In the preseason, many experts pointed to the Clemson-NC State contest as one of the biggest games on the ACC schedule, especially within the Atlantic Division. Three games into the 2021 college football season, the perception of the matchup may have changed just a little.
Losses by each team to SEC opponents coupled with Clemson's lackluster win over Georgia Tech last Saturday may have taken some shine off this matchup, but in reality, it remains a critical game in the pursuit of the Atlantic crown. Clemson remains the favorite while NC State is a prime contender, and the loser this Saturday will essentially be two games behind the winner in the division standings because of the tiebreaker.
In the 88 previous Textile Bowl battles, Clemson holds a 59-28-1 lead. The Wolfpack only have one win (2013) since 2004, although games in 2016 and '17 were decided by just a touchdown.
No. 9 Clemson at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -10
When Clemson Has the Ball
So far this season, the Clemson offense has lacked pretty much everything. The un-Tiger-like numbers include ranking 105th in scoring offense, 93rd in rushing, 101st in passing yardage, and an incredible 114th in total offense. If you take out the game against FCS South Carolina State, the stats are really nasty.
The first thing that has to happen is that Clemson has to develop some kind of identity. Right now, the Tigers have nothing they can lean on. Freshman Will Shipley was solid in the running game this past week with 88 yards and two scores. But in three games, the Tigers rank last in the ACC in explosive running plays. Also, D.J. Uiagalelei hasn't been able to utilize his dangerous receivers. The Tigers' 5.6 yards per passing attempt is 118th in America. Of course, the issues aren't just a skill position problem, as the line is not doing its part in either aspect.
The question is not talent — it's when it will come together. If it does this week, it will happen against an experienced NC State defense. The Wolfpack rank 16th in the nation in total defense, and they have been especially tough against the run, though it will be different in their first full FBS game without linebacker Payton Wilson, who will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Drake Thomas has been the star of the unit so far with a team-leading 25 tackles and an interception. Despite having just two sacks, the Pack have picked off four passes in their three games. The one chink in the team's defensive armor was the 295 yards passing put up by Mississippi State in the 24-10 Bulldog victory.
When NC State Has the Ball
For all the concerns with the Clemson offense, there are very few on the defensive side of the ball. The group will have to overcome the loss of defensive tackle Tyler Davis, who will miss several weeks with a torn biceps tendon, but the Tigers' defense is a deep group that should still be able to thrive. Through three games — two of which came against Power 5 competition — no touchdowns have been scored against the Clemson defense. Georgia and Georgia Tech moved the ball at times, but the only opposing touchdown came on a pick-six thrown by Uiagalelei.
It will be interesting to see how the Wolfpack attacks Brent Venables' group. In its two games versus inferior competition, NC State ran the ball at will. But against Mississippi State, Bam Knight and Ricky Person Jr. were shut down and quarterback Devin Leary was forced to throw 49 times. Obviously, it won't be easy moving the ball on the ground this week, though offensive balance is necessary to keep the chains moving against Clemson.
Leary has gotten off to a solid start by completing 67 percent of his throws with six touchdowns. Emeka Emezie continues to climb up the all-time Wolfpack receiving lists, and he's gotten support from fellow veterans Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter. Knight and Person are a solid backfield duo, and the offensive line is an experienced unit that will have its hands full with the talented Clemson front.
The Clemson offense is going to get better. But will it be this week? After watching their performance versus Georgia Tech, it's hard to imagine that the Tiger staff can flip a switch and suddenly the team will score 40 points against this Wolfpack defense. The good news from a Clemson perspective is that the Tigers won't give up a whole lot of points either. Rushing yards will be hard to come by for both teams, which places more emphasis on each of the quarterbacks. For the first time all year, Clemson will allow a defensive touchdown. However, Uiagalelei will throw for a couple of scores and Clemson will survive.
Prediction: Clemson 20, NC State 13
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— 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.