Nikki Hood, who covers Clemson for TigerNet.com, asked me to answer some questions about the Clemson-Miami matchup in Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship Game.
So, I asked her to answer a few questions of my own.
Here are our thoughts, followed by our predictions.
Susan: What is the key to Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant having success against Miami’s defense?
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Nikki: “Kelly simply has to follow the formula he's followed all season - manage the game and take care of the football. Early in the season it looked like he was putting too much pressure on himself, but once he found his groove he's come up big in big games. He has playmakers all over the place, and his job is to distribute the ball and make plays with his legs when he has to. One of the criticisms of former quarterback Deshaun Watson was that he was a turnover machine in big games. Bryant has avoided the turnover bug and has managed the game. As he says, it's OK to punt the football and live to fight another series. For him to be successful against Miami, he also must find a way to avoid the rush. There have been times when he has struggled with his pocket awareness, so if Miami can make him have happy feet the Hurricanes can have some success.”
Susan: How will playing in the ACC Championship Game and two national championships help Clemson?
Nikki: “In the last three years, Clemson has played in two ACC Championships, two College Football Playoff games (the Orange Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl) and two national championship games, in addition to playing nearly every road game at night. If you’re counting, that’s a lot of big games in big time atmospheres.
However, those experiences will only help the guys who are old enough to have played in those games. Dabo Swinney has 37 players who have played in a national championship and 23 players who played in both the 2016 and 2017 games…But, there are only nine scholarship seniors and there is a plethora of players who are being counted on for the first time – Kelly Bryant, running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, wide receiver Deon Cain and the entire defensive backfield.
Clemson’s team is still relatively young, but the experience of going on the road and playing against Louisville, North Carolina State, and South Carolina this season can do nothing but help the Tigers when they take the field Saturday night against the Canes. While it may give Clemson a little bit of a mental edge, experience can only take you so far and at the end of the day, the game will come down to blocking, tackling, running, throwing and catching.”
Susan: Will Clemson be overlooking Miami because of its inconsistent play and last week’s loss to Pittsburgh?
Nikki: “Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has done a fantastic job of getting his coaches and players to buy into the "next game is the biggest game" mantra. It sounds like coach-speak, but over the past three seasons his players have realized that they are going to get every team's best effort. So, I don't think the Tigers will be overlooking the Hurricanes. Swinney has mentioned several times this week that he thinks Miami has a talented roster that is capable of beating anybody in the country, and the players have all said they know they have to give their best effort this weekend. Swinney got even more buy-in after the Tigers' loss to Syracuse - it was a short week, the quarterback was hurt and the team came out flat and got beat. The team came back focused more than ever, and that loss has been a big part of this late-season run the Tigers have put together.”
Susan: Bottom line?
Nikki: “Miami will keep it close until about midway through the third quarter, when Clemson’s depth and defense take over. Clemson wins 30-17.”
Here are Nikki Hood’s questions to me about this game, and my responses:
Nikki: The last time Clemson and Miami met two years ago, the Tigers crushed the Hurricanes 58-0 in the worst loss in UM history. Could that game have any bearing on this one?
Susan: “Yes, but mostly in the week leading up to it. These Hurricanes have been driven all season by a goal of beating the four teams to which they lost last season – Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Clemson became a natural extension to that list, by virtue of the 58-0 humiliation at Hard Rock Stadium. That game was a blight on the Hurricanes program, and a reflection of what UM had become. These 2017 Canes have a lot of pride, and they seem to do better when the pressure is on, the lights are on and they are the underdogs. Once they get on the field, anything goes. But if that is part of the motivation that drove them to an exemplary week of practice, then coach Mark Richt and Hurricanes fans will gladly take it.”
Nikki: How can Miami compensate for this week’s season-ending losses of tight end Christopher Herndon and All-American receiver Ahmmon Richards, both with knee injuries?
Susan: “With great difficulty. I’m not convinced Miami really can compensate for those losses. Herndon, a semifinalist for the Mackey Award that goes to the top tight end in the nation, is a 6-4, 252-pound clutch receiver who catches everything that comes his way and blocks as well as anyone on the team. Tight end is among UM’s shallowest positions, and Herndon replacement Michael Irvin, a 6-3, 248-pound sophomore, has only caught five passes for 56 yards to Herndon’s 40 catches for 477 yards and four touchdowns.
Regarding Richards, who broke UM legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame Receiver Michael Irvin’s freshman record last season with more than 900 receiving yards and three touchdowns, he has been injured all season (mostly hamstring but also ankle and achilles’ tendon). Yet despite all those ailments, Richards still was UM’s third-leading receiver with 24 catches for 439 yards and three touchdowns in eight games, some of them in which he barely played.
There’s no way you can suddenly go without those guys and it not have an effect. The Canes must spread the ball around, and notably increase the presence of players such as 6-4, 220-pound Darrell Langham, who caught the game-winning pass at FSU and saved the game against Georgia Tech.”
Nikki: How do you see this game playing out?
Susan: “Well, common sense tells me that the brutal Clemson defense will take a page out of last week’s Pittsburgh plan and put its emphasis on stopping the run and making UM a one-dimensional passing offense. Then, with Herndon and Richards out, that defense can work on Rosier getting frazzled and making mistakes.
“If that happens, UM is doomed.
“However, UM has a pretty special defense itself. And if the turnover chain has anything to say about Saturday’s outcome, I wouldn’t put it past the Canes to force some fumbles or make some interceptions.
“At that point it would all come down to the Miami offense. If the Canes can’t produce some points, Clemson rolls.”
Nikki: Bottom line?
Susan: “Against all odds, the Canes wake up and smell the playoffs. Canes in an upset 27-24.”