But there is one moment that should be noted when the program turned the corner for good.
Oct. 6, 2012. West End Zone, 10:29 left in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech.
With a crowd of 82,873 in full-throated roar, Spencer Shuey firmly plants Tech B-back Orwin Smith in the end zone for a safety.
It was the moment where Clemson’s defense showed it could carry its share of the load. And the moment where Clemson went from a good program to a great one.
Almost exactly a year later, the Tigers are emerging as a national powerhouse, and while Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense is doing its part, Brent Venables’ defense is an equally big reason why.
It has proven it can pick up the slack when the offense doesn’t fire on all cylinders, like in a 26-14 Thursday night win at N.C. State. And that’s something that just wasn’t possible in the final year of Kevin Steele’s watch, or the first half of 2012.
Consider this: In 2011 and the first half of 2012, Clemson allowed at least 27 points to foes 13 times.
Over the last 10 games, it has happened just three times.
Last week’s 56-7 rout of Wake Forest marked the first time Clemson had held an ACC foe under 10 points since a 23-3 win at Virginia Tech in October 2011.
Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. visit to Syracuse, Clemson is 38th nationally in total defense (allowing 346.5 yards per game) and 25th in scoring defense (allowing 17.3 points per game). Not bad.
When Morris was hired in 2011, the turnaround was almost immediate.
That wasn’t the case with Venables, who inherited far less talent than Morris did.
There were early bumps in the road: Florida State boat-racing Clemson to the tune of 49 points in Tallahassee was ugly, and a so-so Boston College offense scoring 31 points in Chestnut Hill the following week wasn’t much better.
Georgia Tech looked like a similar story: the Yellow Jackets led 31-30 with 13:03 remaining.
But Shuey’s safety – following an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive – seemed to inspire the Tigers’ defense.
And while Tech marched right back down the field, Josh Watson stunted the momentum with a blocked field goal.
With the exception of Mike Glennon strafing the secondary for 493 yards, Venables’ bunch has hardly looked back since.
Shuey has emerged as a tackle machine and a defensive leader, and Stephone Anthony – the guy he replaced – is starting to live up to his five-star billing with improved knowledge of the defensive system.
Defensive end Vic Beasley has found a home as one of the nation’s top pass rushers – he has six sacks, tied for second-best in FBS.
And fellow linemen Watson, Corey Crawford, Grady Jarrett and DeShawn Williams have developed into a quality defensive line, with true freshman Shaq Lawson showing signs of being the next great defensive end in the Tigers’ pass-rush lineage.
While the secondary still shows propensity to give up big plays, the quartet of Bashaud Breeland, Darius Robinson, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters is improved from a year ago, and safeties Travis Blanks and Robert Smith should only get better as their first season as starters wears on.
Their teammates trust them now: following the Wake Forest game, star wideout Sammy Watkins said he didn’t worry about the defense like he did in 2011 or 2012.
That’s a very positive development: while offenses that light up scoreboards are fun, they don’t win championships by themselves.
Think about it: how many titles did Houston win with David Klingler, or Texas Tech with Kliff Kingsbury or the assembly line of quarterbacks who followed him in Mike Leach’s Air Raid system?
There will be a point somewhere down the line where the offense doesn’t click like Morris expects, and the defense is called upon to make a crucial stop or a big turnover to save the season.
Clemson fans should have confidence in that group this fall – and that’s something they just couldn’t say a year ago.