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How Georgia's defense suffocated Clemson's generic rushing attack in Week 1 of the 2021 college football season

Sep 4, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney during the first quarter against the Georgia Bulldogs at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Perennial college football powerhouse Clemson looked anything but in Week 1 of the 2021 season. The Tigers were bruised and battered by a phenomenal Georgia defense to open their season in what was the culmination of a worrying trend for the team. 

The six-time defending ACC champions saw their run game output drop significantly over the past season after co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott left to become South Florida's head coach during the 2020 offseason. Since leaving and giving complete control of the offense to Tony Elliott, Clemson has endured its four worst rushing performances since 2015. Overall, 2020 was the program's worst rushing season since 2017. 

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Saturday's shellacking at the hands of the Bulldogs, a woeful 10-3 defeat, came in at fourth place on the list in terms of expected points added (EPA) per play. Georgia allowed -.485 EPA per rush — a lowly Clemson performance topped by only the team's 2020 contests against Boston College, Ohio State and Notre Dame (first game). Even more impressive from Georgia's perspective is that the unit gave up just a 15% success rate on runs. In other words, only 15% of Clemson’s rushing attempts gained positive EPA. That’s the worst the Clemson run game has ever looked since 2015 by 10 percentage points, with the Tigers' 2015 tilt against Boston College (25%) coming in second place.

The run game struggles against Georgia forced Clemson into too many long-yardage situations. The Tigers faced 27 situations where they needed seven or more yards on second and third down. That’s tied for the ninth-most in a game since 2015. The offense actually broke just about even — .002 EPA per play — in those instances, but it was too much to overcome. The offense was good for three points on the night.

Clemson has either chosen or failed to recruit high-level offensive linemen but has gotten away with it for years. The program has produced four offensive linemen who have played in the NFL since the 2017 season (this will change with Jackson Carman in 2021), and none have been world-beaters. Only Jaguars center Tyler Shatley has played any significant snaps. He’s the only one of the four with over 300 snaps between 2017 and 2020, yet he's recorded a middling 61.9 PFF grade.

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