The 2019 ACC Football Championship Game, which will be played this Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina, sort of has a David and Goliath feel to it.
Virginia, fresh off its only Coastal Division title, is set to make its first ever appearance in the ACC title game versus third-ranked Clemson, which has won each of the last four conference championships against four different Coastal Division opponents.
The Cavaliers have an up-and-coming program under fourth-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, but the Tigers are an established powerhouse trying to claim their third national title in the last four seasons.
Mendenhall understands nobody outside the program expects Virginia to beat Dabo Swinney’s Clemson squad, currently a 28-point favorite, though Mendenhall is excited about the opportunity that awaits his team against the defending national champs.
“I think that’s probably the case with anyone that Clemson has played this year, so I don’t find us in any different situation,” Mendenhall said on Sunday of being the underdog. “If you look at the program they have established over time, the job Coach Swinney has done as well as their record, I think we’ll just be the next team that will be lumped in the same category as everyone else. The difference simply is that we’ve battled, scraped and clawed our way to win our side of the division, and a program that hasn’t known recent success and is hungry for more, and the rest of it will be played out in the game.”
Mendenhall described the task of facing Clemson as a “significant challenge.”
“Really when you look at this particular opponent – and it doesn’t matter which side you’re looking at, offense or defense – the talent is certainly the first thing that jumps out, and the scheme and strategy and the coaching is certainly strong,” Mendenhall said. “Also for the Clemson offense specifically, basically everyone that touches the ball is very skilled, very capable, and Clemson’s ranking and their success is not accidental — it’s coming because of all those things I just mentioned.”
Led by star quarterback Bryce Perkins, Virginia’s offense is tied for 32nd in the country in scoring offense at 33.7 points per game.
But the Hoos have not seen a defense this season like Brent Venables’ bunch, which ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (10.1 points per game allowed) and has held each of its 12 opponents to less than 300 yards of total offense.
“Not only this particular group, but past groups as well, I think first of all the leadership from their coordinator is strong,” Mendenhall said. “I think the scheme, strategy and initiatives that are launched each week – which are never quite the same – I think are really well thought out. And then the talent base at every position has been crafted at a really strong level that matches the style, system and schematics of the design.
“So, you have a really nice blend of leadership with scheme and personnel and experience, and that then forms culture and tradition. So, this group I think is the next version and probably the strongest version that I’ve seen, and I have studied Clemson before defensively and have been impressed with not only the scheme but the innovation and the ideas they have.”
Clemson and Virginia have played four common opponents this season – Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina and Georgia Tech – and the tape from those games will help the Tigers and Cavaliers get ready to go up against one another.
While that will aid Virginia in its preparation, Mendenhall knows there is no real way to get his team prepared for the stage it will play on against Clemson in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. ABC primetime game at Bank of America Stadium.
“There isn’t a true point of reference, not having crossed over. But there are teams that they have played that we have played, and so one step removed, there is some relevance there,” Mendehall said.
“However, this stage is a different stage. It’s a new step for the program and our program. There’s a newness to it, there’s an excitement about it, there’s a hungriness that radiates from our team right now and their desire to do really well in this game. In terms of points of reference, no one on our team has been nor experienced anything like it, and that doesn’t mean they’re hesitant nor afraid of it, and they’re all looking forward to the challenge.”
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