Virginia is having their best season in recent memory, capping it off by finally ending Virginia Tech’s nightmarish streak in the Commonwealth Cup. The Cavaliers have improved every year under Bronco Mendenhall and will be playing in the ACC championship game for the first time ever. This is pretty remarkable for Charlottesville, which peaked as a football team before the first World War. Someone speaks their last words on the field in the opening paragraph of the football teams wiki page. The history is long and grim.
Since 2009 no one besides FSU and Clemson have won the Atlantic division, with Clemson taking the crown the last five seasons. In that time, all seven teams from the Coastal have won, with VT the only repeat winner. The ACC isn’t setup well, but it is funny Louisville hasn’t won their division yet and Duke has.
Clemson enters the ACC title game in a strange position, with the defending national champions feeling disrespected in the polls. To me it seems the Tigers scheduled reasonably aggressively out of conference (the Charlotte game doesn’t help if you’re playing Wofford too) but the ACC imploded around them. There’s nothing to be done, but if people are saying your conference might be on par with the AAC (which is having a strong 2019) this year you are going to have a hard time impressing the playoff committee. Slipping once, even if it’s something Clemson does every year, even if you blow everyone else out, is going to cost you. I’m not sure the Tigers can do anything to be ranked 1st overall. It’s not ideal. We’ve won two of the last three national titles, no one is crying for us.
It’s a shame it’s happening this year though. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about the seeding of a four-team neutral site playoff before. One, winning means you’re going to have to play 2/3rds of the teams in it anyways. Two, the 1 seed has yet to win the whole thing. Three, there have been multiple years where the 1 seed wound up the underdog to the 4 seed. Getting worked up about it felt silly. This year I think it matters. The 4 seed is weaker than normal and the 3 seed (probably the Tigers?) is stronger.
None of that matters if we lose on Saturday. It’s unlikely (SP+ gives Clemson almost a 90% shot of winning) but it could happen. If it does, it’s going to be because Bryce Perkins played his ass off. You could make a statistical case Perkins was as good of a college QB as Kyler Murray last year. The senior has accounted for over 80% of Virginia’s yardage this year, and that number is even higher against the best teams the Cavaliers played. Bud Foster was comparing him to Donovan McNabb last week. If not for sacks Perkins would be closing in on a 3,000 yard passing/1,000 yard rushing season. Virginia is going to go as far as he takes them. Last week the RB’s got just six carries, with Perkins getting three times as many. The Cavaliers don’t have a great offense (57th in SP+) but managed to take down the Hokies with a combination of big plays and turnovers. With a little luck, Perkins might just be good enough to pull this off.
When they can, the Cavaliers run a diverse offense that regularly features multiple tight ends, 1-2 backs in the backfield and unbalanced formations. They shift and adjust to create advantages in the passing and running game, and when it works they’re able to manufacture big plays and/or advantageous matchups.
When it doesn’t work it looks like the defense knew what was coming.
The Cavaliers running game has a variety of blocking schemes, and makes good use of TE (#44) Tanner Cowley as a mobile blocker on the perimeter or in the box.
The ground game has been hit or miss all season, with the Cavaliers struggling to find consistent production from running backs. There are currently three backs listed as possible starters, but the majority of RB carries will probably go to Wayne Taulapapa. The Cavaliers are willing to abandon the running game if it isn’t working.
The Tigers have one of the better rush defenses in the country, the running game probably isn’t going to work. The majority of the carries will go to Perkins, who can hurt you in the option game.
But he is deadliest scrambling or running the QB draw.
Virginia’s receiving core is deep and experienced, the TE is a weapon, and the QB is good enough to make it all go. If the running game is a threat, they are quite good at designing RPO’s and play-action shots downfield. Perkins has the arm strength to make most throws, although he’s a little sketchy throwing to the sidelines.
Perkins can dissect teams that give him easy pre-snap reads. With that said, disguising coverages has always been a strength of Venables. Because Perkins is so good on the draw, there often will be an option for him to keep it with a RB lead blocking. It’s backyard football principles (give the ball to your best athlete and clear out) but there’s structure.
These seem like exactly the kind of plays that Isaiah Simmons, who leads the team in sacks, can solve as a QB spy.
Virginia has the receivers and QB to take shots downfield, and is likely going to have to make plays on passing downs to make this game close. That doesn’t bode well against an elite Tiger secondary.
It’s also an open question if the line can hold up. They’re not great in general and can be overwhelmed with blitzes. Perkins is a phenomenal scrambler, and he doesn’t make many mistakes throwing the ball. With that said, he is a remarkably worse passer under pressure. If he gets banged up, this is over for the Cavaliers.
There’s a blueprint for Virginia to win. It’s going to take turnovers, big plays, and taking advantage of special teams (where they quietly have an advantage). This isn’t a defense this Virginia offense has a lot of consistent advantages on, and even if they can move the ball they’ve struggled in the red zone in losses. It’s going to take a lot of Bryce Perkins and even more Bryce Perkins. Even then I have a hard time seeing the upset. The Cavaliers are going to need a little luck to even keep this game close.