Before the season even began, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Clemson Tigers would be playing in the ACC Championship Game. The defending national champions were returning most of their offensive production, and they still had Brent Venables running the defense. Plus, their competition in the Atlantic was a bit suspect. Short of the scare in Chapel Hill, the season played out just as everyone expected.
The road to Charlotte was not quite as simple for the Virginia Cavaliers. Bronco Mendenhall’s team was considered a contender in the Coastal, but they were in a group along with Virginia Tech, Miami, and Pittsburgh that most felt had the potential to win the division. Losses in the middle of the season to Miami and Louisville put the Cavs at 3-2 in the ACC and made every game the rest of the way a must-win situation. And win is what UVA did, taking all three ACC games in November, including the winner-take-all game against Virginia Tech last Saturday.
For Clemson, this is their fifth Atlantic Division title in a row. In the Coastal, things have been much more turbulent as all seven division schools have worn the crown one time in the past seven years. This will be the first time Clemson and Virginia have played since 2013 when the Tigers won at Scott Stadium 59-10.
ACC Championship: Virginia vs. Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: Clemson -28.5
When Virginia Has the Ball
Few offenses fare well against the Clemson defense. One-dimensional offenses have an even more difficult time. That is the problem facing Virginia.
The Cavaliers have struggled to get rushing production from their running backs, making their offense overly reliant on quarterback Bryce Perkins. The senior signal-caller has responded more times than not, passing for nearly 3,000 yards and leading the team with 687 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing. When it mattered most, Perkins had his best game; he threw for 311 yards, ran for 164 more, and accounting for three touchdowns in the division-clinching win over Virginia Tech.
Clemson’s defense will not allow Perkins to beat them with his legs the way he tore apart the Hokies. With top running back Wayne Taulapapa totaling just 416 yards, much will be asked from the receiving group of Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois, Terrell Jana, and Billy Kemp IV. These talented pass catchers will be challenged more than they have all season by K’Von Wallace, Tanner Muse, and the nation’s top pass defense.
The Tigers have not given up more than 20 points all year and didn’t allow a touchdown in the past two games; much of the reason was the dominance of their front seven. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons will be the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, but the emergence of other players not expected to become stars in 2019 has been the key. Fellow linebacker James Skalski was supposed to contribute, but his 68 tackles, good for second on the team, is a surprise. Defensive end Xavier Thomas was expected to be the next Clemson All-American at that position, but it did not come to pass this year. However, freshman tackle Tyler Davis has been a force, and a rotation at end has yielded big results.
The best defensive front Virginia faced this year was Notre Dame, and the Irish finished the game with eight sacks. Hopefully, UVA’s young offensive line has grown a bit since that game in September because Clemson will be looking to punish Perkins all night long.
When Clemson Has the Ball
It isn’t like the Clemson offense was terrible early in the season. The Tigers averaged 38.0 points per game through Week 5, a number that would have been good for 13th nationally at the end of the year. But two things happened following the 21-20 victory at North Carolina: quarterback Trevor Lawrence became more efficient and running back Travis Etienne returned to his All-American level.
Following the UNC game, Lawrence threw a pick against Florida State and then two more at Louisville. But the good news is he also passed for six touchdowns in those games and then didn’t throw an interception the rest of the way. Furthermore, his yards per attempt went way up as he began connecting more with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross on big plays.
It helped to have Etienne rolling again as well. After four straight contests of fewer than 100 yards, No. 9 ripped off six consecutive 100-yard games and finished the regular season with 1,386 and 16 touchdowns. Etienne’s yards per game and yards per carry are actually ahead of his 2018 pace due to his second-half surge.
Statistically, Clemson has not faced a defense as good as Virginia’s this year. The Cavaliers come in at No. 27 in total defense (Texas A&M is 32nd) and are especially stingy against the run. The problem is that since the loss of corner Bryce Hall and safety Brenton Nelson to injuries, the pass defense has suffered. In three of the last four games, UVA has surrendered north of 300 passing yards. Their only hope is to pressure Lawrence and disrupt the timing with his receivers. Eight different Cavs have multiple sacks, led by Jordan Mack with 7.5, and they are sixth nationally with 43 quarterback takedowns.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has spent much of the last week complaining about lack of respect. But with one more win, the Tigers will be in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year. The only other team to accomplish that feat since the format began in 2014 is Alabama, and their streak will end this year. What Swinney has to do, though, is successfully motivate his team for a game in which they are favored by 28.5 points. The Virginia defense will be disruptive at times, but the Tigers' D will lock down the Cavalier offense. In what has become commonplace, Swinney’s team will get up huge by early in the third quarter and will coast to another ACC title and College Football Playoff appearance.
Prediction: Clemson 35, Virginia 10
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.