To hijack the catchphrase from “The X-Files,” “The truth is out there.”
And what we learned during the first half of Clemson’s schedule and the first nine seasons of “The X-Files” was that the truth remains elusive.
Virtually all of Clemson’s questions should be answered – eventually – all things remaining constant.
Since Dabo Swinney has the latitude to discuss each game in the context of a “one-game season,” let’s examine Clemson’s season as if it’s a single drive in a game – 100 yards to glory.
Already qualified for a bowl invitation, Clemson has at least seven more, and as many as nine, if it reaches the ACC Championship game.
So, Clemson begins Saturday at Miami on a short field, with the ball between the 40 and 45 yard line.
How did they get there?
1. offensive line
The offensive line has been better than imagined, and freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt has been THAT good. Clemson’s run game improved from last season by an average 35 yards. Quarterbacks have been sacked 10 times (compared to 27 last season) including three each by App State and Boston College. Center Jay Guillermo has a grip on the medical issues that forced him to leave school in January, and 50 pounds lighter he’s been the best of them the past two weeks. Maverick Morris, Taylor Hearn and Justin Falcinelli have provided necessary depth. And former starting center Ryan Norton returned this week to offer additional depth with Falcinelli nursing a hyper-extended elbow. Grade A-
2. defensive line
An even bigger surprise could be the defensive line. Sacks and tackles for loss aren’t coming at a comparable pace of a year ago when Clemson led the nation, but the numbers against the rush are virtually identical, and with one senior in the rotation, there’s room to grow. Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd comprise perhaps the best set of ends in the game. Lawson met the preseason hype with 11 ½ tackles for loss, including 3 ½ sacks. Dodd held up his side with 8 and 4 ½. Tackles Scott Pagano and Carlos Watkins have been solid starters, and Christian Wilkins has emerged as an impact player nearly on par with classmate Hyatt. Depth hasn’t become an issue, so senior tackle D.J. Reader’s return to practice this week could be big down the road. Grade B+
3. running backs
With all the purported depth at running back, Clemson generally has needed only Wayne Gallman and quarterback Deshaun Watson in the ground game. Gallman’s 595 yards on 106 carries are more than the other running backs combined and approaching his numbers last season when he led the team with 769 yards on 161 carries. Watson has 234 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry, but Gallman might eventually need a bigger role from Zac Brooks, C.J. Fuller or Tyshon Dye to manage the inherent pounding. Grade B
As long as they remain on their feet, B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware are the Mike and Will backers – end of story. Only safety T.J. Green and corner Cordrea Tankersley have played more snaps on defense. Currently 1-2 in total tackles, it’s likely to change if Boulware passes Goodson. The next guys on the depth chart haven’t played a snap since Wofford. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables knew it could be this way, so he keeps his fingers crossed and hopes for the best. Travis Blanks and Dorian O’Daniel are an effective bracket at Sam, though Venables likes to be creative in deploying his nickel packages as well as extending the safeties to generate pressure and clog the lanes. Grade A-
5. receiving Corps
Even after losing Mike Williams to a neck injury in the opener, there’s not a deeper area than receivers and tight ends. In Clemson’s scheme, the differences are purely body type and deployment because they’re all responsible for blocking as well as holding onto the ball. Nine players were credited with receptions last week, led by sophomore Artavis Scott, team leader in catches and receptions. Tight end Jordan Leggett leads in touchdowns. The positions are evolving with freshmen Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud and Trevion Thompson gradually integrating their talents. Watson’s knack for identifying the best target keeps them all involved, so Clemson has only begun to tap this area. Grade B
6. the Secondary
Swinney predicted in August that the secondary would be one of the team’s strengths, and so it goes. Nobody throws to corner Mackensie Alexander’s side of the field, which largely explains why he’s never had an interception in two seasons. Tankersley leads the team in PBU (passes broken up) and picks. Safeties T.J. Green and Jayron Kearse seem to smell the ball. Green, a converted receiver, is third in tackles, and both he and Kearse have four tackles for loss. Kearse has one interception but seven in his career. There have been occasional busts, but opponents have completed 43.8 percent of their passes and Clemson ranks among the leaders in defensive efficiency. Grade B+
7. Watson at QB
Watson has remained healthy and he’s been good. In the right circumstances, he has shown flashes of great. There’s no doubting the arm strength, athleticism and his knowledge of the offense. Perhaps what takes him to another level are the vision and courage under siege. Watson tells his receivers to keep moving even after they think a play has broken. More often than not, he has delivered. What’s intriguing is that as the line coalesces and the receivers mature, there’s so much more. Grade A-
8. Swinney the motivator
There might not be a better motivator in the game than Swinney, and it’s not all about emotion. Swinney has convinced his team to approach each game with urgency. He continues to recruit as well as anybody in the game and make smart, even bold, personnel moves. Replacing Chad Morris with co-offensive coordinators worked, and Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are making an imprint on the offense with the assistance of quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter and line coach Robbie Caldwell. Eventually, Swinney will need to replace Venables, who’s one of the hottest coordinators in a game that’s smitten with offense, but in Dan Brooks, Marion Hobby and Mike Reed there’s a wealth of knowledge and success. Grade A
Having survived the most treacherous stretch of the schedule, Clemson ought to be able to build on the momentum.
Florida State seems even bigger than it did in August. South Carolina’s entire season might be invested in the game in Columbia. An ACC Championship game could be more challenging than it seemed a few weeks ago.
And there are no guarantees that the College Football Playoff committee will be enamored with any of it.
“The X-Files” are scheduled for a six-show reprise beginning in January, so the truth is definitely out there.
Tigers vs. Hurricanes
Who: Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) vs. Miami (4-2, 1-1)
When: Noon, Saturday
Where: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.