WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.3 CLEMSON AT VIRGINIA TECH
- 2020-12-04 19:57:49
Welcome to the final regular season edition of What We Are Hearing!
That’s right, the Tigers’ last game of the regular season is finally upon us, a week later than normal, and they will play the Hokies in Blacksburg on Saturday night with a chance to punch their ticket to a 6th consecutive ACC Championship Game, so the Tigers will be wearing their Orange Britches for the first time this season! Much fuss has been made this week about the ACC canceling Notre Dame’s rescheduled game at Wake and the Tigers’ potential make-up game with FSU on the 12th, but frankly, it’s absurd. Most of it is whining from SEC partisans, both fans and the media, who think that it’s somehow an advantage for Clemson and Notre Dame not to have to play on the 12th, the week before the ACC Championship Game. Anyone else acting like it’s a big deal is simply uninformed. The fact is, neither Clemson nor Notre Dame were supposed to play on the 12th to begin with when the final ACC schedule was released in September. That was an open date for both schools. Notre Dame had to reschedule its game at Wake for that week due to a COVID outbreak, and we all know about the debacle with Florida State canceling its game with Clemson at the last minute after the Tigers had already traveled to Tallahassee. That game hadn’t even been rescheduled. In fact, FSU has since canceled its next two games and hasn’t played a game in a month! Furthermore, even without playing on the 12th, Clemson and Notre Dame will still have played 10 regular season games, which is as many or more than any SEC team. No one in the ACC or the media whined or complained when the SEC started its season two weeks after the ACC! In addition, the SEC backed down from playing the in-state rivalry games with the ACC, ending some of the longest streaks in college football. If SEC partisans in and out of the media think that having the 12th off gives the ACC some sort of advantage, then they should have started their season when the ACC did and left that date open like the ACC did, plain and simple. Any complaints, criticism or whining now is flat-out absurd. Incidentally, the Tigers lost an easy win against FSU that would have gotten them closer to 10 wins, which is an important plateau for Dabo and the Tigers. They have won 10 or more games for 9 straight years, which is the third-longest streak all-time. They are chasing FSU’s record of 14 straight 10-win seasons, and if the Tigers lose to the Hokies, they will likely see that streak snapped because they will be 8-2 with only a bowl game likely remaining!
Having said that, the Tigers would have loved to play FSU when it was scheduled and racked up another blowout win for the record books, giving their young, inexperienced players more invaluable game experience. That’s why Dabo offered to play the game on Sunday or even Monday after they traveled down there. The Seminoles refused—essentially forfeit just like they did their next two games—and the Tigers had to wait another week to get back in the win column. And boy, did they do so in style! Perhaps it vindicated the FSU administration’s decision to pull out of the game because they would have received a dose of what Pitt did. I wrote last week that the Tigers would come out strong and hungry on both sides of the ball, and that’s exactly what they did. The Tigers roared out of the gates to a 31-0 lead, the most ever scored by a Clemson team in the opening quarter. Many wondered if Trevor Lawrence would have any rust after 5 weeks without playing in a game, and the answer was no. He passed for 403 yards, one shy of his career-high 2 games before, in barely more than a half! He also tied Deshaun Watson, Tajh Boyd and Rodney Williams with his 32nd win as a starter, the most in Clemson history. The Tigers are breaking all kinds of records in this, their 125th season! For my complete recap of the Pitt win, photos, interviews, highlights and more, click HERE.
On to this week’s big prime-time game!
This is the 125th season of Clemson Football….The Tigers look to win at least 10 games for the 10th straight year under Dabo Swinney, joining Alabama and Florida State as the only programs ever to do so….Clemson is the only program to have won 5 consecutive outright ACC titles and the only program in the nation to win 5 consecutive conference championship games…. At 76-6, Clemson has the best record in the nation since 2015; 3 wins better than Alabama and 11 wins better than Ohio State. Clemson is 3 wins behind Alabama for the most wins since 2011….Clemson has the most wins versus Power Five opponents since 2013; 9 more than Ohio State and 7 more than Alabama….Dabo now has the nation’s best active win percentage at .811. Nick Saban’s is .792. Dabo also holds the best all-time win percentage in ACC games at .830. Bobby Bowden’s was .813. Dabo’s overall .811 win percentage is 7th all-time among head coaches that coached at least 150 games. Urban Meyer’s .854 win percentage is atop that list, followed by Switzer, Osborne, Yost, Neyland and Wilkinson….Only 6 times has a team won 12 or more games in a season against Power Five opponents. Clemson, FSU and LSU are the only programs to have done it, and 4 of the 6 times were by Clemson, which remains the only program ever to win 13 games against Power Five opponents in one season, accomplished in 2018…..Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban are the only head coaches in history to reach No.1 in the AP Poll in 6 consecutive seasons….Clemson has played in the 14th most games (22) as AP No.1….Dabo is 17th all-time for most games (21) coached as AP No.1, passing Jim Tressel, Steve Spurrier and Ara Parseghian. He is one game behind Urban Meyer and Lou Holtz for a tie at 13th on the list….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 89 weeks, the third-longest streak all-time. Florida has the next-longest active streak at just 18 weeks….Clemson has been ranked in the AP Top 5 for 52 consecutive weeks, by far the longest active streak and third-longest streak all-time. Ohio State had 14 consecutive weeks before their exclusion due to the Big Ten’s season postponement. The next-longest active streak is Alabama at 13 weeks. If Clemson remains in the Top 5 all season, it will pass Miami for the second-longest streak all-time. If the Tigers remain in the Top 5 from now until the ACC Championship next season, they will pass Alabama for the longest such streak all-time….Clemson’s run of 5 straight top-5 finishes is tied for the sixth-longest streak all-time. One more, and the Tigers will tie Oklahoma; two more and they will tie three other schools for the second-longest streak. FSU has the record at 14 straight top-5 finishes under Bobby Bowden….If Clemson finishes in the top 2 of the AP Poll this season, it will join Miami as the only programs to finish in the top 2 in 5 of 6 seasons…..Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive 12-win seasons (5) since Penn in 1892. One more would move Clemson ahead of Alabama, which won 11 games last season….Clemson has won 28 straight home games dating back to 2016, the longest active streak in the nation. Notre Dame has the second-longest active streak at 23, and its all-time record is 28 straight home wins, the same as the Tigers’ current streak. Only 9 fifth-year seniors on the 120-man Clemson roster have experienced a loss in Death Valley, and on Saturday, the senior class became the first in Clemson history to never lose a game at home. The Tigers are an FBS-best 46-1 at home since 2014….Before losing at Notre Dame a month ago, Clemson had won 39 straight non-bowl games, passing Nebraska and tying Miami for second-most all-time. Oklahoma holds the record at 45….Clemson had won 28 straight games against ACC opponents, tying FSU for the second-most all-time. FSU also holds the record at 29 straight, and the double-overtime loss at one-time ACC member Notre Dame kept Clemson from tying FSU for the record….Clemson had won 50 straight Saturday games before the Notre Dame loss, the longest such streak of all time…..If Clemson makes the College Football Playoff for a sixth consecutive year, it will be the first program ever to do so, and Dabo Swinney will join basketball legend John Wooden as the only coaches in any sport to make a Final Four playoff 6 years in a row….Clemson leads the all-time series with VA Tech 22-12-1. The Tigers have won the last 5 meetings by an average of 16 points, including two ACC Championship Games…..Trevor Lawrence needs just one touchdown on Saturday to become the 5th player in ACC history with 100 career touchdowns accounted for, joining Deshaun Watson, Tajh Boyd, Lamar Jackson and Phillip Rivers….Last week, Trevor Lawrence reached 10,000 career all-purpose yards, passing Charlie Whitehurst for 3rd in Clemson history behind Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson…..
VA TECH SYNOPSIS
The Hokies were looking like a contender early in the season, winning at UNC and breaking into the rankings at one point, but they are now 4-5 after 3 straight L’s that included heartbreaking home losses to ranked Liberty and Miami teams, followed by a 47-14 blowout loss at Pitt two weeks ago. That Pitt loss might have had more to do with the Hokies’ mentality than anything else. It was their ninth consecutive game without a break, and they were coming off the two gut-wrenching home losses that effectively ended any chance they had at a great season, so you can see why they might have mailed it in on the road at Pitt. That being said, the Hokies have had a week off to finally rest and regroup, and I expect their pride to kick in and for them to put everything on the line to try to shock the world with a huge upset over No.3 Clemson. This is going to be their Super Bowl, under the lights at home, and if they can pull it off, the Hokies could finish the season with a winning record.
The Hokies, of course, are led by offensive-minded Head Coach Justin Fuente, now in his 5th season since replacing Hall of Famer Frank Beamer. Running his offense is talented 6’4, 220-pound junior QB Hendon Hooker from Greensboro, NC. It seems like every week the Tigers face a talented QB who can run, and Hooker is another one. He has completed 65% of his passes and has just 9 touchdown passes against 5 interceptions this season, but he also has 9 TD runs and is their second-leading rusher with 627 yards at 5.4 yards per carry. Hooker was only sacked twice by Pitt, the nation’s leader in sacks, but the Miami defense got to him 6 times in their previous game, a one-point loss to the Canes. Hooker had his best game in the 38-35 loss to Liberty, accounting for 373 total yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions.
In the backfield with Hooker is Khalil Herbert (#21), who leads the nation in all-purpose yards and is 4th nationally in rushing yards. The 5’9, 212-pound senior from Ft. Lauderdale has a low center of gravity and is difficult to wrap up. He has 924 yards and 6 touchdowns this season, averaging a whopping 8.2 yards per carry, which leads the nation for anyone who’s played in more than 4 games. They don’t throw to Herbert too often, but he does have 9 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown. He is a good kickoff returner, but fortunately for the Tigers, Potter rarely allows a kickoff return. In fact, Potter had 6 touchbacks in the 1st quarter against Pitt last week! The Hokies’ backup RB, Raheem Blacksheer (#6), is also diminutive in stature at 5’9 and 194 pounds. The junior from Philly has 256 yards and 2 touchdowns this season, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. He also has 13 catches for 88 yards.
At receiver, the Hokies are led by Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson. Like Hendon Hooker, 6’2, 187-pound junior Tre Turner (#11) is also a Greensboro native. He leads the team with 31 catches for 504 yards and 3 touchdowns this season. Robinson (#83) is a 5’10, 187-pound sophomore slot receiver who has 30 catches for 441 yards and 2 touchdowns this season. 6’3, 242-pound junior TE James Mitchell (#82) is 3rd on the team with 20 catches for 357 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Defensively, the Hokies are stout up front. They don’t blitz quite as much as they did when legendary defensive coordinator Bud Foster was still there last year, but they still blitz about half the time and usually manage to get good pressure on the quarterback even when they don’t blitz. They are No.4 nationally in sacks, just 4 sacks less than the Tigers. Senior DE Justus Reed (#9) leads the team with 6.5 sacks. Fellow bookend Amare Barno (#38) is a junior from Blythewood, so you know he has been itching for a shot at the Tigers. He has 5.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery this season. Senior DT Jarrod Hewitt (#5) has 4.5 sacks. Junior Chamarri Conner (#22) leads the team in tackles with 70 from his safety position. That is something no defensive coordinator wants to see because it means offenses are getting to the second and third level of their defense with great frequency. Conner has 2 interceptions and a forced fumble this season. 6’3 senior safety Divine Deablo (#17) is probably the biggest leader of the defense. He has 2 interceptions and a forced fumble as well. Corners Devin Taylor (#24) and Brion Murray (#37) also each have 2 INT’s. Murray returned each of his over 40 yards.
Beamer Ball may be dead—the Hokies don’t have a blocked kick this season and are 111th in punt returns—but they have a pretty reliable place kicker inside 50 yards in senior Brian Johnson. He is 13-15 inside of 50 yards but just 2-6 over 50 yards. The Hokies are 27th in kick return yards thanks to Herbert, but, again, that will be mitigated by Potter’s touchbacks. Having a touchback machine like Potter is an asset that few people recognize, but it’s a valuable one!
VA Tech is ranked No.35 in scoring offense (33.2 points/game), No.9 in rushing offense (250.89 yards/game), No.92 in passing offense (199.2 yards per game) and No.27 in total offense (450.1 yards/game). The Hokies are No.90 in scoring defense (32.6 points/game), No.89 in rush defense (189.22 yards/game), No. 106 in pass defense (273.8 yards/game) and No.109 in total defense (463 yards/game). They are No.4 in sacks (3.56/game), No.13 in tackles-for-loss (7.33/game) and No.38 in turnover margin (+0.44/game). They have gained 14 turnovers this season but have given it away 10 times.
The Tigers are rejuvenated physically and mentally after the long 3-week layoff and coming off a dominant 52-17 win that could have easily been 66-17 or worse. It almost felt like a season opener because of the layoff, and the Tigers are about as healthy now as they have been at any point in the season. As dominant as they were defensively against a red-hot Pitt team with an NFL quarterback, the Tigers were without 2 starters on defense (Zanders and Kendrick) and 2 backups (Sheridan Jones and Jalyn Phillips). That’s 4 significant players missing from the secondary, and the Tigers still came up with 4 interceptions, which equaled Pickett’s total for the season! Dabo said in August that it’s the most talented group of corners he’s ever had, and those young players’ confidence is at an all-time high. Booth, who had a rough first start at Wake in the opener, has made two high-flying circus catches for interceptions this season. Xavier Thomas is finally starting to look like his old self and has recorded sacks in each of the last 3 games, including a forced fumble against Pitt that bounced right to Mike Jones but was recovered by the Panthers. Kendrick missed the game for disciplinary reasons and will be back on Saturday, but Dabo told me Zanders will not. Jones and/or Phillips could be back this week. More importantly, though, the Tigers finally got back Skalski, Davis and Mike Jones—all of whom missed the Notre Dame game—and the difference was glaring. It is a different defense with those guys on the field and their absence made a bigger difference in the Notre Dame game than Trevor Lawrence’s. Backup MLB Jake Venables rolled his ankle last week and missed the Pitt game, but he will hopefully be back this week as well. Expect to see DT Ruke Orhorhoro make his season debut on Saturday night! He will be a regular in the Tigers’ defensive interior rotation and will make the Tigers that much deeper up front. Having a run-stuffer like Ruke sharing the snaps will make a huge difference if the Tigers play Notre Dame again. If they had Tyler and Ruke in the middle in that first meeting, you can cut Notre Dame’s rush yards in half!
The Tigers were also without starting WR’s Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata against Pitt, but they still lit up the scoreboard thanks to Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell—all likely playing in their final home game. Powell tied a Clemson record with his 3rd straight game with over 100 reception yards, and he also joined Nuk Hopkins and Sammy Watkins as the only Clemson players with back-to-back games of 150 reception yards or more. Pretty prestigious company! Powell stepped up his game back in the spring and has been consistent all season, but he has taken it to another level in the last few games. His confidence is through the roof right now, and sometimes that makes all the difference. He made a tremendous one-handed catch last week and very nearly scored 2 touchdowns for the second straight game. Etienne didn’t put up huge yards, but he scored twice in just over one half of play. Lyn-J Dixon had his best game of the season, scoring his first touchdown, and Mellusi added two scores—one on the ground and his first through the air. He has slowly emerged as the Tigers’ No.3 back and has 4 TD’s in his sophomore campaign. Ladson and Ngata will both miss this week’s game as well, but Dabo is hopeful he will have one or both back for the post-season. Be sure to check HERE about two hours before kickoff for our final list of unavailable players for tonight!
Clemson is ranked No.5 in scoring offense (46.1 points/game), No.76 in rushing offense (149.44 yards/game), No.3 in passing offense (362.8 yards per game) and No.9 in total offense (512.2 yards/game). The Tigers are No.18 in scoring defense (19.2 points/game), No.12 in rush defense (102.56 yards/game), No.26 in pass defense (196.0 yards/game) and No.8 in total defense (298.6 yards/game). They are No.2 in sacks (4.0/game), No.4 in tackles-for-loss (9.0/game), No.2 in interceptions (13) and No.20 in turnover margin (+0.89/game). They are 4th in turnovers gained (19) but have given it away 11 times.
It’s going to be cold in Blacksburg on Saturday night, with temperatures in the 30’s, and there could be some rain early, but it shouldn’t be cold enough to snow. Fortunately, the Tigers had some cold weather in Clemson the last couple nights and were able to acclimate a little bit for the conditions they’ll see in Blacksburg. It won’t be nearly as cold as the Boston College game in 2018! I expect to see a fired-up VA Tech team on Saturday night. Again, this is their Super Bowl. I also expect to see some new wrinkles and trickery from their offense. You might even see a fake field goal or punt or an onside kick. WR Tayvion Robinson has completed a 20-yard pass this season, so be on the watch for that. The Hokies had the week off after 9 straight games, and they have nothing to lose. That means they will be rested and ready to throw the kitchen sink at the Tigers.
However, that sort of adrenaline wears off quickly when the champ throws repeated haymakers early and often, the way the Tigers did against Pitt last week. If the they play as sharply, with as much tenacity and execution as they did in the first quarter last week, the Tigers can get the Hokies on the canvas early, and I don’t think they’ll get up. The Hokies’ strength is their running game. They are 9th nationally in rushing and 92nd in passing, so the Tigers need to stifle the run and force Hendon Hooker to make throws. The Tigers’ secondary is experienced enough at this point and playing with enough confidence that they can be trusted in press-man coverage. I expect Venables to blitz early and often to get to Hooker and prevent him from getting in a groove. If the Tigers can do that and bottle up Herbert, it will be a long night for Fuente’s offense with a lot of punts.
I think it will be a long night for the Hokies’ defense as well. They will load the box to stop the run like everyone else has done this season, but Travis Etienne will have his best game in over a month, with 150 or more all-purpose yards and at least a few big receptions. I’d like to see Galloway and/or Davis make some big plays in the passing game. Galloway had one last week, and almost scored, but he also had a bad drop on a would-be 3rd down conversion.
Make it 6 straight ACC Championship Games for the Tigers! Trevor Lawrence joins Watson, Boyd, Jackson and Rivers in the ACC 100 TD club and stands alone as the Tigers’ all-time winningest QB at 33-1 as a starter. Listen to the bell, Notre Dame, it tolls for thee!
The Prowl toward a 6th consecutive ACC Title, 6th consecutive College Football Playoff appearance, 3rd consecutive National Championship Game appearance and 4th National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 55 Virginia Tech 13
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