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Behind Enemy Lines: ACC Championship Game Preview with Shakin’ the Southland

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SB Nation’s Clemson blog answers our questions heading into Saturday’s Charlotte showdown

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

In the lead-up to the Virginia Cavaliers’ tilt with the Clemson Tigers in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game, we got a Clemson insider’s perspective from Ryan Kantor of Shakin’ the Southland. Be sure to check out our answers to STS’s questions as well over on their site!

STL: This is Clemson’s fifth straight ACC Championship Game appearance, and sixth in the past nine years. The Tigers enter the game on a 27-game win streak, to boot. What would you say has been the driving factor in Clemson’s consistent dominance the past five years generally, and for the past two specifically?

STS: Within the ACC, Clemson has dominated for a variety of reasons. It starts with culture, which Dabo has carefully crafted. After Clemson’s 6-7 2010 season, then AD Terry Don Phillips told Coach Swinney he was never more confident in him than he was then. They were building a culture. Clemson won their first division title the next season.

The workplace culture for the coaching staff is extremely family friendly. Coaches are encouraged to arrange their schedules to make sure they watch their kids play high school sports. They can bring their young children to the facility at times. Some of the coaches even have kids on the team, including DC Brent Venables who has his son Jake playing and really contributing as an above-average backup linebacker. This culture has helped maintain coaching continuity. That continuity helps recruiting. Clemson has the #2 2020 class per Rivals. No other ACC team is in the top 10. That staff is also really good schematically. Having the best players and coaches in the conference is quite an advantage. It all starts with culture though.

As far as on-the-field dominance and specific tactical advantages, I’d point to QB play. We’ve had some of the best QB play in the conference since 2012 and we run a spread system that takes advantage of that. With Trevor Lawrence and the weapons around him, it’s been on hyperdrive in recent years.

STL: Trevor Lawrence was named first-team All-ACC this week, improving on his second-team All-ACC selection in 2018. He’s thrown twice as many interceptions this year, but also rushed for almost twice as many touchdowns. How has his game changed from freshman year to now, and what part of his game is the most dangerous?

STS: You really touched on it well in your question—he has added muscle and become a willing and effective runner. At 6’6”, he takes long strides and is and faster than you would think, but this year has added muscle and is now taking advantage of running lanes more often. He struggled with some poor decisions early in the season, that led to INTs. He was trying to do too much, but has started hitting his checkdowns more often. RB Travis Etienne has gotten involved in the passing game, which helps that cause.

Lawrence’s best weapon of course is his “arm talent.” His combination of arm strength and accuracy is pretty wild to watch. He can fit it into really tight windows. Watch him slip this ball between two UofSC defenders (you’ll remember them from your 28-0 bowl victory last season).

STL: Three Clemson defensive linemen were drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, with Austin Bryant going in the fourth as well. But this year’s defensive line is still stacked: of the 11 players listed on defensive line in this week’s depth chart, there are two 5-stars and seven 4-stars. Who in that front four is the guy UVA fans should lose the most sleep over?

STS: Tyler Davis has made a tremendous impact as a true freshman on the inside of that line. I don’t know where we’d be without him as DT seemed like the biggest positional weakness on defense coming into the season. With him plugging up your running game, the defense can dial up creative blitzes to stop the passing game. The DL who is probably going to make coaches lose sleep is DE Xavier Thomas, who has 6.5 TFL. The best defensive player though is Isaiah Simmons. You’ll see him used in a variety of ways including blitzing the QB. He is the most versatile and valuable member of the defense.

STL: Dabo Swinney has been vocal the past several weeks about Clemson getting disrespected by the CFP committee. The latest rankings peg the Tigers at #3, despite a 12-0 record. Is Dabo speaking truth to power, or just trying to keep his guys riled up?

STS: I don’t dispute that our schedule has been weak. We’ve yet to play the only other good team in the ACC (that’s you!) and both of the SEC teams we scheduled ended up being duds (Texas A&M and UofSC). Other teams in the conversation have played and beaten far tougher opponents. Georgia, for example, has beaten Notre Dame, Florida, and Auburn. What’s been so frustrating to Clemson fans and obviously to Coach Swinney is that the media and many opposing fans act as if: A) it’s our fault and B) it means we’re not good.

The fact that the committee ranked Penn State above Clemson in their initial rankings shows the media narrative matters. It is supposedly a ranking of “best” teams. Well, anybody who watches college football would have picked Clemson over Penn State and Las Vegas would have had us as favorites over the Lions. If they want to rank resumes, I support that change. It’s more objective. That’s not what they say their mission is though, so it is frustrating to see LSU get jumped by Ohio State because Ohio State is “more complete,” but Clemson gets jumped by Penn State, because Penn State has a better resume. Another example is Alabama consistently being ranked above us despite having Texas A&M as their only decent win (also our only decent win) for some unknown reason. There seems to be a double standard, so while Coach Swinney might be hyperbolic at times, he is generally right on principle and certainly has Clemson fan support 100%.

STL: As a four-touchdown dog, Virginia is going to have to have a lot of things go right this week to pull out an upset of the century. Clemson hasn’t looked vulnerable much this year, but did only top UNC by a single point. What does a path to victory against Clemson look like? Is there a weak point you think a team like UVA can exploit?

STS: The UNC game was odd because the offense was really out of sorts. It was the only game where both QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne played poorly at the same time. The odds of that happening again are super slim. Etienne lost a big fumble that gave UNC a short field. UNC scored a TD on that drive. It was their only score aside from their first and last possession of the game. Clemson’s offense couldn’t sustain drives, yet they still held pretty firm.

Clemson is #1 in the country in passing defense allowing just 126.5 passing yards per game. That’s 14.6 yards fewer than the next best team (Ohio State) and 37.2 yards fewer than the team after that (Notre Dame). We expected the back seven to be a strength, but not like this.

The rush defense is also solid after some minor struggles early in the season. It ranks 11th nationally (106 YPG).

Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman, a “do it all QB” who is somewhat comparable to Perkins (though I would say not quite the threat), had 41 passing yards and 2 INTs and 19 rushing yards against Clemson. Perkins is going to have to flip that script because Virginia is going to need him to carry the offense. Virginia’s rushing offense is a weakness and Clemson’s passing defense is a strength. The matchup is super unfavorable for the Cavs.

For Virginia to be in the game late with a chance to win, they’ll probably need some or all of the following: A) Get some breaks on special teams (Clemson’s weakness), such as short punts or missed field goals from the Tigers; B) Win the turnover margin; C) Get a herculean performance from Bryce Perkins, especially running the ball, so the offense has a little balance.

I don’t think it’ll happen, but Virginia is the best team we’ve played all year and it was only three years ago that Virginia Tech inexplicably hung with our 2016 national championship team in what ended up being a too close for comfort 42-35 ACC Championship win over the Hokies.

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Big thanks to Ryan for his input here. You can find him on Twitter at @Ryan_Kantor; Shakin the Southland is @STSouthland.