If you were expecting some dramatic change from the No. 4 Clemson offense compared to last season, you came away a bit disappointed on Monday night.
Sure, Clemson pulled away and beat Georgia Tech 41-10 to start the season 1-0, but a lot of the same issues that plagued the Tigers in 2021 were on display again in this one.
The play-calling was unimaginative, the offensive line was leaky, the receivers struggled getting separation (and just catching the ball at times) and the play of quarterback DJ Uiagalalei was up-and-down. If it wasn’t for the stellar play of the Clemson defense and a couple of blocked punts, this game would have been much closer than the final score indicates.
And it was already pretty close. Georgia Tech, a team with nine wins combined over the past three seasons, cut Clemson’s lead to 14-10 midway through the third quarter.
The Tigers opened up a more comfortable lead with a field goal and a 74-yard touchdown drive on their next two possessions and then continued to tack on in garbage time, but there was still a brief time in the second half where it looked like there could possibly be an upset in the air courtesy of one of the worst programs in the ACC.
That’s not the greatest sign if we’re to believe that Clemson is going to return to national championship contending form.
Uiagalalei, to his credit, did look a lot better than he did last year when he was one of the worst starters in the ACC. He made several plays in the second half to help Clemson pull away, including a desperation pitch to Will Shipley on third down to keep a drive alive. He also made several on-the-money throws downfield that couldn’t be corralled by his receivers.
In all, Uiagalelei finished 19-of-32 for 209 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 28 yards and a score in the win. The ineffectiveness of the running game was pretty evident as the Tigers finished with just 127 yards on 40 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per rush. Dabo Swinney has said all offseason that the offensive line would be much improved. In Week 1, that wasn’t very evident.
The defense, though, looked as good as ever. The defensive line got after Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims all night, limiting the Yellow Jackets to just 237 yards of offense and 2-of-16 on third down. Perhaps most impressively, Georgia Tech had only 73 rushing yards on 30 tries.
As long as the defense plays like this, Clemson is going to be in every game it plays. But for the Tigers to ascend back into the realm of national title contenders, the offense is going to have to be better.
The Tigers won 10 games a year ago but it was a considerable step back for what has been a perennial CFP contender under Swinney. In 2021, Clemson went 4-3 over its first seven games and averaged a measly 15 points per game against FBS competition during that stretch.
Monday night's performance was obviously an improvement compared to that level of play, but it still left a lot to be desired. And perhaps the answer to a much-improved offense made his debut in the final minutes. Cade Klubnik, Clemson's five-star freshman quarterback, led the Tigers right down the field for the final touchdown of the night. In the process, Klubnik completed 4-of-6 passes for 50 yards and a TD, looking quite comfortable in the process.
With FCS program Furman on deck next week, Klubnik will certainly find his way back on the field yet again. Whether he does enough to move past Uiagalelei on the depth chart at some point this season remains to be seen. But it wouldn't be a surprise.