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The Big Preview: Virginia Takes on Clemson in ACC Championship

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NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

For the Virginia Cavaliers, this is already their best regular season in over a decade, sitting at 9-3. The last, best record was 2011 when the Hoos were 8-4 in the regular season. They followed up that season by getting blown out by Auburn.

Virginia hasn’t faced any other Tigers since then, nor have they faced a team that good since then. That Auburn team had under-achieved in 2011, but were also the defending national champs. Much of the roster that won the championship in 2010 returned in 2011, though obviously Cam Newton was gone.

This will be the toughest matchup Virginia has had since that Auburn game. The Clemson Tigers comes into the game ranked third in the CFP rankings and in the polls. They’ve won 27 straight games and, of course, won the national title last year.

This Virginia team is better than that one, but this Clemson team is a lot better than that Auburn team was. Virginia will have to come out firing on all cylinders to have a chance against these Tigers. And even that might not be enough, which is why the oddsmakers have Clemson favored by 28 points (or more).

If you’re still looking for tickets, StubHub has plenty of them. In the meantime, here’s what you need to know.

Virginia on Defense

If you’re a college football fan, chances are you already know quite a bit about this Clemson offense. The skill position guys are unbelievable. They’re all going to be top draft picks and NFL stars.

QB Trevor Lawrence put up some amazing numbers last year as a true freshman leading his team to a National Championship. He’s widely projected as the #1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He can make all the throws. His numbers haven’t been as good as last year, but he’s been really good of late. He seemed to struggle a bit early in the year, while the OL was struggling.

But lately, he’s been lights out. Over the last five games, Lawrence is completing 76% of his passes for 267 yards and over 3 TDs per game. That’s insane.

Lawrence doesn’t even step into this one. That’s 38 yards on a rope off his back foot. Also, he has all day to throw. He’s only been sacked 10 times all year. Clemson is fourth in the nation in fewest sacks allowed. The same five OLs have started every game. That kind of continuity is a huge bonus to an offense.

RB Travis Etienne is tenth nationally in rushing and has a chance to go high in this year’s draft. He has world class speed, good vision and enough strength to run between the tackles as well.

Finally, WRs Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are both among the top WRs in their draft classes. Higgins is a potential top-ten pick this year and Ross is projected to go second overall next year - right behind his QB.

That’s Higgins on the jump ball. Maybe not the best idea for Lawrence to make that throw, but he knows the 6’4” Higgins is going to win those jump balls more often than not. Ross is also 6’4” and has the same ability on the jump ball.

Yeah, he caught that. That’s just ridiculous.

Virginia’s defense, which was elite earlier in the year, has been decimated by injuries. Obviously losing Bryce Hall changes what the defense can do. But losing the depth that was provided by Robert Snyder, Brenton Nelson and others means that young guys have had to step up and with that youth sometimes comes errors. Virginia has been victimized by a lot of big plays over the past few weeks.

Big plays are going to be key in this game. Clemson’s offense is a big play waiting to happen. They have 17 plays this year of over 40 yards. They have three plays of over 80 yards, two of which are Etienne runs. He’s a threat to go the distance every time he touches it. So are Higgins and Ross. So is Amari Rodgers, their PR and slot receiver.

Over the past four games, Virginia has allowed an average of 446 yards per game.

They’re getting beat by Georgia Tech, who’s offense ranked 127th in the nation. Clemson’s ranks third. They are 25th in pass yards, and 18th in passing efficiency. And they’re tenth in rushing, but second in yards per carry.

The Hoos are most successful when they are getting pressure on the QB and forcing mistakes. That’s what won them the game at the end of last week’s game. They’ll play man coverage on the outside. That might’ve worked with Bryce Hall at CB. Maybe he can play on an island against Higgins or Ross. But the current crop of DBs may not have that ability.

That means the Hoos are going to have get pressure. That’s Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor. And it’s Aaron Faumui and Mandy Alonso. Sure, Clemson don’t allow many sacks. But it doesn’t have to be sacks. Lawrence isn’t Bryce Perkins running the ball, but he has 383 yards rushing this year. He can make plays with his feet. Still, if the Hoos can make him move and get him out of the pocket, things will go better for them.

As with the jump balls above, Lawrence doesn’t ever give up on a play. He’s a bit of a gunslinger and he’ll sometimes try to do too much. He throws this late, across his body. This is an interception waiting to happen. This is what Virginia will have to do. Get Lawrence out of the pocket, get some pressure on him and hope he makes some mistakes.

Virginia on Offense

Clemson’s defensive line last year included three first round picks, and a fourth rounder. Obviously, that was a pretty good defense. They ranked first nationally in scoring defense, and fifth in total defense.

You’d think they’d have to drop off after losing that much talent to the NFL in a single year. You’d be wrong. They rank first in scoring defense again, and are second in total defense. (Last year’s stats include the CFP games against Notre Dame and Alabama. It’s likely that this year’s stats fall off a bit as Clemson’s season progresses. Still, it’s a very good defense.)

Last year’s defense dominated the line of scrimmage. They were second nationally in sacks and TFLs. This year, they’re 18th in sacks and sixth in TFLs. The DL isn’t as good as last year’s. But the secondary is better. Clemson is number one in pass efficiency defense as well as in passing yards allowed. They’re also sixth nationally in turnovers forced.

Junior OLB Isaiah Simmons is the star of the show. He leads the team in tackles, TFLs, and sacks. He can also cover and has two career picks and 11 career pass break-ups. He’s an all around OLB and is a likely first round pick.

Look at that closing speed. Syracuse QB Tommy Devito can run.

With what they lost on the DL, the unit is obviously very young. But there were still four All-ACC members on the DL (one second team, two third team and one honorable mention). Still, even with all those accolades, the Tigers have had to bring pressure more than they did last year.

That’s a blitz from MLB James Skalski. He’s second on the team in tackles and tied for second in sacks. All three LBs will come on blitzes. But that means Virginia should get man coverage on the outside quite a bit.

Don’t get me wrong, Clemson’s CBs are good. They’re both top recruits and both will play on Sundays. But if there’s a weakness to the defense, this is it. They each have two INTs on the year, and they can make plays. But they can also be beaten.

The Hoos have the WR depth and talent to spread out the Clemson defense and get some matchups they can exploit.

This is Kemp lined up in the slot against a reserve DB in man coverage. This is the situation Virginia wants to get. Clemson will be focused on Joe Reed, Hasise Dubois and Terrell Jana (and rightly so), but Virginia has other weapons that have started to bust out.

Virginia will show a lot of read-option. We saw it a lot early last week, and it worked. The Hoos seemed to go away from it and the offense stalled.

Kellen Monds isn’t Bryce Perkins, but he’s pretty mobile. Clemson brings pressure and they aggressively go at the RB. But considering Virginia’s struggles on the ground, Clemson would likely key on Perkins on these plays. They likely do not fear Virginia’s RBs, but maybe that’s something Virginia can exploit. All four of Virginia’s RBs are averaging at or near five yards per carry. Nobody has really stood out, but each has shown signs. Maybe this is a week for one of them to bust out.

Clemson’s rush defense ranks 11th nationally. So they’re tough to run against. But their pass defense ranks first, and they’re first in pass efficiency defense as well.

Some of that is due to the huge numbers they put up on offense. They can afford to be aggressive defensively, because they know they’re going to score points. Getting beat for a TD isn’t a good thing, but it does get the ball back to Lawrence and company.

The way the Hoos have been clicking on offense of late (480 yards per game over the past four) makes you think they might be able to make something happen. But Clemson hasn’t given up even 300 yards in a game this season. That’s really amazing considering how much garbage time they’ve played.

Virginia needs some Bryce Perkins magic. He’s the only guy Clemson fears and he’s the only guy who gives Virginia a chance.

Conclusion

As Bronco said, the Hoos’ trip to Charlotte is not meant to be a victory lap. They’re going there to win the game. Problem is, Clemson is better at almost everything. Is there a single player for Virginia who would start for the Tigers? Maybe Jordan Mack or Charles Snowden at LB?

There’s a reason why Clemson is favored by nearly 30 points, a ridiculous number for a conference championship game. They’re simply too good for the ACC. If Virginia played lights out for 60 minutes, they still would need the Tigers to play poorly to come away with a win. And if Virginia doesn’t come out firing on all cylinders, this game could get out of hand.

Prediction: Clemson 45, Virginia 21 (season record, 10-2)