In the preseason, Brent Venables had a veteran defense, high expectations and a sense of anxiety.
The third-year Tigers’ defensive coordinator told anyone about the good vibe he felt from the group. It was just a matter of translating that to the field.
In 2012, he took over a defense that finished 71st in total defense (394.4 YPG). The season-to-season improvement in rankings was incremental (to 64), allowing more yards (396.4) but more than 40 yards better (354) in the final seven games.
That late-season surge proved to be no fluke, moving into the top 25 in 2013 (24; 356.3) holding five teams under 5 yards per play.
The momentum looked sure to carry over to 2014, with 10 seniors on the two-deep chart and every Tiger back on the D-line. Venables was no less wary as any season, however.
“Underachieving is one of your biggest fears as a coach,” Venables said this week. “You always want your guys to overachieve and meet your expectations. You always have this expectation every year regardless of talent and experience. Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t.
“You exceed your expectations, and sometimes you don’t live up to them.”
Ten games in, few metrics could conclude Clemson’s performed as anything less than one of the nation’s best.
They join only Wisconsin in the top-15 in rush defense (No. 10; 106.9), pass defense (4; 155.2), pass efficiency defense (13; 106.7 rating) and scoring defense (19.4 PPG).
By down, they rank second in first downs allowed (140) by holding opponents to a nation’s best third down percentage (.257).
It’s then no surprise Venables’ crew is No. 2 both in traditional total defense and by advanced-metrics site Football Outsider’s FEI formula.
“The competitiveness of the group and chemistry – you don’t always know,” Venables said. “Believe and guide them. They’ve got to be the ones that take ownership of those things. The week-in, week-out work that they put in – you’re always helpful. You just don’t know.
“If everything else falls into place, we have a chance to be pretty good. Some guys had to grow up and gain experience. Certainly had some failures along the way. Didn’t coach good enough or didn’t play well enough. That’s going to happen every year.”
By the numbers, Clemson’s three losses also have coincided with the only 300-plus yard games they’ve allowed, but that tells a portion of a picture – especially against Georgia Tech.
The ACC’s No. 1 offense had topped 500 yards five times – including the week before at N.C. State (549) – and the Tigers kept them to 353 and under 6 yards per play (5.79). The run-centered scheme didn’t punch in a rushing score for the first time in 31 games.
“I feel like we played a solid game,” senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, “but at the end of the day, it still wasn’t enough. I’m just proud of the fact that we never gave up and fought to the end.”
The finish – completed by matchups with the No. 79 offense Georgia State (383.5) and top-30 South Carolina (461.7) – is what defines, and especially the latter, how this Clemson defense is perceived in a season marked with inconsistency on the other side of the ball.
“Up to this point, (we’ve) been pretty solid,” Venables said. “We’ve got work to do. It’s all for naught in the little coaching world you live in if you don’t finish the right way.”