Clemson has won the ACC Atlantic, the State Championship, and now is one win away from winning the ACC and earning a return trip to the College Football Playoff. With expectations sky high coming into the season, it’s easy to overlook what these young men have accomplished thus far. Let’s pause a moment and soak in these glory days.
Go ahead... take a moment. Ok, hope you soaked it in.
The Tigers’ final battle to claim ACC supremacy will come against the Virginia Tech Hokies. Clemson beat Virginia Tech twice in 2011, once in Blacksburg and again in Charlotte to earn their first ACC Championship of the Dabo Swinney era.
For the Tigers, that marked the start of six straight double-digit win seasons. For the Hokies, it was the start of a steady decline during the twilight of Frank Beamer’s coaching career. Now, Justin Fuente has taken over and has gotten the Hokies trending in the right direction.
Much of the Hokies’ improvement can be credited to the arrival of QB Jerod Evans. Evans originally went to the Air Force Academy, but after an injury transferred to a JUCO. Fuente was recruiting him to Memphis, but they both ended up at Virginia Tech. Evans has thrown for 26 TDs to just 5 INTs. He’s also run for 8 TDs and is the team leader in both rushing TDs and yards. His athleticism will give the Tigers a challenge similar to what they faced when NC State had Jacoby Brissett at QB.
Before we discuss that challenge, our usual caveat...
We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the 2-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the 2-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating regardless of scheme.
This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) and as well as those who underperform their star ratings. As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope this is an informative one.
VT struggles to run the ball. They’re ranked just 96th in rushing offense (S&P+). Travon McMillian is the Hokies leading running back, and he’s eclipsed 4.5 YPC in only three games this season (Gallman has done so in seven games). Fortunately, for the Hokies, Evans’ speed/size combo will force Clemson to play with discipline rather than bringing the house every time.
VT’s skill position talent isn’t on par with Clemson, FSU, or Auburn. At 3.00, they are tied with NCSU. Like the Wolfpack, the Hokies have a few real difference makers. The most notable is TE Bucky Hodges who is 8th in the nation in receiving yards among TEs (Jordan Leggett is 9th). Another threat for the Hokies is WR Isaiah Ford. He ranks 4th in the ACC in receiving yards.
With the Tigers strong defensive line, the Hokies are unlikely to find much running room for their RBs. Instead, they’ll need to rely on these play makers to move the chains. Most concerning for the Tigers is Hodges. The Tigers have faced two other TEs that are in the top 10 in receiving yards at their position. The first TE was Cole Hikutini of Louisville. Against the Tigers, he led the Cards in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (84). He nearly made the game winning reception too. The other is Pittsburgh’s Scott Orndoff. He led the Panthers with 9 receptions, 148 receiving yards, and two TDs. Stopping Bucky Hodges must be a priority for the Tigers.
Now on to the defense...
On defense, the Hokies don’t have the talent they traditionally had in their heyday. Nevertheless, their defense is ranked 16th in the S&P+ with their strength being their passing defense (7th). Where their talent appears thinnest is at linebacker. There, the Hokies have five 3-star players and a 2-star player. Much like VT, Clemson has a chance to rely on their TE to attack over the middle.
Most important though will be continuing the resurgence in the Tiger rushing attack over the past few weeks. The Wake Forest defense is strong against the pass, but vulnerable (70th in S&P+) against the run, so the Tigers leaned on Wayne Gallman who carried the ball for 161 yards. The Tigers racked up 254 rushing yards in the game. Against the Gamecocks, also weak against the run (though they’re also weak against the pass), the Tigers ran for 250 yards.
Establishing the run game against VT will not only help the Tigers claim the ACC title, but will be incredibly encouraging as they move into bowl season.
Hodges is going to be a matchup problem to the Tiger linebackers. He is build like Jordan Leggett at 6’6” 236lbs. The Hokies need him to have a big day and Evans to escape sacks and turn them into positive yards like we saw from former NC State QB Jacoby Brissett a few years ago. If Hodges can eat up the Tigers over the middle then Evans can create some semblance of a rushing attack, and the Hokies can put up enough points to have a chance.
Even if the Hokies can find some points, they’ll have a hard time keeping up with the Clemson offense. Watson has looked like a QB who can go toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide recently. Mike Williams is the best receiver in the ACC (I was wrong when I ranked Isaiah Ford #1 in the pre-season). And now with Gallman getting rolling, the Tigers offense may be too much for even a strong VT defense to stop.