Before you go and buy those tickets for Glendale, Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl, you need to buy tickets for Orlando, Florida and the ACC Championship Game first.
If you are thinking No. 3 Clemson is going to roll into Camping World Stadium on Saturday and blow out No. 18 Virginia Tech and cruise into the College Football Playoff, then you are sadly mistaken. Like Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on Tuesday, don’t take winning an ACC Championship for granted.
Clemson will need your support if it hopes to take down a Hokies team that is playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain. Virginia Tech isn’t going to go to the College Football Playoff like the Tigers with a win, but with a victory, it will secure a spot in the Orange Bowl, which is a whole lot better bowl destination than the Russell Athletic and Belk Bowls.
So Virginia Tech isn’t playing “to spoil Clemson’s season.” No, it’s playing for a championship and the Hokies are going to play hard and will give Clemson their very best.
This Saturday’s game is about winning a championship for both Clemson and Virginia Tech. An outside of Florida State, winning an ACC Championship does not coming easy for anyone in the conference. The Tigers are seeking their second straight ACC title and third in six seasons, but they have not won back-to-back ACC Championships since the program won three straight from 1986-’88.
Winning a conference championship is not easy, especially when you have to play a team like Virginia Tech in the title game.
Is Clemson the better team? Absolutely it is. But can Virginia Tech beat them? Absolutely it can.
I know you are out there saying, “Will, they lost to Georgia Tech and Syracuse and to a Tennessee team that was beat by South Carolina. How can they beat Clemson?”
My response to that, “How did Clemson lose to Pitt?”
None of that stuff matters. In football, just like in any game, it comes down to matchups. Yes, Clemson is the better team and is the more talented team, but Virginia Tech is not as far behind as you might think. And when a team isn’t too far behind, they can present some issues if the matchups are just right.
The Hokies have some talent, and where that talent is will cause some matchup problems for the Tigers.
Clemson’s biggest weakness on defense all year has been its inability to cover running backs and the tight ends. Louisville, and especially Pitt, exposed this weakness. Guess where Virginia Tech’s talent is.
The Tigers (11-1) have no one that can cover tight end Bucky Hodges. No one in the country does. I asked defensive coordinator Brent Venables on Tuesday how they can simulate a guy in practice that is 6-foot-7, 245 pounds. His response, “We can’t.”
Hodges had 42 catches for 598 yards and seven touchdowns, better numbers than Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett, who had 34 receptions for 588 yards and five touchdowns on his way to First-Team All-ACC Honors.
Venables says fullback Sam Rogers can do everything, and if you watch any Virginia Tech game, you will see he is right. Not only is he a powerful guy who can run over anyone when he is leading the way as a blocker, but he can also run the football and can line up in the spread formation and run routes as well as a wide receiver. He is going to be a challenge for any Clemson linebacker to handle.
Then there is quarterback Jerod Evans, who leads the Hokies in rushing and rushing touchdowns with 713 yards and eight scores. He also is a pretty good passer, too. He is completing 63.8 percent of his passes for 3,039 yards and a school-record 26 touchdowns. He has thrown just five interceptions in 354 attempts.
By the way, did I mention Evans is 6-foot-3 and weighs 238-pounds? In other words, he is a linebacker than can play quarterback.
On the defensive side, the Hokies have been solid all year. Bud Foster once again has one of the conference’s best defenses as they rank fourth in the ACC, allowing just 332.2 yards per game.
Their strength is in the secondary, where they’re allowing just 186.4 yards a game. In 12 games, they have allowed just 13 touchdown passes. Opponents are completing just 47.8 percent of their passes and they have 12 interceptions.
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott says Foster will show as many as six different coverage schemes to try and confuse the quarterback. He said Deshaun Watson is really going to have to do his homework for this game.
When the Tigers played Virginia Tech three times from 2011-2012, Scott said Foster used only two coverages in those games.
So before you buy those tickets for Glendale, why not come to Orlando first. Clemson still has more than 300 of its allotted 5,500 tickets left. I’m telling you, the Tigers are going to need your support in Orlando.