The Clemson reign atop the ACC football mountain ended last season after six straight conference championships. That absence from the top appears as it will only last one year. The Tigers have won back-to-back games against their two most likely contenders this season. After escaping Winston-Salem with an overtime victory on September 24th, they came home and defeated N.C. State this past weekend. Consecutive wins over ranked opponents is always an impressive feat, but even more eye-opening is the varying ways that Clemson obtained those victories. They beat Wake Forest in a shootout where both offenses had their way all game. Then they turned around and outlasted the Wolfpack in a slugfest where the Tigers pulled away late in the contest.
The Clemson Reign atop ACC Football is Back on Schedule
Clemson had questions coming into the season, and some of those answers are still being searched for. However, there is also plenty of evidence to quiet some of the talk about vulnerabilities this team may have had. The offense is improving each week, and the defense still can dominate. Showing that they can win games in a multitude of ways is a good sight for Dabo Swinney, while serving as a warning for the rest of the ACC. Five weeks into the 2022 campaign and it appears that the Clemson reign over the ACC merely hit a speed bump last year, not a stop sign.
Quieting the Doubters
The biggest question mark for this team heading into the fall was surrounding the offense. Most notably, doubts were hanging over quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei ‘s ability to step up and lead this team. He struggled mightily as a sophomore and even scuffled a bit to begin this season. That has all changed in the past two games. The junior signal-caller has been excellent recently, making the right decisions, making accurate throws, and most importantly taking care of the football. The California native has continued to be a factor with his legs as well. He has 120 yards and two scores on the ground in the last two contests.
Overall, Uiagalelei threw for over 500 yards, six scores, and had zero turnovers in those consecutive victories. He is playing with confidence and spreading the ball around. Eight different receivers have caught a pass in each of the last two games. After struggling to play to the standard of his All-American predecessors, Uiagalelei is now finding his own rhythm and reaching a high level of performance. The noise surrounding his play and whether freshman Cade Klubnik should get a look has died down to a whisper.
One of the biggest reasons for the quarterback’s turnaround in 2022 is the help he is getting from his wideouts. Last season the Tigers could never find a go-to receiver to step up. After a decade of elite-level play at the position, 2021 was a disappointment. Now those guys who struggled for consistency last year are beginning to make plays on a regular basis. Beaux Collins and Joseph Ngata have both stepped up as guys Uiagalelei can rely on. Collins leads the team in yards and touchdowns, while Ngata is closing in on career highs in yards and receptions in only five games.
Freshman Antonio Williams has also brought a boost to the wide receiver group. He leads the team in catches and is second in yards. The former Dutch Fork star has hit the ground running in his first collegiate season. He is a weapon out of the slot and has shown the ability to make tough contested catches as well. Jake Briningstool and Davis Allen are also pitching in at tight end. Briningstool has really emerged, with 10 catches, over 120 yards, and two touchdowns in the last two weeks.
Holding it Together
On the other side of the ball, there are more issues than one would think considering the Tigers’ dominance on defense over the past decade. Injuries have played their part, with the secondary being hit the hardest. However, despite the yards and points allowed recently, winning is still what matters. The growing pains some of the young guys in the secondary have gone through are more palatable when the results of the game are still positive. As players like Sheridan Jones, Andrew Mukuba, and Fred Davis II return to the line-up, the pass defense will improve a lot.
The front seven is still as daunting for opponents as ever. Tyler Davis is back to playing he did in 2019, aggressive and disruptive. Trenton Simpson leads a deep and talented linebacker group. Myles Murphy is having an All-American type start to his season, making himself at home in the opponent’s backfield on a weekly basis. Expect this unit to be right back to dominating as usual once it gets fully healthy.
The next two weeks will see the Tigers hit the road for contests at Boston College and Florida State. If the Clemson reign of supremacy in the ACC is to get back on schedule this season, winning the next two road games is critical. The momentum built with the last two wins should carry this team for a while. They are improving each week on offense and should begin to get healthier on defense. Sitting at 5-0 on the season and 3-0 in the ACC, the thought of this team getting better is a scary one for opponents.