It seems like about 10 years rather than 10 months ago, but Virginia and Clemson squared off for the ACC title last December. That evening, the Tigers pounded the Cavaliers 62-17 on the way to another College Football Playoff appearance.
This Saturday night, Virginia and Clemson will tangle once again, this time in Death Valley. Virginia finally got its season going last week and looked impressive in defeating Duke 38-20. Not surprisingly, Clemson has been their usual selves in beating Wake Forest and FCS member The Citadel by a combined score of 86-13.
Clemson leads the series 39-8-1, but since the ACC created the two-division format in 2005, the two programs have only played four times.
Virginia at Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Clemson -28
When Virginia Has the Ball
The biggest difference between this Virginia team and the one that won the Coastal Division in 2019 is that Bryce Perkins is no longer the quarterback. Despite playing just two seasons in Charlottesville, Perkins is third in school history in both passing yards and touchdown passes. So Brennan Armstrong has big shoes to fill.
Armstrong's performance against Duke was okay, throwing for 269 yards and two scores while running for 47 and another touchdown. But he also threw two picks and completed a little more than half of his passes. Those numbers have to improve considering who the Cavaliers are facing this week. Despite rushing for 188 yards against Duke, led by Wayne Taulapapa's 95 yards and two TDs, it's unlikely that UVA, who finished 117th nationally in rushing offense last fall, will have much success gaining ground against Clemson's defense.
The Tigers have given up a total of 123 rushing yards in two games and though The Citadel is an FCS program, the Bulldogs run an option-oriented attack that relies on the ground game. Wake Forest had just 37 yards on 34 carries in the opener. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is using a heavy rotation of players and the team's leading tackler right now is freshman defensive lineman Myles Murphy, who also has two sacks.
However, Wake Forest did pass for nearly 300 yards, though much of it came in the second half when the game had been decided. Even still, Virginia has to hope that its veteran offensive line can give Armstrong enough time to find receivers Billy Kemp and Terrell Jana.
When Clemson Has the Ball
This should be the biggest challenge the Clemson offense has faced so far this season. Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has built a tough, hard-nosed defensive unit led by an exceptional group of linebackers. Zane Zandier led the team in tackles in 2019 and got off to a fast start with 15 total stops last week. Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor are difference-makers on the second level and both had an impact in the Duke win as did first-year starter Nick Jackson with 12 tackles.
Of course, Virginia won't be playing Duke this week. Despite working with several new receivers, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has completed 81 percent of his throws and is leading the nation by averaging 14 yards per attempt. Amari Rodgers is the leading receiver, but 13 different Tigers have caught multiple passes through the two games. Virginia has a strong secondary featuring safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, so this will be a fun battle to watch.
Then there's Travis Etienne. He had 114 yards on 14 carries in last year's win over Virginia and Dabo Swinney would love similar production this week. The Clemson blockers shouldn't have a problem getting to the second level, but how well they can move around the Virginia linebackers will determine how effective Etienne will be. It's doubtful that the Cavaliers will be as stout against the run as they were last week against Duke, but they have to make Etienne work for his yards.
With 5:51 left in the third quarter last Saturday, Duke scored a touchdown to go ahead of Virginia 20-17. From that point on, the Blue Devils threw three interceptions, fumbled twice, and turned the ball over on downs. Clemson will not be that careless with the ball this weekend. The first-team Clemson offense has been dominant so far this year, scoring 76 first-half points in two games. The Tigers won't be quite as successful vs. Virginia, but they will score a good amount. Plus, Virginia will not be able to run on Clemson's defense, forcing Brennan Armstrong into obvious pass situations where coordinator Brent Venables can provide all kinds of different looks. Once again, the Tigers will take control early and cruise to a victory.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Virginia 10
Podcast: CFB Week 5 Preview + 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.
(Top photo courtesy of clemsontigers.com)