A huge opportunity awaits the Virginia football program Saturday night in Charlotte, and the players, coaches, and yes, even fans, should treat it as such.
Obviously, pundits, analysts and the like, including yours truly, give virtually no shot to UVa in this game. I asked my friend what result would make him happy, and he said a loss by 21 points or less. I'm on record saying I'd be ecstatic with that result. I am just hoping Virginia can at least beat the spread. Right now, the Tigers are favored by 28.5 points. The total number of points is set at 57, so that translates to about a 42-14 game. So I'm not expecting much, and that has more to do with how much I respect Clemson and less what I think Virginia is capable of. I am ready to be surprised and hopeful I'll be able to watch a competitive game in the second half.
But the players don't care one iota about the media, and they certainly don't care about what I think. They are the ones that need to believe and the only ones that matter. Bronco Mendenhall said this week the team was going to go to Charlotte with the intent to win a football game. They aren't just happy to be there.
Even respecting how far the program has come under Mendenhall, there's plenty of reasons to think things could get ugly Saturday night. Clemson has won 27 consecutive games, four straight ACC crowns, and two of the past three national championships. Everyone remembers the beatdown the Tigers laid on Alabama last January: 44-16. The first two ACC titles were close games: 45-37 against North Carolina in 2015 and 42-35 against Virginia Tech in 2016. But the past two haven't even been competitive: 38-3 against Miami in 2017 and 42-10 against Pittsburgh in 2018.
This season's team is defeating its foes by an average score of 45.3-10.1. Like 2018, the 2019 Tigers have had one close call, almost losing at North Carolina 21-20, and have destroyed everyone since, with an average score of 50.4-8.7. Last year's team actually had two close calls, a 28-26 win at Texas A&M and a 27-23 victory against Syracuse at home, but from that point on, Clemson won by at least 20 points in each game, with most of the margins of victory in the 30s and 40s. Mendenhall called Clemson perhaps the pinnacle program in college football at the moment. The Tigers are no joke. Virginia could play an "A" game and still lose by a score of 42-21.
Clemson is led at quarterback by sophomore Trevor Lawrence (which means the college football world has one more year of this guy), who was said to be having a down year earlier in the season. Down year? Give me these stats all day from my QB: He's completing 68.6 percent of his passes for 2,870 yards, 30 touchdowns, and eight interceptions. He's only been sacked 10 times. By comparison, Bryce Perkins, who has had some spectacular games and some off games, has completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,949 yards, 16 scores, and nine picks. He's been sacked 36 times. Lawrence does not run as often as Perkins but is capable, with 383 yards and seven scores. Perkins, as a result of getting sacked a lot and because UVa was shying away from running him as often in the middle of the season, has seen his yards-per-carry average go down from 4.4 in 2018 to 3.5 in 2019 and his total rushing yards decline from 923 to 687, but he's scored 11 times on the ground this year compared to nine last year.
Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Amari Rodgers form a strong receiving corps. Each one nets at least 12.5 yards per catch. Higgins leads the way with 900 yards and 10 TDs on 43 catches, Ross has 648 yards and seven TDs on a team-leading 52 receptions, and Rodgers has tallied 380 yards and four scores on 27 catches in 10 games. Clemson's passing offense ranks 25th in the country.
The Hoos met w/media today to talk @ACCFootball Championship. Here's what @UVACoachBronco, @3_ToDaNeck, @mandy_alonso55 & @zzandier had to say on the O&B Report. #GoHoos ⚔️ vs. 🐅 pic.twitter.com/Vr2XSIvihk— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) December 3, 2019
At running back, the Tigers boast perhaps their most lethal offensive weapon: ACC player of the year Travis Etienne, who has gained 1,386 yards and 16 TDs on 8.3 ypc (Etienne received 22 votes for PY and Perkins was second with 11). He's also caught 28 passes, collected 10.3 yards per catch, and has two receiving scores. Lyn-J Dixon is his backup, and he's gained 572 yards and five TDs on 6.1 ypc; that's more yards than Virginia starting RB Wayne Tualapapa has gained (416). Clemson's rushing offense ranks 10th.
Despite losing the entire defensive line to the NFL in the spring, that side of the ball is very strong again for Clemson. The 20-point game against the Tar Heels was the Tigers' "bad" outing. No opponent has been able to record 300 yards on them yet. They are +11 in turnover margin, which ranks in the top 10 in the country, and they've collected 36 sacks (tied-18th; Virginia is up to 43 sacks, which is tied for sixth). Linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the team's leading tackler for the second straight season and the ACC defensive player of the year, leads the way with seven sacks and 14 tackles for losses. He will probably spy Perkins during the game as he tries to contain UVa's playmaker. Linebackers James Skalski and Chad Smith, defensive tackle Tyler Davis, and defensive end Justin Foster have three sacks each. Safety Tanner Muse has recorded four interceptions. Safety K'Von Wallace (a teammate of UVa WR Billy Kemp at Highland Springs) and cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Derion Kendrick have two picks each. Clemson ranks first in passing defense at 126.5 yards given up per game, pretty remarkable when you consider the fact that teams often get behind the Tigers early and thus, probably try to pass the ball a lot. And they are still that stout against the pass. Clemson checks in with the 11th-best rushing defense.
If Virginia has an edge, it is in special teams. Perhaps Joe Reed is due for a kickoff return TD. I think it'll take one of those plus at least one more great special teams play if Virginia is going to even sniff an upset.
Special teams efficiency per ESPN:— Bennett Conlin (@BennettConlin) December 6, 2019
Virginia - 8th nationally
Clemson - 121st nationally
With a disadvantage in nearly every offensive and defensive matchup, special teams may play a key role in Virginia's upset bid tomorrow night.
Despite the overwhelming numbers, this game sort of reminds me of the basketball team facing Auburn in the Final Four. Of course, the hardwood 'Hoos had a much better chance of winning and were favored against those Tigers in April. But I felt like once Tony Bennett put UMBC behind him and finally broke through and got to the Final Four, he seemed more carefree, like a burden had been lifted. (I wrote about it here.) It validated all of the hard work he had put into the program to that point. But because Bennett had an excellent perspective on life, and perhaps even more so after UMBC, he would be OK simply giving it his all in the Final Four. If the Cavaliers had lost to Auburn or Texas Tech, I still believe he'd be at peace. Hungry, but at peace.
I think that situation is analogous to what Mendenhall and the football program might be feeling. Their "UMBC" was the losing streak to Virginia Tech and being the only team never to have won the Coastal Division. Now that those two feats have been accomplished, this team is probably going to play loose and free. The 'Hoos know the world doesn't believe in them Saturday night, so they'll embrace the underdog mentality and just go out and have fun and play hard with nothing to lose. A really bad loss could drop the 'Hoos from Orange Bowl consideration, but for the most part, Virginia truly has nothing to lose. If the Cavaliers pull off the improbable, they are headed to the Orange Bowl anyway. Clemson is the team that should be feeling the pressure. The Tigers are the ones expected to win, and win big, and the critics have been tough on them because of their easy schedule compared to other teams competing for spots in the College Football Playoff. No doubt coach Dabo Swinney is using that us-against-the-world mentality to motivate his team, too, but the Cavaliers are truly the ones that should be feeling no pressure. If the Tigers lose, they most likely won't make the playoff.
In other words, a "Kitchen Sink" game again, like Karl Hess pointed out last week.
So boys, give 100 percent effort, pin your ears back and just see what happens. I'm excited to see what kind of tricks Virginia tries to pull to stun the Tigers. Mendenhall has said before the staff thinks about "stealing" possessions in games in which the Cavaliers are underdogs. Fans, the odds are against us, but they were after the UMBC loss, too, and that turned out OK, I think. Just enjoy the moment and embrace the challenge. This game represents just how far the program has come since 2-10. It's sports. You never truly know. That's why they play the game.
I think our 'Hoos will show some spunk, but it won't be nearly enough.
Clemson 45, Virginia 17