Clemson is just 60 minutes away from a berth in the College Football Playoff, but the Tigers still have a tough matchup ahead on Saturday against Virginia Tech in Orlando for the 2016 ACC Championship. With a win over the Hokies, Clemson will earn its first back-to-back titles since the inception of the conference title game in 2005. This is Virginia Tech’s first trip to the ACC Championship Game since 2011 and the program’s sixth overall appearance in this contest.
The transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente has been a smooth one in Blacksburg. Fuente’s background on offense has provided a much-needed spark for the Virginia Tech attack, and Bud Foster’s decision to remain on staff maintained stability on the defensive side. The nine wins in 2016 are the highest mark for this program since an 11-3 campaign in 2011. Despite losses to Syracuse and Georgia Tech, the Hokies found their way to Orlando after finishing with a 6-2 mark in league play. Fuente guided this team to key road wins over Pitt and North Carolina, while defeating Miami 37-16 in Blacksburg. Fuente isn’t done putting his stamp on the program, and Virginia Tech is only going to get better in the coming seasons under his watch.
On the other sideline, a trip to the ACC Championship was the expectation for Clemson. The Tigers and Florida State were the clear contenders to win the league title in the preseason, with several outlets projecting a repeat out of coach Dabo Swinney’s team. As expected, Clemson’s high-powered offense ranks among the best in the nation. With a strong performance on Saturday night, quarterback Deshaun Watson could book another trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony. The defense suffered a couple of major personnel losses at each level, yet leads the ACC in fewest points allowed per game (17). A loss to Pitt in early November ended Clemson’s hopes of an undefeated season, but this team has dominated its last two opponents – Wake Forest and South Carolina – by a combined score of 91-20.
Clemson holds a 20-12-1 series edge over Virginia Tech. However, this is the first meeting between these two teams since 2012 and the second time the Tigers and Hokies have faced off in the ACC Championship. Clemson won the first matchup, a decisive 38-10 victory in Charlotte in 2011. Virginia Tech’s last win over Clemson took place in 2007.
Clemson vs. Virginia Tech (ACC Championship)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Clemson’s Passing Attack Against Virginia Tech’s Secondary
Quarterback Deshaun Watson set the bar high in his first full season as Clemson’s starter in 2015. It’s easy to nitpick a couple of Watson’s stats in 2016, as his interceptions are up (14 in 2016 from 13 15 games last season) and his yards per completion has dropped to 11.8. Additionally, Watson has connected on 17 passes of 30 or more yards this fall, which is a slight decrease from the 29 he posted last season. The junior’s mobility is a big part of the offense, but his rushing yardage is down to just 444 after recording 1,105 in 2015. The natural progression of a quarterback usually shows a decrease in rushing yards throughout a career, but Watson could utilize his legs or mobility more over the next couple of games – especially if Clemson makes the College Football Playoff.
While we acknowledged Watson’s numbers have dropped in a couple of areas, let’s make no mistake: The junior is still having an outstanding season and is one of the top players in college football. Watson has passed for 34 touchdowns in 12 games and is once again among the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks (67.6 completion percentage. The junior also has a deep group of receivers at his disposal. Mike Williams has returned from a season-ending neck injury in 2015 and leads the team with 79 receptions for 1,114 yards and 10 scores. Tight end Jordan Leggett (34 receptions), Deon Cain (30), Hunter Renfrow (27), Artavis Scott (64) and Ray-Ray McCloud (44) help to comprise arguably the best receiving corps in the nation.
Containing the Clemson passing attack is going to be a huge test for Virginia Tech’s standout secondary. The Hokies rank second in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed 13 passing scores all season. Additionally, this unit is limiting quarterbacks to just a 47.8 completion rate. The headliner in the secondary for coordinator Bud Foster is cornerback Greg Stroman. The junior doesn’t see many passes in his direction but has picked off three and recorded eight pass breakups. Junior Brandon Facyson anchors the other cornerback spot, while Chuck Clark and Terrell Edmunds get the starting nod at safety.
Virginia Tech’s secondary has performed at a high level all season, but this is the toughest assignment this unit has faced. Can the Hokies limit the damage done by Watson through the air and prevent Clemson’s passing game from breaking big plays? With the depth and overall talent the Tigers have at receiver, Virginia Tech’s secondary will be tested early and often on Saturday night.
2. Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans
First-year coach Justin Fuente is known for his work on offense as the head coach at Memphis and as a coordinator at TCU. And considering Fuente’s track record and recent success with developing Paxton Lynch into a first-round pick at Memphis, his role in transforming Jerod Evans into a potential All-ACC quarterback should be no surprise. The junior college recruit had a standout debut for the Hokies, throwing for 3,045 yards and 26 scores and leading the team with 713 yards and eight touchdowns this season. Evans only tossed five interceptions all season and ranks fourth among ACC players by averaging 313.2 total yards per game.
The Hokies aren’t a one-man show on offense. While Evans is clearly the catalyst, the receiving corps features two of the nation’s most-talented targets in receiver Isaiah Ford and hybrid receiver/tight end Bucky Hodges. Ford leads the team with 69 catches for 949 yards, while Cam Phillips and C.J. Carroll have stepped up to provide additional support in the passing game.
The battle between Evans, Ford and Hodges against Clemson’s secondary will be one of Week 14’s top matchups. The Tigers are first in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and have allowed only 11 passing scores all season. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is a shutdown corner on one side, with senior Jadar Johnson (five interceptions) a first-team All-ACC selection.
Can Evans and the Hokies win the one-on-one battles through the air? And how much of an impact can Evans have on this game with his ability to make plays outside of the pocket with his legs?
3. The Defensive Lines
Some of the ACC’s top talent in the trenches will be on display on Saturday night. Virginia Tech tackle Woody Barron joined Clemson senior Carlos Watkins on the ACC’s first-team honors released earlier in the week, while the Tigers also had Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins earning second-team accolades.
Clemson’s defensive front has been a nightmare for opposing offensive lines over the last couple of seasons, and this unit ranks fifth in the ACC by holding opponents to just 127.8 rushing yards per game. Watkins is the headliner, but Lawrence delivered a standout freshman campaign this fall, recording 54 tackles (seven for a loss) and 4.5 sacks. Wilkins is a versatile performer for coordinator Brent Venables, as he has the necessary size to handle the interior or work off the edge as a rusher. This group figures to be a handful for Virginia Tech’s offensive line, which has surrendered 24 sacks through 12 games. The Hokies average just 4.1 yards per rush, so generating a push against this Clemson front will be a challenge.
While Barron (17.5 TFL) is the anchor for Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster, end Ken Ekanem (6.5 sacks) is another player to watch on Saturday night. The Hokies rank eighth against the run in the ACC but allow only 3.9 yards per carry. Stopping Clemson’s high-powered attack starts in the trenches. The Tigers have been inconsistent at times on the offensive line, but this group has played better recently, which includes running back Wayne Gallman posting back-to-back 100-yard efforts. Can the Hokies get enough pressure on Watson and stop Gallman to get the Tigers into third-and-long situations?
Virginia Tech is going to battle and give Clemson all it can handle for a good chunk of this game. However, there’s simply too much at stake and too many advantages for the Tigers. In order for the Hokies to pull off the upset, quarterback Jerod Evans has to carry this team. And when Virginia Tech is on defense, this unit has to find a way to pressure Deshaun Watson and disrupt the ability of this offense to hit on big plays. The Hokies are trending up under Fuente, but Clemson is on a mission to get back to the College Football Playoff.