CLEMSON — Understanding the angst and shrillness dripping from the Georgia football program, the voice on the radio speculated that the game tonight in Athens, Ga., could be the start of a yearlong audition for Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
Not audacious, considering the fragile security of coaches, the serious flirtations with Morris since his arrival and that covetous Georgia fans are always scanning the classifieds for their next coach.
As the nation’s 16th-ranked team, Clemson enters the season with far fewer questions about its defense than offense, Morris’ “no-name” crew with a new quarterback, new tackles and guards and new playmakers.
Georgia should provide a reasonable test of their anonymity. Prevailing opinion is that, if it can limit the damage by running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, the Clemson defense could keep this game from turning into a shootout for an offense ill-equipped to handle it. For the third time in five seasons, Morris begins with a new quarterback, but Cole Stoudt has known nothing but Morris’ three-plays-a-minute, Red Bull-fueled scheme. As the backup each year, he contributed modestly to the gaudy numbers.
The minimum standards for Morris teams are 34 points and 440 yards, the averages his first season at Clemson. Coincidentally, they managed 38 points and 467 yards in last year’s game with Georgia. A couple measurables largely overlooked from that game are the 197 rushing yards on 46 carries, including 22 for 132 by Rod McDowell. Morris begins the season with more depth, talent, size and quickness at running back than the first three years, and his wish to achieve similar balance all season might be reasonable if they’ve rebuilt the line.
Even with left guard David Beasley on suspension, Morris and coach Dabo Swinney think they’ll have at least eight players to generate a representative run game and ease the pressure on the pass.
“We’ve got the depth at running back,” said Morris when asked about the potential for balance. “A lot of that has to do with how you mature up front.
“The overall maturing of those five guys up front is going to be critical,” he said. “You could have all the backs in the world, but if you don’t have the maturity up here, you can’t get it done.”
The biggest difference might be in how Clemson moves the chains. Stoudt could be the prototypical game manager if the line can handle Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s confounding pressure scheme. Boyd was accurate down field, and liked improvisation, as evidenced in the long touchdown to Sammy Watkins in last season’s game. Occasionally, Boyd’s confidence boiled over and created a mess. Stoudt might tend to be safer with his decisions, taking smaller bites without the backbreaking mistakes.
On the other hand, success might require a sacrifice. Stoudt’s accuracy on deep passes, an intrinsic part of the scheme, has been a work in progress. Morris wasn’t pleased after the second preseason scrimmage, but much of Stoudt’s trouble has been attributed to “learning” the newest receivers.
Morris doesn’t believe he has anything to prove entering his fifth season as a college coordinator after 16 as a high school head coach. His playbook allows room to adjust to the opponent, the moment and the personnel. Gus Malzahn didn’t write a new chapter for Auburn last year, and Morris wasn’t required to change anything this year just because he didn’t have Boyd and Watkins.
“You adjust to what you have,” Morris said. “We might have been this type of offense last year, and this year we may be something totally different, but it’s all within the same framework.”
Should Clemson approach or exceed last year’s numbers in this game, it could be an unqualified success. Morris would again be hailed a genius, surely worthy of his $1.3 million salary. And Clemson would begin wondering where he might be in 2015.
A dozen new head coaches were hired after last season, the lowest turnover in eight years, and an upheaval at power conference schools would seem to follow. Among the names listed on the “hot seats” are Will Muschamp at Florida, Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, Bo Pelini at Nebraska, Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Charlie Weis at Kansas, Mike London at Virginia, Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech and Sonny Dykes at Cal.
Many Georgia fans aren’t satisfied with Mark Richt’s 126-45 record in 13 seasons with two SEC championships, six Eastern Division titles and a 2-1 record in BCS bowl games.
If Clemson can manage the crowd, the heat and its own inexperience Saturday night in Sanford Stadium, don’t be surprised if Morris becomes the next favorite of Georgia fans looking for the next guy.