While the Clemson Tigers return to home(ish) state of Virginia for a clash with the Hokies, I return to the state I called home for the last three years.
I grew a disdain for Texas when I was in college, an unfounded disdain brought about by my East Coast roots. I now know that all of Texas isn’t a prarie, and that Whataburger might be the greatest fast-food creation not named Bojangles. With that being said, we’ll start with the Tigers.
Clemson (-7.5) at Virginia Tech
In my days covering the Missouri Tigers, Head Coach Gary Pinkel had a saying, “That’s Missouri beating Missouri,” reserved for any time the Tigers made mental errors. I feel that the only barrier left for this set of Tigers this season is if “Clemson beats Clemson”. We can talk all about how Virginia Tech averages more than 200 yards per game on defense and how the quarterback is among the most efficient in the conference, but whenever the superlatives for a particular offense stand out, this Clemson team has been equal to the task.
Last week’s performance for the offense was, to put it kindly, not pretty. But the 27-point barrage in the 4th Quarter made the score more representative of the gap between the two teams, and the gap between Clemson and the rest of the ACC. Nothing comes “easy”, but a win Saturday can ensure the Tigers are assured a trip to Charlotte, provided they don’t stub their toes against Florida State or NC State (or anyone else). Kelly Bryant will face the best defense he’s seen all year (arguably neck-and-neck with Auburn) and Bud Foster is as good as they come as a defensive coordinator.
I’ll be very curious to see what kind of plan Brent Venables has for Cam Phillips, he’s the best non-QB skill-position player the Tigers have seen thus far, and Clemson goes into Blacksburg against a banged-up secondary. While Phillips has been filling up the stat sheet against Virginia Tech’s early schedule, the Hokies have not seen a defense anywhere close to Clemson’s. One encouraging sign for the Tigers is that despite Marcus Edmond’s absence, Trayvon Mullen should play after clearing concussion protocol.
This is the game where we truly see the test of Clemson’s run game. Dabo Swinney conceded Tuesday that Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne have separated themselves in the quartet Clemson boasts in the running back room. Feaster is this team’s most pure running back, but Etienne has the most big-play potential. Adam Choice is a valuable weapon near the goal line and CJ Fuller needs to mentally clear his mind from the fumble in his lone carry against Boston College. Swinney did add how big Fuller was for them last year in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech, and I believe he will call upon Fuller again.
Lane Stadium is the most imposing venue left on Clemson’s schedule. The game against Florida State is in Death Valley, and my blood pressure wouldn’t raise if I’m Dabo Swinney and I’m walking into Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. If there’s any area for concern, it’s the slippage seen during the Boston College game on the right side of the Tigers’ offensive line. If Virginia Tech is able to get pressure on Kelly Bryant and make the Tigers one-dimensional, it could make this game a tough one for Clemson to win in the road environment. Don’t count out a little Beamer-ball either as Clemson will have to be much better on Special Teams this week than they were against Boston College.
But as I’ve said, I’m not picking against Clemson until they give me reason to do so.
Pick: Clemson 24, Virginia Tech 14
South Carolina (+8.5) at Texas A&M
First off, Kyle Field is one of the most amazing atmospheres in all of College Football, and if there’s one trip Gamecocks fans should take on their list among the regular ones they see on an every-other-year basis it’s this one.
The marching of the cadets, the swaying of the stadium during their fight songs and Midnight Yell practice are part of the pageantry of the sport and few do it better than they do on Saturdays at College Station.
The team on the field has seen better days, and is ready to run off its coach if they don’t have a representative year. If you watched this team during the portion of the season, this is a team that can put up points at a rapid pace.
Texas A&M runs on offense through their two big running backs, Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams, and Christian Kirk, a sensational Deebo Samuel-like talent with breakaway speed and a presence you have to keep in check. The Aggies have mulitple creative ways to get him the ball, and there’s rarely a possession he doesn’t touch the ball.
Kellen Mond is raw at the quarterback position, completing around half of his passes as he replaces Nick Starkel, who lasted just 13 passes into his opening game as an Aggie. The South Carolina defense surveyed this week told me that the Gamecocks will do everything they can to force Mond to throw. Defensive players declined to share whether they’d put a spy on him, but the Gamecocks would be wise to guard against his running ability, as he’s more of a runner than a passer.
The Gamecock offense is either one of two things: in hibernation, or not as good as we believed or were told. Steve Taneyhill said it best on our show this week, when he said they lack an identity when it comes to how they want to move the football. They cannot figure out if they’re a run-pass option offense, a run-first offense, or any variation of both. Jake Bentley has not looked bad this season, but he’s already matched his interception total from last year and missed key throws in spots where he should be better. If there’s any week to get healthy, it’s against this Texas A&M defense, which is very ordinary and should be the weakest unit they see in conference play. The explosive plays have to turn into points for the Gamecocks to have any chance in this one.
The Gamecock defense has been the under-reported success of the young season for South Carolina, though the absence of Bryson Allen-Williams is tough to cover. Daniel Fennell did admirable work stepping in against Louisiana Tech, but this will be a collective effort to replace one of the most bruising and vocal leaders on that defense. I’m also concerned how the South Carolina secondary, which has been spotty at times, will cover Christian Kirk. It would be a tough assignment for any involved, so look for the Gamecocks to roll coverage his way, taking the risk of back-end exposure. They cannot afford to be a bend-don’t break defense in this contest, they will need to get some stops and turn the football over to give the Gamecocks short fields.
This is a game I thought the Gamecocks would win during the preseason, though after seeing the 2017 model, they will have to show me more to prove they can win a game of this nature.
Pick: Texas A&M 35, South Carolina 17