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Top Ten Tilt as #1 Clemson Hosts #7 Miami

Litmus Test Time in October

NCAA Football: Virginia at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been that often that Clemson has had a home game with the kind of juice this one potentially brings. There was the Texas A&M game last year, but the Aggies never materialized into the national threat they were predicted by many to become. Clemson’s one close call in 2018 was an unexpected tussle with Syracuse. You’d probably have to dial it back to 2017’s Auburn game to find one with the promise of this year’s tilt with the Hurricanes. I’m all for it, so let’s dive in!

Clemson offense vs. Miami defense: This year’s Miami defense makes me think a good bit of the NCSU defense from two years back with Bradley Chubb and a good DL. Of course, that Pack defense had holes behind that front that got exposed, but there was some star power in the front you had to be wary of. This Miami team has some top-level edge guys to bring at the Tigers, including former 5-star recruit Jaelen Phillips, who looks every bit the type of dude the Tigers have enjoyed bringing off the edge in recent years. Fortunately, Clemson’s strength on the OL is with starting tackles Jackson Carman and Jordan McFadden. Miami has to hope its front four, with maybe bringing a fifth here and there, can adequately pressure Trevor Lawrence. If they can, the Hurricanes will have a real shot at an upset, but if not, they are likely to get exposed pretty badly. It all begins with dealing with Travis Etienne in both the run game and the pass game. This is not the night to mess around with scattering reps, this is a night to feature #9 to the fullest until the game is comfortably in hand. And I suspect it will take a lot of points to feel comfortable considering what Miami has on offense.

I saw enough with the Miami/Louisville game to know that they can definitely be had, and probably aren’t as strong in the middle as they were with guys like Shaquille Quarterman at linebacker from the previous couple of seasons. Their front four was more than enough to deal with a still struggling Florida State OL, so it didn’t matter so much their last time out. Very good linebacker play is a must when you are facing what Etienne brings to the table. He showed last week that smaller secondary players are not much of a match for him in the open field, even when they make good contact. UVA was more content to clog up the middle rather than look for heavy penetration in search of TFL’s. It was decently effective vs. the Clemson run game, and Etienne “only” got to 73 yards and “only” averaged 5.2 a carry. Of course, almost everyone would take 5.2 a carry from a lead back with a huge smile, but we all are spoiled by Travis’s nearly 8-yards-a-carry career. Still, Clemson was a couple of big dropped passes from a much bigger night than the still very solid 41 points and over 400 yards vs. a veteran UVA defense. And I unequivocally rank the Cavalier defense ahead of any the Hurricanes have seen so far this season.

There isn’t much doubt that Amari Rodgers is the alpha WR of the team this season. He once again delivered some big time explosive plays last weekend, and promises to be a handful for the Hurricane safeties and nickel backs. This should make life even easier for Frank Ladson, who is coming off two very nice weeks himself, and the recovering Joseph Ngata. Cornell Powell hasn’t made much noise as a pass catcher, but his work in the blocking game is likely getting him the level of snaps he is seeing. Trevor Lawrence continues to be an assassin who has rarely looked flustered during this 2020 season. You have to force Clemson to throw, but that means dealing with the best QB in the land. As long as his receivers don’t let him down with the drops like we have seen from time to time so far, things should continue to hum along.

Miami isn’t nearly as complex as UVA defensively. In their defense, they generally don’t have to be because they have higher grade athletes. UVA is among the best teams around with their disguises, but Trevor still got the vast majority of the protections set correctly, and never really put a ball in jeopardy. How much will Miami risk to pressure Lawrence? My guess is as little as possible at first unless Clemson finds itself behind the chains.

Of course, Clemson will need to be a heck of a lot more efficient on early downs than last week’s subpar performance. The penalty difference in the game with UVA was laughable, though the Cavs got away with a few holding violations that Alex Craft aptly pointed out in his film review. The Tigers need to play a much cleaner game in order to not allow Miami to really feel they can win the game. Miami hasn’t been a team to respond to getting hit in the mouth in the last few years. They can front-run with the best of them, though, and the Tigers don’t need to let Miami feel early success.

If the Tigers can run the ball, this will only be close if it is a shootout. Trevor is more than capable of throwing it all over the yard to win, but the Hurricanes will bank on their DE’s or perhaps a safety on a blitz to create big plays for them enough to get some stops. The new X-factors of Clemson’s tight ends and Etienne out of the backfield present some intriguing problems most defenses haven’t had to deal with in the Tony Elliot (and formerly Jeff Scott) offensive era.

Clemson defense vs. Miami offense: This, my friends, is really where this game hangs in the balance. Clemson is going to score points, so Miami better score some points as well if they want to win.

The Hurricanes have been doing that very well ever since the second-half spurt against UAB in their opener. D’Eriq King has been everything they hoped he would be, and Rhett Lashlee has emerged as the flavor of the month assistant coaching name out there. Will King put up a Lamar Jackson 2016 performance against Clemson, or will we see something closer to the 2017 game against Jackson when the Tiger defense dominated him until garbage time? Brent Venables will be determined to make King have to play hero ball. The Lashlee system is extremely dangerous if their inside run game is functioning. Clemson dominated the Lashlee-led Auburn’s offense for the most part the last two meetings thanks to shutting that part down. UGA showed last week that the Malzahn system still can look pretty tame if that inside run game isn’t working. Their passing game is very dependent on the play action element to be effective.

Miami’s tight ends are a real problem. Thankfully, Clemson has some quality tight ends as well so the defense won’t have to adjust quite as much as in some other years. The Tigers did a good job for the vast majority of the game with UVA’s big TE target. The Tiger corners should be able to lock up Miami’s so-so WRs on the outside with Kendrick, Goodrich, and a now more confident Booth in the mix. Clemson’s safeties other than Nolan Turner had a shaky game last week and will surely be targeted for this week’s game. Hopefully Lannden Zanders’ last pass breakup which ended UVA’s hopes for a comeback was the shot in the arm he needed to turn things around like Booth has done post-Wake Forest. Miami’s running backs are above average and have shown some explosiveness, albeit mostly thanks to very bad busts by the opposing defenses. And, of course, facing a Malzahn disciple means you better be ready for some gadget plays as well.

Clemson welcomes back Tyler Davis to the middle of the defense. He was reportedly ready to go last week but was held just to make sure he’d be ready for this one. Davis is so critical to creating the behind-the-line-of-scrimmage action we are accustomed to seeing from the Tiger defenses under Brent Venables. Another positive trend is just how well the Tigers tend to play after a “bad” game. The 2016 team followed up the loss to Pittsburgh by dominating everyone en route to a national title. The 2017 team followed up losing to Syracuse by dominating Georgia Tech in a monsoon. The 2018 team followed up a bad night against the Gamecocks by dominating Pittsburgh and blowing out Notre Dame and Bama for another title. After the UNC scare a year ago, nobody came within 30 points until the playoff. I fully expect a better performance this week than last, and it will be needed.

Clemson will look to make Miami play catch up, making them more one-dimensional, and see if King can execute the drop back game without the security blanket of play action. The UVA OL is easily top 2-3 in the ACC, if not the best, and Miami’s unit, though improved, isn’t that good. Clemson is still waiting for the return of starting DEs Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas, and there is some hope that Thomas at least might be able to play some this weekend. Clemson needs more bite out of the left DE beyond Myles Murphy, who was slowed last week by double teams and UVA’s QB draw built into every play approach. For the first time all year, Murphy looked like a freshman slightly slowed and confused at times. Justin Mascoll and K.J. Henry have been better vs. the run than the pass, so it appears they will begin to platoon more on the left side vs. the opposing right tackle. However, everything will look better if Davis can be his normal disruptive self on the inside.

Though Clemson is as good about the “faceless opponent” approach as any program in the nation, there can be little doubt that the Tigers, at least initially, lacked some respect for Armstrong from UVA. That won’t be the case this week with King coming to visit. That doesn’t mean the talented King won’t make some plays, but the focus level should not be a question from the Tigers.

Special Teams: This game features perhaps the two biggest legs in college football with B.T. Potter and Jose Borregales. Both guys have made 50+ yard field goals this year with plenty of room to spare. At this point, you have to think they are fighting it out for first team All-ACC, though Potter hasn’t had too many chances thanks to the efficiency of Trevor Lawrence. Clemson’s return game continues to look promising, with Lyn-J Dixon nearly breaking a kick return for a TD last week. The Tigers have been about as good as you can hope to see in this phase after years of dreadful special teams play in this dominant era. Hopefully that will continue on the big stage Saturday night.

OVERALL: I thought last week’s game was great for Clemson. I’ll look pretty stupid if Miami rips up the Tiger defense and shows that UVA simply exposed them. However, I don’t think that is the case, and Clemson will be foaming at the mouth to deal with the upstart Hurricanes. The U is still a name that carries some weight, even if the program hasn’t lived up to that billing much at all since 2003. Their guys talk plenty of trash and bring the brash behaviors that usually just get Clemson that much more dialed in. Frankly, Clemson needs someone to replace Florida State as a contender in the league. Miami is a good candidate, along with Virginia Tech. I don’t count Notre Dame just yet since they are likely a one-year-wonder for the ACC. In the end, I think Clemson treats Miami in a similar fashion to how the Alabama Crimson Tide did with Texas A&M last week.

Clemson 49-Miami 23