Despite losing skid, Tigers still have shot in ACC play

pstrelow@thestate.comOctober 16, 2009 

Clemson Maryland Football

Clemson running back C.J. Spiller (28) rushes past Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak (33) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009, in College Park, Md.

NICK WASS/AP

  • Clemson midseason grades

    Quarterbacks: C-plus

    Kyle Parker has helped the offense more than hurt it. That's enough in five career starts.

    Running backs: B-plus

    C.J. Spiller and Andre Ellington are what we thought they were. Jamie Harper and Rendrick Taylor, not so much.

    Receivers/tight ends: D

    Jacoby Ford and Michael Palmer save a failing grade. Someone get open, then catch the ball.

    Offensive line: C

    Overpowering? No. Better? Probably. Dependable? Eh. The scapegoat? Not this year.

    Defensive line: A

    No one runs at these guys in short-yardage. Da'Quan Bowers is as good as advertised, and the other starters are NFL caliber, too.

    Linebackers: C

    The two who play are formidable. But lack of other effective options has handcuffed Kevin Steele.

    Secondary: B-minus

    Playing man coverage has been the easy part. The problems have come from tackling, assignments and the backups.

    Special teams: B-plus

    Returns have yielded almost as many TDs (4) as the offense (7). But miscues against Georgia Tech and Maryland were costly.

    Coaching: D-plus

    Exclusively reflective of the Maryland loss and the issues within this staff's control that have yet to be rectified.

    - Paul Strelow

— Dabo Swinney joked this week how he'd warned everyone Clemson was going to put a saddle on star running back C.J. Spiller.

"Only have him seven more weeks, so better enjoy him," Swinney said.

Starting with Saturday's noon game against Wake Forest, the Tigers (2-3, 1-2 ACC) also are back in the saddle, having dealt with an extra week's worth of public woe following their clumsy loss at previously lifeless Maryland.

The second half of Clemson's schedule promises to supply a wild ride, either towards bowl eligibility or a losing season.

The State examines the highs and lows from the Tigers' first half as well as what the rest of their 2009 future holds.

HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF

Close losses to No. 12 TCU and No. 19 Georgia Tech are, at least, understandable, but the complexion of the season changed with the program's third Maryland debacle in four years. That makes it impossible for Swinney to distance his results from the previous regime, and so began another fan base meltdown.

TEAM MVP

Those life-size Spiller posters promoting a Heisman Trophy campaign may no longer hold value, but Spiller has measured up to the hype even if he lacks the rushing stats to back it up. Swinney is correct in suggesting that no one will fully appreciate Spiller's talents until he is gone - which is as much a condemnation of the Tigers' shortcomings in other areas during his time at Clemson.

THE GOOD

The sky feels as if it has fallen on the Tigers, but they have been far from a disaster.

The Tigers have been in a position to win all three losses. The offensive line hasn't been bad. The defense boasts a few studs and has been dominant in spurts. Special teams is no longer the weak link. And you can see the potential in the freshmen, such as quarterback Kyle Parker, tight end Dwayne Allen, defensive end Mallicah Goodman and center Dalton Freeman.

The good news is the rest of the Atlantic Division is bipolar, and Clemson can still earn a berth to the ACC title game.

THE BAD

In this case, statistics are for the losers.

Clemson has two touchdowns in the past 13 quarters and no touchdowns in the fourth quarter of the past eight games. The team is 6-6 under Swinney, and five of Clemson's six losses have come by five points or fewer - as much an indictment on the defense's penchant for yielding the go-ahead score.

The offensive doldrums have lent credence to scrutiny of Swinney's offensive direction, from who handles the play-calling to the unit's lack of identity to whether he should have retained so many members from the previous offensive staff.

OUTLOOK FOR THE SECOND HALF

With just two contests in which they should be heavily favored (home games against Coastal Carolina and Virginia), Clemson has a fight on its hands to reach the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.

But the only game it would be hard to win is next week's contest at No. 9 Miami - where, in their last trip there in 2004, the unranked Tigers pulled off a 24-17 overtime upset of the then-No. 11 Hurricanes.

So the only safe bet for the final seven games is that these Tigers will remain unpredictable.

Prediction: 6-6 and a berth in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.

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