Virginia Tech is back where it belongs. After a five year hiatus that felt more like ten, Justin Fuente has lifted the Hokies to the ACC's grandest stage in just his first season in Blacksburg. No. 3 Clemson awaits in Orlando, a daunting challenge for Fuente's unit that will test this team in all three phases of the game. Led by 2015 Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson, the Tigers will almost certainly land in the College Football Playoff with a victory on Saturday evening.
While losses to Syracuse and Georgia Tech erased any far-fetched playoff aspirations for the Hokies, the Orange Bowl remains an appealing prize should Jerod Evans and company pull off the upset at newly remodeled Camping World Stadium. To get Clemson's perspective on their second-straight appearance in the ACC Championship Game, I spoke to David Hood, senior writer at TigerNet.com. You can find my answers to David's questions here.
JC: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has enjoyed another standout year for the Tigers, but Lamar Jackson has been on the receiving end of the majority of the Heisman hype around the ACC. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Jackson, Dabo Swinney has raved about Watson all season, going as far as calling him "the best player in the country" this past week. Would you agree with Dabo? Has Watson somehow gotten better as a junior?
DH: I think he has gotten a lot better. People will point to the 14 interceptions as proof that he has maybe regressed, but I can count at least seven of those that are the fault of his receivers - they let a ball hit them in the hands or chest and it bounces out and a defender makes a grab on the jump ball. His passing numbers are up even though wide receivers have dropped an astounding 30 passes. And, all you have to do is look at some of the game-winning drives he's had this season - at Auburn, Louisville, NC State, at FSU - he's done his best work this season.
JC: This weekend will mark the first time the Hokies and Tigers have met since 2012, an alarming gap that frustrates a fair share of Tech fans. Sparing us a timeless #GoACC scheduling rant, do you get the sense that the Clemson contingent would like more of this matchup as well?
DH: Yes! Let's face it, Virginia Tech and Clemson have, in my opinion, the two most rabid fan bases in the ACC. Both schools operate in cities that aren't big, they have stadiums that always have a great atmosphere and both are able to recruit at a very high level. I think most Clemson fans look at Virginia Tech and see a kindred spirit, and I know that when the Tigers were given Georgia Tech as the cross-division rival Clemson fans were angry. Virginia Tech wound up with Boston College - a nod to the old Big East days - and Clemson wound up with Georgia Tech because they've been playing since the early 1900's. But let's face it - Clemson and Virginia Tech have more in common than their cross-division rivals, and it would be a lot of fun to see these two in either Lane Stadium or Death Valley every year. What a win that would be for the ACC.
JC: The Tigers have a plethora of weapons offensively, highlighted by ultra-talented receivers Mike Williams and Deon Cain (and that's not even mentioning first-team All-ACC tight end Jordan Leggett). What's the recipe that teams like N.C. State and Auburn have used to slow down such an elite group of skill position players?
DH: Those teams sold out to stop the run and dared the Tigers to win the game through the air. Most of the time, that is a recipe for disaster but there is a common theme in those close games - Clemson turnovers. Watson threw for a bunch of yards, but Clemson had three fumbles inside the Auburn 10 and had three more inside the NC State 20. Take away the turnovers and those games are routs. But you can't, so....
JC: As a self-admitted college football addict, I've grown to admire the way Dabo runs the Clemson football program over the past several years. In a modern college football landscape that often feels contrived, where coaches like Ed Orgeron are the exception, not the rule, Dabo just seems real. Do you see that helping the Tigers on the recruiting trail, or better yet, in the athletic department's checkbook?
DH: Dabo doesn't just seem real, he is real. When he first arrived at Clemson I didn't quite understand his approach (when he was a wide receivers coach) and I often wondered if it was all an act. It wasn't, and his demeanor just resonates with the families of recruits. He sometimes irks Clemson fans because he is quick to suspend or punish a player, but he goes in the living room and tells momma that he will make her boy into a man if nothing else, and he stands by that promise. When he took the job in late 2008, he made the administration promise that they would build first-class facilities, and the new football operations center (slated to open in late January) will be the best of its kind in the country. And yes, it helps to have a charismatic coach who can go out to fundraisers and kiss babies and talk to everyone like he's known them his entire life.
JC: Brent Venables has rolled out yet another top-10 defense for the Tigers despite replacing seven starters from a 2015 team that ultimately fell to Alabama in the National Championship game. What's surprised you most about the performance of Venables' unit, and who should Hokies fans be keeping an eye on Saturday night?
DH: The group that has surprised me the most is the defensive line. Both defensive ends from last season went in the top 32 picks in the NFL draft, and then they lost a presumptive starting defensive end to injury in fall camp. What did they do? Moved freak athlete and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins out to end and all they've done is once again finish in the top three nationally in tackles for loss and sacks. They are finally healthy and playing like one of the nation's best units. Even scarier - they lose exactly one player off of their defensive line three-deep to the NFL this season, and that's tackle Carlos Watkins. All the rest will be back.
JC: Where do you see the Hokies giving Clemson the most problems?
DH: Tight end and fullback in space. Clemson has made average tight ends look like All-Americans the last few seasons, and we all know Bucky Hodges is far from average. Wheel routes and sideline routes with athletic tight ends have been a nightmare for Venables.
JC: Time to put you on the spot: who wins Saturday, and why?
DH: I think this game is close. I love Justin Fuente and I think he's a great coach at making adjustments when he has to. There is also the fact that Jerod Evans is a baller but hasn't gotten the respect he deserves because he plays in the same conference as Watson and Lamar Jackson. I think the Hokies will have a lot they want to prove Saturday night. But...this Clemson team has responded after the loss to Pitt and is playing its best football of the season, and Watson is on a tear. Tigers win late.