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Finally, the Hokies are back in the ACC Championship Game. Tech played in this game in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and again in 2010 and 2011. They also knocked off Miami in a de facto championship game way back in 2004. This is a program and a fan base that is used to playing football on the first weekend of December.
It hasn’t been that way recently, as the Hokies limped their way to 7-6 record in three of the past four years. Virginia Tech simply hasn’t been a factor in the ACC race. That was hard to swallow, considering what this program did from 2004 through 2011.
Fortunately that has all changed. The Coastal Division was the only Power 5 division in the nation this year to produce five 8-win teams, and Virginia Tech came out ahead in that division. The Coastal doesn’t get a lot of hype on a national scale, but the competition was solid this season and the Hokies passed the test.
The test will be much greater on Saturday night. Clemson is 11-1 on the season, and a win in the ACC Championship Game will put the Tigers in the College Football Playoffs for the second year in a row. They feel they should have beaten Alabama a year ago, and they’ve got a good argument. They want another crack at the Tide, and whoever else they may happen to face in the playoffs. However, to get there they must beat Virginia Tech on Saturday night, so in effect Clemson’s playoffs start this weekend in Orlando.
There isn’t as much pressure on the Hokies. A bid to the College Football Playoff doesn’t hang in the balance for Virginia Tech, and if they lose, that’s expected. Still, this would be a very important victory for the program, and Tech will throw everything they’ve got against Clemson. It will be a tall task, however. The Tigers are really good, and they are very well coached by Dabo Swinney and his excellent staff.
Clemson Offense, By the Numbers
The Clemson offense has been dominant this year. The Tigers have a ton of talent, which we’ll go over later. For now, let’s take a look at the advanced stats for the offense…
S&P+ offense: #8
Finishing Drives: #40
Rushing S&P: #32
Rushing Efficiency: #24
Rushing Explosiveness: #124
Passing S&P: #9
Passing Efficiency: #6
Passing Explosiveness: #78
The Tigers haven’t been quite as explosive as you would think, particularly in the running game, but this offense has been one of the nation’s most efficient this season. This will be Virginia Tech’s toughest test of the season by far.
Early Entries Are the Sign of a Loaded Program
Declaring early for the NFL Draft is a pretty good indicator that a player is exceptionally talented. To give you an idea of exactly how talented the Clemson offense is, the Tigers had four players on the offensive side of the ball declare early for the NFL Draft. Those players are…
QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 215, Jr.)
RB Wayne Gallman (6-0, 210, r-Jr.)
WR Mike Williams (6-3, 225, r-Jr.)
WR Artavis Scott (5-10, 190, Jr.)
Despite declaring early for the draft, all four players are scheduled to graduate in December, which is a very impressive feat.
The Clemson coaching staff is obviously very good at coaching, but their ability to recruit at an extremely high level has pushed this program over the top. It’s hard to lose with a roster full of guys like Watson, Gallman, etc.
Slowing Down Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson has put together a huge season. Check out these numbers…
Passing: 306-of-453 (67.5%), 3,626 yards, 34 touchdowns, 14 INTs, 153.37 eff.
Rushing: 113 carries, 441 yards, 3.9 ypc, 4 TDs
Watson has a big arm, he’s an experienced passer, and he’s capable of beating defenses with his legs. In fact, he’s the exact type of quarterback that has given Virginia Tech fits in recent years. In Virginia Tech’s three losses this season, the opposing quarterback rushed for 100-plus yards.
Clemson hasn’t run Watson as much this season as they have in years past. In The Tigers’ two biggest games – Florida State and Louisville – he carried the ball 17 and 14 times respectively. However, he was under 10 carries in seven of the other 10 games this year, and overall had just 113 carries (including 11 sacks).
Compare those numbers to last season when he had 207 carries for 1,105 yards. The Clemson coaches have been saving his legs, and with Saturday’s game being a must-win for the Tigers’ playoff chances, I don’t think Dabo Swinney will hold anything back. If the Clemson coaches understand that the Hokie defense struggles with mobile quarterbacks, I think we’ll see at least 15 runs by Watson.
Watson has struggled with interceptions. He threw 14 this year, including three big ones in Clemson’s only loss to Pitt. He also threw 13 a year ago. However, Watson throws the ball a lot, so how does that come out in terms of interception percentage when compared to the other top quarterbacks in the ACC?
Deshaun Watson: 3.1%
Jerod Evans: 1.4%
Mitch Trubisky: 0.9%
Lamar Jackson: 2.3%
Trubisky and Evans lead the way, with Lamar Jackson a distant third. Watson is trailing them all. I don’t think it will be possible for the Hokies to beat Clemson without a turnover or two from Watson, so keep those interception numbers in mind.
Despite the interceptions, Watson is a great player who will be a very high draft pick. He’ll do a lot of damage with his arm and his legs. Virginia Tech’s defense isn’t going to stop him, but they have to slow him down enough to give their offense a chance to score 35 or more points. Anything less than that probably won’t have a chance to beat Clemson.
A Loaded Offense
Not that NFL Draft Scout is the #1 authority on the NFL, but I do like to use them for the purpose of talent comparison. Let’s take a look at Clemson’s top players on offense and see where they currently project in the NFL Draft…
Deshaun Watson: #2 QB in the 2018 draft (declared for 2017)
Wayne Gallman: #9 RB in the 2018 draft (declared for 2017
Artavis Scott: #8 WR in the 2018 draft (declared for 2017)
Mike Williams: #1 WR in the 2018 draft (declared for 2017)
Jordan Leggett: #3 TE in the 2017 draft
Mitch Hyatt: #2 OT in the 2019 draft
Taylor Hearn: #8 OG in the 2019 draft
Jay Guillermo: #9 C in the 2017 draft
Tyrone Crowder: #3 OG in the 2018 draft
Sean Pollard: #13 OT in the 2020 draft
Hunter Renfrow: #16 WR in the 2019 draft
Not only are the Clemson coaches great recruiters, but they are also great scouts. Hunter Renfrow was a walk-on who cracked the starting lineup as a r-freshman. He’s now rated the #16 overall wide receiver for his draft class.
Wide receiver Mike Williams is probably the most dominant player on Clemson’s offense. He caught 79 passes for 1,114 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. He could be a Top 10 pick in the NFL Draft next season. He’s a big, physical receiver at 6-3, 225. Adonis Alexander, Brandon Facyson and Greg Stroman will have their work cut out for them.
Clemson Defense, By the Numbers
Clemson’s offense gets a lot of hype, but their defense is loaded as well. From an efficiency standpoint, they are technically better than the Tiger offense. Here are the S&P+ numbers…
S&P+ defense: #6
Finishing Drives: #14
Rushing S&P: #28
Rushing Efficiency: #21
Rushing Explosiveness: #109
Passing S&P: #4
Passing Efficiency: #7
Passing Explosiveness: #27
The Clemson defense has only given up more than 20 points on four occasions this year, and one of those was in a fluke performance against Troy. This group is very good, and they have the ability to make life very difficult for the Virginia Tech offense.
A Loaded Defense
We already showed you the NFL Draft projections of Clemson’s offensive players. Let’s do the same thing on the defensive side of the ball.
DE Christian Wilkins (6-4, 310, So.): #1 DT in the 2019 draft
DT Carlos Watkins (6-3, 305, r-Sr.): #3 DT in the 2017 draft
DT Dexter Lawrence (6-5, 340, Fr.): #1 DT in the 2020 draft
DE Clelin Ferrell (6-5, 265, r-Fr.): #1 DE in the 2020 draft
SLB Dorian O’Daniel (6-1, 215, r-Jr.): #21 OLB in the 2018 draft
MLB Kendall Joseph (6-0, 230, r-So.): #6 ILB in the 2019 draft
WLB Ben Boulware (6-0, 235, Sr.): #9 ILB in the 2017 draft
CB Ryan Carter (5-9, 180, r-Jr.): #55 CB in the 2018 draft
CB Cordrea Tankersley (6-1, 200, Sr.): #2 CB in the 2017 draft
FS Van Smith (5-11, 195, So.): #6 FS in the 2019 draft
SS Jadar Johnson (6-0, 210, Sr.): #14 SS in the 2017 draft
Clemson is absolutely loaded up front, and though their backups aren’t listed above, this front is deep as well. In particularly, it hurts that Clelin Ferrell is from Richmond. He was considered a Virginia Tech lean early in his recruitment, but he spurned the in-state school to go to Clemson. Now he’s regarded as a big-time NFL prospect, and he had a great freshman season with 6.5 TFL and four sacks.
Denting the Line of Scrimmage
The Clemson defense is based around getting penetration and putting opposing offenses in long yardage situations. Here are three critical stats to remember…
Tackles for loss: 104, #2
Sacks: 42, #3
Third Down Defense: 28.09%, #5
The Tigers get offenses behind the chains into obvious passing situations and pin their ears back. It’s very difficult for college offenses to convert on third and long, particularly against a bunch of future NFL draft picks.
Do the Hokies have the tools to counter those impressive stats?
Tackles for loss allowed: 70, #69
Sacks allowed: 24, #62
Third Down offense: 41.76%, #58
Virginia Tech is middle of the pack in all three of those categories. It’s very important that they play above their heads in this critical area of the game on Saturday night. If Clemson gets them behind the chains on a consistent basis, it will be a very long day for the Hokie offense.
The Best Defensive Coordinators In Football?
Bud Foster is regarded as one of the best defensive coordinators in college football. Tech fans regard him as #1, though we are obviously biased. Still, it’s hard to argue with his record. Here’s Tech’s total defense (yards per game) rankings since the Hokies joined the ACC…
The Hokies were dominant in their first few years in the ACC. The talent level was very high, and opposing ACC offenses were also very poor. Since then, Tech’s talent has dropped a bit, while opposing offenses (and coaches) have gotten better. Still, considering what he’s had to work with, Foster has done an excellent job.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables hasn’t been around as long as Foster, but he’s still well-respected. He became a full-time defensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 2004, and was then hired at Clemson in 2012. Here are his numbers since 2008…
Venables’ defenses suffered at Oklahoma in the Big 12, the conference where nobody is allowed to play defense. He took over a struggling Clemson defense (except when they played Virginia Tech in 2011) in 2012 and had a rough first season, but his group has turned into a dynamic unit as he began to recruit his own players and those players got used to his coaching and his scheme.
There’s no way to prove who is and who isn’t the nation’s best defensive coordinator, but the general consensus is that they don’t get any better than Bud Foster and Brent Venables.
Special Teams: Advantage Virginia Tech?
Special teams can be a crap shoot sometimes, but the numbers indicate that the Hokies have performed better on special teams this season. Here are Clemson’s rankings…
S&P+ Special teams: #77
FG Value: #55
Punt Success Rate: #100
Kickoff Success Rate: #54
Punt Return Success Rate: #45
Kick Return Success Rate: #83
Virginia Tech holds the advantage, at least according to the S&P+ metrics.
S&P+ Special teams: #50
FG Value: #81
Punt Success Rate: #46
Kickoff Success Rate: #1
Punt Return Success Rate: #60
Kick Return Success Rate: #54
Clemson has an advantage in nearly all areas on both sides of the ball. However, if the Hokies can use special teams to pick up some hidden yardage, they could potentially turn the tide.
When you look at the advanced stats, future NFL Draft projections and recent recruiting rankings, it’s very difficult to imagine Virginia Tech winning this game. This is a Championship Game, which means Clemson won’t be holding anything back. They’ll be fired up and ready to play on Saturday night. It will be up to the Hokies to out-execute them.
I’m really happy to be back in this game, and I know the Virginia Tech players are as well. It’s an opportunity to make a statement on national television against a major opponent who is primed to make the playoffs. It’s a tremendous opportunity.
ESPN gives Clemson an 84 percent chance of winning. The S&P+ says the Tigers have an 80 percent chance of winning. Considering everything we’ve gone over in this article, that sounds about right to me. Everything would have to come together perfectly for Virginia Tech to win.
Still, the beauty of this game is that it only has to happen once. Tech is not better than Clemson. Not by a longshot. But if they happen to be better on Saturday, they’ll leave Orlando with the ACC Championship. Syracuse and Georgia Tech aren’t better than the Hokies. Pitt isn’t better than Clemson. But we all know what happened in those games. Like I said, it only has to happen once.
It might happen once on Saturday night. Tech can win that game. But I’m not throwing myself out there on that limb. I think the Hokies will have a solid showing, but it’s going to take a whole lot to knock off the Tigers.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Virginia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: Let’s do a few blind comparisons. Here’s a look at Quarterback A and Quarterback B:
That’s pretty even. QBA has 34 total touchdowns and is statistically a better runner, while QBB has 38 total touchdowns and is more active in the passing game. QBB is more prone to throwing interceptions, though.
Here are the two leading rushers for Team A and Team B:
Again, pretty even, although Team B’s leading rusher has a higher yards per carry (YPC) average and visits the end zone more than Team A’s rushers combined.
How about the three leading receivers?
Team A’s receivers have a higher YPC average and a higher TD percentage. Team B has one guy they lean on more than the others when it comes to touchdowns, but across the board, the top three receivers are pretty much a wash.
We can drill down into defense as well. Team A is #7 in the nation with 98 tackles for loss (TFL). Team B is tied for #2 with 104, not a lot more. Team A has two guys in the top 20 nationally in tackles for loss (TFL) per game, with 17.5 total TFL and 17 total TFL, respectively. Team B has one guy with 12 TFL, but no one else with 10+. Team A’s leading tackler has 102 tackles on the season, while Team B’s has 103.
And so on.
Team A, of course, is Virginia Tech, and QBA is Jerod Evans. Team B is Clemson, with QBB Deshaun Watson. When you compare the top players on the two teams, you get some very similar numbers. Where Clemson starts to pull away is in depth. Sure, Clemson only has one guy with 10+ TFL (Christian Wilkins with 12), but they have four more guys with 9 TFL, just outside double digits. Tech’s Woody Baron (17.5 TFL) and Tremaine Edmunds (17 TFL) excel, but their next two guys have 8.5 and 7 TFL. No one else has more than 7.
Virginia Tech’s top three receivers have 18 TD catches, but the rest of the team only has 10. Clemson’s top three guys have 17 TD catches, but the rest of the team has 21.
I do this comparison to make a point: Virginia Tech has good players, too. They’re going to play a football game Saturday night, and both teams are allowed to play, and score touchdowns, and do other footbally things. You might even see an upset. College sports is a crazy, unpredictable thing. Just ask the 1996 Nebraska football team or the 1982-83 Houston basketball team.
In the end, though, no one is going to pick Virginia Tech to win this game, and I’m not going to, either. But I’ll be watching the game Saturday night, and you never know.
Will’s Prediction: Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 24
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: I’ve only picked against the Hokies once this season — in the Battle at Bristol vs. Tennessee. This game is going to be the second.
Virginia Tech is overmatched at nearly every position group. The Hokies’ offense isn’t as good as the Clemson defense and the Virginia Tech defense isn’t as good as the Clemson offense.
The Hokies’ best chance at winning this game is to create turnovers and big plays on special teams. Special teams miscues can be the undoing of the better team. If Virginia Tech can create a couple turnovers on defense and maybe a blocked punt on special teams, all bets are off.
I’d consider picking Virginia Tech if they could run the ball efficiently, but they usually can’t — especially vs. superior competition. Tech gouged Virginia on the ground, but I could’ve run for 150 yards and a touchdown vs. that defense.
I don’t think Virginia Tech will get embarrassed. The worst-case scenario for Tech is that Clemson pounces early and wins this game going away. I don’t forsee a blowout, but I think Clemson wins comfortably after flexing their muscles in the second half.
Ricky LaBlue’s Prediction: Clemson 35, Virginia Tech 20