Joshua S. Kelly, USA Today Sports.
- Despite going 0-3 against the spread to start the 2018 season, Clemson is still laying double digits on the road against Georgia Tech.
- The coaching staff has been focused on playing as many players as possible early in the season.
- Will that philosophy change and lead to some covers as the Tigers begin ACC play?
There’s an old adage that good teams win, great teams cover.
However, even defending national champ Alabama went 6-7-1 against the spread a year ago.
In the 2016 season, Clemson won it all despite going 8-7 ATS. Since the Tigers became a national contender in 2015, they’ve gone 24-21-2 against the number, including 0-3 to start 2018.
Clemson has been favored by 50.5 points against Furman, 11.5 at Texas A&M and 32 when hosting Georgia Southern.
Why have the Tigers fallen short so far? Are the lines overinflated? Could Clemson not be as good as oddsmakers and experts think?
Heading into ACC play at Georgia Tech on Saturday, those are all valid questions. Let’s dig for some answers.
First off, Dabo Swinney doesn’t care one iota about style points or margin of victory.
For years, he’s used references about lipstick, pigs and beauty contests. The fact of the matter is the Clemson head coach cares about winning the game and also accomplishing goals that mean very little to the general public.
Swinney plays a lot of dudes this time of the year, and we’re not talking about just in garbage time.
He’s not afraid to replace one of his coveted pass rushers with a freshman defensive lineman in the first quarter to get that youngster meaningful snaps when the opponent isn’t beaten, battered and scared 50 minutes later.
“We certainly want to play guys that deserve to play,” Swinney said. “That’s how you get better.”
This philosophy creates depth for the future, but it can also disrupt rhythm and continuity early.
Clemson has switched out key offensive linemen in the middle of drives, has given star running back Travis Etienne just 11.7 carries per game and utilized a pair of quarterbacks.
So far, the Kelly Bryant-Trevor Lawrence system hasn’t been bad. The two signal callers have combined to generate 38 points per contest and 513 total yards per game, which ranks 20th nationally.
Bryant continues to show great command of the offense and didn’t commit his first turnover until last Saturday, when a missed block by a freshman tight end led to an interception on a screen pass. Lawrence’s understanding is clearly improving at a rapid pace, and he’s flashed big-play ability.
Even though the coaching staff is open to keeping the two-QB system going all season, it’s logical to think one player takes the majority of snaps at some point, right?
Clemson vowed to be more explosive this season, and that’s been the case. In last week’s game against Georgia Southern, the Tigers produced seven pass plays of 15 yards or more and eight runs of 12-plus yards.
Against a higher-quality defense at A&M, Clemson had four completions of 40-plus yards and a pair of runs longer than 25 yards.
“I’m not sure we’re calling more (explosive plays),” Swinney said. “We’re just better across the board with our explosive players than we were this time last year.”
There’s been at least a little tradeoff in efficiency. While the Tigers are averaging 6 yards per run (7.7 by Etienne) and 7.5 yards per play, both of which rank in the top 15 nationally, their third-down conversions are down around 7% from their previous three-year average.
The offensive line hasn’t been very dominant, especially early in games. The play-calling, which is an always popular criticism at many schools, has been questioned. Clemson has shown the propensity to be conservative at times.
Ultimately, too many players have played to truly blow teams out the way you’d think the No. 3 team in the country should.
The stop side of the ball also got lit up for 430 passing yards by Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond in a 28-26 Clemson win, and you have to wonder how much they’ve worked on that between facing Georgia Southern last week and Georgia Tech this week, two triple-option teams.
Despite that, the defensive line has helped produce the third-most sacks in the country and is holding opponents to 4.3 yards per play.
Watch this team closely over the first half of ACC play. Clemson’s already been instilled as a 16.5-point favorite against the Yellow Jackets, and you can likely expect similar spreads against Syracuse, at Wake Forest and vs. N.C. State.
The number of players seeing action should start to decrease to some degree as Clemson enters a new phase of its season. Combined with potential offensive improvement up front and on third downs, the Tigers could start looking more like the dominant team many expected they would be.
If they don’t, expect lines to adjust accordingly.
Brad Senkiw is a contributor to The Action Network and hosts The Press Box weekdays, 9 a.m.-noon ET on WCCP 105.5 The Roar.