Don’t miss Part One of my 2017 Football Preview! Click here to catch up!
No. 5 Clemson Tigers: The Hokies open the conference schedule with their hardest matchup of the regular season. The Tigers must reload on offense. They lost Heisman runner-up QB Watson (4,593 yards passing, 41-17 TDs-INTs, 629 yards rushing, 9 rushing TDs), three of their four top receivers including Mike Williams (1,361 yards, 11 TDs), RB Wayne Gallman (1,133 yards, 17 TDs) and one of the best TEs in the country, Jordan Leggett (736 yards, 7 TDs). Waiting in the wings they have hero of the national championship WR Hunter Renfrow (492 yards, 5 TDs), C.J. Fuller (211 yards, 4.5 YPC), and a three-way QB contest that features experience in junior Kelly Bryant, five-star recruit true freshmen Hunter Johnson, and four-star redshirt freshmen Zerrick Cooper. The offensive line will provide plenty of protection for the new starting QB and RB, and looks to be one of the best in the country with four returning starters.
Phil Steele lists Clemson’s QB unit at No. 55, RBs No. 47, WRs No. 7, and the OL No. 5. Athlon only lists the top 25 team units and recognize Clemson WRs / TEs at No. 2, and the OL at No. 3. So, the… uh… “obstacles” the Tigers’ offense is facing represents the good news. The defense is the bad news for the Hokies. Clemson lost defensive leader Boulware, but retained several key starters in every unit. Last year the Tigers faced seven of the top 50 total offensive teams in the country: Louisville Cardinals (No. 5), Alabama Crimson Tide (No. 7), Virginia Tech Hokies (No. 18 – whoa what? Top 25 total offense?!), Florida State Seminoles (No. 27), Ohio State Buckeyes (No. 33), Pittsburgh Panthers (No. 39), and Auburn Tigers (No. 43). Yeah… they lost to Pitt, but they also blanked the No. 33 overall offensive team in the country, in the playoffs, when they shut out OSU 31-0. Even after dealing with that offensive power Clemson still managed to be the No. 15 overall defense at the end of year. Phil Steele ranks the Tigers’ DL at No. 1, LBs No. 9, and DBs at No. 15. Athlon also ranks the Clemson DL at No. 1, LBs No. 17, and DBs at No. 10.
Looking at that game Clemson dropped the Panthers did a great job halting the running game, holding the Tigers to only 50 yards on the ground. Watson did throw for 580 yards (holy crap), but he also threw three interceptions. Pitt also answered with a stellar game from Peterman who threw five TDs and no INTs. Pitt did fumble once, but won the turnover battle, 3-1. Two of those Tigers interceptions happened in the Pitt red zone. Looking at the Hokies’ own performance in the ACC Championship they held Watson to mortal numbers (288 yards passing, 3-1 TD-INT) and held the RBs in check at 99 yards, but Watson managed 85 yards and two TDs on the ground and the Hokies lost the turnover battle 1-2.
This season Virginia Tech gets Clemson at home. The time is TBD, but if both teams show up to the game undefeated it is hard to see the ACC Championship game rematch between two ranked teams not rating a primetime television slot on a major network. If that is the case a night game at Lane Stadium presents the best atmosphere for the Hokies to potentially upset Clemson. If both defenses show up to play this game will likely come down to which offense develops faster. Coach Swinney has a machine churning out offensive capability at this point. Clemson is starting to be reminiscent of Alabama, in that it doesn’t matter when they graduate starters because they are so deep at every position.
I do think the Hokies have the potential to win this match, but they must be flawless and their offensive line will have to play above expectations. Virginia Tech must, not only win the turnover battle, but limit their turnovers period, if they want a shot at winning this game. Clemson probably needs to make mistakes and the Hokies must take advantage of those mistakes, or victory will be out of reach. Coach Fuente will have the Hokies ready to play, but a lot will need to line up for them to beat Clemson.
@ Boston College Eagles: Last season head coach Steve Addazio was on the hottest of seats at mid-season. In 2015 the Eagles failed to win a single conference game. They rectified that deficiency in 2016 by defeating N.C. State and Wake Forest. Although they went 2-6 in the ACC they got to six wins by beating up on some FCS and lower tiered FBS squads. BC sent a much stronger message during the post season when they defeated Maryland in the Quick Lane Bowl. Last season the Boston College matchup was something of a statement game for the Virginia Tech Hokies. After a disappointing loss to Tennessee, in front of the largest crowd in college football history, VT showed up and shut the Eagles out, 49-0, which was the first of three consecutive double digit victories.
The Eagles have 15 returning starters and boast one of the more experienced squads in the ACC. Expect their defense to be strong, but they will struggle on offense. Most Hokies will be familiar with Scot Loeffler, the much-maligned OC during Coach Beamer’s final seasons at VT. He now fills the same position for BC and has been largely regarded as a significant improvement for the beleaguered Eagles offense. Even then the Eagles offense ranked 124 out of 128 FBS teams. Expect the Eagles to continue improving on offense, but still struggle to put points on the board.
Currently the ceiling for the Eagles is a second-tier Atlantic squad. Gone are the days of Matt Ryan driving down the field, in the closing minutes of the second half, to defeat the Hokies. The only reason this game will be disconcerting is because it follows what will be an emotional and tough Clemson match up. There is potential for a hangover game if there is a loss to the Tigers or a let-down game if there is a win. Last season Coach Fuente showed a fantastic ability to keep the squad focused every week, regardless of the events of the previous game. The Hokies should have little trouble with a BC offense that simply won’t be able to compete with the VT defense. Hokies win.
North Carolina Tar Heels: In my final ACC Rankings of 2016 I stated that the star of UNC is fading. Nothing has occurred during the off-season for that assertion to change. The UNC offense of 2017 will look nothing like it did in 2016. The biggest change is the marked absence of starting QB Mitchell Trubisky who was drafted No. 2 overall by the Chicago Bears (a bold move in my opinion). The QB position is not the only loss felt by the offense. The running and passing attack will feature completely different and inexperienced players. The only skill position with any reasonable experience on the field is provided by senior WR Austin Proehl who had 597 yards and three TDs in 2016. His best game came against the worst DB unit in the ACC (Pitt) where he seven receptions for 99 yards and one TD. Against the Hokies he was held to one catch for seven yards. The offensive performance is likely hinges on the performance of transfer student-athletes. The defense is in a better state than the offense, but it has its own obstacles to face with the retirement of defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. Even with the coaching shift the defense will likely be the strength of this team.
The secondary features senior CB M.J. Stewart one of the best DBs in the ACC and there are returning starters on the DL, LB, and DB corps. Last year the match up against the Tar Heels was another statement game. Colloquially referred to as the Hurricane bowl, the Hokies dominated UNC, 34-3, during driving rain from Hurricane Matthew, immediately after the Heels upset then No. 12 FSU in Tallahassee, all but ending the Seminoles’ playoff hopes. Lase season UNC’s strength was the offense, and this year it is a shell of its 2016 effort. The Hokies host the Tar Heels and should also win this game.
Duke Blue Devils: Last year the Blue Devils were plagued by an incredible amount of injuries. Duke has an offensive and quarterback guru in head coach David Cutcliffe. Sophomore Daniel Jones was a bright spot at QB, and I expect that the Blue Devils will be much more potent on offense. Cutcliffe is a fantastic coach and an offensive genius. When remotely healthy, which they were not last year, Duke tends to play well above what is seen on paper. Duke will also face the Hokies in Blacksburg and should represent another Hokie win.
Stand by for the final entry of my 2017 season preview, posting tomorrow morning!