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Head-to-Head Week 3: Welcome back, ACC Play

This week’s segment questions the opening of ACC play for the Tigers alongside conference and national look-ins as well.

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers have scored a touchdown and won a football game in 2021!

We did not expect to hold off on typing that until the end of week two, but here we are. Clemson looked improved in its home-opener victory over SC State, its 18th-straight home-opener win. The Tigers amassed over 500 yards of total offense and held their opponent out of the endzone for the second consecutive game.

This week, a familiar foe returns to Death Valley in the form of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and we will get a better look at the improvements Clemson has made since the Georgia game. The ACC has some new players in the chase to dethrone the Tigers, and with Oregon’s upset win over Ohio State, there are a couple new playoff contenders who have entered the conversation. Ryan Kantor and Jonathan Smith discuss what all of this means for the Tigers as we head into week 3.

Question #1: With ACC play opening up this weekend, what is the biggest concern surrounding Clemson?

Ryan: Certainly not the defense, which still hasn’t allowed a touchdown. Clemson’s defense looks poised to be among the best in the country. I know Georgia and SC State aren’t necessarily offensive juggernauts, but Clemson has a veteran group we expected to improve and the eye test strongly says they have.

The offense in general has some questions. We were probably unfair in expecting an Alabama-like smooth replacement of the best QB and RB in school history. I’d love to see Uiagalelei and his receivers really get into a groove and connect on several explosive plays against Georgia Tech. They are not in-sync quite yet. The offensive line’s run blocking has been a concern so that’ll obviously be something to watch as Clemson gets to play a defense that falls somewhere between Georgia and FCS (though decidedly closer to FCS).

Jon: Obviously, on-the-field issues like offensive line play, quarterback play, and at times, running back play, but I think the situation with Lyn-J Dixon is becoming more alarming. After Saturday’s game versus SC State, Dabo Swinney said Dixon “needs to grow up” after recent rifts between him and running backs coach C.J. Spiller. Dixon responded with a tweet on Twitter emphasizing his commitment to seeing his teammates succeed, but soon deleted the tweet.

Dixon was recently moved to the third-string on Clemson’s latest depth chart, a move that could fuel potential conflicts. I personally hope any rifts between Dixon and the staff get figured out because Dixon is an explosive, experienced back that is a great 1-2 punch alongside Will Shipley. Hopefully this is just a step in establishing the culture of the running backs room under Spiller and that Clemson can create a consistent rotation at running back that helps take the pressure off DJU and the passing game.

Question #2: What’s more important for Clemson against the Yellow Jackets, continuing to build confidence in the run game or focusing on quarterback play?

Ryan: On offense, I’m a little less concerned with the running game than some. Georgia had the best rush defense in the country last year and it may be even better this year. Clemson’s offensive line was never going to get a big push against them. The Tigers started a true freshman at left guard. Matt Bockhorst was starting his first game at center. Jordan McFadden was switching to left tackle, and Walker Parks was getting his first start. All that plus vanilla play calls and a quick abandonment of the run makes me think the Georgia game may not be a great gauge for Clemson’s rushing attack and they’ll end up being OK there.

I more so want to see more from the passing game this week. Uiagalelei’s pocket presence was much improved last week and he even ran it effectively a few times. I’d love to see him build upon that. I especially want to see him start hitting on some deep shots. He’s done it a few times with Ngata, but where is Frank Ladson? I love his speed/height combo. I want to see him take the top off. Can Ross shake the rust off and do it? I am hoping to see the QB/WR connections start coming together this weekend.

Jon: I agree to an extent with Ryan about the run game. We know Dixon is explosive and Shipley has displayed a powerful presence at tailback similar to James Davis, Wayne Gallman and Adam Choice, and Clemson has a staple of backs that are more than capable of racking up yards against anyone not named Georgia.

The reality is that DJ Uiagalelei has not had a great start to the season like we had hoped. DJU is currently 33-for-61 on the season with only 349 yards and a 1-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio. DJU’s 54% completion percentage is also a bit alarming, and DJ hasn’t looked comfortable much in the pocket so far. On par with Ryan’s comments, the deep threat has been MIA from the Clemson offense through two games. Clemson has one pass completion of 40+ yards, and only 3 of 30+ yards, two things very uncharacteristic of a Clemson offense over the past decade. I am really hoping we see more downfield shots with Justyn Ross and Frank Ladson, and even Joseph Ngata (please, no more screens in the flat to Ross. There’s just so many better ways to use him).

Question #3: After two weeks, the ACC has five remaining unbeaten teams (VT, Pitt, UVA, Wake, BC). Who’s in the best shape to give Clemson a run?

Ryan: This is the most down I’ve been on the conference in quite a while. Specifically, the ACC Atlantic is really bad. FSU is awful. BC is undefeated, but lost their starting QB, Phil Jurkovec, to injury. He is one of the better QBs in the ACC so that’s a huge loss. Wake Forest hasn’t played anyone yet so them being 2-0 doesn’t mean much. We’ll see if they beat FSU this weekend. Louisville’s game against UCF on Friday night could be big. If they bounce back from their loss to Ole Miss in Week 1 with a win over the Golden Knights, I’ll feel a little better about the division.

I think Pittsburgh is the only team on Clemson’s regular season schedule that has any business challenging the Tigers. Flukes obviously happen, but Clemson should be able to play their C-game and still beat the rest of the schedule. I really like Kenny Pickett at QB for the Panthers, plus that game is in Heinz Field. They should be 6-0 or at least 5-1 when they host Clemson. That’s the game to circle on Clemson’s regular season schedule.

Beyond that, I think you have to look to the ACC Championship game for a serious test. Virginia Tech is a program we’ve wanted to see turn a corner for a while. They could be a tough out and I think it is still a little too soon to count out UNC and Miami after tough starts to their seasons.

Jon: Man, Boston College losing Jurkovec is such a blow to the Atlantic Division. Hopefully BC can still enter Death Valley unbeaten, but it is a huge blow for the Eagles (especially with Anthony Brown balling out at Oregon). I think Pitt remains the toughest challenge on Clemson’s schedule, and the Panthers could be a legit threat in the ACC with Kenny Pickett spinning it for the 43rd year in a row. We’ve seen flashes of promise from Pitt over the last four years; maybe this is the year they put it all together.

Looking ahead to the conference title game, Virginia Tech is probably the front runner for now. Miami still has lots of questions, granted playing Alabama and an underrated App State team is a difficult challenge, but we’ll know for sure this weekend when they play Michigan State. UNC is obviously a threat with Sam Howell, but this does not appear to be the UNC team from a year ago. Virginia has also emerged as a potential contender in Charlotte.

Question #4: After Ohio State’s loss to Oregon, where does Clemson stand in the playoff discussion?

Ryan: Part of me hates to think this far ahead—Clemson still has to win-out, which is no given—but it is also a fun thought exercise. I think this could be an especially chaotic year. Clemson and Ohio State already taking losses seem to point us toward that.

Notre Dame doesn’t look play a playoff contender so let’s look at the possible conference champs. One of Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Iowa will likely take the Big Ten. I think it is 50-50 that the Big Ten champion is 12-1 or better.

In the Big 12, Oklahoma will likely run the table or finish 12-1, but their schedule is actually even weaker than Clemson’s. If Oklahoma and Clemson are both 1-loss conference champions, I believe the Tigers would get the nod over the Sooners.

Out west, Oregon is in great shape. They have road trips to UCLA and Utah, which could be tricky, but if the Ohio State win ages well they could get in over Clemson even with a loss. That upset probably was a net negative for Clemson. In the SEC, any 1-loss division champion likely gets in over Clemson. Cincinnati is the wild card, but they need to beat Indiana, Notre Dame, and UCF and have those wins look like quality ones by the end of the season. Louisville beating UCF would go a long way toward tarnishing that.

So Clemson needs to win out and then have two of the following happen (listed in my estimated order of likelihood):

  • Cincinnati loses once or has their wins tarnished by mediocre seasons from IU/ND/UCF
  • Oklahoma loses once
  • Big Ten winner has 2 losses
  • SEC Championship Game loser has 2 losses
  • Oregon loses twice

Jon: The playoff conversation weekly is so much fun because none of this will matter 10 weeks from now, but it is fun to discuss. I stated last week that Clemson needed some help from other Power 5 contenders, and they got a great boost from Oregon’s defeat of Ohio State this past weekend. Now the Ducks have soared into the playoff picture, as well as Iowa for the time being. The conversation gets tricky surrounding Oklahoma, who now only has a potential match-up with Iowa State in their way of another Big 12 title, since Texas is indeed, not back (again).

Clemson is still on the outside looking in, but the Tigers just have to keep winning. They probably don’t control their own destiny 110%, but a loss certainly ends the playoff hunt, regardless of where it takes place on the schedule. Alabama and Georgia look poised to run the table and meet as unbeatens in Atlanta, and Iowa/Penn State/Ohio State will be a dog fight in the Big Ten. It could come down to Clemson and Oklahoma for the last spot. Right now we’re looking at Alabama, Georgia, Oregon, the three Big Ten schools (sorry Michigan, we already know how this is ending), Oklahoma, Clemson, and Cincinnati. I also don’t think Notre Dame is playoff caliber, and I can see them losing two or three games. It is absolutely hilarious that we’ve already cut the list this short in September, but that just goes to show how the playoff has drastically impacted the significance of winning.

Remember after Clemson crept by Auburn and Troy to open 2016, and the college football world was shouting about how the Tigers looked like a shell of the previous season? 2021 feels a lot like that. This weekend is a good opportunity to start flushing away all of the bittersweet feelings we’ve accumulated these opening weeks and dominate a team from Georgia that we once called the thorn in our sides. It’s been a long time since Calvin Johnson and Jonathan Dwyer roamed the sidelines over there in Atlanta, and I hope Dabo buries the Yellow Jackets every chance he gets for the rest of eternity.

Go Tigers. Beat Tech.

FOCO has created a limited edition (only 321 being made) Trevor Lawrence bobblehead commemorating Clemson’s perfect 15-0 2018 season. It is now available for pre-order. You can see it here.