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ACC Title Game Preview: #1 Clemson vs. #7 Miami

Tigers look to punch another ticket to the playoffs!

NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

I would be remiss if I didn’t first start with commenting on last week’s Palmetto Bowl victory. I truly got a kick out of all those Gamecock fans I ran into prior to the game, either personally or on social media, who had genuinely convinced themselves they were going to pull the upset. The game went pretty closely to what I expected (my call was 38-12, we won 34-10). That fully weaponized Tee Higgins also made a difference, as he will continue to do going forward. My lone regret to this point is not having had a chance to hear the Todd Ellis broadcast of that beating. When we beat the chickens, you can feel his pain and nearly taste his tears , which of course are delicious. The only logical answer for the “5 bombs” is to run an unprecedented 6+ game win streak on them in the series. That is a highly likely scenario at this stage.

As for the ACC championship game, I couldn’t be more excited to face the Miami Hurricanes. I actually hoped they would stave off the upset at Pitt to add even more hype to this game, but I’ll take a top 10, 1 loss U over what could have come out of the Coastal. Miami still has that name and their VT/ND game wins vaulted them back into a national spotlight. They have received much more attention, in my opinion, than the Tarheels got two years ago who were also a 1 loss team entering the title bout. I say this because the bigger the spotlight, the more I like Clemson to prevail. I thought Danny Ford was always the master at getting his team to play at a high level against the toughest opponents, but Dabo Swinney has managed to surpass even that lofty standard. There is no assurance Clemson will win out, but I feel confident the team will perform at a pretty high level in these high stakes games. The last big game “egg” this program laid was that game many don’t recall against the Noles. Even the 2013 loss to USCjr was hard fought into the fourth quarter despite 6 crippling turnovers (and you aren’t beating any decent to good team -6 in turnovers). The Hurricanes have gotten a taste of the spotlight as well, but now they are going to taste it away from their friendly confines of Hard Rock Stadium.

Clemson offense vs. Miami defense: This is an excellent, excellent barometer for the current state of the Clemson offense. Miami is not quite as talented as FSU or Auburn on defense as a whole, but they are close and are much more cohesive than the Seminoles have been this year. They have been one of the most opportunistic defenses I’ve seen in recent years and sport an ungodly +17 turnover ratio for the season. Everybody knows about the turnover chain, which has been by far the most effective and popular incentive for turnovers among the many across the country. The bottom of that list had to be Butch Jones and his trashcan. Job 1 has to be protecting the football, if it wasn’t always job 1. Thankfully this team has done a very good job of that for the season. Miami, like most opponents Clemson faces, will need to win this margin to win the game.

Miami’s defense might just be the one who warrants Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott breaking out the full tendency breakers. We’ve seen just glimpses of this during the year (a little vs. GT, a little vs. FSU, a little vs. NCST, a little vs. USCjr.). The Tigers showed some new reverse and counter action last week, the RPO Tight End seam route against GT, the movement of Tee Higgins from outside to slot in four wide, etc. Clemson busted out the fake QB power, deep ball vs. NCST (though Bryant missed a wide open TD on that one). I haven’t run the numbers, but the Tigers have to be upwards of 90+% inside run off jet sweep action (especially in short yardage). I could see Clemson using those outside sweeps a lot more than normal hoping to catch Miami selling out inside. We’ve had folks sell out and leave that open many times this year, but the staff has been content to keep it in the bag. One thing I’ve learned about Scott and Elliot is they really know how to play the long game, so to speak, with what they show and use. However, if Clemson can get out in front and in relative control the way they have done most of the year, I expect the plan to go back to the usual things. I felt Chad Morris, as great as an offensive mind as he is, would show a lot more of his play card even in games that were in hand. A good friend of mine in HS coaching faced Jeff Scott back in his Blythewood days and noted how adept he was at setting you up for something via heavy tendencies. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind when watching the offense from the 2014 Champs Bowl to now.

I actually felt the chickens did a good job against the Clemson run game last week, but the Tigers still finished with 185 yards on the ground. Miami is much better up front than Coot U, but their aggressive cover 4 style (as Alex Craft pointed out, similar to Clemson’s) can lend itself to giving up explosive plays. Tiger fans know this all too well from busts (especially by the 2015 team) and big runs given up. I still think there is a game looming soon where the staff really leans on Travis Etienne and ups his touch number closer to the 20-25 range. There is no way he doesn’t pop an explosive play or two with that many opportunities. If you haven’t checked the ESPN story on him out, I recommend it. It’s all coming together at just the right time. While Miami has been outstanding overall on defense, they are much more feast or famine compared to Clemson in this regard. They remind me of Virginia Tech in a lot of ways, defensively.

Clemson defense vs. Miami offense: In my mind, the biggest problem Miami has going into this game is the gap between the Tiger D and their offense is the biggest mismatch in the game. While Rosier has been an adequate quarterback this year with some moments of brilliance sprinkled in, I don’t rank him anywhere near the top tier of QB’s Clemson has faced so far this year (beginning with the incomparable Lamar Jackson, followed by Eric Dungey, Ryan Finley, and then Jarrett Stidham). To me, Rosier is in the Bentley range in that he can make some plays running here and there and has made some big throws, but also has had wild bouts of inaccuracy and a bad turnover here and there. Unfortunately for the Canes, they are down two of their top outside threats in Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon (a combined 64 catches, 916 yards, and 7 TD’s) and will have to rely even more on running back Travis Homer and slot WR Braxton Berrios.

Pittsburgh absolutely sold out to stop the Miami run game last week and just took their chances with Rosier throwing it. They did the same vs. Clemson last year and even though Deshaun Watson lit them up for 580 yards passing, the 3 interceptions Pitt snagged were just enough to help them win by a point. Miami was much less equipped to throw their way to victory as their run game was stuffed for just 45 yards and 2 yards a carry. Clemson will absolutely look to take Homer and the Miami run game away and trust a much healthier secondary to hold up. If Rosier has to throw more than 25 times, the Canes are going to be in real trouble.

Thankfully Dorian O’Daniel (who, by the way, was robbed of first team All-ACC status, what a joke) has had plenty of time checking Hunter Renfrow in practice and should be as prepared as anybody to check the very similar Braxton Berrios. Berrios is an impressive kid and excellent student to go along with being a great player. When guys like him are your best players, your entire team tends to be much stronger and has to be considered a huge part of Miami’s resurgence. Of course, Clemson fans know that Dabo Swinney has built his program on several players fitting this mold. Miami has some bandwagon fans coming back on the scene, but I will say it was refreshing seeing another hyped up venue in the ACC when the Canes played VT and ND. The ACC has caught and passed the SEC in many aspects regarding football, but the overall fan passion across the conference is an area which still needs to grow. Hopefully Miami can maintain that type of passion from its fans.

Special Teams: Clemson needs to be careful in this third phase of the game. Miami has an excellent kicker in Michael Badgley, who certainly has an edge over Alex Spence. Berrios is also a very dangerous punt returner. Meanwhile, Clemson has threatened to break a big kick return after inserting the uber dangerous Travis Etienne back there and Ray Ray McCloud always lurks as a big play threat in punt return. Once again, Clemson just needs to break even here if nothing else.

Overall: I said it last year and I’ll say it again: I hope VT and Miami are regulars in the ACC Championship game from the Coastal side. ESPN GameDay is bringing extra attention to the venue and it wouldn’t be possible if a Duke or UNC or GT were representing the other side. I congratulate Miami on a great year. That said, I don’t feel the “U” is anywhere near ready for a stage of this magnitude away from home in front of what will be 70% or more Clemson fans. Dabo told the Board when he was interviewing that his goal was to have a program others wanted to emulate, and Miami is one of those, in many ways, who is trying to do that. However, it is a process and the Hurricanes are too early into theirs to win this game.

Clemson 35-Miami 17