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College Football

Clemson Couldn’t Have Played Any Worse If They Tried

Head Coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers walks arm in arm with his players before a football game against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, North Carolina on Sep 4, 2023.
David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The return of the college football season has been eventful, full of fireworks, upsets, and the magic of collegiate incompetence. So it was fitting that the weekend ended with a big whimper, or, depending on how much you hate Dabo Swinney, a big party.

On Monday night the ninth-ranked Clemson Tigers faced off against the unranked Duke Blue Devils, helmed by second-year coach Mike Elko. This year is an important one for Clemson. Since the departure of Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers have been marred by bad quarterback play and tepid offenses, which has increased suspicions that Swinney may not be the great ball coach he appeared to be when he had Lawrence and Deshaun Watson around. In a last-ditch effort to trick everyone into thinking the emperor still has his clothes on, Swinney poached OC Garrett Riley from TCU, who went on a run to the national championship game last season. Swinney also traded in last year's starter at quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, for Cade Klubnik. 

Needless to say, there are a lot of kinks to work out. Despite being 13-point underdogs, Duke beat Clemson handily, 28-7. While looking at that score you might think the Blue Devils gave Clemson a drubbing, but the truth is even worse for the Tigers. Clemson out-gained Duke, got 12 more first downs than Duke, and had a higher time of possession, but they lost the red-zone battle and turned the ball over three times. The Tigers fumbled twice, threw a game-killing interception in the final minutes, and even missed two field goals—one was blocked and one sailed wide right—for good measure. They had first-and-goal at the one-yard line twice, and failed to score both times.

It was a completely listless performance by Clemson, who looked like they were actively trying to play their way out of the game. Even during the mediocre years, Clemson teams still played with energy and spirit, none of which were on display last night. Clemson looked like a team no longer under the spell of Dabo’s huckster Christian hypnosis. They played bored, inattentive, and sloppy; if it weren’t for a timely punt-return fumble, they might not have scored at all.

This lackluster display was especially glaring when juxtaposed against Elko’s Duke team, who was buzzing with energy and fight, if a bit undisciplined and reckless. Their defense caused Clemson problems all night, and even as they bent, they wouldn’t break. Their quarterback, Riley Leonard, was a steady presence, methodically cutting down the Tigers' defense. When the game ended, the Duke fans stormed the field, and needless to say, the vibes were great:

Mondy night was a great time to be a Dabo hater. Everyone who watched the game got to spend a few hours staring at Dabo's dumb, Gomer Pyle-ass face just looking confused and frustrated on the sideline. At the postgame press conference, Swinney called this game the strangest loss he's ever experienced. "Never been apart of a game like that in all my years of football," he said. His attempts to cover over this embarrassment with more of his good ol' boy religious positivity made his failure all the sweeter.

Week 1 is always a little bit screwy, so who can say if Clemson is really this bad or if Duke is really this good, but what is apparent is that Duke isn’t a cupcake this year and Clemson will be going through a lot of growing pains. The best-case scenario for them is that they bounce back and run the table from here on out; the best-case scenario for the rest of us that this game is an omen for what's to come, and we get to watch Swinney's reputation sink even further.

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