5 Keys To An ACC Championship In 2011
By Scott Rhymer
Before you read any further, you may want to take note of the previous blogs listed below so you can get a perspective on where I am at in terms of expectations for this football program.
I have been a Clemson fan, attending games at home and on the road, since 1977. I have enjoyed the best of the best times during that time. I have also seen, first hand, the rut that we are in right now.
In my mind, the time has come to stop judging the success of the Clemson football program on getting to mid-tier bowl games. It is also time to stop judging this football program by improvement from the year before or whether a consensus is built that we are “moving in the right direction”.
In my most humble opinion, it is time to start judging this program on whether or not our Clemson Tigers can win an ACC Championship. Nothing less than that is acceptable when it has been 20+ years since a championship in the program that drives every other athletic program at Clemson University. It is even more disheartening when you consider the fact that Florida State, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest have all won at least one ACC Title since the Tigers were able to do it
It is time to stop dancing around the very obvious. Clemson is in desperate need of an ACC Championship and the 2011 season cannot be judged a success without that title. The more pressing topic is determining what it will take to make that happen? And that is what I will try to do with the following 5 Keys To Winning An ACC Championship In 2011.
Key #1-Change Of Culture On Offensive Line
It really is no coincidence that the last time Clemson was able to win an ACC Championship was also the last time that Clemson had an offensive line that it could lean on in big games. A staple of the Danny Ford era, the offensive line at Clemson since Ford’s departure has been up and down but never to a level that was even close to the championship teams under Ford.
I am a firm believer that you can win a decent amount of games without a dominant and mean offensive line. But I am also a believer that you can’t win a championship without a dominant and mean offensive line. We have won many games over the last 20 years but a major reason we have not won a championship is because we have not been able to line up against good football teams and control the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the ball. Sure, there are exceptions in single games here or there. But if you look at the games Clemson has played against top 20 football teams over the past 20 years we have consistently struggled when asked to control the line of scrimmage to run the ball or pass protect in crucial stages of the game.
Dabo Swinney made one of the most impressive hires in the last decade of football at Clemson by scooping up Robbie Caldwell. The coaching change should be an immediate boost. Add to that is the fact that Caldwell will be coaching an experienced group (4 seniors and 1 junior on projected starting roster). Caldwell’s job is simple…change the culture of what has become a soft offensive line that can’t control the line of scrimmage in key situations against good football teams. If we can lean on our offensive line in big games, wins will quickly follow.
#2-Kick The Football Through The Uprights
Tim Bourret, Clemson’s version of Google, gave me some interesting statistics on Chandler Catanzaro’s season last year. Bourret pointed out that Catanzaro’s 14-22 (.636) was a better average than Donald Igwebuike and Bob Paulling’s combined percentage during 1981 National Championship season (14-23, .609). Catanzaro’s percentage was also better than David Treadwell in 1986 (12-20, .600), Chris Gardocki in 1988 (19-32, .594), and very close to Nelson Welch in 1991 (19-28, .679). All three of those years were ACC Championship seasons. Catanzaro was also very good from long range, going 6-9 from 40+ yards.
The difference between Catanzaro and those championship kickers is that Chandler missed some very important field goals that, literally, were the difference between a Clemson win and a Clemson loss. Catanzaro will be pushed this August by Spencer Benton and Ammon Lakip for the starting job. I’m pulling for Catanzaro to win the job so that he can bring a year’s experience to the position. Regardless, for Clemson to win an ACC Championship, the kicker that trots out onto the field in the 4th quarter in a close game needs to make the kick. The schedule is difficult enough that there will be a slim margin of error in several games this year and the difference in a win and a loss will most likely come down to the foot of a Clemson kicker. FSU played for an ACC Championship last year because they had the better kicker. Let’s see if we can return the favor this year.
#3-Beat Florida State On September 24th
Jimbo Fisher will be the sexy coach of the August workouts and preseason media gatherings. The buzz will be that Florida State is back and ready to reclaim their place as the premier team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Before you buy into all that mushy gush over Jimbo, understand that Florida State (while improved) is not even close to being what they were during their reign in the top 5 of the nation in the late 1980’s through 1999. Florida State will rightfully earn some preseason recognition as ACC favorite. But being an ACC preseason favorite in 2011 does not automatically perch FSU into a stratosphere of an elite program or a program similar to their glory years.
But FSU has drawn a relatively favorable schedule in the ACC this year and will most certainly have an easier time getting to Charlotte than Clemson. FSU has home ACC games vs. Maryland, NCSU, Miami, and Virginia. Other than Clemson, FSU travels to Wake Forest, Duke, and Boston College. The Seminoles avoid two very good teams in the Coastal Division (Virginia Tech and UNC) that Clemson does have to play.
The Seminoles will trip up a time or two along the way. But I find it very hard to imagine a scenario under the schedules of Clemson and FSU that the Tigers can lose at home on the 24th of September to FSU and still come out on top in the Atlantic Division. The all important tie-breaker over FSU will be critical for Clemson considering the trips to Blacksburg and the home game against UNC. Not to mention the importance of holding serve at home against teams you are favored over (something Clemson has struggled to do in the last 10 years).
Simply put, if there is one game on the schedule that simply can’t be a loss, it is the home game vs. FSU. A win on the 24th puts Clemson in great position to make a serious run in the Atlantic Division. A loss almost certainly eliminates Clemson. At the very least, a loss will force Clemson into a scoreboard watching mode that almost always ends with disappointment.
#4-Andre Ellington As A 1,000 Yard Rusher
A lot of fuss will be made of the new offense under Chad Morris and the continued development of Kevin Steele’s defense in the preseason. Even more attention will be placed on Taj Boyd and the new wide receivers that are expected to inject life into the anemic Clemson offense from last year.
But in my mind the single most important player that holds Clemson’s ACC Title hopes in his hands (or foot based on his injury) is Andre Ellington. To his credit, Ellington was the most electric offense player last year and well on pace to get to 1,000 yards on the season before he was injured on a bone-headed play by Kyle Parker in the Boston College game. Once our offensive coaches figured out (several weeks after we all figured it out) that Ellington was a more productive back than Jamie Harper, he was well on his way to helping an otherwise poor offense fight through the struggles and put Clemson into contention for the Atlantic Division in 2010. Ellington’s injury was the end of that hope and the result was an immediate dip in offensive and special teams production.
I don’t have any clue as to whether Ellington has fully recovered from his injury. I’d warn you to stay away from believing anything that is put out by the Sports Information Department at Clemson about Ellington’s status. To be fair, the SID is in a tough pinch in releasing injury updates due to a bunch of bizarro medical confidentiality laws that the NCAA and medical lawyers have employed recently. In other words, if you are looking for info from Clemson on the real health of Andre Ellington, quit looking because it is not coming.
The true confirmation will come when Ellington hits the field in week one vs. Troy and not before. With Ellington’s status is also a huge chunk of the Clemson offense. Mike Bellamy may be poised to add depth to the position. Let’s hope so, because other than Ellington and Bellamy, Clemson does not have running backs that can win ACC Titles on the roster. Even though getting some production from Bellamy is important, make no mistake that the man of the hour at the running back position is Andre Ellington. If he can be a 1,000 yard back, Clemson’s chance of winning an ACC Title multiply dramatically.
#5-Catch A Break Or Two
Ok…admittedly this is not something you can coach, practice, or scream loud enough from the stands to make happen. But you cannot escape the simple truth that championship teams catch a few breaks along the way in their run.
You won’t find a team that has won the ACC Title since the Championship Game’s inception that did not benefit from a couple of big breaks along the way. Maybe it was something that happened on the field (a key mistake by their opponent, funny bounce of the ball, brilliant play call at a key moment, etc.). Maybe it was something that did not happen on the field (avoiding injuries, a key injury by an opponent, strange weather that changes a game plan, divine intervention, etc.).
Hoping for this break is the wrong way to approach things. A team cannot assume something good and magical is going to happen to them during the course of the year. Preparation and hard work lead to championships. But almost certainly something fluky will also lead to a championship.
To be blunt, Dabo Swinney has done a lot of things right over his short tenure at Clemson. I think most of us, certainly me included, see in Coach Swinney the type of coach we want to represent our football program. Coach Swinney is ultra competitive and would almost certainly be the first person to tell you in a candid moment that he knows he needs to win and win big very soon at Clemson.
If anybody has earned a break or two, it is Coach Swinney for the way he has represented this University and football program off the field and with the high school coaches. But college football, rightfully so, is about winning. And at Clemson, that means winning Championships. Let’s see if Swinney’s team can catch a break that will allow that to happen in 2011.
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Scott Rhymer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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