Clemson returns home this week after a dominant road win at Lane Stadium. In last week’s analysis, we discussed how Virginia Tech’s offense was fool’s gold. They didn’t have the raw talent (i.e., blue chip recruits) to quickly replace the high-end developed talent that departed (QB Jerod Evans, TE Bucky Hodges, and WR Isaiah Ford). The poor defenses they’d played in the season’s first four weeks (WVU, Delware, ECU, ODU) were covering up that fact. As the game played out, this analysis was validated.
Clemson struggled on special teams (they had one very poor punt, a short kickoff, and a missed FG), but a very good effort on offense and a downright dominant one on defense prevented this from being a four quarter battle.
With the win in Blacksburg, the Tigers have now passed what may be their three toughest tests of the regular season. They still have Georgia Tech, NC State, and Florida State remaining, but a focused and healthy Clemson team should dispatch those foes. Next they’ll have to maintain focus as the 4-1 Demon Deacons come into town after falling just short against Florida State.
Before we delve into analysis of the Wake Forest matchup, a few observations from Blacksburg. I was highly impressed the the VT fans and their campus. It has more of a country feel than I realized. The Hokie Stone used generously on the campus buildings gives it all a consistent look. The mountains and rivers around campus are breathtaking. The tailgating scene was good, the fans were respectful, and Lane Stadium was filled with the pomp and pageantry I hope for when attending a road game. Kudos Hokie faithful!
We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-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 two-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) 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 it’s an especially informative one.
A few notes specific to this analysis:
You may notice Clemson’s average ratings creep up this week. There are a couple factors that led to this.
- Sean Pollard (former four-star) jumped Tremayne Anchrum (former three-star) as the starter at RT.
- Marcus Edmond is not on the depth chart this week as he remains out with injury. For the first time AJ Terrell (former five-star) breaks the two deep. There are now four former five-star recruits in the two-deep on defense
Other items not impacting the ratings, but worth noting include
- Travis Etienne jumps CJ Fuller (both are former three-stars) despite a nice performance from Fuller - particularly in short-yardage - at VT. Etienne must be instilling confidence in his ability to pass block.
- Amari Rodgers jumps Cornell Powell as the second-string at the 2 WR position.
Following a dominant road win against a top 15 opponent, the Tigers return to Death Valley for Homecoming. It’s a recipe for a letdown. Fortunately, Saturday presents the opponent against which Clemson has enjoyed arguably more historical success than any - Wake Forest. Since 1950, Clemson is a mind blowing 55-9 against the Demon Deacons (64-17-1 all-time). Coach Swinney is 8-0.
For this first time since Week 1 against Kent State, our analysis shows the Tigers’ opponent to trail Clemson by a full star rating or more at each of the six position groupings we breakdown. The talent gap is one fitting of a MAC vs. ACC matchup, not an ACC Atlantic contest. For reference, the Deacons average 0.6 stars worse than Boston College on the O-line and 0.5 stars worse at the skill positions. They’ll face a massively uphill battle in Death Valley and will have to hope both the Clemson players and fans are relatively disinterested.
To their credit, Wake has outplayed their talent level. Last week, they took FSU to the brink. The Deacons rank 31st in the S&P+, and while their defense is once again ahead of their offense, they have a few pieces on offense that can hurt you. Senior QB John Wolford is sneaky fast and already has 332 rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs. This includes a 33-yard scamper against FSU’s speedy defense. He has 8 passing TDs to just 1 INT.
Maybe the only position where Wake Forest has a decisive advantage over Clemson is at TE. Cam Serigne is third on the team with 9 receptions and second with four receiving TDs.
At a position where Wake Forest faces a severe talent deficit against Clemson - wide receiver - they have a bright spot in Greg Dortch. The former three-star recruit whose only other P5 offers were from Maryland and Iowa State has 30 of Wake Forest’s 87 receptions. That’s a whopping 34% of the teams receptions! Dortch and Serigne account for nine of the Deacon’s 10 receiving TDs. Against the Tigers powerful pass rush, expect Wolford to continue rely heavily on Dortch in the slot and Serigne at TE.
Over the past three and a half seasons, Clemson’s defense has done an outstanding job shutting down opposing running attacks. It’s generally taken an outstanding running back to really do any damage against them. Dalvin Cook comes to mind. Matthew Dayes (NCSU), James Connor (Pitt), and Bo Scarbrough (Bama) also found some success. Wake Forest is averaging just 4.18 yards per carry this season. Their offensive line has four former two-star recruits starting and they don’t have an elite talent at RB. It would be extremely surprising if they are able to establish the run against Clemson.
Wake Forest fielded a solid defense last season, which catapulted their defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, to take the same position at Notre Dame. Fortunately for Wake Forest, Minnesota was undergoing staff changes with P.J. Fleck taking over and they were able to snatch DC Jay Sawvel from the Gophers. With Sawvel at the helm, the Deacon defense is continuing to perform. They are 16th in the nation in yards per play allowed at just 4.46 (Clemson is 7th at 3.87).
They are doing this despite averaging 0.33 stars worse than Boston College at linebacker and 0.25 worse than them in the secondary. Where they are strong however is on the defensive line, particularly at DE.
DE Duke Ejiofor flies under the radar because he plays in Winston-Salem, but NFL scouts have taken notice. CBS Sports ranks him above Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand and our own Clelin Ferrell for the 2018 NFL Draft. RT Sean Pollard will try to slow him down in his first start of the season (Pollard has received plenty of snaps, but is listed as the starter for the first time this season after starting down the stretch and in the National Championship last season). This will be a key matchup in the game.
The charts indicate a huge talent advantage for Clemson. Clemson’s defense should succeed in stuffing the run as they face an O-line with 2.20 star talent and a RB corps devoid of a star player. Look for Wake Forest to attack with quick passes to their slot receiver and TE. They’ll likely try some RPO and zone read to leverage Wolford’s speed and experience and try to play around Clemson’s athletic advantages. While this may be a strong approach, there’s little they can do if Clemson’s defense, which boasts four future NFL players starting on the defensive line, is focused.
The situation is less overwhelming when Clemson has the ball. The Tigers offense will face a quality defense, even if they aren’t the most talented. The Deacon’s DL will challenge the Clemson OL, particularly with DE Duke Ejiofor. This will be a good test for Clemson’s offensive line as coaches may choose to play conservatively with such an advantage when on defense. That means the O-line has to run block and keep the chains moving. Fortunately, if things are not going to plan, Kelly Bryant can throw a few jump balls to Deon Cain and Deondre Overton and count on them to bail him out.
This is one where Clemson may not come out with their hair on fire, but the Deacons should struggle to score and the Clemson offense will quietly get their numbers, even if it doesn’t come immediately.