The ACC was supposed to be so simple and straightforward this year. Clemson and Florida State were the two best teams, and it wasn't even close. They were supposed to just bide their time until they played each other, and the winner of that game would head to the playoff. That's what the ACC has been recently.
So far, though, two teams aren't doing their part in that scenario. Louisville didn't get the memo that it is a two-team league, and they have a massive showdown with Florida State this week that will define the fate of the league one way or the other. And then there is Clemson. They are 2-0 as they are supposed to be, but it has been every kind of ugly. They have gone from media darling to a topic of much speculation - and not the positive kind.
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Elite teams aren't supposed to struggle against an opening schedule of Auburn and Troy. Auburn is in a dark place since Cam Newton left, and Troy is Troy. Yet Clemson has not yet covered a spread, and their supposedly-potent offense has gone "under" the total twice.
So, what's going on with this squad? Can they shake it off, or is this not the team we all thought they were? Here are four factors to consider when pondering that question:
Deshaun Watson: Watson was the solid Heisman favorite heading into the season, but things have been bleak so far - at least by his ridiculously-high standards. After completing nearly 68 percent of his passes last year, he has not even completed 53 percent so far this year. He has three interceptions against just four touchdowns, and his yards per attempt have dropped by more than two from last year. The result has been right on the scoreboard, but by every other measure the season has been a real disappointment to date.
It's very clear so far that the pressure of coming off a Championship Game appearance and being so much in the spotlight has weighed heavy on Watson's shoulders. We don't even have to speculate it - after the Troy game he came out and said it. He said he wasn't having fun and that his attitude had suffered. He said his body language was clearly off and that he wasn't being a leader. That's all true.
The question, though, is whether recognizing and acknowledging the issues is enough to overcome them. The success of this team will ultimately come down to how good Watson is this year - that was true last year, and things haven't changed. If he can't turn a corner then the team won't, either. Your faith in his recuperation, then, will dictate your faith in the team.
Offensive struggles: The Tigers rank 102nd in the country in yards per play. Just think about that for a second. A team that played for the national title last year, with a Heisman-caliber QB, elite running back and strong talent at receivers, hasn't yet broken into the Top 100 nationally in efficiency. Ouch. They haven't been good in the redzone, either. And they have struggled on third down.
So, what's wrong? A number of things have been an issue. They aren't running with any efficiency right now. That makes it easier for defenses to key on the pass. Watson has not looked as comfortable as he has been, and that has led to efficiency errors. The receivers are also dropping balls at a ridiculous rate - more in two games this year than they had in their first five last year. The good news, though, is that none of these issues are fatal, and the team is fully capable of turning them around. They have the talent to be much better, and that talent is mostly proven and battle-tested. That's not saying that they will turn it around, but they are capable - and it seems more likely that they will improve significantly going forward than that they won't.
Other teams have dealt with a hangover: What is happening with Clemson is certainly concerning, but it's important to remember that they are far from the only team in a similar position to struggle out of the gate the year after a big season. Two years ago conference rival Florida State was coming off a national title. In 2014 they started out 13-0 again, but they had struggled several times early on. They almost lost their opener and made several more games much more difficult than they needed to be. In the end, though, they made the playoff again - where they were crushed by Oregon.
Ohio State won the playoffs that year, and they were also lousy in their first two games last year. They went on to win their first 10 before falling narrowly to Michigan State. There are plenty more examples, but the point is clear - this isn't the first time it has happened, and it doesn't have to be a big issue.
Schedule: The good news for Clemson is that they have a gimme against South Carolina State next and then a very winnable game against Georgia Tech. That is a great two-game set to help them work out the kinks. Unfortunately, though, if they haven't got things figured out by that point then things are much tougher than it seemed like they would be before the season started - Week 5 is against the upstart Louisville Cardinals. The rest of the way they have the very tough game at Florida State, but the rest of the schedule is relatively easy. Barring real issues, there are 10 wins for sure on this schedule and two more that are very attainable. It's not time to panic. Yet.
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