Despite sharing the same conference for 12 years now, this weekend's contest between the Clemson Tigers and Miami Hurricanes marks only the fifth meeting as ACC members, and the first since 2010. For all its dysfunction, Miami is a talented team with a few great pieces -- if any of the pieces come together particularly well this weekend, it may turn into a fight.
Miami hopes for a signature win to save embattled coach Al Golden, and it is well known that Clemson is not as formidable on the road. This is a contest which many felt could provide a stumbling block or a "trap game" before the season began, but the Clemson program is above such traps now; under Dabo Swinney, Clemson brings its best effort every week.
Miami is proud of its quarterback, Brad Kaaya, and he is certainly one of the top 5 in the ACC. I take issue with the widely-held opinion at Miami blog State of the U that he is the best in the ACC, and is a better thrower than Deshaun Watson:
It is no secret that Brad Kaaya isn't a mobile quarterback. Clemson's Deshaun Watson is. Granted, Kaaya is a better passer and thrower from the pocket, but Watson can extend/make plays that Kaaya simply cannot.
Uh, what??? Sure everyone is a bit of a homer, but maybe they should take a look at film too. I saw middling arm strength and sloppy, side-arm mechanics. They concede Watson is a better runner, but I think Watson's mobility is overblown -- he is an elite passer and only runs when necessary. Watson's arm strength, touch, and throwing motion are unmatched by any in the country except perhaps Cody Kessler or Cardale Jones. When I watch Kaaya, I see a poor man's Watson in all aspects. He is thinner, slower, weaker, and does not possess nearly the arm strength or mechanics to even merit a debate in talent. You see it on film, and you'll see it on Saturday. If Watson has a weakness, it's overconfidence (read: trusting Charone Peake).
The clip above shows the most accurate test for a quarterback's arm strength: an out route from the far side of the field. Kaaya had a clean pocket, stepped into the throw, and...well the ball rainbowed. A slow, arcing ball. This should have been intercepted.
Now that my rant is out of the way, Kaaya is indeed one of the better QBs on Clemson's schedule this year. He protects the ball extremely well (admittedly much better than Watson so far this year) and carries his team despite a poor offensive line and only one serviceable running back. Miami's hopes on Saturday -- aside from further inexplicable Clemson turnovers -- lay completely on Kaaya's shoulders. To those of you who make the trip, watch out for the Miami fan; he will probably arrive by the second quarter.
Kaaya or Bust
As I mentioned above, Miami's offense is centered around Brad Kaaya and a solid group of receivers. I get the sense that his talents are overblown by Miami fans simply because he carries the team. Before I paid his film close attention, I expected to see a gunslinger make highlight throws and challenge opposing secondaries. I did not see it. The slightest pressure destroys his mechanics -- but even then the decision-making is generally sound. Kaaya beats you by taking what is given from a clean pocket.
They run a similar base offense to Clemson, but only run the ball to try and open the pass. A poor offensive line means Miami operates almost entirely out of a shotgun spread, but usually without much tempo. They don't run much zone read due to Kaaya's relative lack of it mobility, and any QB keeper or run option is likely an effort to catch an aggressive defense (like ours) off-guard.
He doesn't make it look pretty, but if given time Kaaya goes through his progressions well and succeeds in both finding an open man and trusting his receivers to make plays downfield. Miami challenged FSU's playmakers in the secondary (actually many of whom were backups), and won far more battles than they lost. Without any run game, though, Kaaya couldn't do enough to win.
In the clip above, you see a nicely placed, back shoulder touch pass in which Kaaya not only trusts his receiver, he trusts his receiver against superstar Jalen Ramsey. I can assure you, Mackensie Alexander took note.
Like FSU, Clemson should have little trouble taking away Miami's running game, and also enjoys 1st round talents in the secondary in Alexander and Jayron Kearse. Barring busts, I like Clemson's secondary against Miami's receivers -- but as you can see above, this is the greatest test for the Clemson secondary since Notre Dame. I expect most damage to come on underneath routes against Clemson's linebackers in coverage -- Goodson and Boulware are studs against the run but liabilities in space, look for Miami to exploit it if we aren't in the dime package. Clemson must generate pressure like FSU, but stick tighter in coverage.
Liabilities on Defense
Once again, I use our opponent's film against FSU to highlight strengths, weaknesses, or menial tidbits I want to share. Doing so dually provides the closest representation of Clemson's defensive talent and a primer for our upcoming tilt against the Seminoles (since I'm not a player or coach, I'm allowed to look ahead). Miami's defensive strength is its secondary, which is more of an indictment on a poor front than praise for a solid backfield. The front 7 generated very little pressure against FSU's completely overhauled offensive line.
Miami is also without its star linebacker and top tackler, Raphael Kirby, who tore his ACL last weekend. This is a another blow to a poor unit, and Clemson will hopefully return to a more balanced attack after destroying BC's top-ranked defense through the air.
Below we see a busted coverage which led to a touchdown on a check to Dalvin Cook. Miami ran a basic quarters/cover 4 defense with underneath coverage from the linebackers. The arrows indicate the zones which the back 7 will cover. Pay attention to the SAM linebacker, lined up on the far-side hash.
The back 4 drop, the WILL linebacker carries the tight end up the seam.
The nearside corner collects the tight end from the WILL, the slot receivers are bracketed by the linebackers and safeties, and...oh no the SAM chased a slot receiver up the seam as he would in man coverage. There's a vacated zone over the right flat.
The SAM is in no man's land when he should have been in position to either contest the throw or force a throwaway. Instead, Golson checks down to Cook, who is wide open and easily outruns the linebackers to the corner. He slips the corner's tackle at the 5 and walks into the endzone. A microcosm of the entire Miami program for the last decade, one man blew his assignment and an elite opponent made Miami pay. Sounds like a recipe for disaster against Clemson's skill.
Summary and Mark It Down Prediction
Advanced stats say Clemson is the best team in the country. The eye test isn't far off, but any Clemson fan will tell you this game makes him/her nervous. I am anxious to see if Clemson still struggles on the road against a quarterback who can keep his team in the game -- especially if Clemson doesn't clean up its turnover habit.
On paper, Clemson by 7 seems right. After film review, Clemson by 20 seems doable, even on the road. Clemson's offense should find the desired balance which makes this team so difficult to defend, and pull away from a gritty Hurricane squad. Clemson goes over 200 passing and rushing, holds Miami to 250 passing and less than 100 rushing.
Clemson 41, Miami 27