When the Clemson Tigers go north to face the Virginia Tech Hokies this Saturday night, they will find the atmosphere to be considerably different than their last trip to Lane Stadium. On Sept. 30, 2017, the Tigers were greeted by a raucous crowd as the No. 12 Hokies fell to second-ranked Clemson.
Obviously, the energy won't be there this time around. Much of that is of course due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Virginia Tech's troubles in 2020 factor in as well. After starting the season at 3-1, the Hokies have lost four of five, including all three of their November games.
Add in the fact that they will be facing another extremely talented Clemson team, one that can't afford another hiccup if they hope to get to the College Football Playoff, and it's obvious that Virginia Tech faces a tall task this Saturday night.
Clemson at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, December 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -22
When Clemson Has the Ball
Trevor Lawrence was not easing back into action after not playing in over a month. The junior quarterback threw for 403 yards and helped stake Clemson to a 31-0 first-quarter lead over Pittsburgh. In typical fashion, he spread the ball around, but his favorite target, Amari Rodgers, caught 10 balls. Cornell Powell, a fifth-year senior who exploded when D.J. Uiagalelei replaced Lawrence, continued his torrid pace with six grabs for 176 yards and a score.
Pittsburgh is a team that is stronger at defending the run, which is why Clemson attacked the Panthers through the air, but more production in the running game would have been nice. In a game that was well in hand early on, the Tigers would have liked more than 145 rushing yards and 3.8 yards per carry. They did have four rushing touchdowns, including two from Travis Etienne, but they must improve at running the ball before the postseason.
This week is an opportunity to develop some confidence in the running game because the Hokies are 12th in the ACC in rush defense. Two weeks ago, Virginia Tech gave up 152 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to Pittsburgh, the 14th-ranked rushing offense in the conference. Of course, if Clemson wants to air it out, the Tigers will have success against a mediocre Hokie pass defense. But they will have to protect Lawrence, as Virginia Tech defensive linemen Amare Barno, Justus Reed, and Jarrod Hewitt have combined for 16.5 sacks.
When Virginia Tech Has the Ball
Virginia Tech's offensive success this season has been the result of the ACC's top-ranked rushing attack. But in their three November losses, the Hokies had their three lowest rushing totals of the season. Their last two opponents — Miami and Pittsburgh — feature stout rush defenses, but Clemson will be on the other side of the ball this week, so the challenge may be even greater.
Khalil Herbert, who has been battling a hamstring problem in recent weeks, needs to be healthy, and quarterback Hendon Hooker must be able to open up the field by connecting with his receivers downfield. Clemson doesn't give up a ton of big plays, but Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson are talented receivers who Hooker will try to involve this week.
The main question, however, is whether Virginia Tech's offensive line handle the Clemson defensive front. Linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones Jr. along with defensive tackle Tyler Davis are now back from injury, and their presence makes Clemson a different defensive team. Skalski showed how valuable he is in the Pittsburgh game, but Davis's impact in the middle of the defensive line could be just as important going forward.
The good news for the Hokies is that they had an extra week to prepare while Clemson took on Pittsburgh. That may be where the positivity ends. Their game two weeks ago against Pitt was without question their worst performance of the season, and the second 30 minutes, after falling down by two scores just before halftime, was particularly abysmal. Justin Fuente's job security is in question, and Clemson is coming to town needing a win to claim an ACC Championship Game spot. Oh, joy. We will see very early on if the Hokies even want to play this game. I believe they will come out with passion at the start, but the Tigers will quickly stifle that. Clemson will win going away to set up the rematch with Notre Dame on Dec. 19.
Prediction: Clemson 48, Virginia Tech 17
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions
— 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.