The must-see game for college football’s Week 5 slate takes place in the ACC, as Clemson travels to Blacksburg to meet Virginia Tech on Saturday night. These two programs met in the ACC Championship last season, and there’s a good chance this could be the first of two meetings once again in 2017.
Despite losing a couple of key pieces from last year’s national title team, Clemson hasn’t missed a beat in 2017. The Tigers dominated Kent State 56-3 in the opener and handled Auburn (14-6) and Louisville (47-21) before a sluggish win against Boston College (34-7) last Saturday. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team once again has one of the nation’s best defenses, and an offense that’s capable of scoring with any team in college football. Behind new quarterback Kelly Bryant, Clemson’s offense is averaging 37.8 points per game. In addition to the smooth transition from Deshaun Watson to Bryant under center, the Tigers have emerging stars like Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster to lean on at running back, with Ray-Ray McCloud, Hunter Renfrow and Deon Cain entrenched as the go-to options on the outside.
Virginia Tech opened the season with a 31-24 victory over West Virginia and proceeded to win its next three games in convincing fashion. The Hokies beat Delaware 27-0, dominated East Carolina 64-17 and shut out Old Dominion 38-0 last Saturday. Coach Justin Fuente’s team has its sights set on another Coastal Division title, and after four weeks of action, it’s clear there isn’t much separation in the division with Miami. Coordinator Bud Foster appears to have another shutdown defense in place, while the offense is getting better with each snap behind redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson.
Clemson holds a 21-12-1 series edge over Virginia Tech. The Tigers have won four in a row over the Hokies, including both matchups in the ACC title game.
Clemson at Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Clemson’s Defensive Line
The nation’s best defensive line resides in Death Valley and under the watchful eye of coordinator Brent Venables. Clemson has recorded 17 sacks through four games, limited opposing rushers to 2.5 yards per carry and surrendered just one rushing touchdown. Ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell have combined for six sacks so far this year, with Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence anchoring the interior. It’s not out of the question all four players earn a spot on the first or second-team All-ACC ballots – and a couple should be on the postseason All-America team.
The success of Venables and Clemson’s defense starts with the pass rush and the play of the line. With a relentless rush and constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks on passing downs, it’s tough for opposing offenses to attack downfield. Through four games, the Tigers have allowed just one passing play of 40 or more yards. And even if offensive lines are successful in winning the battle at the point, it’s hard to find a weak link in the back seven. Linebackers Kendall Joseph (29 tackles) and Dorian O’Daniel (28) are off to a strong start, and the secondary is anchored by standout cornerback Ryan Carter. Depth in the secondary could be an issue on Saturday night. Trayvon Mullen, Mark Fields and Marcus Edmond are dealing with injuries, but Mullen and Fields were listed as probable late in the week. Edmond is not expected to play.
In order for Virginia Tech to pull off the upset, it has to win the battle up front. The offensive line features all juniors and seniors in the starting lineup and has allowed only four sacks in 2017. However, the Hokies have yet to see a front this athletic and fast so far this season. In last year’s meeting, Clemson sacked quarterback Jerod Evans four times. If the Tigers record four (or more) sacks once again, it’s tough to see Virginia Tech controlling the line of scrimmage enough to get its offense on track.
2. Virginia Tech QB Josh Jackson and Supporting Cast
While departure of quarterback Jerod Evans to the NFL was unexpected by most and a setback to Virginia Tech’s hopes of winning the Coastal in 2017, it was hard to have too many concerns about the quarterback situation in Blacksburg. After all, coach Justin Fuente (along with help from coordinator Brad Cornelsen) has already established himself as one of the top quarterback gurus in college football. Just four games into the season, it’s safe to say he’s found his next star under center.
Redshirt freshman Josh Jackson ranks third in the ACC by averaging 317.8 total yards per game and has tossed 11 touchdowns to just one interception. Jackson is poised, confident and efficient and has made few mistakes so far in his first season as the starter. He’s also completing 65.2 percent of his passes and ranks second among ACC quarterbacks by completing eight passes for 30 or more yards. While Jackson has been outstanding through his first four contests, Saturday night’s matchup is by far the toughest of his young career. And in order to pull off the upset, Jackson is going to need a little help from his supporting cast.
Senior Cam Phillips (34 catches) is the unquestioned No. 1 target for Jackson. But the rest of the receiving corps is a bit unsettled. Who will step up as the No. 2 and No. 3 options? Freshman Sean Savoy (14 catches) is off to a solid start, and C.J. Carroll has seven grabs through four contests. Clemson is likely to put the clamps on Phillips and force the offense to target Savoy and Carroll. At running back, Fuente has used a handful of players and will rotate a couple of backs into the game on Saturday. Travon McMillian (162 yards) is the leading rusher, but Deshawn McClease (148) and Steven Peoples (133) will also factor into the gameplan.
Virginia Tech is averaging 507.3 total yards per game in 2017. Jackson accounts for 317.8 of that yardage, and Clemson is going to try and force the supporting cast to win this one. Jackson is going to have his chances through the air and on the ground to make plays. However, against the defending national champs, turnovers and mistakes will be extra costly. Can Jackson continue his mistake-free play, keep the chains moving and play at Virginia Tech’s preferred pace to keep Clemson’s offense on the sideline? Jackson needs to have a big game for the Hokies to win – but it can’t do it alone on Saturday night.
3. Can Virginia Tech’s Defense Slow Down Clemson’s Offense?
Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster is going to have his hands full on Saturday night. In last season’s ACC Championship, Clemson scored touchdowns on its first three drives, averaged 6.3 yards per play and ended the night with 42 overall points. Even with the change at quarterback to Kelly Bryant and the loss of a few skill players, the Tigers haven’t missed a beat on offense. Clemson is averaging 6.5 yards per play and leads the ACC by recording nine plays of 40 yards or more.
With an embarrassment of riches at running back and receiver, along with speed and talent across the board, this is a difficult offense for any defense to scheme against. And of course, Bryant’s development has only added to the explosiveness for this offense in 2017. Needless to say, finding a weakness isn’t easy. One area to watch in this matchup is how the Virginia Tech defensive line performs against Clemson’s offensive line. The Tigers entered the season with one of the nation’s best lines, but this unit has already surrendered 10 sacks after giving up 20 all of 2016. Bryant’s inexperience within the pocket contributes to some of the issues up front, and the right tackle position – featuring Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum – has been an issue at times.
For Virginia Tech to slow down Clemson’s attack, it has to win the battle up front. The Hokies have just nine sacks through four games, with linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka (2.5) leading the team. Ends Trevon Hill and Vinny Mihota (combined 1.5 sacks so far) are critical to the pass rush, along with Motuapuaka and Terrell Edmunds at linebacker. Ricky Walker and Tim Settle are emerging standouts on the interior, which is critical against a rushing attack that averages 272 yards per game. Containing Bryant in the pocket and forcing him to make throws under pressure on third-and-long situations would be a victory for Foster. On the back end of the defense, cornerbacks Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson are two of the best in the ACC, but it’s uncertain if Adonis Alexander (suspended) will be reinstated by kick off.
It’s tough to envision Virginia Tech completely shutting down the Clemson offense, but the Hokies have the pieces to slow it down. Bryant’s mobility and the development of Etienne and Feaster at running back add another dimension Foster must account for. The formula for a successful night by Virginia Tech’s defense has to be finding ways to limit big plays, contain Bryant in the pocket and generate a few havoc plays (sacks and turnovers).
Lane Stadium should be a hostile environment for Clemson on Saturday night. With homefield advantage on its side, can Virginia Tech knock the Tigers from the ranks of the unbeaten? The potential is there. Jackson can carry the offense, but he’s going to need more help from the supporting cast, especially the ground attack and another receiver to take the pressure off of Phillips. Additionally, Virginia Tech’s offensive line has to find a way to keep Clemson’s defensive line in check. When the Tigers have the ball, the Hokies need to pressure quarterback Kelly Bryant and find a way to limit the big plays. Jackson and Virginia Tech’s defense will take this game deep into the fourth quarter, but Clemson does just enough on offense to pull out the victory.