When: Wednesday, Dec 29th at 5:45 PM ET
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida
Happy holidays STS readers! I hope it has been a joyous season for everyone as we approach the final game of what has been an odd 2021. This game features a lot of new things, particularly for Clemson who will have new coordinators for the first time since 2014’s visit to this same bowl. Iowa State offers a brand new opponent whom the Tigers have never played before in the history of the schools. Ordinarily I would be writing up a preview of a CFP Semifinal. Despite falling short of that goal this season, the Tigers are still in position to win a 10th game for the 11th straight season.
Iowa State was picked to finish 2nd in the Big 12 and were a lot of people’s choice to upend Oklahoma’s reign thanks to having veteran QB Brock Purdy and star running back Breece Hall. Head coach Matt Campbell has garnered a reputation of doing more with less and has been in the discussion for many of the big job openings in college football over the last three seasons. Like Clemson, the Cyclones got off to a bumpy start after losses to in-state rival Iowa and eventual Big 12 Champion Baylor put them at 2-2. However, unlike the Tigers, they did not really rebound all that well other than springing a big upset over eventual Big 12 runner-up Oklahoma State. The Cyclones went 2-2 in November with losses vs. Oklahoma and a bad one vs. Texas Tech. I’ll discuss those two games a little more in a bit.
Breece Hall finished the season with a bang going for 242 yards on just 18 carries with 3 touchdowns in a rout over TCU. I suppose he felt that was better tape to end on than the prospect of facing the Clemson defense and has since opted out and declared for the draft.
Iowa State features the 3-3-5 defensive look that was problematic for Clemson earlier in the year. Overall, the Cyclones got one very good win over Oklahoma State and had two pretty bad losses against West Virginia and Texas Tech who both finished sub .500 in conference play. Like Clemson, though, all their losses were very competitive games into the fourth quarter.
Clemson offense vs. Iowa State defense: Brandon Streeter takes over as offensive coordinator for new UVA head coach Tony Elliott. This decision has caused some consternation among some of the Clemson faithful, but Streeter brings experience as a play caller into the role as well as unquestioned familiarity with the offense and personnel. Probably the best news for him is that Clemson will be about as healthy as they have been in a while and the team has discovered its offensive identity down the stretch of 2021. This team knows that it can run the ball with talented young backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace (now donning the Cliff Austin #7 look). Beaux Collins has emerged as WR1 and should remain in that role even with the potential return of Joseph Ngata. EJ Williams missed practice supposedly due to COVID protocol. Should he play, it would allow Clemson to be more multiple at WR than they were able to be the last few games of the regular season when walk-ons Will Swinney and Will Brown were getting heavy snaps along with true freshman Dacari Collins. Ajou Ajou was healthy but had fallen behind all of those guys before opting for the transfer portal and Jeff Scott’s South Florida program.
I think we will still see a decent amount of the two back looks the Tigers featured against the U of SC. Iowa State’s last two losses saw Texas Tech and Oklahoma rush for over 200 yards. Iowa State’s defensive numbers are right there with Clemson’s overall, but those two games present evidence that the Tigers can establish the run game as we all know they have to do this year for offensive success. DJ Uiagalelei should also be as healthy as he has been in a long time, even though he will still reportedly have a splint on his finger and a knee brace. Regardless, I’m not sure how much his health has factored into some of his uneven accuracy. Despite that, DJU has been a lot better at recognizing things post-snap and in his decision making in the read-option and RPO elements of the system. I’m sure the Cyclones will work hard to make him win this game with his arm and that should present some big play opportunities. DJ’s ability to connect on a couple of those could very well be the difference in this game.
Clemson has to protect the ball as we all know. Turnover margin has been a big deal in Iowa State’s season. They likely would have beat Oklahoma and definitely Iowa if not for being -6 in the turnover margin for those two games combined. To be honest, I think Iowa State is a little more equipped to throw to win with Purdy than Clemson is with DJ. Clemson’s OL needs to continue to build on its good work down the stretch and allow the Tigers to throw when they want to. Oklahoma threw for just 98 yards against them but ran for 208 to win that game.
The three guys who jump out at you stat wise for the Cyclones defense are Eyioma Uwazurike, Will McDonald, and Mike Rose. DE Uwazurike has 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. DE McDonald has 11.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. LB Rose is second on the team in tackles and adds 3 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Uwazurike is the most concerning for me considering he measures in at 6-6 320.
Clemson defense vs. Iowa State offense: Just like on offense, Clemson breaks in new coordinator Wes Goodwin (with co-coordinator Mickey Conn) for this game. It is certainly going to be weird not seeing that familiar neon cap on the sidelines living and dying with every snap. There was bound to be life after Brent Venables, and now that time has arrived. Goodwin promises to retain the aggressive and multiple approach which has been the hallmark of the unit since 2012. He has a good test to start considering the veteran quarterback on the other side.
I have wondered what might happen with Clemson’s roster if the Tigers were in a non-playoff bowl. Thankfully, the guys who aren’t hurt or transferring are all playing in this game, including the several draft eligible members of this defense. Meanwhile, as noted earlier, Breece Hall has opted out for Iowa State. Unlike Clemson, their RB1 Hall has almost entirely represented the Iowa State run game, piling up 1,340 more yards and 230 more carries than the next leading running back on the Cyclones’ roster. That is an even wider gap than what we saw last year behind Travis Etienne.
Hall’s absence puts this game squarely on the shoulders of quarterback Brock Purdy. Purdy is very capable, if he protects the football, of winning this game. The UGA game was a bit of an outlier, but the other two losses saw opposing quarterbacks Devin Leary and Kenny Pickett throw for 6 combined touchdowns. Purdy enters this game with a gaudy 73.1% completion percentage which would easily be tops in the ACC (Kenny Pickett’s 67.2% led the ACC). Of course, he’s had the benefit of teams worrying about Breece Hall. This is not to say Purdy cannot or will not perform well without Hall, but it certainly puts more pressure on him than in any other game this season.
Clemson can counter with two of the best cornerbacks in all of college football. Iowa State is led on the outside by Xavier Hutchinson’s 82 catches, 953 yards, and 5 touchdowns. Mario Goodrich and Andrew Booth will look to take him away depending on what side of the formation they line him up. The X-factor may very well be how Clemson handles tight end Charles Kolar who is second on the team with 58 catches, 723 yards, and 5 touchdowns. Kolar and fellow tight end Chase Allen are big parts of the passing game, no doubt also benefitting from teams focusing on Breece Hall. It will be very interesting to see how Goodwin decides to handle the tight ends in this offense. He will have veteran leader James Skalski, but fellow “Bruise Brother” Baylon Spector is out with a hand injury. I love LaVonta Bentley as a run stuffer and blitzer, but he is not as good in coverage and zone drops as Spector was. Clemson may elect to go with more two LB looks with just Skalski and Trenton Simpson if Iowa State is really going to try to air it out to win this game.
Special Teams: This game shapes up to be a close one based on how the seasons have played out. Both teams are strong on defense and figure to keep the scoring down as a result. This makes the kicking game even more important. Iowa State has a do it all kicker in Andrew Mevis. He is an excellent 18-20 on field goals and his punting is a decent 40.7 yards per punt too. Clemson counters with the powerful leg of BT Potter who has been terrific since a rough day against Florida State. Will Spiers had his best season in his last go round, and his quarterback experience always makes him a threat for fakes like we saw against Syracuse. You never know what you might see with a bowl game and the extra preparation time that comes with it. An explosive (or disastrous) play in this phase could be the difference.
Overall: Bowls can be tricky to pick sometimes. Some teams are very focused and motivated, and sometimes you get a team who just enjoyed the festivities and doesn’t put up much of a fight. We saw that the last time the Tigers came to Orlando. While the Tigers were on the up, and certainly boasted the best defense in the country that year, there was little evidence that the team could dominate the way they did with Deshaun Watson unavailable. Oklahoma was super talented, especially at running back with Joe Mixon and Semaji Perrine, but they got crushed by a highly motivated Clemson team.
Clemson is on a roll and looks to be extremely focused based on the absence of opt-outs. There is also a lot to prove now that there are new coordinators in charge. As for Iowa State, they have a chance to play one of the biggest names in modern college football. The Clemson of 2021 isn’t looked at the way the Clemson of 2014 was when the Sooners no doubt thought they were the true bully on the block going into that game. I certainly expect the Cyclones to come out ready to play.
Clemson is the more talented team, though still not nearly 100% roster wise. Breece Hall’s absence could loom large in this game considering just how huge his impact was for Iowa State’s rushing attack and red zone efficiency. I would give the Cyclones the edge at quarterback, and that can often trump advantages in other places, but perhaps DJU will come out guns blazing the way Cole Stoudt did in 2014. Iowa State may be 7-5 but are certainly better than their record if you consider how much they outgained Iowa, Baylor, and Oklahoma in those three losses. It all shapes up for an excellent battle that should go down to the end.
As of this writing, the line is Clemson -1.5 with the over/under set at 44 by DraftKings. Iowa State opened as a favorite when the game was announced, but the Hall opt-out clearly impacted the line. Neither team appears to have major COVID-19 issues, but we have certainly seen how that has impacted bowl season already. I would wait as late as possible before engaging in this one if you are the betting sort. I’m sure each team will hold their cards very close to the vest as the last rounds of testing happen.
As for me, I’m just going to put my faith in the finally settled offensive line doing enough to get Will Shipley and Kobe Pace going. Clemson’s defense will be an even bigger wild card than usual considering Wes Goodwin is now the one calling the shots. The system is the system, but whatever tendencies the Clemson defense has had are likely out of consideration for this one. Barring turnovers, I think Clemson has the better defense and will do just enough to pull this one out.
Iowa State 20
Disclaimer: Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.