The dust is really beginning to settle around college football as it usually does in November. Among that dust are the charred remains of the Louisville Cardinals who were obliterated in Death Valley. I felt a little ambitious calling for a 70-14 win, but the team rolled up 77! Now Clemson faces its final true road game up in Boston against a team many pointed to as maybe their biggest threat in the Atlantic back in preseason.
The Eagles rebounded from taking a beating at the hands of Purdue and NC State to rise to #17 in the latest rankings. They are being rewarded with a visit from ESPN GameDay and a primetime kick. Of course, they should view these things as a negative as the more hype a game gets, the more likely it is the Tigers will play at a high level. I’m sure Addazio and company are thankful for the extra media attention this will bring, but deep down inside I bet he’s wishing for a noon kick on Raycom where they could best spring a trap for Clemson.
Of course, we know the culture of Dabo Swinney’s program demands proper attention to every opponent to avoid such traps, but last year’s team in particular was at its best in these environments. This is a great opportunity for Clemson to answer what Alabama did last weekend at LSU.
To me, BC and LSU are not that different and would have a very intriguing game if they were to play one another. While LSU certainly has the bigger stadium and louder fan following, I’d argue BC is a more complete team because the Eagles sport the type of Alpha running back LSU is used to having but lacks this year. LSU is better at corner and safety, no question, but the Eagles are much better at rushing the passer with their front four. Ultimately LSU’s inability to pressure with four guys left them vulnerable to Alabama’s dynamic offense. BC is better on the OL than LSU and more athletic at QB. I very much look at this contest as a similar “measuring stick” for Clemson as last week was for Alabama.
Clemson defense vs. BC offense: Ralph Friedgen and Tom O’Brien were the kings of the old approach to playing Clemson of “hit them in the mouth and they will back down” that worked pretty well during the Tommy Bowden years. O’Brien’s BC teams never seemed to match up athletically with Clemson but won games in the trenches. Jeff Jagodzinski employed much of the same mentality when he was running the show and the Eagles enjoyed a 3 game winning streak over Clemson when they entered the ACC. These days, Clemson is built just right for smash mouth games even though the offensive pyrotechnics often grab the attention. Boston College is going to line up with 2 tight ends and hammer the football as much as they possibly can. Their entire passing game, much like an option team’s, hinges on their ability to establish a run and force the secondary to cheat down where they can be exposed in play action. Much like the last two Georgia Bulldog teams, they can look pretty lethal on offense if they are able to get that run game going, but if forced into passing situations, they can be exposed pretty badly.
It all starts with running back A.J. Dillon and his backup Travis Levy. Dillon is like former Tiger great Raymond Priester with a better top gear. Older Tiger fans will recall how lethal Priester was if he was able to get any head of steam going north/south. Most of the time Raymond was able to do his thing and the Tigers had some offensive success, but there were always those games when a defense would be able to hit him consistently right at the line of scrimmage or behind it, which usually always meant offensive ineptitude for those Tiger teams. Dillon is a load at 245 pounds, but he is not 100% healthy at this point of the season and that is a serious concern for the Eagles.
Levy is a changeup back who has seen a lot more action in recent weeks, but it is hard to see the Eagles mounting any kind of a real upset threat without Dillon being able to get 4-6 yards a carry on average. David Bailey is another big body back they used a lot against Louisville when Dillon was out hurt, but he lacks the top end speed a healthy Dillon brings to the table. This is a game where Tanner Muse should shine his brightest coming downhill in the alleys against these backs. It will be important for the Tiger DL to get those backs going sideways. The defense did an outstanding job last year holding up to BC’s repeated efforts to pound the football right at the Tigers.
Eagles quarterback Anthony Brown is predictably improved from the freshman we saw last year. Brown is athletic enough to make a play with his feet and has hit on several big play touchdown throws this year off the play action game. However, Brown is not yet a guy who can drop back and beat you without that run game helping him out. Purdue exposed the Eagles earlier in the year when they held Dillon to 3.1 yards a carry and forced Brown to make throws to win. The result was four interceptions and a runaway Boilermaker victory. That game serves as a blueprint in how to deal with the Eagles and Clemson has far superior defensive personnel to follow it.
The two most dangerous threats BC has, in my opinion, are tight end Tommy Sweeney and QB turned WR Jeff Smith. It is has been a while since the Tigers faced a tight end threat like Sweeney presents. You’d have to go to back to the Texas A&M game, really. Both Sweeney and Smith have seemingly been playing for Boston College forever, but nearly every big play in the passing game I recall from BC involves one or the other. Smith, being a former QB, is always a threat to throw it on a double pass or end around pass.
Steve Addazio has already said that BC won’t make any big changes to try to move the ball against Clemson. They are going to come with what they know and hope they can do it well enough to win a slugfest. They have to control the clock, move the chains, and hope to get this game into the fourth quarter like they did last year before Travis Etienne ripped them apart. They are going to have to hit on at least two or three of their gadget or play action plays early on in the contest to have hope.
Clemson offense vs. BC defense: I’ve talked about the fully weaponized Tiger offense the last two weeks as Trevor Lawrence settled in as the starting quarterback and opened up the full passing game. Now that offense faces the best defense it will see before the playoffs, most likely, and on the road. Boston College has to hope its front four can hold up against the Clemson run game without having to add a lot of safety help.
I’m sure they will take their chances on the outside vs. the fade and go routes like many recent BC teams have done. Last year, Kelly Bryant struggled mightily to hit on those opportunities, and the Clemson offense mostly floundered for 3⁄4 of the game before leaning on Travis Etienne’s explosive running to pull away in the fourth quarter.
This BC defense is good, but not great. Their difference makers are at DE with Wyatt Ray and Zach Allen. Ray has the flashier numbers at this point, but Allen, to me, is their best player up front. He is a big DE and lines up against the right side of the OL, which has been the weaker area for Clemson’s pass protection this season.
The Tigers have made great strides since the trip to College Station, especially with the emergence of Gage Cervenka at both RG and C, and should have Sean Pollard back at full strength for this game as well. Of course, those guys face Austin Bryant and Xavier Thomas on the regular in practice, so no team is going to shock our system in that regard.
When BC is at its best, it is clogging up the middle run game and forcing obvious pass situations where they can drop into zones and play the football. Those ends are good enough that BC doesn’t blitz nearly as much as Louisville or Syracuse or even NC State. We should see a lot of bend but don’t break approaches from the Eagles who hope to keep things in front of them and punish people after the catch.
If they keep those safeties back, Clemson will need to run the ball down their throat and prove you can’t play 2 high on us now. However, the Eagles gave up 2 100 yard rushers to Wake Forest and nearly 2 against NC State as well as 171 to Temple’s Ryquell Armstead, so they can be had on the ground.
I feel confident in saying this is the most complete Clemson offense I have ever seen. The 2012-2013 groups were pretty amazing but couldn’t run the ball like this team can run it. The 2015-2016 teams were also amazing but were not nearly as deep with Mike Williams missing nearly all of 2015 and lacking great RB depth behind Wayne Gallman in 2016.
The last missing piece of this year’s offense, if there is one, would probably be the tight end involvement in the passing game. The screen game has been fixed, the run game is as lethal as it has ever been, and the team can take the top off of the defense in the passing game with Higgins, Ross, Rodgers, Overton, and, when needed, Renfrow.
The lack of serious drop in production when Clemson subs is probably the biggest thing separating this group from past units. I often don’t notice when backup OL are in the game, which is a big positive. It takes Clemson getting to the very back end of the roster before a real slippage is noticeable. The bad news for road opponents is the team can only play 72 guys who travel, so there is only so much calling off of the dogs Clemson can do!
Special Teams: Boston College is going to need a big game in this phase to spring the upset. Clemson doesn’t have many weaknesses, but the Tigers have been a little hit and miss with this area. We’ve seen muffed punts, we’ve seen our returners get blasted by unblocked guys, we’ve seen missed kicks, and we’ve seen shanked punts. Last week, we saw Louisville take a kick back for a TD (albeit in garbage time).
Clemson is also able to break some big plays here as well. We’ve seen Rodgers make some big punt returns and Derion Kendrick has provided a spark in the kick return game. The field goal block group is always a threat with Wilkins and Lawrence coming up the middle. The Eagles have had some ups and downs in this phase as well during the year. Their punting woes nearly let Wake Forest get them even when BC was manhandling the Deacons’ defense all game long. As always, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed when special teams are involved.
Overall: As I noted in the introduction, the bigger the stage, the better I like Clemson to play well. I respect what Addazio has done at Boston College, especially in how they are far outperforming their recruiting rankings. They have blasted rosters with four and five star guys from Southern California and Florida State in recent years. Their meeting with Syracuse should be very interesting in a couple of weeks.
Dave Doeren openly hoped this could be a game Clemson could drop (before his Pack lost to Syracuse of course, ha!) However, after watching the Eagles several times this year, it is impossible for me to think Clemson won’t win by 4 touchdowns barring turnover/injury/penalty craziness. Book those Charlotte tickets if you haven’t already.
Clemson 45-BC 10