchdowns and zero interceptions. His brilliance should not be lost amid the shock of seeing Clemson lose its third game before November hits.
The final score, 27-17, tells a story. Final scores can often lie, though this one does not.
The Clemson defense was good for a while. The offense really wasn't. The only difference, however, is the Tigers have not looked this broken in years.
They also haven't spent much time looking like the inferior team on the field, which they most certainly were on Saturday.
For some perspective, the Tigers lost seven games total over the six years leading up this season. Dabo Swinney's team actually outpaced Alabama's dominance for some time, winning at a rate known only by the team in Tuscaloosa. They won two national titles over Nick Saban's team and lost another.
This was—and maybe still is depending on how quickly you're ready to punt on dominance—the team every college football program in the nation strove to be.
But now? It's a middling team in the Atlantic Division of the ACC.
Clemson has three losses against a schedule most laughed at, outside of the opening game against Georgia, before the season began.
And it could've been worse. The only team Clemson has beaten by more than a touchdown is South Carolina State. The Tigers played nail-biters against Syracuse, Boston College and Georgia Tech, winning all three games by a combined 15 points.
The loss against Pitt wasn't a surprise. It was a fitting next chapter given how this season has unfolded.
Perhaps, in some ways, the expectations were too much.
After losing quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne to the NFL, some regression was assumed. But the glimpses of quarterback DJ Uiagalelei last year were so superb, we expected him to naturally grab the baton, as Clemson quarterbacks have done for the better part of a decade, and be immediately dominant.
That's what Uiagalelei was against Notre Dame last year when Lawrence couldn't play, throwing for 439 yards in a loss. This season, Uiagalelei has thrown for more than 200 yards only once in a game. He's thrown for two touchdowns only once as well.
On Saturday, Uiagalelei was benched after his shovel pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown. Taisun Phommachanh replaced him, though he returned to the game later on.
A player with unbelievable physical gifts has been largely off all year, and it's hard to know exactly why that is the case and when, if ever, he will blossom into the player we thought he would become.
That has been a major issue, though there's blame to go around. Injuries have not been kind to Clemson, and that can't simply be a footnote in a long season. Both sides of the ball have been severely impacted.
This roster, so we thought, could overcome injuries and departures to the NFL no matter how pronounced. The coaching staff, outside of the loss of former co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, has remained intact. The continuity that built this team and dynasty remains largely in place. And yet, this football team is a shell of what we're accustomed to.
The 2021 season is lost. In fact, it was lost when the Tigers lost to NC State weeks ago.
The question now isn't what this team will look like come December. At this point, we know. Instead, one can't help but wonder if this will carry over to next fall.
At the moment, it's impossible to say. The roster is still largely compiled of some of the best athletes in America. The conference will likely be without a dominant team moving forward—unless that team is Clemson.
But winning at the level that the Tigers did for such a prolonged period of time is not easy, no matter how easy this program made it look. Doing so requires the perfect pieces, which Clemson has put together before this year.
Those pieces are currently missing. Something is missing.
At the very least, they haven't come together like they have in the past. While it's possible Clemson could regain momentum once the season ends, it's also possible that Swinney's program will never be what it was.
It's hard to know exactly when the brilliance disappears. There's no guidebook to this part. It just, well, does. It doesn't happen in one game or even one season. It just fades.
It certainly demands a sample size of more than seven games, as catchy as it is to declare otherwise. And yet, one can't help but see the quality suffer as much as it has and the losses mount as quickly as they have and wonder if the best is behind us.