Clemson is having an uncharacteristic season on offense. The Tigers average just 5.4 yards per play (ninth in the ACC) and rank sixth in the conference by averaging 32.4 points per game. The slow start hasn’t drastically affected Clemson’s record, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team is poised to push for another season of at least 10 wins.
A couple of factors are to blame for the drop in production on offense, but there’s potential for this unit to improve over the final three games with the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson’s return comes at a critical time for coach Dabo Swinney’s team. At 7-2 overall and 6-1 in conference play, Clemson is squarely in the mix to earn an appearance in the Orange Bowl – if Florida State makes the college football playoff. The Tigers made two previous appearances in the Orange Bowl under Swinney, but finishing 10-2 and earning a spot in one of the premier postseason games would be a huge accomplishment for a program replacing three offensive standouts in quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in 2014.
But there’s also another aspect to Watson’s return: the Nov. 29 showdown against South Carolina.
Clemson has not defeated the Gamecocks since 2008, but this would appear to be its best shot since the Gamecocks are struggling just to get bowl eligible.
Watson nearly guided Clemson to an upset win at Florida State and recorded 50 points in a win against North Carolina. The freshman also passed for 267 yards and two scores in an easy 41-0 win over NC State.
While this year’s offense isn’t as prolific as the units that led Clemson to 32 wins from 2011-13, that hasn’t derailed the Tigers from winning.
With Watson back in the lineup this week against Georgia Tech, it’s a good opportunity for this team to build momentum on offense before the bowl practices.
The true freshman has completed 75 of 112 passes for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in limited action this year. With Florida State’s Jameis Winston likely to enter the NFL Draft at the end of 2014, Watson should be the ACC’s top signal-caller in 2015. And Watson should be surrounded by plenty of talent, as running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott have emerged as key playmakers over the last few weeks.
Stoudt has kept the offense on track during Watson’s absence. However, there’s little doubt the true freshman is the better quarterback and has the skill-set to thrive in coordinator Chad Morris’ offense.
The Clemson coaching staff can be more aggressive in its passing game, as Watson averages 15.7 yards per completion, while Stoudt recorded just 10 yards per completion. Watson also averaged 10 yards per attempt, compared to 6.4 to Stoudt. The true freshman has a bigger arm, and his ability to stretch the field should help an offense that has six plays of 40 yards or more, which is a decrease from the 19 this team recorded last year.
Florida State is in full control of the Atlantic Division title this year, but Clemson still has plenty to play for over the last three weeks of the season. With Watson back under center this week, the Tigers have a chance to finish the year with momentum, including a good opportunity to beat their rival South Carolina and earn a spot in the Orange Bowl. And that’s not a bad way to finish 2014 with the amount of firepower that left Clemson for the NFL after the 2013 season.