Clemson is still waiting on D.J. Uiagalelei to make the leap

DJ Uiagalelei

DJ Uiagalelei
Image: Getty Images

There’s generally a better sense of Clemson by this point in the season. Dabo Swinney isn’t afraid of a tough non-conference game, and it just so happens that the Tigers’ big non-ACC game at Notre Dame takes place in early November this year. Obviously, that would’ve been a better resume builder before the Irish dropped out of the top 25, but that’s beside the point.

The point is the Tigers haven’t played anyone this season, with lopsided wins over Georgia Tech, Furman, and Louisiana Tech. If the Yellow Jackets weren’t in such disrepair, we could glean more information from the only game against a power five opponent. That’s not the case as the Jackets were outscored in the Clemson and Ole Miss games by a total of 83-10.

So it’s fair to say Clemson hasn’t played anyone, and you could even add that those wins, as imbalanced as the final score appeared, weren’t particularly convincing given the opponent and the expectation of Clemson football. This week the Tigers visit defending ACC champion, No. 21 Wake Forest (I know, it was as weird for me to type as it was for you to read), and we’ll actually get to see if Swinney’s team is deserving of its top five ranking.

It’s not an issue of talent as much as it is who’s getting the talent the ball. After a challenging first year under center in 2021 per any school’s standards, starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei entered this season as the starter with the caveat that he may be pushed by Cade Klubnik, a five-star freshman who was the No. 1 QB in his class and went undefeated as a starter in the most competitive division of Texas high school football.

Whether it’s just a slow start, or some conspiracy to keep the fans from calling for Klubnik, the Tigers have only earned the super frosh five series. After one possession in each of the Georgia Tech and Furman contests, it looked like Klubnik would have garbage time to himself with Clemson up 34-6 late third quarter against Louisiana Tech.

After a three and out, a failed four-play drive, and two Bulldog scores, Uiagalelei had to be reinserted because the lead was cut to 34-20, and Swinney got nervous. If you’re saying, “Well, didn’t D.J. get them the lead in the first place?” It was 13-6 at the break, and Tech opened up the second half by throwing picks on its first two drives that led to Tiger touchdowns, one of which came on a single Will Shipley 32-yard run.

The longest play from scrimmage this year for the Tigers is a 41-yard pass. That Shipley score is the longest run. For comparison’s sake, the Demon Deacons have four guys with plays that length or longer, including a 68-yard completion, and eight guys with gains of 20 or more compared to Clemson’s six. Granted Wake has been playing subpar opponents as well, and needed a stop on a two-point conversion to beat Liberty last week, but it can still move the ball.

The Demon Deacons played well enough to get their backup some work. Mitch Griffis has 14 more attempts and 222 more yards than Klubnik. Clemson is giving up more yards per game passing (244.7) than they’re throwing for (243). Wake actually enters this matchup with the higher average offensive output (434 yards per game to 425).

Demon Deacon coach Dave Clawson and quarterback Sam Hartman stole the ACC last season, they’re already in sync, and will put up enough points to force Clemson to throw. Longtime Tiger defensive coordinator Brent Venables is now coaching Oklahoma. Furman completed passes and sustained drives with well-designed screenplays, and ended up winning the time of possession battle by 10 minutes in their visit to Memorial Stadium.

A season ago, the Tigers beat the Deacs, 48-27, in Death Valley amid a six-game win streak to finish the season 10-3 after starting it 4-3. That means Uiagalelei has the team riding a nine-game win streak overall. In those wins, he’s 156 for 263 for 1,806 yards, 10 TD passes, and six picks. That’s 200 yards a game, with a 59 percent completion rate. Only once in that span did he run for more than 36 yards — he had 62 on the ground against La. Tech — and in no games did he break 300 yards in the air. And these are wins we’re talking about.

The Tigers didn’t light up the early season cupcakes in a way that convinces you Uiagalelei has turned the corner, and they failed to get plan B substantial reps. Going 3-0 is the goal for most programs — it wasn’t for Clemson.

This is a bigger game than you’d think to start Saturday, and I know how much that extra hour of tailgating helps on the East Coast. Winston-Salem should have good weather and a better crowd. Who knows about their defense, but who cares.

And now a word on Tennessee-Florida

The last time College Gameday came to Knoxville was 2016, and it also was the last time these two rivals met as ranked opponents. The14th-ranked Vols ended up beating the No. 19 Gators, 38-28, on their way to a 9-4 record, finishing 22nd in the AP Poll. That also was the last time UT finished the season in the top 25.

The meat of the SEC schedule is coming up after Saturday, with LSU, No. 8 Kentucky, No. 2 Alabama, and No. 1 Georgia slated for four of the next five weeks. Good luck to head coach Josh Heupel and crew.

Hendon Hooker is a dynamic QB in that offense, and if they play the way they’ve shown they can, this should be a Vols victory. It seems like a decade ago that Gator QB Anthony Richardson was leading Florida over No. 7 Utah in the season-opener, but it was still only September. He has yet to throw for a score this season and has four interceptions over the past two games.

The current Tennessee fan would see that and say, “Yup, he’s due, and we’re fucked.” Calm down. Remember your breathing techniques. You got this. ESPN is here. Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson, and CBS are here. It’s your special day. What could go wrong? It’s only Florida. 

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