8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Clemson -9.5, Over/Under: 46.5
The Atlantic Coast Conference, and more importantly a spot in the College Football Playoff, will be decided tonight in Charlotte, North Carolina, as the Top-Ranked Clemson Tigers battle the Seventh-Ranked Miami Hurricanes in the ACC Championship Game from Bank of America Stadium. It may be hard to believe, but tonight’s appearance in the ACC Title Game will be Miami’s (10-1, 7-1 in ACC) first since entering the Conference back in 2003. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it will be up to Mark Richt’s charges to find a way to pick themselves back up off the mat after sustaining their first loss of the campaign to unranked Pittsburgh in last weekend’s Regular Season Finale. The 24-14 defeat snapped a Fifteen-Game Winning Streak dating back to last season, which was coincidently the longest such streak in the country at the point. It was a sloppy game for the Coastal Division Champions, who never quite looked in synch enough to threaten a 5-7 team that wasn’t even Bowl Eligible; the Offense accounted for just Fourteen First Downs, 232 Total Yards, including a miserable Forty-Five Rushing Yards on Twenty-Three Carries, while the Passing Game didn’t fare much better, with Malik Rosier turning in arguably his worst performance as a Starting Quarterback, completing just 15-of-34 Passes for 187 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, despite taking Four Sacks, one of which devolved into a crucial Lost Fumble late in the game. Desperate for a spark, Richt even benched the Junior for a series, so that Rosier could collect himself. Defensively, the visiting side couldn’t muster enough Takeaway Magic to overcome the struggles of their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball, despite collecting two more Turnovers, brining their total on the season to a staggering Twenty-Nine, parlaying to Plus-17 Turnover Differential (1st Overall). The biggest problem for Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz’s unit was the fact that they couldn’t get off the field, with Pitt consistently moving the chains with 152 Rushing Yards on Forty-Five Carries, which has been an issue for this team throughout the season; opponents have rushed for 153.9 Yards against the Hurricanes, with one midseason stretch in particular which saw them relinquish at least 170 in five consecutive outings. Last Friday’s loss was as damaging to this team as you can imagine, falling to Seventh in the CFP Rankings after enjoying a seat at No. Two Overall, the highest that the Program has been ranked in well over a decade. With that said, all is not lost, for the general consensus is that if Miami were to indeed upset the reigning National Champions (which will be no easy task), then they will in all likelihood be granted a spot in the College Football Playoff. For that to happen, Richt and Co. are going to need to get far more consistent play from both Rosier (55.2%, 254.4 Y/G, 7.8 Y/A, 25 TD, 9 INT) and the Running Game, which despite their season-worst performance against the Panthers, have been largely productive this season, averaging 166.0 yards on a healthy 5.1 Yards per Carry. A season-ending injury to top Tailback Mark Walton (56 CAR, 428 YDS, 3 TD) threatened to send the Backfield into a spiral, before Travis Homer emerged with 866 Yards and Seven Touchdowns on 137 Carries. The Sophomore has thrived since becoming the Starter, averaging 93.4 Yards over the final seven games, though he too will be looking for redemption after turning in just Twelve Yards on Seven Carries in the loss to Pitt. Potentially complicating matters for this unit is the sudden loss of Wideout Ahmmon Richards (24 REC, 439 YDS, 3 TD), who tore the Meniscus in his Left Knee during Practice earlier in the week, which coupled with the absence of Tight End Christopher Herndon (44 REC, 47 YDS, 4 TD), who suffered a knee injury of his own in last weekend’s defeat, leaves the ‘Canes without a pair of prominent playmakers in their vertical Passing Attack. Needless to say, the Offense is going to need some help from their Defense, which has proven adept at changing games on a dime with Takeaways. Diaz’s gaudy Turnover Chain aside, his charges have collected Turnovers in bunches, averaging 2.6 per Game, which includes a stretch where they posted no less than Four in four consecutive contests. Fifteen different players have registered a Takeaway, led by Junior Defensive Back Jaquan Johnson (81 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 4 INT, 1 TD, 4 PD, 2 FF, 2 FR), who has accounted for a total of six. Again, we can’t understate just how big of a game this is for the Program, which in it’s second year under Richt appears to be ahead of schedule. With their chief rivals in the State of Florida in disarray, a trip to the College Football Playoff would be an absolute boon to their national profile, including recruiting which is king in this sport.
Meanwhile, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same for Clemson (11-1, 7-1 in ACC), who a year after winning their first National Championship 1981, have found themselves in the proverbial catbird’s seat, ranked No. One Overall in the College Football Playoff Rankings, with a third consecutive trip to the Playoff in their sights if they can handle their business tonight in Charlotte. The Atlantic Division Champions cruised through their schedule largely unchallenged, with the lone exception a shocking 27-24 loss at Syracuse midway through the campaign. However, the caveat there was that Dabo Swinney and Co. were hamstrung at Quarterback throughout that particular affair, with Kelly Bryant rendered ineffective with a high ankle sprain, only to be replaced in the second half by backup Zerrick Cooper. Since then, the Tigers have certainly corrected their course, winning five consecutive outings by a rather comfortable 188-68 aggregate score. After sewing up the Atlantic Division three weeks ago with a 31-14 over Florida State, the Champs took it largely easy with a 62-3 hammering of the Citadel before entering into their annual rivalry with South Carolina, which saw the Gamecocks unable to deal with the Tigers, who outgained them 469 to 207 in a lopsided 34-10 beatdown, their fourth consecutive win in the series between the schools. The visiting side opened the affair scoring thirty-four unanswered points before the hosts could muster anything in the Fourth Quarter, with a revitalized Bryant (66.4%, 202.2 Y/G, 7.3 Y/A, 12 TD, 6 INT) leading the charge, completing 23-of-34 Passes for 272 Yards, Two Touchdowns and an Interception, while also rushing for another Twenty-Six Yards on Ten Carries. The Junior has been solid since the upset at Syracuse, completing 64.9% of his Attempts for an average of 210.2 Yards per Game on 6.69 Yards per Attempt, with Eight Touchdowns in comparison to a pair of Interceptions, while factoring more heavily into the Running Game, with Sixty-Three Carries for 246 Yards and Three more Scores over the last Five Games. After backing up the decorated Deshaun Watson for the past two seasons, this kid has patiently waited for his opportunity for glory, and quite frankly has made the most of it, leading an Offense that has been very comparable to his predecessors, which given their incredible amount of losses to the NFL Draft is a testament to Swinney and his Staff. On the year thus far, Clemson has averaged 35.2 Points per Game (25th Overall) on 459.0 Total Yards, including 243.3 through the air and another 215.8 on the ground. Furthermore, they’re averaging a stellar 6.1 Yards per Play, which compares nicely with their figures from 2016 (6.3) and 2015 (6.4). With all that said, the biggest reason for this team’s sustained success has been the play of their Defense, which jus might be the finest in College Football. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables’ unit has flourished despite the mass exodus of NFL Talent, allowing just 13.6 Points per Game (4th Overall) on 283.3 total Yards (6th Overall), including 169.7 against the Pass and another 113.6 versus the Run. The Defensive Line is loaded with future Pros, with the likes of Dexter Lawrence (28 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), Clelin Ferrell (58 TKL, 16.0 TFL, 8.5 SK, 1 PD, 2 FF), Austin Bryant (47 TKL, 14.5 TFL, 7.5 SK, 1 INT, 1 PD, 2 FF), and Christian Wilkins (45 TKL, 7.5 TFL, 4.5 K, 2 PD), each garnering a First or Second All-ACC distinction this season. 98.5 Tackles for Loss along with 40.0 Sacks is proof of how productive this Defense been thus far, despite all that pressure translating into just Sixteen Takeaways. These teams haven’t met since 2015, when the Tigers absolutely eviscerated the Hurricanes in a 58-0 debacle that ended the Al Golden Era at Miami, ultimately ushering in the current regime.