The number of unbeaten teams in college football will shrink by one in Week 8, as Clemson and NC State square off in Death Valley on Saturday afternoon. The 2018 season hasn’t necessarily been kind to the ACC, as the Wolfpack and Tigers are the only teams ranked from the conference going into Week 8. While there’s a lot of football left, the winner of this matchup will take an early lead for the Atlantic Division title. Clemson is one of the CFB Playoff frontrunners, but a win by NC State would vault coach Dave Doeren’s team into the top 10.
NC State has cruised to a 5-0 start, but this team hasn’t exactly faced the toughest of schedules so far. The Wolfpack defeated James Madison and Georgia State and won at Marshall in non-conference play. NC State started ACC action by defeating Virginia 35-21 and knocked off Boston College 28-23 on Oct. 6. Due to Hurricane Florence, the Wolfpack’s showdown in non-conference play against West Virginia was canceled. Doeren’s team lost a chunk of talent from last year’s squad that finished 9-4, but the return of quarterback Ryan Finley and overall talent development/recruiting has limited the drop off this season.
As mentioned previously, Clemson is one of the top contenders to reach the CFB Playoff and a heavy favorite to win the ACC. Coach Dabo Swinney has transformed this program into an annual contender to win it all, and the 2018 version is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence earned the starting job over Kelly Bryant and is surrounded by a deep group of playmakers, including running back Travis Etienne and receivers Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. Clemson’s defensive line is the best in college football and was a big reason why this team navigated a road trop at Texas A&M in Week 2 and survived Syracuse’s upset bid in Death Valley on Sept. 29.
Clemson owns a 57-28-1 series edge over NC State. The Tigers won 38-31 in Raleigh last season and have claimed 13 out of the last 14 versus the Wolfpack.
NC State at Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Clemson -17.5
Three Things to Watch
1. NC State’s Passing Game Versus Clemson’s Secondary
The unquestioned strength of NC State’s offense is senior quarterback Ryan Finley. And it’s also no secret the Wolfpack are going to ride his right arm in an effort to pull off the upset in Death Valley on Saturday.
Through five games in 2018, Finley has passed for 1,621 yards and 10 touchdowns to just three picks. Additionally, Finley is completing 69.5 percent of his throws. The senior has only one completion of 40 or more yards but has connected on 20 throws of 20 or more yards this season. Kelvin Harmon (33 catches for 534 yards and two scores) is Finley’s go-to target, but there’s no shortage of weapons here. Jakobi Meyers (30), Emeka Emezie, Stephen Louis and Thayer Thomas round out one of the ACC’s top receiving corps.
In last year’s matchup, Finley threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns on 31 completions. NC State has struggled to establish the ground game this season, but the offensive line has allowed only two sacks to opposing defenses. With that in mind, a pass-heavy approach is likely the best away to attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers rank third in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and are only allowing quarterbacks to complete 49.3 percent of their throws. However, Texas A&M threw for 430 yards against this defense, so there will be opportunities for Finley and his receiving corps to make plays through the air.
2. Clemson’s Defensive Line
As mentioned in the previous section, NC State’s hopes of a win are going to rest heavily on Finley and a standout group of receivers. The Wolfpack are averaging only 3.9 yards a carry, with senior Reggie Gallaspy leading the offense with 324 yards, followed by Ricky Person at 205. NC State’s offensive line has been good in pass protection, but this unit is going to have its hands full in trying to block Clemson’s defensive front to clear lanes on rush attempts.
Clemson’s defensive line entered 2018 ranked as the best in college football and hasn’t disappointed through the first seven weeks of the season. The Tigers are giving up 108.3 rushing yards a contest and just 2.5 yards per rush. Additionally, this unit has generated 20 sacks, recording around three per contest. All-America candidates Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins man the interior for coordinator Brent Venables, with Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant forming the nation’s top pass-rush duos on the outside.
Winning the battle up front is going to be key for both teams. NC State needs to protect Finley and open up a few running lanes to keep the defense honest. On the other sideline, Clemson wants to get after Finley and disrupt the timing of the Wolfpack passing game. Finley does have a quick release and makes fast decisions on where to go with the pass, which should help the senior get rid of the ball before the pass rush arrives.
3. Clemson’s Offense
For any defense facing Clemson’s offense, there’s certainly a pick your poison element to defending this group. Through six games, the Tigers are averaging 42.2 points a contest and lead all ACC offenses by recording 7.5 yards per snap. This unit also has 17 plays of 40 or more yards and six of 60-plus this fall.
The Tigers are loaded with talent at the skill positions, and freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has added an element of big-play ability in the passing game. Lawrence has passed for 11 touchdowns and 868 yards and has connected on 69 percent of his throws. Additionally, the freshman is averaging 12.6 yards a completion. While former starter Kelly Bryant was a better runner and had more experience, Lawrence is simply a better passer and allows Clemson to utilize its deep receiving corps and stretch the field with big plays. Running back Travis Etienne has rushed for 761 yards and 11 touchdowns through six contests, while Amari Rodgers, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross form a big-play combination on the outside. Senior Hunter Renfrow has 17 receptions in 2018 and is another reliable option for Clemson’s offense.
Can NC State find a way to slow down this Clemson offense? The Wolfpack lost all four starters from last year’s standout defensive front, but coach Dave Doeren’s group ranks second in the ACC by giving up only 16.8 points a game. Also, NC State is third in the conference versus the run and ranks second in red zone defense. The Wolfpack are giving up 5.5 yards per snap, so there will be opportunities for the Tigers to move the ball consistently against this unit. Assuming Clemson’s offense picks up where it left off in the 63-3 win over Wake Forest, NC State will have to trade yards for stops on third down and in the red zone. The Wolfpack have forced only eight turnovers through five games and will need to add to that total in order to pull off the upset.
Each of the last two meetings between these two teams have decided by a touchdown. Will that continue on Saturday? The guess here is the final spread will be a little more than seven points. Both teams should be rested and prepared after an off week last Saturday, but Clemson has an edge on both sides of the ball. The Tigers have a strong supporting cast in place for quarterback Trevor Lawrence, with Travis Etienne finishing the first half of the 2018 season as one of the top running backs in college football. On the other side of the ball, NC State needs to put this game in the hands of Finley and let the receivers make plays against Clemson’s secondary. However, even if the Tigers give up some yards, this defense will eventually get stops, allowing Lawrence and Etienne to put this game away in the fourth quarter.