This feels like the penultimate scene in 8 Mile. Packed house. Hype everywhere. It's the defending champ versus the future.
(I'm not sure what Justin Fuente's freestyle skills are, but I'd bet my house Frank Beamer would wipe the floor with Danny Ford in the legends' battle.)
College Gameday. Primetime ABC. #AllMaroonEverything. Defensive Juggernaut versus Defensive Institution. #LetsGo.
On to the (fake) lines!
Which storyline gets mentioned more by the telecast crew: Matchup of defensive masterminds between Bud Foster and Brent Venables OR How Kelly Bryant is not Deshaun Watson?
Brian: I'll be in Lane Stadium, so you'll have to keep me posted about how this plays out, but here's one of the deciding factors: Clemson's already played two different prime time games on national television. Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit even called a Clemson game just two weeks ago.
I know I'm already sick of hearing about how Bryant is a different QB from his prodigious predecessor, and it's not like I follow the Tigers religiously. It's pretty well established that Bryant isn't quite the first-round caliber, national championship winning, Heisman-contending playmaker that Watson was. And the more that Fowler and the ABC crew stress the point, they wouldn't just be beating a dead tiger, they'd flirt with the line of just being mean to a student athlete.
On the flip side, we're definitely going to get at least two side-by-side shots of Foster and Venables. Not to mention the fact that they're both maniacs who win the "most likely to draw a sideline warning" award for their respective squads, and are magnets for the camera. Plus, it's an easy segue when talking about either one.
CHRIS: "You know, Bud Foster's defense is playing pretty well."
KIRK: "And his counterpart Brent Venables isn't doing too bad either."
Pierson: I agree with Brian. The Bryant-Watson comparison has been covered to death during both of Clemson's nationally televised games this season. We get it.
Real talk: ESPN really likes Bud Foster. They love cutting to him on key downs as he frantically barks at his players or is firmly planted in his power stance, leaning over with his hands on his knees. They love showing replays of him galloping down the sidelines in celebration with his tethered play sheet trailing alongside. And they love his scowl — who doesn't love his scowl — which is like a college football version of the Cowher Jaw.
In a game that features two offenses led by first year starters facing incredibly talented defenses, Fowler and Herbstreit will be falling over themselves fawning over Foster and Venables. Easy money.
Line time! Who has the most carries? Josh Jackson (EVEN), Steven Peoples (2-1), Travon McMillian (3-1), Deshawn McClease (5-1)
Brian: We know that Fuente and Cornelsen like to use a stable of backs as opposed to just a single workhorse. Personally, it's the most infuriating thing about the offense (if McMillian or McClease is hot, why not keep feeding them?). But it also makes guessing the carry situation nearly impossible.
Here's what we know: Clemson has a ton of team speed, which will more than likely contain anyone trying to get to the outside. Jitterbugging his way to the corner is a McClease specialty, so it probably won't be him. Though he was the (WARNING: HOT PUN ALERT) People's Champ against Old Dominion, the guardian of Galax probably won't be as effective against a defense that's harder to push around. So that leaves Jackson and McMillian.
Travon was having himself a day last week, racking up 41 yards in the first quarter. Unfortunately, he got banged up and didn't see the field after that. Assuming that he's good to go, I think he'll have the most carries of all the backs. He's the best threat to both run between the tackles, and occasionally bounce one outside.
But does that mean he has more carries than Jackson? In last year's ACC Championship Game, the Hokies only found success running misdirection reads with Jerod Evans. The bruising signal caller ended the night with 21 carries, while McMillian and Sam Rogers combined for 11. It's a different team with different strengths, but I don't think it's an accident that we've seen a conservative QB run package since the West Virginia game. Jackson will need to run frequently to keep the Clemson defensive line on its toes, and I think he'll end the day with the most carries.
Pierson: How's this for balance — if that's what we want to call it: Each of these four players have led (or tied for the lead) in carries in one of Tech's first four games. On the season, Peoples (36), McMillian (33), Jackson (32) and McClease (31) are all within five carries and 29 rushing yards of one another.
Such a broad division of labor amongst his rushers is nothing new for Justin Fuente. After 18 games, Tech fans have become used to the absence of any semblance of a feature back. For Fuente, it's more about moving the football and maximizing matchups than leaning on a bellcow. Ahead of their trip to East Carolina two weeks ago, Fuente noted, "To me, it's about keeping the other side off-balance. Can you run the ball on some mid-level downs well enough that you feel confident about doing it, and then in turn set yourself up for making some big plays?"
"On first and second down, if we run the ball, we have to be able to get 4 or 5 yards," Deshawn McClease added. "That's pretty much it. We just have to be productive on the ground. If we can run the ball, third down is manageable."
It will be interesting to see how much Inverted Veer and QB Power Brad Cornelsen calls against a ferocious Clemson front four. Given how important it will be to both move the sticks and protect Jackson in the pocket, I'll take the little bowling ball, Steven Peoples. Yes, I know he's listed as "Questionable" on the injury report, but I think there's a little gamesmanship involved in his status.
Over/Under 2.5 total touchdowns by Clemson QB Kelly Bryant
Brian: If Virginia Tech is going to win this game, they'll load the box and dare Bryant to beat them over the top. Yes, he's a shifty guy who can break a game wide open with his legs, but he's not Lamar Jackson. He plays within a system that requires him to make plays running the ball, and is schemed to do exactly that.
When the Tigers get into the red zone, there's a 50/50 chance that he's keeping it and powering one in for a score. I'll take the over, not because I think Bud's defense will consistently lose their contain on Saturday night, but because I have a feeling that Bryant's legs will be heavily involved in his team's plans in scoring positions.
Pierson: You've probably already heard this talking point too many times this week, but I'm going to hit you with it once more: Kelly Bryant is the type of quarterback that Bud Foster's defenses have traditionally struggled to contain. His rushing ability is considerably stronger than his passing skills, but Clemson's deep offensive talent and smart play callers mean making him one dimensional will be difficult.
In my mind, stopping the Clemson rushing attack will be the most important task for the Hokies defense. The danger Bryant poses on the ground is augmented by the Tigers' backfield of CJ Fuller, Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and Travis Etienne, the latter of which has exploded on the scene to average nearly 13 yards per carry.
Bryant is averaging less than 2.5 touchdowns per game this season, but he has found the endzone twice on the ground in each of Clemson's last three contests. Plus, as French so aptly pointed out in his game preview, Bryant's inside rushing ability is featured when the Tigers enter the red zone. I'll take the over.
Over/Under 349.5 yards of total offense for the Hokies
Brian: This one's rough. The offense was in a better place in December, and Clemson's defense was relatively the same as it is now. And in Orlando, the Hokies barely broke this number. Yes, the Tigers have a younger secondary that could potentially be exposed, but they looked pretty damn good against Jackson and the artist formerly known as Gus Malzahn.
When I think about this game, I can't escape my belief that Fuente and Cornelsen have to gameplan perfectly to gain every single yard. Not that the Tech offense lacks talent or executional ability, but the Tigers defensive line is so dominant that they'll make it difficult every down. My head says take the under, but my heart says take the over.
Pierson: The Hokies have easily surpassed this number in each of their three contests against FBS teams. Clemson's defense, on the other hand, only allowed Lamar Jackson and Louisville (but mostly Lamar Jackson) to top this line. During last year's shootout at the ACC Championship Game, the Hokies managed only 386 yards of total offense with Jerod Evans under center and a trio of solid pass catchers.
With a shallower receiving core and a less seasoned — albeit more heady — quarterback this time around, can the Hokies flirt with what last year's team was able to rack up against the Tigers? Personally, I feel a little more confident in the running game and offensive line than I did last December. But without a bulldozer like Jerod Evans, I worry about how the Hokies will find ways to chip away at the Clemson defense so they don't consistently find themselves behind the sticks. I think this will be close, but I'll take the under.
Which is Greater: Number of sacks by the Clemson defense or touchbacks by Joey Slye
Brian: I already said it. The Tiger defensive line is amazing. And even though every pressure by Clelin Ferrell may give Foster and Charley Wiles a mini-stroke, it's going to happen. Often.
Even if we assume every Joey Slye kick off goes through the end zone, how many times will that realistically happen? Do we really think that Tech can put up 35 like they did in December? It may be depressing, but I'll take Clemson's over here.
Pierson: Clemson is tied for second nationally with Old Dominion in sacks per game at 4.25. 16 of their 17 sacks have come against AP-ranked teams, including 11(!!!) against Auburn. Virginia Tech is tied for 23rd nationally, having given up only 4 total sacks (1.0 per game, for you mathletes out there).
The Hokies' kickoff magician leads the nation in touchbacks this season with 29 in 31 attempts, for an average of 7.25 per game. It helps that the Hokies are averaging 40 points per, giving Slye plenty of chances to kick it through the uprights off the tee.
I think we're looking at between 5 and 7 kickoffs for the Hokies on Saturday night. So essentially, this comes down to how often the Tech offensive line gets de-pants by the Law Firm of Lawrence, Wilkins, Bryant & Ferrell. Clemson managed four sacks in last year's ACC Championship Game and I think they land somewhere around that number again on Saturday. I'll take Joey Slye and his touchbacks FTW.
Matchup Over/Under: 51.5
Brian: I'll answer the over/under and the spread together.
Pierson: Clemson has topped this number in 2 out of their first 4 contests. Last year's ACC Championship Game was an offensive explosion, totalling 77 points. According to Oddshark, this matchup has gone Under in 6 out of the last 8 meetings. But keep in mind that last year's date in the ACCCG was the first meeting between these two teams since 2012. The histogram of this rivalry creates a fascinating snapshot of where these programs were during a given period; during the 1990's and 2000's the Hokies were dominant, while the Tigers have won the last four matchups since the start of Dabo Swinney's tenure.
Clemson has hit the Over in 7 out of their last 10 games, but is only 2-2 against the O/U this season. The Hokies are 1-1-1, due in part to their stingy defense. I think this will be a defense battle, but we'll see enough offense to at least threaten this line. Still, I'll take the Under.
Spread: Clemson (-7.5)
Brian: In 2007 Virginia Tech dominated Clemson in Death Valley by scoring not one, not two, but three non-offensive touchdowns. The Hokies won 41-23 behind true freshman Tyrod Taylor, despite gaining only 219 total yards of offense.
Why did I unearth this history lesson? Because 2007 was the last time the Hokies beat the Tigers. The next season, Tommy Bowden resigned, the school hired Dabo, and they've quickly become the juggernaut they are now.
The funniest thing about that Dabo hire? Then-Clemson AD Terry Don Phillips interviewed Bud Foster for the vacancy. And allegedly Bud's closing argument to Phillips was that if he wasn't hired, he'd go back to Blacksburg and keep kicking their ass.
Needless to say, he didn't get the job. And he wasn't even right. In the four matchups since that fateful meeting, the Hokies have lost by a combined score of 141-65.
Virginia Tech shouldn't beat Clemson. They can't roll out waves of four and five-star athletes. They haven't been a College Football Playoff contender. They haven't won a national title. In terms of pure talent, the Hokies shouldn't win. But this one's different. Blacksburg's back in Saturday night prime time for the first time since 2011. College GameDay's on campus for the first time since 2007. This game means more than any other in the past decade.
By the way, my GameDay sign? Dabo baptizes. Fuente Saves. Virginia Tech hits the over. Virginia Tech covers. Virginia Tech wins, 35-33.
Go Hokies. Beat Clemson.
Pierson: This really comes down to how well the Virginia Tech offense is able to combat an incredibly talented Clemson defense. How does Josh Jackson fare against the Tigers' pass rush? Which receivers are able to step up if Clemson is able to take away Cam Phillips for stretches? And how consistently can the tailbacks move the football to put Jackson in advantageous down-and-distances?
Clemson's offense is no slouch, and the Kelly Bryant running factor will likely lead to some frustrating conversions. Will Bud solve the dual-threat quarterback riddle this week? Look for Bud to dip into his usual bag of tricks and force Bryant to beat the Hokies through the air. As we all know, if the defense is able to succeed in that endeavor, Tech should be in business.
From a betting perspective, I like seeing that extra half point in Clemson's favor — especially on the road, at night in Lane Stadium. A Hokies loss by a touchdown means they cover. I think the Hokies are playing with some serious motivation after last season's last minute comeback fell short. I'll take the Hokies +7.5.
Disclaimer: Some of these are real betting lines, but many of them are fake and none of this is real advice that should be taken seriously.