Clemson Tigers
D.J. Uiagalelei and the Tigers have not played like national championship contenders in 2021, but that doesn’t mean they are out of the ACC championship race. (image from Adam Hagy/USA TODAY Sports)

After All They’ve Been Through, the Clemson Tigers Can Still Win the ACC

The Clemson Tigers went into the 2021 college football season as one of the favorites to not just make the College Football Playoff, but to win the national championship. Instead of being a part of college football royalty, the Tigers sit at 5-3, unranked, and clawing their way back into the fight for the ACC crown. It will be a tough task, however, thanks to an overtime loss to NC State and Wake Forest being 8-0 and the 10th ranked team in the nation. There are three scenarios in which Clemson can win their division and doing so will result in a seventh consecutive appearance in the ACC championship game. Can Clemson pull it off? Why are they even in this situation? What has gone wrong for them this year?

The Current ACC Standings

Atlantic Division TeamConf. Rec.Ovr. Rec.Home Rec.Away Rec.Rec. vs. RankedConf./ Ovr. Point Diff.
#10 Wake Forest5-08-05-03-00-0+85/+156
NC State3-16-25-01-21-0+46/+122
Clemson4-25-34-01-20-2+8/+48
Louisville2-34-43-11-20-1+3/+18
Florida State2-33-52-31-20-1-26/+24
Syracuse2-35-43-32-10-1+11/+62
Boston College0-44-42-12-30-2-61/+39
Coastal Division TeamConf. Rec.Ovr. Rec.Home Rec.Away Rec.Rec. vs. RankedConf./ Ovr. Point Diff.
Pittsburgh3-16-23-23-00-0+58/+176
Virginia4-26-34-12-20-2+19/+73
North Carolina3-34-44-10-20-2+14/+46
Virginia Tech2-24-43-31-11-1-10/+13
Miami2-24-43-21-12-1even/+19
Georgia Tech2-43-51-31-21-1-27/even
Duke0-43-53-10-40-1-121/-70

Remaining Schedules

Clemson Tigers
  • 11/6: @ Louisville
  • 11/13: vs. Connecticut
  • 11/20: vs. Wake Forest
  • 11/27: @ South Carolina
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
  • 11/6: @ North Carolina
  • 11/13: vs. NC State
  • 11/20: @ Clemson
  • 11/27: @ Boston College
NC State Wolfpack
  • 11/6: @ Florida State
  • 11/13: @ Wake Forest
  • 11/20: vs. Syracuse
  • 11/26: vs. North Carolina

Scenarios for Clemson to Win the ACC

The Atlantic has, by far, been then better division in the ACC, as it tends to be. If Clemson does come out of the Atlantic, they won’t have to play any team that’s better than Wake Forest. Fortunately, the Tigers get to play the Demon Deacons down the stretch (and at home) in what could be a pivotal factor in the fight for the Atlantic title.

There are three scenarios in which Clemson could make it to the ACC championship game. Of course, if they win that, you could see the Clemson Tigers back in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

Scenario 1
  • Clemson wins both ACC games
  • NC State beats Wake Forest but loses two other games

This is the simplest way for Clemson to win the division. NC State has beaten Clemson, but a 31-30 loss to Miami puts them technically 1.5 games up on the Tigers at the moment. Wake Forest losing to both Clemson and NC State would give them two losses, which would tie with Clemson atop the division if NC State lost two out of their other three. NC State’s best chances to lose would be against Syracuse and UNC. The Orange are the only team in the ACC besides Wake Forest and Pittsburgh that owns a winning record on the road, and anything can happen in rivalry games. Losing two would have NC State at three losses, and Clemson would then own the head-to-head over Wake Forest.

Scenario 2
  • Clemson wins both ACC games
  • Wake Forest beats NC State but loses another game
  • NC State loses another game

Wake Forest can beat NC State, as long as they lose to either UNC or Boston College. Both games will be on the road. Another thing to remember is that Clemson only has two remaining ACC games. The first will be this weekend at Louisville, which won’t be easy. The second, obviously, comes against Wake Forest. The Tigers play the 1-8 UConn Huskies and 4-4 South Carolina Gamecocks, too.

Scenario 3
  • Clemson wins both ACC games
  • Wake Forest beats NC State but loses another game
  • NC wins all other games

Here’s where things can get bonkers. This is where all three teams could end 6-2 in division play, and they would hold a three-way tie in the head-to-head category. This would have us take a trip to the ACC’s 2021 football tiebreaker policy, but we’ll have to wait and see how the final four weeks play out to go through that complex scenario.

Clemson Tigers 2021 Stories and Stats

Just in case you were living under a rock this college football season, the Clemson Tigers have not been the Clemson Tigers we have been accustomed to recently. The largest problem for the Tigers has been the injury bug. Ten players suffered season-ending injuries, while over 20 have missed two or more games this year. Still, they’ve remained healthy at the most important position on the field, quarterback.

D.J. Uiagalelei was the #1 pocket passer in the 2020 ESPN 300, and the 43rd ranked recruit overall. As a true freshman last year, he started two games in place of Trevor Lawrence, who was the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Lawrence was forced to miss two games because of a positive COVID test. In those two starts, he played extremely well, completing 59 of 85 passes and throwing for 781 yards, 4 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. In six more starts this year, he only has 510 more passing yards. His yards per game, completion percentage, QBR are down drastically from last year, while his interceptions and sacks taken are way up. Against #23 Pittsburgh on October 23, Uiagalelei was benched in the second half for fellow sophomore Taisun Phommachanh. He didn’t great either, but everyone is wondering what in the world happened in just one year to D.J. Uiagalelei. The only thing I can think of is that he has had to run around more than he has wanted to this season. He moves well, but we have to remember he is a pocket passer, and his offensive line has not given him many clean pockets. He’s averaging almost 10 carries per game in 2021, which I think is messing with his rhythm and poise when he does get time in the pocket.

The Clemson Tigers are ranked 59th in the country with a +1-turnover margin. Normally, you would be able to find the Tigers in the top 20 or 15, because they take such good care of the football on offense while their defense wreaks havoc. Weirdly enough, the Clemson offense has turned the ball over 11 times this year, which puts them at the same level as teams like Troy, ULM, and Ohio. Their defense has remained elite, though. Here are some offensive and defensive stats that are intriguing for Clemson in 2021:

StatAmountNational RankTied with
Yards Allowed per Game323.4t-23UAB
Opponent TDs14t-4Cincinnati
Opponent Offensive TDs11t-2Toledo, Penn St
Yards Allowed per Play4.557none
Yards Gained per Game328.2114none
Passing Yards per Game177.8110none
3rd Down Conversion Percentage36.7%91none

As you can see, it’s a tale of two sides of the ball with the 2021 Clemson Tigers. The offense has been dreadful and currently has thrown more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6). They can’t get a first down when they have to, and that includes fourth down, as they are just 1/5 on such attempts. They also can’t put up points. In fact, entering last Saturday’s game versus Florida State, the Tigers were one of two Power 5 schools to not score more than 21 points against an FBS opponent on the season. That other team? How about the 0-8 Arizona Wildcats? Needless to say, that is not the type of company Dabo Swinney wants his team to be in.

The kicking game for Clemson has even been trending downwards. B.T. Potter is usually very reliable for the Tigers, yet in last week’s game, he missed three field goal attempts (from 49, 37, and 30 yards out). He now is kicking just 66.7% for the year.

The Tigers will absolutely take being 5-3 at this point of their season. Their average margin of victory against FBS teams is just 6.2 points, and if you take away their 49-3 win over South Carolina State, they have a -2-point differential in 2021. A 5-3 record is much better than 4-4, 3-5, 2-6, and 1-7. It’s scary to think that this Clemson team probably could, and probably should, have a worse record. If the ACC was any deeper, they’d be sub .500.

Outro

It’s shaping up to be an interesting finish in the ACC, and as much as I love an underdog story, something tells me the better team will end up figuring it out. Sure, Wake Forest is ranked in the top-10 and NC State’s defense is awesome, but Clemson having this nightmare of a season and still having a good chance at achieving some modicum of success this year has me worried that they’ll pull it off. I will be actively rooting for the Demon Deacons because they’ve won the conference just twice since the conference was created in 1953. It’s way more fun to see different teams have success and considering the Tigers have won it six years in a row, I would love for the Demon Deacons to end it. Still, Clemson has a chance, and it would be impressive if they won the ACC after all they have gone through this year.

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