Mandel’s Mailbag: Can Clemson contend again? Can LSU respond to opening loss?

Welcome to what is always one of my favorite mailbags of the year. The post-Week 1 edition, a.k.a. FIRE EVERYONE!

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

At the end of the first half of Clemson–Duke, Dabo said offensive coordinator Garrett Riley is there to run the “Clemson offense.” The 2023 Riley-led offense looked much like the 2022 Clemson offense. With Swinney’s reticence toward the transfer portal and the inability to adapt the offense, is he capable of returning Clemson to national champion status? Or has the window closed? — Mike C.

Clemson’s loss to Duke, coupled with two consecutive missed College Football Playoffs, sort of reminds me of Texas after the end of its 2005-09 run. Will we see Swinney run out of town a la Mack Brown and a decade of mediocrity, or will the Tigers turn this around? — Joel, Ponca City, Okla.

I’m not ready to entertain anything as drastic as Joel is suggesting, but I feel confident in saying that Clemson’s reign as a national championship contender is over.

Swinney had an amazing run from 2015-20, at a program that hadn’t performed anywhere close to that level in more than 30 years. Clemson produced an absurd amount of high-level NFL players, most of them (not Trevor Lawrence) were hardly no-brainer recruits coming out of high school. The coaches evaluated well, they developed well, and they created a fun and unique culture that allowed them to keep a lot of their best players for more than three years.

But to plagiarize one of my own tweets from Monday night, Swinney has become the football version of Blackberry’s CEO when the iPhone came out. “Why would anyone want a phone without a keyboard?” He had so much success doing things his way that he either failed or refused to recognize how drastically the sport was changing around him and the extent to which his competitors were adapting. It’s admirable that he has his principles, but he operates in a highly competitive profession. Every other major program is using the portal every year to plug holes and/or upgrade its roster. Whereas Dabo insists, “My transfer portal is right there in that locker room.”

That may have worked during those years when Clemson seemingly was hitting on almost every player it signed. He built a roster as strong as Alabama’s entirely via his own recruiting. But that’s clearly not the case anymore. Not a single one of Clemson’s highly ranked receivers has panned out, hence, they couldn’t get open against Duke. The offensive line has been average at best for several years. We even saw some holes in the Tigers’ defense Monday night.

The thing is, that doesn’t have to be fatal. There’s this unlimited pool of free agents he could be tapping into at any time but doesn’t. Nick Saban has had some bad luck with receiver recruits lately, so what did he do? Brought in Jameson Williams (Ohio State) and Jermaine Burton (Georgia). Kirby Smart knew his receivers needed an upgrade this year, so he got Dominic Lovett (Missouri) and RaRa Thomas (Mississippi State).

Clemson, on the other hand, decided to ride with what it had, and what it has looks underwhelming.

As for coordinators and scheme, sure, there are questions. DJ Uiagalelei looked a lot better in his Oregon State debut than Cade Klubnik did Monday. But the “Clemson offense” produced at a high level for six years, when it had the likes of Deshaun Watson, Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Mike Williams and Tee Higgins playing in it. And Riley looked like a genius at TCU last year when he had Max Duggan, Quentin Johnston, Kendre Miller and Derrius Davis, who will be suiting up for NFL teams Sunday. There’s only so much a play-caller can do with the hand he’s dealt.

Brian Kelly, Jayden Daniels and the LSU Tigers opened their season with a loss to Florida State on Sunday. (Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

How worried do LSU fans need to be? It seemed like classic Brian Kelly — not making adjustments, questionable fourth-down play calls and having no answer for Jordan Travis. — Jonathan M.

There’s certainly cause for concern but not to the same extent as Clemson because most of LSU’s issues seem fixable.

First: Where was Harold Perkins? Kelly and defensive coordinator Matt House decided this offseason to move one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the country as a freshman to a more traditional middle linebacker role. I’m sure they had their reasons. But Perkins had almost no impact Sunday night. Per PFF, last season Perkins rushed the passer on 55.6 percent of opponent drop-backs. On Sunday: just seven times out of 58 snaps. Asked about Perkins, Kelly said, “He’s playing a position for the first time, so there’s a learning curve there.”

So, he may want to rethink that one.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ run game was non-existent against FSU. It may be that the Noles’ defense is that good because LSU has a veteran line that mostly played well last season. But also, the Tigers were without three running backs, John Emery, Armoni Goodwin and Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs, who all may have made a difference. Just as star defensive tackle Maason Smith might have if he wasn’t under NCAA suspension.

The one area that might not be easily fixable is cornerback. After losing its top three corners from last year, LSU started transfers Duce Chestnut (Syracuse) and Zy Alexander (Southeastern Louisiana). It did not go well. You can tell House was trying to compensate; LSU played man coverage on just 12 percent of snaps, down from 25 percent last year. Florida State’s wide receivers Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman still teed off. Kelly has to hope those defensive backs just had a bad night, or else they’re going to be in trouble down the line.

I’m not counting out LSU. The Tigers will be more talented than at least nine of the final 11 teams they face. (The exceptions: Alabama and possibly Texas A&M). I could see them having a season like Oregon last year when it got humiliated by Georgia in Week 1, turned around and rolled off eight straight wins and finished 10-3 with a bowl win. But it will be a disappointment if the Tigers lose three regular-season games.

Colorado’s performance was impressive, but it was one game against a team that isn’t close to what it was last year. Doesn’t it seem like people are overreacting to this with all the Heisman talk and how good Colorado is? — Taylor M., Dallas

Whatever happens from here, a program that went 1-11 last year beat a program that appeared in the national championship game, the coach’s son broke the school passing record in his very first start and a guy excelled at both receiver and cornerback while playing 129 snaps. The Buffs turn around and go 4-8, and it wouldn’t make what happened Saturday any less remarkable.

Can you settle an argument for me? A friend says if Colorado keeps winning, other places will want to do exactly what Deion Sanders did and flip the roster quickly. I maintain that it’s a program-specific thing: that because of Deion’s outsized personality and the conference championships he won at his last stop, he has the credibility to pull that off, but no one else will. Who’s right? — Michael, Charlotte

You’re both right.

Your friend is correct that if Colorado proves successful, yes, the massive roster reset for which Sanders got so much criticism from within his profession inevitably will become the norm for new coaches taking over bad programs. It flew under the radar this weekend, but Texas State, the 27.5-point underdog that shocked Baylor, brought in 51 new players this offseason, second only to Colorado. And all coaches are copycats, so you can see where this is headed.

But you are also correct: There’s only one Sanders. There’s only one coach in football who could convince the No. 1 recruit in the country, Travis Hunter, to sign with an HBCU program and follow him to one of the worst Power 5 programs in the country. He’s the only coach who could attract a big-time QB who happens to be his son. He’s the only coach who was coaching freshman running back Dylan Edwards back in youth football.

Most of all, he’s the only coach who’s an NFL Hall of Famer with such a magnetic personality that players want to come play for him, regardless of the program. Much like Lincoln Riley and Caleb Williams.

For a more realistic glimpse into what turning over a depleted roster looks like, keep an eye on Arizona State’s Kenny Dillingham this year. The first-time head coach brought in 43 new players, including only 15 high school recruits. But none of those transfers are Shadeur Sanders or Hunter. A more modest expectation for the Sun Devils in Year 1 is just to get to six wins. (ASU self-imposed a bowl ban.) And that’s OK. Look at what Mike Norvell has pulled off at Florida State. There is still such a thing as a slow-burn rebuild. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.

How worried should Duke fans be that Mike Elko will be making a Steve Spurrier-esque move to a school like Florida after this season? It seems like he will be coveted by most major programs with openings. — David, Lodi, California

It stinks that you even have to think about this in the midst of enjoying such a landmark victory, but, you’re not wrong. Duke fans lucked out with David Cutcliffe that he was at a later stage in his career when the motivation to move back up the ladder wasn’t particularly strong. Tennessee, where he spent nearly 20 years as an assistant, came open roughly 18 times during his tenure in Durham, and he turned it down every time.

But Elko is a 46-year-old coach who schools are going to be all over if he has another nine-win (or better) season at Duke. And if it’s a major SEC program like Florida (I’m not sure if you brought up UF because that’s where Spurrier went or because it might actually open sooner than expected), that’s going to be awfully tempting.

If it comes to that, you’ve just got to hope he’s more of a Chris Petersen, Matt Campbell or Jeff Traylor, content with where he is and not in a particular rush to the top. Or, maybe Duke’s donors can get together and give Elko his own Jimbo Fisher-Mel Tucker deal.

Do you love to win or hate to lose? A friend posed that as a dinner discussion for the table a couple of months back, and for some reason, it was rattling around my brain Sunday night*. I want to see your response, but I’m also curious to see if any fans want to post their own answers in the comments along with their team affiliation**.

*For the record, I love to win.

**The obvious caveat is that losing to some folks hurts worse than losing to others. — Catherine B., Dallas

Anything for you, Catherine.

I’ve wondered this myself sometimes when it comes to fans of teams like Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State where they’re expected to win every single week. In the regular season, against anyone that’s not your rival, are you more excited that you won or relieved that you didn’t lose?

Conversely, it may not seem nearly as fun to root for a team that loses a lot, but doesn’t it make the wins infinitely more enjoyable?

I’ll open the floor.

On The Audible you said that you wished the Big Ten would throw OSU and WSU a bone. I agree, but if they did, why is the Pac-12 breaking up in the first place? USC and UCLA presumably left because they could get more money/better competition elsewhere. But most of the other schools have gotten better or equivalent money to what was offered to the Pac-12. Somebody had to be the team dragging down the value, but it looks like the other conferences don’t agree. — Jacob W.

To clarify, I said the Big 12, not the Big Ten, and in a scenario where one of the two (most likely Oregon State) won the Pac-12 and went to the Playoff.

But as we know, realignment is only tied loosely to on-field performance. It’s about who will pay for what. Neither program is a big draw, although it should be noted that from 2015-21, Wazzu, with Mike Leach as its coach for the first five years, had the fourth-best ratings in the conference. Arizona, which the Big 12 coveted, was second-to-last.

But as now know, the Pac-12 easily could have avoided breaking up. ESPN last year offered the conference $30 million per school, about the same as the Big 12 wound up getting from ESPN and Fox. But at least some of the league’s presidents thought they were worth way more than that, the offer passed, and a better one never came back around. Ironically, ESPN and/or Fox are now on the hook for roughly that much for eight of the 10 schools anyway in other conferences.

I saw lots of people complaining on Twitter/X this weekend about the new first-down clock rule and how it’s wiping out too many plays, but those comments mostly pointed to anecdotal evidence and single-game stats. What’s the truth? It’s only Week 1, but was there actually a significant drop in average plays per game? — Connor from Philly

There were some crazy stats flying around Twitter that weren’t remotely accurate. I don’t have official data, but unofficially, using data from (and limited to only FBS vs. FBS games), the median team plays per game so far is 68.5. For the 2022 season, it was 70.1. So the median team averaged a modest 1.6 fewer plays.

But we don’t have nearly enough data yet to draw any conclusions. For one thing, 34 teams have not yet played an FBS opponent. Also, these early season games include a whole lot of lopsided contests where the winning team gets up big and mostly runs out the clock. It would have had fewer plays regardless of the clock rules.

Let’s check back once most teams get into conference play.

Among realignment, the portal and NIL, CFB is identical to what it would look like if the NFL created ECHL level or Single-A football. Why would anybody watch this dreck? — Don P.

I don’t know, man, but 9.1 million people watched LSU-FSU. If I had to guess, it’s because they found the dreck to be wildly entertaining.

(Top photo of Dabo Swinney: Ken Ruinard / USA Today)

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