CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WIS) - It’s become a tradition of sorts over the last five years for the Clemson Tigers to make the trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game.
Dabo Swinney and company are looking to capture their fifth consecutive ACC title while securing their spot in the College Football Playoff this weekend. Standing in the way of accomplishing those goals are the Virginia Cavaliers.
The ACC Coastal Division champions finished the regular season with a 9-3 record that includes a perfect 7-0 record at home. The Cavaliers currently own a 4-game winning streak and are averaging just over 41 points per game in that stretch.
“We are thrilled to be able to measure and compete against one of the premier programs in college football,” said Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “I think Coach Swinney has done a remarkable job not only reaching the pinnacle but remaining there. I think what I understand -- maybe not, maybe it hasn't been documented quite enough -- how hard it is to stay once
you're there. Clemson has done a really nice job maintaining when they have reached a certain level of achievement.”
The Cavaliers rely heavily on Joe Reed. An All-ACC first-team selection, the senior wide receiver leads the team with 70 catches for 627 yards and six touchdowns. He also has 764 yards on kick returns with two touchdowns.
Along with Reed, Bryce Perkins has been the catalyst for the Virginia offense. This year, the senior quarterback has thrown for 2,941 yards and 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions. Perkins also leads the team in rushing yards with 687 along with 11 touchdowns.
“Bryce Perkins, it is hard to eliminate him because most everything goes through him,” said Mendenhall. “The number of attempts or possibly when we go for it on it fourth down, possibly the number of either fake punts or fake field goals, possibly the use of personnel or atypical personnel in relation to situations, really anything we can do that would break a trend that we
have either had through the course of the year or what the trend of that moment or situational football might mean, we just simply acknowledge that and try to do the opposite as a starting point rather than the adjustment.”
Defensively, Virginia allows just over 23 points per game. However, the Cavaliers have allowed an average of 29 points per game in their last four contests. Mendenhall’s defense will have to contend with a Clemson offense that has scored more than 50 points in four of its last five games.
“It is really easy based on hours to keep adding things and to keep adding things and let's do this, let's do that, let's do this,” Mendenhall said. “I think the very best coaches are the ones that we don't need this, we don't need this, but they have enough to complement which means as a
defensive coach if you defend this you already know the trade-off you're making and you're giving up something else, and if within the scheme they have a complement to that trade are-off they make you pay. And Clemson does just that.”
Clemson enters the game with 16 All-ACC selections, including first-team pick Trevor Lawrence. The sophomore has thrown for 2,870 yards and 30 touchdowns with eight interceptions. According to Swinney, he’s grown drastically as a player from year one to year two.
“He's so much better as a quarterback this year than he was last year,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It is not even really close. I think that a lot of people have missed a beautiful season from this guy. He's amazing. He really is. I'm super proud of him.”
He’s joined in the backfield by ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne, who is among the top 10 rushers in the country. Etienne had 1,386 rushing yards and 146 touchdowns this season. With weapons like Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross flanking the formation, the Cavaliers will have their work cut out for them when trying to stop the nation’s fourth-best scoring offense.
Defensively, the Tigers are relentless. The Tigers are the nation’s best when it comes to limiting points. They surrender just over 10 points per game. Led by Isaiah Simmons, the Tigers look to lock down the Cavaliers offense to remain a force in college football.
“Well, when I turn on Clemson film, there's a lot of players that are really good,’ Mendenhall said. “Just the sheer volume of capability by number is something Clemson has done a really nice job of, the talent selection process, certainly the metrics they're looking for. But then the ability to attract that many and maintain that many, keeping those kind of players happy.”
Clemson takes on Virginia for the ACC Championship at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.