Clemson's offense seemed to score at will last season on their way to a national championship appearance. So, it was no surprise that Clemson was near the top of the polls this preseason with, essentially, everyone returning on the offensive side of the ball. Throw in the return of star receiver Mike Williams and it was inevitable that this Clemson spread would dominate an easy front end of their schedule. That just hasn't been the case so far with shaky quarterback play, an ineffective running game, uncharacteristic drops by receivers, and head-scratching offensive line shuffling all leaving the offense disjointed and frustrated. Clemson will have to shake off all of these issues if they hope to have a chance to keep up in a game that will likely be a shootout.
Deshaun Watson is the most heralded quarterback in the country and, in my opinion, he's the best passer by a good margin. Watson is the type of thrower that you beg to have in your backfield but this season you have to add the caveat: "when he's on". Coming into the season there were a few questions about Watson's accuracy but they seemed very silly. He had just finished a season where he completed nearly 70% of his passes and he did it against great competition. He is also a guy that has been lauded as a great passer going all the way back to high school. It seemed weird that all of a sudden people were raising questions. But, this year Watson has been very inconsistent with his accuracy and it's shown on just about every type of throw you could think of. He's always missed high when he's struggled in the past but now he's missing long on corner routes. He's throwing the wrong ball on deep fade routes. He's missing high across the middle. He's even overthrowing his fastest receivers.
Though Watson has struggled, he has struggled by his standards. He's still completing 60% of his passes and he's thrown 9 touchdown passes. He's improved over his last two games and his offense has finally started to get back to doing what works best for them. In my view, Clemson spreads their offense into a 10 yard box. What I mean by that is that they don't just spread the defense with their formation and try to pick their spots. Instead, they spread the defense and then they utilize quick "stand up" routes as a type of run play with their receivers to keep the defense spread out to the sidelines and as deep as the first down markers. Artavis Scott piled up catches on this play all of last year but for some reason Clemson got away from it early this year. It's an easy way to to get a handful of yards and make the next down more manageable.
With the struggles in the passing game and the lack of creative plays, Wayne Gallman has struggled to get much going in the running game. This is most evident on first down with defenses packing the middle of the line and forcing Gallman to break runs outside or try to burst through a logjam. Gallman is a violent running back like Brandon Radcliff. If you get him in a situation where he has to beat two guys, he'll do it more times than not. But, when he has to beat two guys and there are three more waiting for him, he can't get going. Even though Gallman has good speed, he hasn't been able to get outside much and break too many chunk runs. A big part of the struggles Clemson has seen in the running game is due to defensive lines owning the line and allowing second level defenders to play downhill because they're not being blocked. Louisville was killed by Gallman last year so it could be a big factor if he continues to struggle.
In my opinion, Clemson has the best group of receivers in the country. It should also be pointed out that I felt that FSU has the most "consistent" group. Clemson has all the talent in the world outside and it's also a perfect mix of big play guys, speedy/quick guys, and possession guys that can make big plays when needed. Mike Williams is the best of the group and he's routinely mentioned as the best or one of the best receivers in the country. Williams has elite size and ball tracking abilities and his speed is well above average. What impresses me most about him is that he can run the entire route tree in their offense and he has no fear going across the middle even after breaking a bone in his neck last year. Williams is a nightmare matchup problem for Louisville if Clemson gets within the 30 yard line. He's much too fast and polished to be guarded by a safety, but he's also too big for guys like Shaq Wiggins and Jaire Alexander to handle. Louisville will likely have to shade a safety in his direction which changes the complexion of the defense and puts the offense at an advantage. Louisville has done very well this year setting the tone with their defense. They've made offenses adjust to them and they need to keep it that way on Saturday.
Clemson took a big hit when Hunter Renfrow (who went off in the championship game against Bama) was injured but their depth at receiver is the best in the country. Ray-Ray McCloud moved outside into Renfrow's spot and Deon Cain got out of the doghouse and took on more of a role in the offense. McCloud made highlights earlier this year when he dropped the ball before crossing the goal line but the return itself was really impressive before the mistake. He has also become more of a target on offense and he's a legitimate threat to score every time he touches the ball. It would maybe even be fair to say that McCloud is a more explosive version of Artavis Scott. Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson, and Cornell Powell make up the second group of receivers and all have flashed their potential. Cain had five straight games with a touchdown last year and he's been used as a redzone and third down threat this year. Powell had 5 catches last week and Thompson is a nice possession receiver that is waiting to make an impact.
The focal point of Clemson's offensive issues has been the failing play of the offensive line. Clemson returned a freshman All-American left tackle, a 2nd team All-ACC center, and a 3rd team right guard and somehow they're line has played much worse than it did last year. The reason for this is that the coaching staff has decided to rotate their offensive line through the first four games of the season. Why? They have said that it reflects their practice habits as well as they want to build depth. I get wanting to reward players and wanting to get young guys experience, but this team hasn't been playing well when the starters are in there and I think it's because they keep getting pulled in and out of games. Running backs, quarterbacks, and offensive linemen have to get in rhythm and stay in rhythm and that's why it doesn't typically work well when you rotate them. If Clemson continues to rotate linemen this weekend, I don't see how this offense keeps up with Louisville's.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Deshaun Watson, WR Mike Williams, WR Ray-Ray McCloud, LT Mitch Hyatt, C Jay GuillermoOpponent Breakdown: Clemson Tigers Offense