Game of the Week: Clemson vs. Virginia Tech
The ACC has been full of surprises so far in the 2017 season. Florida State was the preseason favorite to win the conference, but after losing quarterback Deondre Francois for the year in the opener against Alabama, and then being upset at home by NC State last weekend, the Seminoles are now 0-2 and unranked for the first time since 2011.
Clemson, on the other hand, was expected to take a slight step back after losing an immense amount of production of both sides of the ball. Through four weeks though, Dabo Swinney and the Tigers look primed to defend their ACC title and march back to the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive year.
Then there’s Virginia Tech, which has been a pleasant surprise thus far. Justin Fuente led the Hokies to a 10-3 record in his first season a year ago and now has his team looking like the potential favorite in the ACC Coastal division.
In Week 5, No. 2 Clemson and No. 12 Virginia Tech will face off in Blacksburg, Virginia for the first of potentially two matchups this season. The second could likely be in the ACC championship game.
Both teams will enter Saturday with top 10 scoring defenses in college football with the Hokies allowing just 10.3 points per game (6th in FBS) and Clemson allowing only 9.3 per game (3rd in FBS).
Virginia Tech has already recorded two shutouts this season, while Clemson has shut down two top 15 opponents in Auburn and Louisville.
Clemson’s defense begins with an NFL-caliber defensive line that ranks second in the nation in sacks. Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell both have a chance to be top 10 draft picks this spring, while Dexter Lawrence, who is only a true sophomore, may be the most talented of the three.
They also boast an experienced linebacking corps, led by senior Dorian O’Daniel, and a secondary that currently ranks fifth among power five teams against the pass.
The strength of Virginia Tech’s defense lies in its experienced secondary, which has forced an interception in every game so far this season and ranks 26th in the FBS in opponent pass efficiency. The Hokies also have a young and talented front seven though that has been excellent against the run thus far.
Virginia Tech’s defense has already seen an excellent pure passer in West Virginia’s Will Grier, but Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant may be the most dynamic they see all year. Bryant has been terrific as DeShaun Watson’s successor, completing 68 percent of his passes with nine total touchdowns (seven rushing) to just three interceptions.
Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain, and Hunter Renfrow headline one of the best receiving corps in the country, complemented by a very deep group of running backs, led by a star freshman in Travis Etienne.
Virginia Tech had a major question mark at quarterback coming into the season after Jerod Evans decided to leave early for the NFL. Freshman Josh Jackson, however, drew rave reviews in the offseason and has been excellent since taking over. He is completing 65 percent of his passes for 1,127 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception.
The Hokies are relatively unproven at the skill positions, as they have yet to find a true go-to running back. The good news is that they have five players who have rushed for over 100 yards and have scored a touchdown this season.
They do have a star on the outside in senior wide receiver Cam Phillips, who leads the nation in receiving yards. Virginia Tech will need someone else to step up for them this weekend to take some of the pressure off of Jackson.
Both defenses have been outstanding so far this season. Clemson will need its defensive line to continue to put pressure on Virginia Tech’s backfield and Virginia Tech will need to limit explosive plays from Clemson’s offense.
Both teams are also breaking in new quarterbacks, and Saturday may be both of their toughest tests to date. Expect there to be a mistake or two from each of them.
The fact that Virginia Tech starts a true freshman in Jackson though puts them at a disadvantage, especially against maybe the best defense in the country. Clemson overall also has more talent to surround their quarterback.
This one will likely be a low-scoring affair that is tightly contested in the first half, but Clemson will pull away late and put themselves in the driver seat in the ACC.
Prediction: Clemson 24, Virginia Tech 13
Will Desautelle is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.