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Notre Dame’s Opponents: No. 4 Clemson needs more of everything from QB DJ Uiagalelei, except weight

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 Cheez-It Bowl - Clemson v Iowa State

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: Clemson Tigers quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) throws a pass during the Cheez-It Bowl game between the Clemson Tigers and the Iowa State Cyclones on December 29, 2021 at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There may be no problem in college football more a first-world problem than Clemson seeming on the precipice of doom after winning only 10 games in 2021 and adding a five-star quarterback this offseason to back up its current five-star quarterback. Winning 10 games, including its bowl game, should hardly portend disaster, and continuing to recruit with such success forecasts the exact opposite of trouble.

But losing both coordinators to head coaching gigs this winter further complicates the Tigers’ worries. Head coach Dabo Swinney promoted from within in both instances, doubling down on the culture inside the program. That has been met with some skepticism externally, but frankly, if Swinney had sought hires from elsewhere, the external skepticism would have questioned if new fits could mesh with the program’s culture. Either way, new coordinators lead to some wonder until they have proven themselves.

They will have some time to prove themselves, opening this season with a three-game stretch that should assuredly leave Clemson 3-0 rather than facing the eventual national champion in the opener a la Georgia a year ago. (No offense to Georgia Tech.)

Even that loss underscored the luxurious nature of the Tigers’ problems. Georgia pasted every other team it beat. Alabama aside, the Dawgs’ closest victory was a casual 23-point walloping of Michigan in the Playoff semifinal, a score that could have been much worse if Georgia had wanted it to be. Yet Clemson lost to the eventual national champions 10-3, the game’s only touchdown coming via Georgia’s defense.

Clemson’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.

After that loss to the Dawgs to open the season, the Tigers’ title hopes remained very much alive. Losing to North Carolina State in overtime later in September doomed those, though Clemson’s two losses had now come via a total of 13 points. Its ACC hopes were dashed with a 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh, thus ending a six-year ACC title run coinciding with Clemson’s six-year run of Playoff appearances.

The Tigers closed the season on a six-game winning streak. More pertinent to expectations, they went 5-1 against the spread in that stretch, their offense slowly finding some form of productivity. The one gambling loss? Beating Connecticut by a mere 37 points when favored by 41.

Sometimes a lost player is more a loss in potential production. Back in 2018, receiver Justyn Ross took college football by storm. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he caught 112 passes for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns. Then injuries cost his collegiate career its upside, sidelining Ross all of 2020 and keeping him to 10 games in 2021, catching 46 passes for 514 yards and three touchdowns.

Ross could have been one of the all-time greats, and the fact that he wasn’t is neither his fault nor Uiagalelei’s.

Clemson also lost sixth-year linebacker James Skalski, whose name should ring plenty familiar to Irish fans.

Clemson ranks No. 36 below at 71 percent returning production.

Junior quarterback DJ Uiagalelei garnered headlines at ACC media days when he said he is down 26 pounds since the Cheez-It Bowl, and not only because many a Cheez-It joke could be easily made. Uiagalelei’s size is somewhat to his advantage, making him harder to take down in the backfield, but those extra 20-plus pounds affected him in every way, from scrambling to his typical passing footwork. Even a 6-foot-4 quarterback should not be cresting 260 pounds.

In order for Clemson to return to its place in the Playoff, it will need Uiagalelei to improve in every way, and if that includes on the scale, so be it. He threw nine touchdowns last season with 10 interceptions; no, that is not a typo, he threw more picks than scores. He completed only 55.6 percent of his passes. In a 13-game season, he threw for just 2,246 yards. Not to be too critical of a college sophomore, but Uiagalelei disappointed in just about every way in 2021.

Yet the Tigers know what he is capable of. So do Notre Dame fans. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards in Clemson’s trip to South Bend in 2020 while Trevor Lawrence was sidelined by health and safety protocols. Uiagalelei was an aggresively highly-sought recruit for many reasons. That did not all disappear in 2021.

Even if it did, Clemson now has more of a contingency plan than it did a year ago. Five-star freshman Cade Klubnik was rated as a recruit just a touch behind the likes of Lawrence, suggesting he may be ready to play as a freshman, though Swinney insists Uiagalelei will start the season as QB1. If his play forces that to change, Swinney now has an option.

Only quarterback may hold back the Tigers offense. As much as it struggled last year — Clemson averaged at least 43.5 points in all of Lawrence’s seasons, but that fell to 26.3 points per game in 2021 — it still has plenty of talent. Sophomore running back Will Shipley, a longtime recruiting target for the Irish, will lead the way after rushing for 738 yards in 10 games with 11 touchdowns in his debut campaign.

He will be supplemented on the edges by receivers Joseph Ngata and Beaux Collins, more depth now at the receiver position after injuries beset the group a season ago, along with tight end Davis Allen. And Shipley will run behind a line that returns 75 starts this season, up from 40 in 2021 even though injuries bothered four linemen.

If that all sounds overly optimistic for an offense that could not average four touchdowns per game despite enjoying many of these same pieces, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, as it always does. Clemson was not genuinely as bad as that 26.3 points per game showing, but it was nowhere near the peak of Lawrence’s time, averaging 44.3 points in his freshman season of 2018, a title-winning team.

The Tigers may have the best defensive line in the country. And that may be underselling it.

Four possible All-Americans start along the line, led by defensive end Xavier Thomas — sidelined for a few weeks with an injury — and defensive tackle Bryan Bresee. Those two alone would warrant defensive line praise, but then add in tackle Tyler Davis and linebacker/defensive end Myles Murphy, and this unit could win games all on its own.

Oh, and there are backups. Swinney went out on a limb this offseason of suggesting Clemson may send seven defensive linemen into the NFL draft in 2023, but it was not a thin limb. This unit may be that good.

In front of a younger linebacker corps — though a faster one than the years led by Skalski, with Trenton Simpson now taking the helm — and an inexperienced secondary, that defensive line will cover up a lot of mistakes as it forces opposing quarterbacks into many of their own.

The gambling odds do not agree with any narrative that Clemson’s glory days are behind it. PointsBet places the wins total Over/Under at 10.5, setting the stage for the Tigers to win 10-plus games for a 12th year in a row, and they are the odds-on favorite to win the ACC.

Making the Playoff will require a bit more than that, but even in that respect, Clemson is nearly as likely as not to reach a semifinal, again going by odds (+150).

The trick for the Tigers will be a lengthy stretch of facing difficult quarterbacks. Devin Leary (North Carolina State), Phil Jurkovec (Boston College), Malik Cunningham (Louisville) and Tyler Van Dyke (Miami) all await Clemson between its fifth and 11th games, not to mention the Irish.

The Tigers are currently favored by 3.5 points for that early November trip to South Bend, but that line likely will shrink a bit before then.

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