National Champions

National Champions

Thursday, July 7, 2011

5 Keys To An ACC Championship In 2011

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.

Your thoughts, agreements, and disagreements are welcome here or at our social media sites listed below. See you on the road with our Tigers!

Scott Rhymer can be reached at srhymester@aol.com

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bowden's Landscape Change Was Underestimate

Bowden’s “Landscape Change” Was An Underestimate
By Scott Rhymer

Tommy Bowden rationalized the patience needed with his football program during most of the early 2000’s by saying the “landscape of college football had changed.”

In many ways, he was right. Football was changing drastically in those times because schools were pumping big time money into facilities in an arms race that continues today.

However, I’m not sure Bowden could ever envision how much that landscape has changed in the last two years. And I think the wake up call is being heard throughout Clemson Nation. But is it being heard inside the walls of the Athletic Department and with our coaches?

When Bowden bemoaned the landscape change, he was talking about competitive scholarship limits that allowed teams that traditionally were not power house programs to compete at a high level. And, of course, he was talking about facilities and the need to build things that had glitz and glam and could attract the 18 years olds to sign with Clemson.

All of those things are, in most cases, still in place. While Clemson has upgraded facilities in a dramatic way, the arms race in college football is still there and is not going away. Ditto for the 85 scholarship limit that allows mid major teams to be competitive.

What Bowden could not see, and what he probably could not even imagine, was that Clemson’s arch rival would surpass the Tigers in two of the big three sports, thus casting an additional cloud of uneasiness and expectation among a fan base that has been starved of a championship in football for far too long.

Let’s be honest for a second. South Carolina has the better football program right now. They proved it on the field the last two years with convincing wins that, frankly, weren’t as close as the scores indicated. The Gamecocks will be preseason favorites in the SEC East and will get votes as preseason SEC Champion. They have a head coach that is able to win games without having to alter his off-season golf schedule to break a sweat to recruit heavily.

South Carolina is also coming off back to back National Championships in baseball. Granted, it is baseball and baseball will never carry the weight of football in this state. But baseball was a sport that on a bad year in football Clemson fans could latch onto and take pride in. Any pride Clemson fans could take in their baseball program has been muted in the afterglow of the Gamecocks’ last two years of dominance and National Titles.

If there is a silver lining, Clemson still is ahead of the Gamecocks in basketball for whatever that is worth. Oliver Purnell established Clemson as a year in and year out NCAA Tournament team and Brad Brownell seems poised to continue that trend. Darrin Horn on a good day looks lost. On a bad day he looks incompetent. Then again, basketball is similar to baseball at Clemson as an enjoyable diversion that helps soften the blow of a bad football season and can rarely captivate the fan base to the point where football can become an afterthought. Unless, of course, basketball starts winning ACC and NCAA titles…which seems so far off in possibility it seems silly to suggest it.

But the dark cloud you see above you is the direct result of honors, recognitions, parades, wins and bragging rights that the Gamecock Nation has earned on the field. That dark cloud has changed the landscape of acceptability of performance for the Tigers in football and baseball.

For me, it all came to a head 24 hours after South Carolina won their 2nd straight NCAA baseball championship in Omaha. The Gamecocks were having a parade in Columbia and Ray Tanner's players was openly mocking the “parade” that was going on in Clemson. While the Gamecocks were basking in their spoils, information was leaked that Clemson was negotiating the contract extension of Jack Leggett. That contrast (parades for champions vs. contract extension for non-champion) all but summed it up for me, and not in a good way.

At its best, the public relations of releasing info on Jack Leggett’s contract was a bad move by the Athletic Department. At its worse it sends a message that we are happy and satisfied with our coach at Clemson despite the fact our rival down the road has moved beyond us in terms of quality. In other words, at its worst we are rewarding good while not demanding great.

And unfortunately for Dabo Swinney, the reverberations of South Carolina’s baseball success is only going to serve as fuel in a building fire of desperation for the football program to do something special for the first time since before these current players were born.

Now before you start suggesting that I am calling for Dabo Swinney and Jack Leggett’s heads on a platter right now, please understand that I am not. But what I am suggesting to you is the expectations for their two programs just took a big step into higher ground. In other words, I think both coaches should be at Clemson but both coaches should have a very clear expectation handed to them all the way from the Athletic Director down to the fans in the stands. Win a championship and win it now.

The party line from those inside the program is that we are on the right track and patience is needed. Swinney has certainly done a great job recruiting and the offseason hires seem, on paper, to be a step in the right direction. 15 years ago, Swinney would probably be given a leash long enough to wallow through this year with 8 wins and next year with 9 wins if it appeared the program was still heading in the right direction. I don’t think Swinney has that luxury of patience because it has been chewed up and spit out by Tommy West and Tommy Bowden. Clemson needs to win an ACC Championship. Clemson doesn’t need another mid level bowl appearance. It is as simple as that. And Tanner’s Gamecocks did no favors to Swinney by proving titles can be won in this state. Spurrier's Gamecocks did no favors to Swinney by whipping them on the field in back to back years in addition to going to Atlanta to play for the SEC Title.

Jack Leggett is the most successful baseball coach in Clemson baseball history. He has produced players that have gone on to big things in the Major Leagues. He has also produced Assistant Coaches that are now running some of the best baseball programs in the nation. Rumors have also swirled that he was not allowed to spend the type of money to attract great Assistant Coaches to replace those that he lost, but I’ll leave that to the conspiracy theorists among you and simply speak to the reality as we know it. Five years ago, getting to Omaha every couple of years was not only acceptable, but celebrated. Winning the whole thing, we were told, is difficult to do. We were also told that if you keep getting to Omaha you will eventually have the stars align and win it all.

Ray Tanner and the South Carolina Gamecocks have quickly changed that paradigm by winning back to back titles. No matter how you slice it, getting to Omaha for Jack Leggett does not hold the water on the image of the program as it did prior to South Carolina’s run. Not only did the Gamecocks knock of Leggett’s team on their way to the title last year, Clemson was relegated to watching the Gamecocks win the 2nd title from our couch at home. Whether you agree or not, the goal of getting to Omaha now has dramatically been watered down. The goal is to win a National Championship…and now after the Gamecock’s repeat it is to win 2 National Championships. It is time to remove the “Omaha” stitching on the back of the player’s caps and instead replace it with “National Title”.

Either Clemson’s Athletic Department, coaches, and fans are going to have to start demanding championships as the measure of success…or we will continue to wallow in the good but not great programs that we have. Trust me when I say it is much more fun to win the titles than it is to watch others do it. Heck, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest have done it recently in football. Auburn went from a mediocre team to National Champion in one year. Alabama did virtually the same thing a few years earlier. It ain’t rocket science.

The time is now to stop talking about moving in the right direction in football and to start winning ACC titles.

The time is now to stop talking about bringing in great recruiting classes in football and to start winning ACC titles.

The time is now to stop accepting first round appearances in basketball as success and to start advancing deeper into the ACC and NCAA tournaments

The time is now to stop setting a goal to get to Omaha in baseball and instead set the goal to win a NCAA title.

The time is now to stop celebrating good but not demanding great. Regardless of any propaganda anyone who covers the Clemson athletic programs may give you, we are not great football, baseball, or basketball programs. We are only good…and for some reason we have allowed that to be enough for us for way too long.

Bowden really had no idea how much the landscape was changing for his football program. What he thought was a landscape change was simply a bump in expectations. Bowden did not have a rival passing him in football both head to head and in their respective conference. Bowden did not have a rival’s baseball program sucking more life out of his above average football performances.

Bowden was a bit premature in his proclamation 10 years ago. But that time has come. Coach Dabo Swinney, Brad Brownell, and Jack Leggett have all seen their evaluation of success amp up thanks to Steve Spurrier and Ray Tanner.

Let’s see if those coaches, and our Athletic Department, can answer the bell. To move from good to great we must start with demanding great and accepting nothing less.
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Scott Rhymer can be reached at srhymester@aol.comFriend us on Facebook at The Tiger Pregame Show Follow us on Twitter at TigerPregame