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Questions, and answers, with Clemson’s Shakin The Southland

A pre-Orange Bowl Q&A with a Clemson football expert.

ACC Championship - Clemson v North Carolina Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

In just a few days, No. 6 Tennessee plays No. 10 Clemson in the Vols’ first real, major bowl game since the 2016 Outback Bowl. The two teams haven’t faced off since 2004 when the Tommy Bowden coached the Tigers to a 27-14 win against a Phil Fulmer led, Casey Clausen quarterbacked Tennessee squad in the Peach Bowl.

Given that these teams rarely play each other (Tennessee holds an 11-6 lead in these matchups, though most all of those games were played pre-1950), I figured we’d get some insight on Clemson from the folks who know them best, SB Nation’s Shakin the Southland. Thanks to Matt from StS for the assist here.

1.) Tell Vol fans about what’s happened with the Tigers’ QB situation over the last couple years that culminated in true freshman Cade Klubnik going 20-24 with 279 yards and a TD against North Carolina. What’s the Tigers’ fanbase confidence level in Klubnik for the bowl game and moving forward?

To get the full DJ Uiagalelei experience let me take you back to the spring of 2019. Clemson is fresh off of a National Championship in which a freshman Trevor Lawrence led Clemson to a 44-16 route of Alabama. I’m sitting at a buddy’s apartment and scrolling twitter. I see this 5 star QB named DJ Uiagalelei has committed to Clemson and began hooting and hollering. Dabo has somehow landed another elite QB recruit. The dynasty is certain to keep rolling. Flash forward to 2020. Trevor Lawrence gets covid and misses two games. In game 1, DJ has a slow start but leads Clemson in a furious comeback to beat Boston College. The next week DJ shreds Notre Dame’s defense on the road and even though Clemson fell in double overtime, you can’t help but be optimistic.

And then in 2021, it just fell apart. DJ never looked comfortable. But Clemson didn’t really have any other options. His backup Taisun Phommachanh, who transferred to Georgia Tech this year, sat the bench, and is back in the portal, showed some flashes with his legs but wasn’t a consistent passer and dealt with injuries a lot. Behind DJ, Clemson was able to plod to 10 wins, thanks mostly to defense and Will Shipley.

To start 2022, Clemson Nation is split. Some want Cade to start sight unseen. Some are more likely to pin some of the struggles on the receiver room being banged up, which was a big issue in 2021 and support DJ getting a chance to prove himself. In the opener against Georgia Tech, it’s more of the same. DJ shows flashes of brilliance but has an underwhelming performance. Up 34-7 on an overmatched GT team, Cade Klubnik comes in for the final drive. The offense immediately looks crisper and the Tigers march down the field for a touchdown. Seems inevitable that CK2 is QB1. Not so fast. DJ seems to start putting things together. The offense looks…good? DJ is having fun. This peaks in a road win over FSU. Then, things went sideways. DJ has an awful game against Syracuse and gets pulled in the the Cuse game, Cade takes over, and the Tigers rally for a win with a run heavy second half. Dabo assures us this is still DJ’s team, but DJ never does not look comfortable again, and the ND disaster made things worse. Unfortunately, in Cade’s lone series vs ND he throws a pick, which is to be expected from a true freshman on the road coming into a bad situation. So, we plod through the rest of the season, stumble against South Carolina and a bad start vs UNC leads to Cade coming in, and the rest is history.

2.) Prior to Hendon Hooker’s injury, I would have been pretty intrigued about this matchup. Now, not so much.

I’d say it’s pretty clear Clemson is the more talented team — the last time the Tigers finished outside the country’s top-10 in recruiting was 2017, per Rivals, but we all know good football isn’t just about bringing in top talent.

Developing that talent into NFL players is what keeps programs afloat: Clemson had two NFL Draft picks last year, five in 2021 (two in the first round), seven in 2020 (two in the first round and four in 2019 (three in the first round). How do you feel that talent’s being developed recently? Do the numbers lie?

Depends on the position. Defensive line talent has been developed extremely well. They’re all talented guys, but there’s definitely dudes that made huge strides compared to where they were. Really, wide receivers are the area of concern. A lot of these guys were extremely highly touted and showed flashes of brilliance as freshmen in 2019 and 2020 but have struggled since. Some guys have had bad injury luck (Justyn Ross and his fall in the last draft is a great example) but there’s definitely some gnashing of the teeth about wide receivers coach Tyler Grisham. Grisham took over in 2020 after then WR coach/Co-OC Jeff Scott left to be head coach at USF. With Scott getting fired from USF, it’s absolutely possible we see him return to Clemson. Anyway, to come back around to it: some talent is being developed well, but there’s been some that’s questionable.

3.) This game, like all bowl games nowadays, will be affected by players opting out to get a jump on prepping for the NFL Draft. Who all has opted out for Clemson thus far, how big of a deal will those players’ absences be and how do you feel about the “opt out” concept as a whole?

Clemson will be missing a handful of guys who have entered the transfer portal, most notable being DJ Uiagalelei. Star linebacker Trenton Simpson had announced he’s going to the NFL Draft and isn’t playing, but it’s an injury issue, so not a true opt out. The only true, healthy opt out is defensive end Myles Murphy. This is actually Dabo’s first opt out. This is partially due to Clemson having been in the playoff regularly. It was a little shocking to not have at least one last year for the Cheez-It Bowl. Myles Murphy is definitely a big loss, but if there’s any position group Clemson can absorb a loss at its along the defensive line.

As far as opt outs, I understand it and respect the players’ decisions, but I hate to see bowl games lose their luster, particularly traditionally big bowls like the Orange Bowl. Between opt outs and the impending expanded playoffs, I have to imagine the bowl system as we know it is probably not going to last much longer.

4.) Clemson doubters — not me, to be clear.. just in general — might point to the Tigers’ two wins against ranked opponents , the relatively weak conference schedule and the mid-30s overall strength of schedule as detractors to the team’s 10-2 record. Obviously, Clemson, just like everybody else, can only play the teams on its schedule, but it kinda seems like the Tigers let one get away with the 21-point loss to Notre Dame. How do you feel about the above narrative, and what happened against the Fighting Irish?

This team has definitely earned criticism, but a frustrating part of the weak schedule narrative is that some of Clemson’s best opponents dealt with season changing injuries. NC State lost their quarterback Devin Leary, and Syracuse QB Garret Schrader was banged up after the Clemson game. I’m not going to say the schedule was murderer’s row, but it isn’t necessarily as bad as it looks now.

The Notre Dame game highlighted a bunch of Clemson offensive issues, and was just confusing from a scheme standpoint. It was a cold, extremely windy night. You’ve had issues with DJ’s accuracy and wide receivers, and have two workhorse running backs in Shipley and Mafah. Plus, DJ is an effective enough runner. It would make sense to line up and try to run down ND’s throat, right? Well, Clemson continually tried to screen Notre Dame to death and it blew up in our face. Nothing about that game made sense and it is still so frustrating to think about.

5.) Clemson and Tennessee share a disgusting bond this season, as South Carolina dashed both teams’ playoff hopes. How did yall’s fanbase take the Gamecock loss? Ya’ll’s game was much closer, so I’d say Clemson fans didn’t take it as poorly as Vol fans, but still — at home, against a rival, with a CFP birth on the line. Ouch, ya?

Oh man, I’m sorry but there’s no way we didn’t take losing to Sakerlina harder than y’all did. Broke our 7 game win streak against them (should’ve been 8 if not for covid preventing the 2020 game) and was the first loss in Death Valley against anyone since 2016. To rub salt in the wound, Gamecock fans also rushed our field, since Clemson famously allows fans on the field after games. Just a brutal day. And then the next week Cade lights up UNC and it just makes you think “what if..”

6.) Give me two guys — playmakers, if you will — on each side of the ball that Tennessee fans need to be paying attention to during the game.

The heart and soul of the offense is running back Will Shipley. Even with the Tennessee opt outs I feel like Clemson going run heavy and having long, clock eating scoring drives while keeping the ball out of the Vols’ hands is going to be key. On defense, Barrett Carter. He moved from SAM to WILL linebacker and has probably been Clemson’s best defensive player over the late season stretch.

7.) Finally — hit us with a prediction. You can throw out a score if you want to, or you can just tell us how you see the game playing out generally. The similarities in Tennessee’s and North Carolina’s pass defenses has to have Clemson fans feeling confident, right?

I think Clemson 34-Tennessee 24. I would be a lot less confident if your two best WRs were playing. I think Clemson will be motivated to finish the season on a high streak and if Cade can replicate his ACC championship performance we should be good.