Clemson is one win away from its third consecutive trip to the CFB Playoff, but coach Dabo Swinney’s team has a major hurdle to clear up next, as the Tigers travel to Charlotte on Saturday night to take on Miami in the ACC Championship. While this game may have lost a bit of its luster when the Hurricanes lost at Pitt last Friday, the stakes are still high for both teams. With a win, Clemson will clinch its third ACC title in a row and should be the No. 1 overall seed in the CFB Playoff. Despite last Friday’s loss, Miami should make the CFB Playoff with a win over Clemson. And here’s an interesting scenario: If Miami wins, Clemson could still get in as a two-loss team.
While Clemson has been a frequent visitor to the ACC Championship Game in recent years, this is Miami’s first visit to the conference title game since joining the league in 2004. A big reason for the first trip to ACC Championship was the hire of Mark Richt as the program’s head coach. Richt went 145-51 at Georgia before he was dismissed after the 2015 season. He returned to his alma mater in 2016 and guided the Hurricanes to a 9-4 record last year. But in 2017, Miami took a big step forward. This program went 10-1 overall and 7-1 in league play, picking up key wins against Florida State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame along the way.
Double-digit win seasons, ACC titles and playoff berths are becoming the norm at Clemson under Swinney. The Tigers are 39-3 over the last three years and have an excellent shot to repeat as college football’s national champions. Clemson had to replace a handful of key players – including quarterback Deshaun Watson – from last year’s 14-win team. However, the Tigers haven’t missed a beat. New quarterback Kelly Bryant has been solid, the rushing attack is averaging over 200 yards per game, and defense is again among the best in the nation. Strength of schedule is also on Clemson’s side, as this team has defeated seven programs with a winning mark in 2017.
Miami holds a 6-4 series edge over Clemson. However, the Tigers won 58-0 at Miami in 2015. These two teams have met only once since 2011.
Clemson vs. Miami (Charlotte – ACC Championship)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Miami’s Offense
Last week’s performance on offense against Pitt was the worst of the year for Miami. The Hurricanes posted only 14 points, generated 232 yards (3.9 per play, converted 4 of 15 third-down attempts and was limited to just 45 rushing yards. Additionally, quarterback Malik Rosier was pulled in the fourth quarter for a series due to ineffectiveness, with Evan Shirreffs filling in for a couple of snaps.
Getting the offense back on track versus Clemson won’t be an easy assignment for Richt. Injuries have already knocked out two key players in the passing game, as tight end Christopher Herndon is out due to a knee injury suffered versus Pitt, and receiver Ahmmon Richards suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice on Wednesday. As if those two injuries weren’t enough to overcome, Miami was already dealing with the absence of standout running back Mark Walton due to an injury suffered against Florida State in early October.
In order for Miami’s offense to get back on track, it starts with Rosier under center. The junior has passed for 25 touchdowns and 2,807 yards this season and rushed for 408 yards and five scores. Rosier needs a big rebound in order for the Hurricanes to win, along with more production out of running back Travis Homer (861 yards and seven touchdowns).
Of course, getting back on track against Clemson’s defense is easier said than done. The Tigers own one of college football’s top defenses, featuring arguably the top line in the nation. Coordinator Brent Venables’ group is allowing only 13.6 points a game and is limiting opposing offenses to 4.3 yards a play. This group is tough against the run (113.6 ypg allowed) and has generated 40 sacks.
Winning the battle up front is going to be key for Miami. If the Hurricanes can block the front four of Clemson’s defense, that will give Rosier time to take a few shots downfield, as well as utilize his legs on designed runs. But if the Tigers win the battle up front, Miami’s offense is going to have an output similar to the one in the Steel City last week.
2. Clemson’s Ground Attack
For the most part, Clemson’s 2017 offense hasn’t missed a beat from its lethal 2016 version. The Tigers are averaging 6.1 yards per play this season and rank second in the ACC by recording 35.2 points a contest.
While quarterback Deshaun Watson left big shoes to fill, junior Kelly Bryant has been a solid addition to the lineup. Bryant is completing 66.4 percent of his throws for 2,426 yards and 12 touchdowns to just six picks. The junior is also second on the team with 639 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Bryant leads the team in carries with 164, but the real go-to back on the ground is an emerging star in freshman Travis Etienne. On just 97 carries, Etienne has rushed for 720 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging a whopping 7.4 yards per touch. He’s yet to eclipse more than 15 carries in a game, but Clemson’s backfield has a wealth of options to spread the opportunities. Tavien Feaster has rushed for 637 yards, Adam Choice has chipped in 291 and C.J. Fuller has 212 yards on 47 carries.
With Bryant at the controls, Clemson’s offense has shifted more to lean on its rushing attack. Can Miami win the battle up front on Saturday night? The Hurricanes are loaded with speed and athleticism through its front seven but rank sixth in the ACC against the run. This unit is giving up 152.4 yards a game on the ground but its last five opponents have not managed more than 3.8 yards per carry (on average).
Clemson’s passing attack isn’t hurting for options, but Miami needs to stop the run and force Swinney’s offense to win this one on the right arm of Bryant.
How many times will the turnover chain make an appearance for Miami? The Hurricanes have the best turnover margin (plus-17) in the ACC. Coach Mark Richt’s team has generated 29 takeaways, which ranks third nationally among FBS programs this season. On the other sideline, Clemson is tied for sixth in the ACC with a plus-three margin. The Tigers have generated only 16 takeaways and have lost just 13 turnovers through 12 games.
Why are turnovers critical in Saturday night’s game? It’s tough to see a path to victory for Miami without a couple of Clemson mistakes. The Tigers have an edge on defense, feature more playmakers on offense, and quarterback Kelly Bryant has been steady all season.
Simply, if Miami is going to win on Saturday night, this team needs a plus-three margin in the turnover column.
Clemson is 60 minutes away from its third consecutive trip to the CFB Playoff. The Tigers are deadly on offense once again, and the defense is another shut-down group behind coordinator Brent Venables. Miami is clearly on the rise with Mark Richt leading the way and might be a year ahead of schedule in its push for a playoff spot. While the Hurricanes are having a great season, Clemson is the better team and should prove it with a victory on Saturday night. Look for the Tigers to be too tough on defense, while the offense does enough in the second half to pull away for a two-touchdown win.