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2023 Clemson End-of-Year Review

The 2023 college football season for Clemson was a rollercoaster, to say the least. The Tigers came into the season ranked ninth in the country with mixed opinions on how good they really are. Early on they proved many of the doubters right.

Beginning the season with a loss at Duke would lead to a 2-2 start in the first four games of the season. Clemson was also 0-2 in the ACC after losing to Florida State in that starting stretch. By week 3, Clemson was unranked which is very unusual for Dabo Swinney’s program. The Tigers won a couple of games against Syracuse and Wake Forest after that, but it still did not look like the Clemson of old. It wasn’t until after a week 8 loss to NC State put them at 4-4 overall, and 2-4 in the ACC when things would start to really pick up for the Tigers.

Starting with a win against 15th-ranked Notre Dame, Clemson would go on to win four straight to finish the regular season.  Another one of those wins also came against another top-25 opponent North Carolina.  This put Clemson at 8-4 to finish the season and 4-4 in the ACC. The finish got the Tigers back in the top 25, ranked 22nd in the final CFP poll. It also got them an invite to the Taxslayer Gator Bowl, where they won a thriller against Kentucky. It was truly an up-and-down season for Swinney’s squad. One unit though played great consistently all season long.

Defensive Dominance

Clemson was dominant all season on the defensive side of the ball. Most people expected the Tigers’ defense to be great and they lived up to it. With all college football games played this season, Clemson ranks top 10 in the FBS in eight defensive categories. Some of these categories include tying for first in defensive touchdowns with five, tying for first in turnovers gained with 28, and ranking eighth in total defense.

Five players from this defense were named to the 2023 All-ACC teams. Jeremiah Trotter Jr, Tyler Davis, and Nate Wiggins were all named to the first team. Barrett Cater was the lone Tiger to be named second-team All-ACC. Ruke Orhorhoro was named to the third team along with the only offensive players to be named All-ACC Blake Miller, Will Putnam, and Jake Briningstool. For Davis, this was his fourth selection to the All-ACC team making him one of five Tigers to be named at least four times. All of these guys, except Carter, will be entering the NFL Draft this year. Trotter and Wiggins are both projected to be selected in the first round.

Baby Steps on Offense

On the offensive side of the ball, things were not as dominant. The offense was not bad but also nowhere near great.  The Clemson offense gave up 22 turnovers this season, at least one in every game. This was the thing that hurt the Tigers the most, giving up 98 points off of turnovers this season. They also still struggled to find a consistent outside threat at wide receiver. A few different people made plays here and there, but no one became a guy that Cade Klubnik could rely on at any time.

Even with all of this, Clemson still outgained 10 of their 13 opponents in games. Overall, the Tigers outgained all of their opponents by 1,493 yards combined. The run game was the most effective part of the offense whenever they held on to the ball. Phil Mafah showed he could be a top, primary back at the FBS level. Will Shipley kept being the great player he’s been, even while battling injuries. It took a while for the Tigers’ offense to find they’re footing. That was something to be expected with a new offensive coordinator and first-year starter at quarterback. Towards the end of the season though it seemed the offense began finding its identity.

Standout Performers

Staying on the offensive side of the ball, one player that stood out most for the Tigers was Mafah. While he did not earn many accolades from other media publications, Mafah proved much about himself this season. Many in the program raved about how good Mafah would be this season. He was said to be a 1B with Shipley rather than a backup. With Shipley suffering some injuries during the season, Mafah slowly became the premier back for the Tigers by the end of the season. With 179 rushes for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, Mafah was Clemson’s leading rusher this season. Those 13 touchdowns also tied Mafah for eighth most rushing touchdowns in the FBS.

On the opposite side of the ball, it is hard to talk about the success of the Clemson defense without mentioning Trotter. The only All-American on the 2023 Clemson team was sensational this season. As a Butkus Award Finalist, Trotter finished the season with 87 total tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and a touchdown. He showed he was a top defender in the FBS as well as a top prospect for the NFL draft.

Youth Movement

When Clemson beat Notre Dame, Swinney made sure to let everyone know the Clemson stock was starting to rise. We agreed with that statement mainly because of the abundance of young talent Clemson has. Four Tiger freshmen were named first-team freshmen All-American. Wide receiver Tyler Brown (ESPN), defensive end TJ Parker (247sports, ESPN, The Athletic, CFB News, CFB Network) defensive tackle Peter Woods (247sports, CFB News, CFB Network, ON3), and defensive back Khalil Barnes (247sports).

Brown emerged as a playmaker for the Tigers when given the opportunity. He was Clemson’s leading receiver with 52 receptions for 531 yards and four touchdowns. Woods was also highly touted coming out of high school a year ago. As the CFB Network Freshman Interior Defender of the Year proved why. Woods finished the season with 27 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.

Meanwhile, Woods’ defensive linemate Parker also showed why many Tiger fans were excited for him to show up in Death Valley. His 12.5 tackles for loss was the second most on the team behind Trotter. Parker finished the season with 41 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, and one fumble recovery. While Barnes seemed to find a way to make plays in every game. He filled every part of the stat sheet in his first year as a collegiate player. Barnes finished this season with 41 total tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, three interceptions, six pass breakups, and a touchdown.

Improvements to Meet Expectations

With the way Clemson ended the season, along with the talent staying, the expectations have gone back up for the Tigers. The program still has championship potential, but the current landscape of college football won’t make it easy. Clemson fans must realize right now it’s not built to make splashy moves in the transfer portal. The Tigers are still great with their high school recruiting and development though which will always make them a threat.

If they want to improve the way they will need to be back in playoff contention it will start by finding a way to cut down the turnovers. If the Tigers go into week one against Georgia still giving the ball up the way they have this season, it won’t be good for them. Also, the Tigers must run the ball, especially with Klubnik. Shipley has declared for the draft but as of right now, Mafah will be back for another year. Mafah and Klubnik being effective runners is what helped the offense start to improve.  Garett Riley’s offense is considered an air raid,  but it works best when the run game flourishes.

Lastly, Swinney has to trust his young players. The 2024 Clemson squad is going to be a young one. So, it’s not always going to look like the most polished team on the field. The amount of trust the coaches put in those players though is going to be important. It is that trust that will help nourish the raw talent the young guys have. As mentioned earlier the stock in this team is this young talent.

Photo Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports


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