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Blue Chip Depth Chart Analysis: Clemson at Virginia Tech Preview

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NCAA Football: West Virginia vs Virginia Tech Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in three weeks, College Gameday will follow the Tigers as they travel to face a top 15 opponent anxious for revenge after consecutive losses to Clemson. Two weeks ago it was a trip to Louisville - a team that took the Tigers to the brink in 2016, but lost many of its key pieces on offense. This week, it’s another opponent that proved formidable before eventually falling to the Tigers last season. Both UL and VT returned just five starters on offense and seven on defense with the obvious difference being the return of Lamar Jackson.

Before we delve into analysis, let’s start with our usual caveat:

We've divided the offense and the defense each into three portions. On offense, the starting QB comprises one-third of the rating, the heaviest weight for any single player. The five starting offensive linemen comprise another third, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) comprise one-third. They are displayed separately as well as as part of the overall offense average.

Similarly on defense, the two-deep along the D-line, at linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

We acknowledge there are some players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who under-perform their star ratings. Nevertheless, recruited talent is strongly correlated with wins on the field. In 2016, this analysis revealed a major talent deficit for Louisville along the O-line. Despite solid performance from their O-line to that point, we cited this as reason for optimism and Clemson validated that optimism by winning at the line of scrimmage.

A few notes specific to this analysis:

  • Clemson sees its ratings on offense bump up a bit with former three-star TE Cannon Smith taking the second-string role previously held by DJ Greenlee.
  • The defense will be without Marcus Edmond, which shifts K’Von Wallace from safety to cornerback and likely means at least one of Nolan Turner or Denzel Johnson (both former two-stars) sees more time. This is reflected in the data.
  • On the flip side, four-star freshman Justin Foster replaces three-star freshman Logan Rudolph as the backup at SDE.

When I think of Virginia Tech, I can’t help but think back to 2007, when they were the clearly superior team and program. They came into Death Valley and won handily. We’ve played four times since then and the Tigers have gone 4-0. The talent deficit has shifted and it’s evident in the chart above. Virginia Tech shows straight 3.00 across the board on offense, giving Clemson the raw talent advantage at all three levels on offense.

The Hokies haven’t been known for their offense since the Vick brothers, so maybe that’s not a shock. What’s been surprising is the high-level play they’ve gotten out of RS freshman Josh Jackson.

The unexpected NFL draft declaration from QB Jerod Evans represented a big blow for Fuente’s offense that was already losing its best receiver, Isaiah Ford, and a very talented TE (Bucky Hodges). His replacement, Josh Jackson, received just a handful of Power 5 offers as a three-star prospect (Utah, WVU, BC, Minn, NW) and being thrust into this position so quickly seemed like trouble for the Hokies. That’s a big reason I picked Miami to win the division and wondered if Virginia Tech would even finish second. Thus far, Josh Jackson has made the Hokies look like the Coastal favorites though. Take a look:

Jackson has 11 passing TDs and just a single INT. He also has a 65% completion percentage and a 4-0 record. He’s been impressive and deserves the credit he’s getting, but he’s also faced some pretty vulnerable defenses. If you watched the highlights above, you likely noticed him connecting on some deep throws... to completely open receivers. Even with Clemson CB Marcus Edmond out and Trayvon Mullen questionable, he will not see windows like those in the highlights. Virginia Tech’s offense has tangled with the 66th (WVU), 87th (Old Dominion), and 128th (ECU) best scoring defenses in the country. It’s possible (and it’s my hypothesis) that they haven’t overcome the bevy of departures on offense, but instead have benefited from facing weak defenses. It’s the same situation Louisville found itself in after putting up impressive totals against North Carolina and Purdue (who would be the best scoring defense VT has played).

They play the 3rd best scoring defense this week with the Tigers coming into town. Windows will be much tighter. Blitzes will come much faster and more often. Let’s take a look at those defenses:

If this #ChartArt looks similar it’s because Virginia Tech’s recruited talent on defense is exactly equal to Louisville’s. Given VT’s reputation for salty defense this was a bit of a surprise to me. Given the offensive thrashing the Tigers laid on the Cardinals, this is highly encouraging. Of course, the Hokies’ defense is coached by DC Bud Foster and will present more issues than a Cardinal defense missing star CB Jaire Alexander. Nevertheless, their talent level doesn’t compare to Auburn, whom held Clemson to just 14 points.

A look at the 2014-2016 recruiting classes explains the talent-deficit well. The table below shows the players from those recruiting classes as rated by Rivals.

‘14 - ‘16 Clemson vs. Virginia Tech Recruiting Classes

Team 5-Star 4-Star 3-Star
Team 5-Star 4-Star 3-Star
Clemson 7 26 28
Virginia Tech 0 18 41

The talent gap is significant. It’s similar to what we saw with Louisville, it’s just more surprising because Virginia Tech is a much more established program with such a proud tradition.

Virginia Tech is 12th in the AP Poll and they deserve to be there based on their resume, but they’re just 20th in the S&P+ and their talent level looks a lot more like a team ranked around 20th (if we’re extremely generous) than one ranked around 10th.

Prediction

Before I began writing this article, I was ready to pick a Clemson loss for the first time in three years. We’re going on the road to the #12 ranked team in the country on the heels of a poor performance at home against Boston College. Blacksburg is going to be rocking and we’ll get their best shot. A couple of injuries (particularly Edmond, Mullen, Fields, and Huegel) could present some problems too. I didn’t have a good feeling, but after collecting this data and building the charts, this game looks like one in which the Tigers should be favored by a touchdown (as they are).

Virginia Tech is only converting on 44.1% of their third downs compared to Clemson converting at 52.5%. The Hokies have benefited from facing some lackluster defenses and like Louisville, that will become clear as they face an elite defense on Saturday night.

While much of these data point to a repeat of Louisville, Virginia Tech should provide a tougher challenge for a few reasons. Firstly, their offensive line has only allowed four sacks and should do a better job of allowing them to find some balance and keep their QB upright (for reference, Clemson has allowed 10 sacks). Clemson benefited from matching up their biggest strength (the DL) with the Cardinals key weakness (the OL). Secondly, while I certainly don’t doubt the offensive-mind of Bobby Petrino, Louisville was only in game three with new DC Peter Sirmon, who with all due respect doesn’t have the resume of VT DC Bud Foster. Finally, Lane Stadium should provide an incredible home field advantage (one I can’t wait to experience).

The Hokies will give the Tigers all they can handle, but I am betting on Kelly Bryant to bounce back from a mediocre performance against Boston College. Even more so, I’m betting on Clemson’s defense to be the difference in the game and prove that the Hokie offense hasn’t completely gotten over some key personnel losses from last season.