It’s always curious to have a quiet giant hanging around somewhere, and in this loud and funky college football September the role has gone to Clemson, which has played it dutifully. It has operated in a hush unless you count the 206,556 who have seen it in person, and some of those surely were repeat customers.
No. 1 Georgia has been gorgeous, No. 2 Alabama has been clutch on the road at Texas in the noise and heat, No. 3 Ohio State has been No. 1 nationally in yards per play per usual, No. 4 Michigan has been No. 1 nationally in points per game per unusual, and the great program at No. 5 Clemson has been . . .
What has Clemson (3-0) been doing?
Does anyone know?
“This is a huge, huge game for us,” Coach Dabo Swinney told reporters Tuesday in Clemson, S.C. “It’s a huge game for Wake [Forest].” The extra “huge,” nothing more than a glitch of chatter, might just fit. Now comes the learning part of the Clemson season: at No. 21 Wake Forest (3-0) on Saturday, then No. 12 North Carolina State at home, at Boston College and Florida State, Syracuse at home, at Notre Dame, and finally Louisville, Miami and South Carolina all at home.
By then, people in the other 49 states ought to know more about Clemson, such as whether Clemson will be apt to make its seventh College Football Playoff out of nine playoff seasons and its seventh in the past eight. It missed last season when it went 10-3 and saw its regular season record since 2015 dip from a decent 73-3 to a wretched 82-6 (counting conference championship games). Clemson saw its number of regular season losses by more than one score in the past seven seasons rise all the way to one. One of the uppermost single-program eras in the 153-year history of the sport descended into . . . one of the uppermost single-program eras in the 153-year history of the sport. Clemson’s longtime coordinators felt so ashamed that they ran off to Oklahoma (Brent Venables) and Virginia (Tony Elliott).
(Note: That’s not really why they left.)
In trying to save face this September, Clemson has reached 85-6 in regular seasons since 2015 by throttling Georgia Tech (1-2), Furman (2-1) and Louisiana Tech (1-2), who combined have beaten Western Carolina, North Greenville, East Tennessee State and Stephen F. Austin. Nobody knows what any of that means. Clemson stood 100th last year offensively in yards per play, eighth defensively in yards per play; this year it’s 64th and 35th. Nobody is quite sure what any of that means, either.
“Last year was just, I mean, really unexplainable,” Swinney said to a question about injuries. “I wish I could tell you it was just one thing ’cause it wasn’t. If it had been one thing it would be easy to point your finger. It was a lot of fluky, freaky things, all across the board. We’ve been much better [this year].”
He pointed out that Clemson’s heyday teams — two national champions, two national runners-up and two national semifinalists — largely avoided the injury brunt. His 2021 team did not — the starry defensive line ached in particular — and the whole operation still managed the “unexplainable” with a 10-3 year with a 10-3 loss to the national champions (Georgia), a double-overtime loss at a 9-3 team (N.C. State) and a 27-17 loss at an 11-3 ACC champion (Pittsburgh).
For all its hush, Clemson is also a glaring window on how the windows of expectation have narrowed in the football-glued culture at large. A first-year starting quarterback isn’t expected to look like a first-year starting quarterback anymore, and Clemson last year had a first-year starting quarterback.
DJ Uiagalelei, the junior from Southern California, epitomized the Tigers’ newfound reach in 2020 when he chose the distant school as the nation’s No. 3 prospect (Rivals.com) and No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Now he already has learned one rare life skill — that of gentlemanly answers to questions about being criticized. “I definitely didn’t play the level I wanted to,” he said at the ACC preseason media gathering. He landed outside the top 100 in the country in passer rating and threw 10 interceptions against nine touchdown passes.
Those watching Clemson closely had gotten used to the following: Deshaun Watson in 2015 (12th in rating, 35 touchdown passes, 13 interceptions), Watson in 2016 (19th, 41 and 17), Trevor Lawrence in 2018 (12th, 30 and four), Lawrence in 2019 (eighth, 36 and eight) and Lawrence in 2020 (12th, 24 and five). In that vein, Uiagalelei has ticked upward this year, standing 55th with a rating of 144.44, five touchdown passes and one interception.
“I think the quarterback is playing much better,” Wake Forest Coach Dave Clawson told reporters in Winston-Salem, N.C. “He’s completing 60 percent of his balls (57 for 88). He’s taking care of it. He’s only thrown one turnover on the year. He’s a threat to extend plays and run the field. You know, he’s 6-4, 235 [pounds].” He is very much that, and also, Clawson said, “You can tell he’s more comfortable.”
Uiagalelei told reporters in Clemson last week, “I think compared to last year, I think I’m a lot further ahead — mentally, physically.” He spoke of “read-wise and just the feel of the game.” He dug out the now-old line about the game starting to “slow down a little bit.”
He will serve as the quarterback question of the game, while Wake Forest brings its own quarterback story with Sam Hartman, the one with the 4,228 passing yards and 39 touchdowns last season, back for a third game since he left the team in midsummer to deal with a health issue. The last time Wake Forest beat Clemson, a 12-7 non-thriller on a Thursday in 2008, it proved so intolerable that by the following Monday, coach Tommy Bowden had stepped down. Up stepped a long-shot interim, Swinney, who has steered the thing to such heights that if a 13-game winning streak against Wake Forest happens to end on Saturday, Clemson might not be so quiet anymore.