May 19, 2024

CLEMSON, S.C. — Cade Klubnik was battered and defeated, his pants splattered with blood stains, his arms covered in cuts and scrapes and scratches. He’d been hit — hard and repeatedly — by Florida State‘s defense, including a sack that turned into a game-defining fumble recovery for a touchdown, but what he kept thinking about was that one decision in overtime, to check out of a run call and into a doomed screen pass.

“We’re really, really good but two tough breaks,” Klubnik said. “We’ve just got to finish that game. We were so close.”

A sizable cut spanned half of Xavier Thomas‘ bottom lip, but his words after Clemson‘s 31-24 overtime loss to the Seminoles were clear.

“It sucks,” Thomas said. “It came down to a couple plays in a game we know we should’ve won. We gave it to them.”

Coach Dabo Swinney arrived at the podium postgame dressed, as usual, in a neatly pressed suit, and gave a beleaguered postscript that has felt entirely too common lately.

“That, honestly, was probably as tough a loss as I’ve ever been a part of,” Swinney said, only a slight diversion from his epilogue following the Duke loss, suggesting it was the “strangest game I’ve ever been a part of.”

This is the aftermath of a game that felt so much bigger, so much more meaningful than the final score suggested.

On paper, it was a nail-biter, and inside Clemson’s locker room, the consensus was that this was a win the Tigers let slip through their fingers.

In the grander scheme of the college football hierarchy, however, Saturday felt like an official changing of the guard, the moment when Florida State’s ascendancy intersected with Clemson’s slow decline.

It’s possible it was both. Or neither. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the point is that the conversation is happening at all.

“We’re not entitled to win the ACC each year,” Swinney said. “We didn’t win it in ’21, and a lot of y’all said we were done. We came back and won it last year.” Then, adding sarcastically, “I think. Didn’t we win it last year?

“We don’t sit around acting like we’re the top team. We’ve just got to compete, show up, do our best to represent this university with class. Today wasn’t our day. I don’t look at it as a referendum. I just look at it as we lost the game.”

Here’s where Clemson stands, four weeks into the 2023 season:

The Tigers are 2-2 for the second time in the past three years.

They’re 0-2 in ACC play for the first time since 2010, Swinney’s second year on the job and the prelude to a decade of consecutive 10-win seasons.

They’ve lost four of their past seven games overall, including to rivals South Carolina and Florida State.

They’re at the center of a growing storm of frustration amid a fan base increasingly concerned the modern age of college football has overwhelmed Swinney’s famed culture, that Clemson’s reluctance to embrace the transfer portal, its people-over-players approach, its focus on loyalty, its vision that expands well beyond mere talent acquisition, is somehow now a liability.

And yet, to watch Clemson play Florida State on Saturday was hardly an indictment of a program teetering on the brink. It was, instead, one of the toughest performances the Tigers have turned in since their last national title in 2018.

“I hope everybody saw what this team is really capable of,” Klubnik said. “It’s one play and it’s a different ballgame. We played really good against the No. 4 team in the country. We saw what we’re worth and at the end of the day, we just need to finish.”

This is reality for Clemson right now — not a state of panic or a return to glory, but rather some uncomfortable purgatory. The Tigers no longer appear to routinely be an elite, national title contender, but they’re far too good to blow up the whole system. Last year’s loss to South Carolina, this year’s defeat at Duke, Saturday’s dagger — they’re all Ls in the box score that, quite reasonably, Swinney can define as outliers. Heck, even the 31-14 blowout loss to Tennessee in last year’s Capital One Orange Bowl comes with the caveat that had 109 more yards and 14 more first downs but fizzled out repeatedly in the red zone.

The numbers speak to how close Clemson really is to a completely different narrative. In the four losses over its past seven games, the Tigers outgained the opposition by at least 48 yards three times, and their total yards margin in those four games is +196. They’ve blown multiple double-digit leads. They’ve scored just eight touchdowns on 17 total red-zone trips. They’ve missed 5 of 8 field goal tries, including a chip shot that might’ve won the game Saturday, kicked by a player who’d been living in another city just a week earlier.

After Saturday’s loss, Swinney lamented the fumble-turned-touchdown that signaled a serious shift in the game’s dynamic as evidence of the bad luck his team has endured. In those four losses since November, Clemson is minus-five in turnover margin. Oh, how different it might’ve been.

But maybe that’s too fine a line to walk. Clemson is actually even in turnover margin over its past seven — as well as since the start of the supposed decline in 2021. The Tigers haven’t had bad luck over a large sample size, only in the margins.

For so long, Clemson dominated those margins. From 2015 to 2020 — the glory years in Death Valley — Clemson was an astounding 24-6 when losing the turnover margin. In the past three seasons, it’s 7-6. From 2015 to 2020, Clemson was 18-4 in one-possession games, an elite mark. Over the past three seasons, it’s a more mundane 8-4. During those glory years, the Tigers were 13-7 after being tied or trailing in the second half, the third-best mark in the country. Since 2021, they’re 5-8.

The point isn’t that Clemson has bad luck now. Its luck looks more or less as one would expect. It looks, well, average. But before this run, Clemson’s roster was so good, so filled with legendary talents like Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne Jr. and Tee Higgins, that luck had nothing to do with it. The Tigers won because they were flat-out better than everyone else. Now, they’re experiencing life as mere mortals.

While Florida State endured its long march through the college football wilderness, it found its way to the mountaintop through a steady acquisition of talent by any means necessary. Clemson has stayed the path, trusted the Swinney process and in doing so, the margin has gotten small enough that a few plays here and there make a massive difference.

Swinney was quick to defend his new offensive coordinator, Garrett Riley, after Saturday’s loss. He said Riley “called a heck of a game” and “has given us a chance to win every game since he’s been here.” Riley was Swinney’s first true outside hire in a decade when he was brought on board this offseason to reignite the offense, but even Swinney noted that it was Riley’s fault that Klubnik even had an option to switch out of a run play on third-and-1 in overtime and into a screen pass that resulted in lost yardage and, ultimately, a lost game.

Swinney said afterward that he had no issues with defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin either. He called several animated sideline conversations during the game “just competing.” He didn’t acknowledge his halftime comments that suggested the defensive game plan had allowed FSU’s offense to look entirely too comfortable.

But fans have mostly pointed the finger at Swinney, once lauded for his consistency and culture, now an object of derision for his stubborn hold on The Clemson Way above all else.

It will be lost on no one at Clemson that Saturday’s game was decided on a dazzling touchdown grab by Keon Coleman in overtime.

Coleman is a transfer. So, too, is FSU’s quarterback, Jordan Travis. In fact, of Florida State’s 311 yards of total offense, 310 were accumulated by transfers.

Swinney, however, has insisted the portal has little to offer Clemson. He’s kicked the tires on a few guys, but he landed none beyond a couple of back-up quarterbacks. For a school that routinely lands blue-chip recruits out of high school, this 0% success rate in the portal feels dubious. But as several coaches who spoke with ESPN on the condition of anonymity argued, it doesn’t have to be a death knell.

“It doesn’t mean you can’t win,” one coach said. “It just makes it tougher. It means you can’t miss on your recruits.”

Florida State had lost every matchup with Clemson since 2014, including last year’s 34-28 defeat in Tallahassee. And where coach Mike Norvell found holes, he filled them — with Coleman, tight end Jaheim Bell, corner Fentrell Cypress II and defensive tackle Branden Fiske, among others.

Clemson’s holes have been evident, too, but Swinney believes strongly that his own guys will develop to fill the gaps. Only, in too many areas, that hasn’t happened.

A place once renowned for its production of wide receivers continues to recruit the position at a high level, for example. The Tigers have signed nine blue-chip receivers in their past five classes, but none have become All-ACC players thus far. Three have transferred. Saturday’s game featured a breakout performance from three-star freshman Tyler Brown, who played extensively with Cole Turner, done for the year and Antonio Williams, out with an injury.

The same is true at QB. Deshaun Watson and Lawrence were generational talents who elevated Clemson to new heights. Klubnik and DJ Uiagalelei were blue-chip prospects, too — widely regarded as elite talents with immense upsides. Uiagalelei flamed out at Clemson and ultimately transferred to Oregon State. Klubnik’s potential was on display against FSU on Saturday, but his learning curve is clearly far steeper than that of Watson or Lawrence, who both blossomed as true freshmen.

That’s the point, one coach said.

“They still have good players,” the coach said. “But they have guys who’ll get drafted late or go to camps as a free agent, whereas before, they had first-rounders.”

In other words, Clemson used to be able to overcome things like a bad check at the line of scrimmage or an ill-timed turnover or a weird bounce of the ball here and there. Heck, those things became so ancillary to the Tigers’ winning ways that they hardly warranted notice.

But now, the margin of error has shrunk — not to a degree that suggests Clemson cannot play with almost anyone, but enough that almost anyone can also play with Clemson.

“If you can’t see the heart of our team,” Swinney said after Saturday’s loss, “then you’re just blind.”

He’s right. Clemson played with immense heart and grit and toughness against Florida State, and Swinney has always admired those qualities above all else.

The problem is Clemson wasn’t more talented than Florida State on Saturday, and when two teams of roughly equal ability play a game like that — yes, a few plays here or there make all the difference.


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