The preseason is officially over. After renewing a temporarily dormant rivalry with West Virginia, it's been an admittedly quiet month of September for the Hokies. Sure, convincing wins over Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion were nothing to scoff at, but there's been a giant shadow looming over the Virginia Tech football program these past 3 weeks.
Clemson. Dabo Swinney. The defending national champions. College GameDay.
Good news: It's finally here.
But before joining Lee Corso on Alumni Hall Saturday morning, I spoke to David Hood, Senior Writer at TigerNet.com, to get a first-hand look at how a new starting quarterback and an elite defense are meshing down in Clemson. You can find my answers to David's questions here.
JC: First things first: has the excitement of last year's national championship worn off yet? How exhilarating of a ride was the month of January for the Clemson program and fan base?
DH: It has. I think there was a bit of hangover effect the first week of the season, but once Auburn rolled into town for the second game (and the prospect of a loss loomed) it brought everyone back to earth and they realized (finally) that a new season was here. Once they turned that corner, I sensed a shift in excitement from last season to this one. And yes, that month of January was incredible, starting with the win over Ohio St. in the Fiesta Bowl and continuing to the championship.
JC: The biggest questions around the Tigers this offseason centered around Kelly Bryant, the junior quarterback charged with the unenviable task of replacing Deshaun Watson. Bryant's been effective through four games, but he's no Watson (in fairness, not many are). How have you seen the first-year starter grow through the season's first month, and what are the main weaknesses you expect Bud Foster to exploit?
DH: He's a better passer than many people give him credit for, but there are still questions about his ability to make decisions on the fly. Boston College rushed six or seven and forced him to make reads, but instead of going through his progressions I thought he bailed out of the pocket too much and took off running too soon. I expect Foster to design different looks and bring pressure from all parts of the field.
JC: Defensively, Brent Venables returns a group with few equals across college football. From a fearsome front four to a talented young secondary, it's tough to find a hole in this Tigers' defense. Is this the best group Venables has had at Clemson? Can you point to one position as a concern heading into Saturday's showdown in Blacksburg?
DH: This group has the most talent he's ever had, and that's saying something. The biggest question mark entering the season was the secondary, but they've been excellent. There really are no holes - there is depth on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. There are a lot of future NFL players in the three-deep on the depth chart. This group might not finish number one overall like the group in 2014, but they will be close.
JC: While Clemson had little trouble on the road at Louisville just two weeks back, one could argue Papa John's Stadium pales in comparison to a Saturday night spent in Lane. Difference in venue noted, the Tigers are no stranger to playing - and winning - on college football's grandest stage. Do you expect the crowd to play a factor Saturday night?
DH: I think the crowd will absolutely provide a boost for the Hokies, and I expect them to be loud when Clemson is on offense, causing communication issues for Bryant. On the flip side, all of these Clemson players have played in so many big games over the last three years, and most of them have been away from home. They enjoy and embrace the "road dog" mentality and members of the defense have told me numerous times they enjoy playing on the road more than they enjoy playing at home. They won't be intimidated.
JC: The O/U total currently sits at 51.5, a number indicative of two elite defensive minds matching up in Blacksburg. But while many expect this to be a defensive slugfest, each offense has shown glimpses of big-play potential through the season's first month. Put your gambling hat on: which side of 51.5 are we falling on?
DH: With Bud Foster and Brent Venables roaming the sidelines, I will take the under.
JC: With a largely front-loaded schedule, this feels like Clemson's last true test prior to a mid-November matchup with a reeling Florida State program. Is it fair to say Clemson fans expect to go 12-0 this year?
DH: After NC State defeated FSU last Saturday, the matchup against the Wolfies looms large (Nov. 4th), and Wake Forest is undefeated. Maybe for some people there are those expectations, but I think most fans realize that it's hard to run the table every season. There is a reason we haven't had someone go 15-0, and last year's loss to Pitt shows that you have to bring your "A" game every week.
JC: Prediction time: does Clemson remain undefeated, or can the Hokies avenge last year's 42-35 loss in the ACC Championship Game?
DH: I think this one will be close - the crowd, Clemson's questions on offense and the familiarity between the two programs will make for an exciting matchup. But I've seen this program take on all-comers the last few years, and they're an onside kick away from having back-to-back national championships. Until someone knocks them off, I pick the Tigers, 26-20.