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ACC Championship Preview: Clemson Goes for 5 in a Row!

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NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

I thought I’d start out with weighing in on this Dabo vs. the media thing that has blown up since the domination of the University of South Carolina. There is no question that the media crusade against the legitimacy of this Clemson team occurred post UNC, and it is difficult to find anything that has happened to another program in a similar position in recent history. Equivalent teams to this current Clemson team, in my mind, would be like the 2005 Southern California team. When the Trojans barely escaped with a win at a good but not great Notre Dame, the narrative was a lot less about the struggles of the Trojans and a lot more about how great Notre Dame played, and the genius of their new coach Charlie Weiss (lol at that one). When Alabama narrowly avoided a monumental upset at home against Lane Kiffin and Tennessee in 2009, there was a lot less noise about Alabama’s issues and, again, the genius of Kiffin and the fight of the Vols. I guess North Carolina just doesn’t carry the same clout as Notre Dame and Tennessee despite having a coach who has won a national championship. The playoff committee’s ranking of Clemson at #5 was one of the most ridiculous things in the committee’s history, which includes what it did to TCU and Baylor in 2014. There were legitimate media conversations about how Clemson could go undefeated and be left out of the playoffs. I know this because I heard them with my own ears and read them coming from media folks on social media. In the end, the cream has begun to rise and the media, most notably Paul Finebaum, is either backtracking on their original takes or outright taking offense to being called out for their own exposed narratives. Some argue that Swinney should simply keep his head down, coach the team, and not worry about what is being said. That might be the right move IF it hadn’t already been made clear just how much these media agenda pushes affect vote driven rankings and awards.

Now Clemson heads to what has become a second home in Charlotte, North Carolina, for what could and should be its fifth straight ACC championship. This time, the Coastal round robin has produced the Virginia Cavaliers, who cracked the rankings this week at #23. Bronco Mendenhall has proven to be a home run hire for the Cavs, who were the laughing stock of the league towards the end of the Mike London era. In 4 years, the Cavs have gone from 2-10 to 9-3, humiliated the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the Belk Bowl, broken their long losing streak to rival Virginia Tech, and won their first division crown. This type of job at an equivalent SEC or Big10 school (say Kentucky, Arkansas, Indiana, or Minnesota [which we are already seeing]) would be lauded far and wide and Mendenhall would be mentioned as a major candidate at every big job opening the way P.J. Fleck currently is. I’m old enough to remember when George Welsh took UVA to a #1 ranking for part of the 1990 season, snapped the winless streak against Clemson, and was the first ACC team to take down Florida State in a league game. Mendenhall is easily the best coach UVA has had since then.

While UVA is a nice story, and I will certainly be pulling for them in their bowl game, they have the unfortunate luck of being the next target on the Clemson goal board. The Tigers have had just the one slip in focus all season at North Carolina, and have otherwise been the most dominant team in program history. It will take a monumental performance from the Cavs with more than a little help from Clemson playing sloppy for an upset to occur.

Clemson offense vs. UVA defense: The Cavs will bring perhaps the best defense the Tigers have seen all season to this game. Texas A&M had Mike Elko and some high end talent on the roster, but the Cavs have been pretty strong all season and are the #27 total defense in the country. Mendenhall made his mark in coaching as a defensive guy whose multiplicity at usually offensive minded BYU was well respected in coaching circles before his move to Charlottesville. UVA will present some unique challenges with how they attack with their linebackers and safeties which should be good for the offensive line, tight ends, and backs to deal with before the playoffs. Obviously UNC is the teach tape for how that type of pressure managed to slow down the otherwise prolific Clemson offense in a way that hasn’t been seen before or since in 2019. Of course, the Tigers are playing at a much higher level now than they were then, especially Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Virginia Tech’s offensive skill gave the Cavs a good bit of trouble, but when VT was in must pass mode, the UVA pressure overwhelmed them. The Cavs are tied for 6th in the country in sacks and clearly thrive if you aren’t able to stay on schedule and they know you are going to pass.

UVA really hasn’t had to face a running attack like Clemson’s all year. They struggled with three above average rushing attacks from Louisville (loss), North Carolina (shoot out win), and Notre Dame (loss). Hawkins and Cunningham combined for well over 200 yards rushing for Louisville, while Carter and Williams from UNC combined for 30 carries and 185 yards (over 6 yards a carry). Notre Dame’s Tony Jones, Jr. ripped them for 131 yards, 3 TDs, and 7.3 yards per carry. Clemson is definitely going to lean on Etienne, Dixon, and to a lesser degree Lawrence, to keep UVA honest and stay ahead of the sticks. UVA lost star defensive back Bryce Hall for the season, and thus lost their best hope of having a guy who could perhaps match up with Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross. Even so, South Carolina did have their top line corner available last week, but the Clemson offensive staff did a masterful job of scheming up the other defensive backs with formations to effectively neutralize the impact Jaycee Horn could have on the game. This will make UVA have to protect their corners on run downs in a way that should open up the run game more for Clemson.

Clemson defense vs. UVA offense: Bryce Perkins carries this Virginia offense in a way similar to what Woody Dantzler did for Clemson in 2000 and 2001. He is their best player on offense by a mile and can kill you if he is able to get his run game going. We saw that very well last week against VT when Perkins put up 475 yards of total offense on the Hokies. Perkins also killed the Tarheels with 490 yards total offense. I’m not sure what VT’s initial gameplan was, but their aggressive rush opened up huge lanes for Perkins to run in the first half. Once that was established, Perkins was able to feast off of play action.

Clemson, of course, has the perfect weapon against a guy like Perkins. Whereas Perkins is usually a superior athlete to the linebacker normally employed to spy him, Clemson has the best defensive athlete in college football playing linebacker in Isaiah Simmons. Brent Venables will just need to make sure any lead block attempts to take Simmons out are neutralized. Clemson also has two other pretty impressive guys in Tanner Muse and K’von Wallace who can also run with Perkins. I saw what North Carolina was able to do to Clemson in 2001 with a superior front and corners who could lock up in man outside. Woody Dantlzer had put up nearly 1000 yards of total offense in two weeks before being held to just 116 by the Tarheels. What was true then is true now, one superior talent can help you beat mediocre to decent defenses, but it just isn’t enough against a top level defense like Clemson’s. The Miami Hurricanes are the only somewhat comparable defense to Clemson that UVA has faced this season. The Hurricanes are #13 in total defense, and they really gave UVA fits in their 17-9 win back in October. Perkins and the Cavs couldn’t run the ball at all against Miami and were therefore hapless in the red zone when they got there.

I anticipate Clemson will employ a lot of the 3 man front dime packages we saw used against Kellen Mond earlier in the season. Venables wasn’t going to let Mond create with his legs and wasn’t that worried about the Aggie running backs. The extra speed and versatility that presents will very likely be too much for UVA to process and handle. The only real way to beat it is to attack it with a power run game which the Cavs just don’t have.

Clemson’s pass defense has been so good that teams simply have avoided trying to pass much at all. The Tigers have faced, by far, the fewest pass attempts among the top defenses in the FBS. No team has faced less than 300 attempts while Clemson has faced a mere 290. Clemson did face an option team in Wofford, but last year’s team faced Paul Johnson’s GT, Georgia Southern, and Furman, and STILL saw more pass attempts against it in 12 games than this year’s team. Coaches know that trying to throw to beat Clemson is a recipe for disaster, so everyone is trying to run it as much as possible, even though the Tigers are allowing a meager 2.91 yards per carry. 12 games in, this is the best defense in Clemson football history and is just a fraction of a yard from the top total defense in the land behind Ohio State. It is every bit as good and scary as Nick Saban’s best units at Alabama, but has amazingly been undervalued by the national media as a whole.

Special Teams: I’ve taken my shots at Spiers this year, as you readers are aware, but I will give the guy credit for punting well against U of SC last week. This team might never really need him to be a factor, but we can only hope that he steps up if that time does come when flipping the field position or pinning a team inside the 10 is essential. As for B.T. Potter, I almost feel better when he has to kick long kicks than the shorter ones. He’s 2-2 from 50+ but is just 58.8% overall for the season. I wouldn’t feel great about a game coming down to Potter right now, but that might not happen the way this team has been dominating.

UVA’s punter is just #11 in the ACC, and Spiers is coming off just his second game all season of averaging more yards per punt than the opponent. Charlton from U of SC was still a solid 44.9 yards a punt on 7 punts, but it stopped a streak of guys going for over 50 a kick. I must say I was thrilled to see Etienne back at kick returner, and he nearly busted his first one for a huge gain, if not TD. At this point in the season, you put your best guys in position to touch the ball as much as possible.

Overall: UVA has had a good year for sure. Like VT, they missed their chance of taking out Notre Dame and putting a whole other light on their accomplishments, but winning the division is nothing to sneeze at even if it is the Coastal. Lord knows we waited seemingly forever for Clemson to win the Atlantic when it wasn’t a great division while Boston College and Wake managed to pull it off. They are well coached and Bryce Perkins is a great player. Clemson is just a team on a mission and playing on a level maybe 2 or 3 teams in the nation can hope to match. UVA isn’t one of them.

Clemson 48-UVA 10