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    ACC News

    [2020] ACC Conference Championship Preview Guide (ft. ImposterCauster + Darman)

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    Welcome to the big stage, Virginia. After years of struggling to stay afloat in a conference filled with perennial national powerhouses, gunslinging quarterbacks, explosive receivers, and dominating defenses, the Cavaliers finally ascended to top the Coastal Division in what has been the best season in program history. They've handed Pittsburgh their only loss (something not even Penn State or West Virginia could do). They swept through their division, handling upstart Duke and resurgent UNC. They ascended to the peak of the college football world, only to be brought back down to Earth by the best running back in the nation in DeSean Dockery. Yet here they are with a chance to take the conference and insert themselves once more into talks of a national title. A win here would surely put them in the Top 8 alongside division rivals Pittsburgh.


    Virginia still has one last opponent left in this magical regular season. Who better to knock Virginia off their pedestal and deny them to join the ranks of champions than last year's title-winners in Clemson? Indeed, the Tigers have traveled down the beaten path that Virginia now takes, having won their first division title last year and beating Pittsburgh to make a run at the title. While any hopes of getting back to the playoffs were officially dashed by South Carolina last week, Clemson can still take pleasure in knocking out Virginia and preventing that budding program from blooming into the cream of the crop. Clemson's path to Charlotte isn't all that different from Virginia's - both teams managed to win every game in conference except for the Louisville game. The Tigers haven't been convincing at times, but a still-dominant defense could make things very, very interesting in the conference title game. 


    Will Virginia put the icing on the cake and claim their first conference title and a spot in the College Football Playoffs? Or will Clemson play the spoiler to claim their 2nd-consecutive crown? I'm ImposterCauster joined by Darman, and we'll dissect the two sides and make our predictions.



    :duke: Darman - Edge: :uva:

    Jamel Armstrong has had a very tough season throwing the ball this year after losing wide receiver talent last year. Matteo Rook may be the best QB in the ACC. This easily is in the favor of UVA. Armstrong has been prone to interceptions against a defense that has been ball hawkish this year. Rook uses all his receivers, and will take advantage of the shallow Clemson secondary.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: :uva:

    This time last year, Armstrong was considered the best of the two quarterbacks playing for the title. It's weird how things change after one season. Whereas Rook kept the bulk of his receiving corp from a year ago, Armstrong finds himself without playmaker Marquise Reed - and the numbers definitely reflect this. Armstrong has struggled with accuracy this season (56.69% on 411 pass attempts), and he's thrown 17 interceptions to only 20 touchdowns. Rook has been way more efficient and far less turnover-prone, giving the Cavs the clear advantage under center.


    Running Back:

    :duke: Darman - Edge: :uva:

    Running back is probably a more important unit in this game for Clemson than it is for Virginia. Timmy Mark has technically rushed for more yards this season, but Reginald Saunders is right behind him in yards and ahead in TDs and efficiency. Saunders has been the better back this year and is a bigger plus for UVA than Mark is for Clemson. Clemson does need a bigger game from Mark than UVA needs from Saunders though.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: Push

    I don't particular like either running back, and I don't think either is capable of changing the tide of this game. Mark has put together bigger games this season as opposed to last, and the same can be said for Saunders. Both have been efficient at finding the endzone and in keeping the ball off the turf, but neither are leaned on to really win games. Sure, Mark is going to have to be effective to provide Armstrong with some security blanket, and Saunders will have to play up to standards to fight off a scary pass rush, but I'm convinced that both teams are evenly matched in this department.



    :duke: Darman - Edge: :uva:

    UVA has a more productive and deeper unit than Clemson. Rook has been better at finding all of his receivers, with 4 of them getting over 500 yards for the year. UVA had one 1 thousand-yard receiver compared to Clemson's 0 thousand-yard receivers. Clemson also had 1 600-yard receiver compared to UVA's 3. Both units face top corners, but the depth in UVAs unit help them take advantage of that shallow defensive back unit of Clemson.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: :uva:

    Don't get me wrong; Clemson has the better receiver on the field in McCray. The thing is, despite what Emperor might tell you, McCray is the only receiver capable of dominating defenses week-in and week-out, and even he only managed 66.83 yards per game this year. Corey Bolden hasn't shown up aside from one or two games, and while Chris Irizarry has been a nice surprise at tight end, it hasn't really been enough for this offense. Virginia, on the other hand, is wealthy with receivers. Cameron Beatty and Hunter Crenshaw posted near-similar marks this season as the top two targets for Rook, with Crenshaw exceeding the thousand-yard mark (Crenshaw was at 930). Throw in a tamer but still effective Jonathan Greer at tight end, and this Clemson secondary will have its hands in stopping a high-octane passing attack.


    Offensive Line:

    :duke: Darman - Edge: :uva:

    Virginia had one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. They gave lots of time to Matteo Rook, and opened up holes for Saunders all year. Clemson also had an above average offensive line in the ACC this season, but they are a step behind Virginia in this category as well.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: :uva:

    Virginia averaged the 2nd-best offensive line rating in the conference at 6.87. Clemson was third at 6.57. So why is Virginia's line that much better? With the likes of Shawaun Holsey and Mahamadou Hooker on the edges of the line, Saunders has been able to thrive to the outside, and that's really helped the Cavalier offense move. Jermaine Singleton and Aden Rosas have locked up the middle of the line, giving Rook ample time to throw this year. Clemson's line has taken some beatings this year, notably against the Gamecocks last week. It's hard not to give the edge here to Virginia.


    Defensive Line:

    :duke: Darman - Edge: :clemson:

    Clemson has one of the best young defensive linemen in the country. Glenn Thorpe finished with 9.5 sacks as a freshman this year for the Tigers. The Cavaliers have a solid group on the defensive line, but they are a step behind this Clemson group. Just barely though. The advantage that the Cavs have on this offensive line could neutralize this advantage. But Clemson getting pressure on Rook is one of the major keys to this contest.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: :clemson:

    Meet Glenn Thorpe, freshman phenom. Only Josiah Harden (10) of UNC has more sacks that Thorpe (9.5), and that's saying something given that Harden is bound to be an early 1st-round selection in the upcoming NFLHC draft. In total, this Clemson line has recorded 18.5 sacks, with Ivan Castle getting 5 of those and defensive tackle Marcus Brown getting the remaining 4. Teams haven't been able to run through this defensive line either - only Dockery, Zahir Watts, and Giovanni Coley have surpassed the century mark running the ball on this defense. Virginia's line hasn't been nearly as potent in the backfield - Steven Proctor has 7 of the line's 11 sacks - but they've been just as effective stopping the run, with only Dockery and Watts breaking the century mark (Ronnie Patterson was close with 97). With both defending the run rather well, I'll give the edge to the scary good pass rush.



    :duke: Darman - Edge: Push

    Both of these units are excellent groups. Virginia has a young but talented group, led by wunderkind Soldier Brooks, who led his team with 52 tackles - ss a true freshman too. On the other sideline we have another talented inside linebacker in redshirt junior Omar Trotter, who led Clemson with 52 tackles as well. Both sides seem evenly matched in my expert opinion. Both sides have playmakers that could make a real impact on this ball game.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: Push

    It's definitely a harder call here, with both units functioning almost identically this season. Clemson's core of Trotter, Negron-Chacon, and Yeager have more of a presence when it comes to bringing down the quarterback, with Trotter and Negron-Chacon combining the 2.5 sacks on the year. Virginia's core of Brooks, Faulk, and Wolfe isn't nearly as focused on the pass rush, but they are incredible at stopping the run. Brooks in particular has been better than expected as a true freshman, recording 52 tackles while becoming a nightmare for running backs heading his way. Faulk seems to have taken a step back in his sophomore season for Virginia though, and that's why I can't really call this in the Cavaliers' favor.



    :duke: Darman - Edge: :uva:

    Clemson is known for having a tough secondary over the past few seasons. This season they had talented players but the depth isn't there, which could be a problem against a deep receiving corps. UVA has the conference leader in interceptions in Timothy Parks, and good depth at their corners. While Clemson may have the most talented player in Malachi Douglas, I believe the depth that UVA gives their unit the advantage.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: :uva:

    Don't get me wrong - Clemson has a very talented secondary. Unfortunately, the unit gets carried a bit more by the pass rush than by their own talent. Yes, Malachi Douglas is a fantastic corner and Marquise Holliday has been a rock at free safety, but outside of those two, the Tigers lack the talent that made this unit truly elite last season. Virginia comes in with a slightly less potent pass rush and a secondary that strives to take the ball away from opposing quarterbacks. With 15 picks on the year (8 by cornerback Timothy Parks), this unit has been the definition of ball-hawkish, and they'll be primed to give McCray and Co. a lot less breathing room than what they're normally given.


    Special Teams:

    :duke: Darman - Edge: Push

    Neither team kicked a ton of field goals this season and both units were solid when kicking, but not spectacular. Neither kicker made a kick over 50 yards, so if the game comes down to that, it could give us a wild finish. Clemson had a slightly better punting average than UVA but neither team allowed a return touchdown this season. Corey Bolden for Clemson is an explosive player though, and can turn field position in an instant. But nothing is big enough for me to give an edge to either team.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster - Edge: Push

    We know about Amir Millard's leg. Clemson's kicker has been pretty spot-on this season, hitting nine kicks from beyond 40 yards. You might not be aware of Marquis Addison's leg though, with the Virginia kicker hitting the same percentage of his kicks, including seven from beyond 40 yards. Matteo Doran (Clem) and Noah Tomlinson (UVA) haven't been great punters by any means, with both averaging less than 40 yards per punt. Doran has the higher ceiling, but he's yet to really showcase that this year. Special teams are too identical to really give an advantage to either side.


    Score Predictions:

    :duke: Darman -

    :uva: Virginia 27-13 Clemson :clemson:

    I don't know if Clemson can score enough points to win this game. If Rook can get it to his deep receiving corps, or the Cavs run the ball they should win comfortably. If Rook tries to force it against Douglas maybe Clemson has a chance, or if Armstrong can reach into his past to pull out a classic.

    :ncsu: ImposterCauster -

    :uva: Virginia 31-14 Clemson :clemson:

    Clemson just doesn't have enough offensively to keep up with Virginia. The Cavaliers have enough playmakers offensively to expose the weaker parts of Clemson's defense, and their offensive line should be capable of keeping Thorpe and company at bay. Armstrong will struggle with his best receiver being locked down by Parks, and Mark won't be able to make up nearly enough ground with his feet. I want to give Clemson the benefit of the doubt, but I haven't been convinced all season that the Tigers can beat an opponent like Virginia. This game simply comes down to whether or not Rook plays like the quarterback that led the Cavaliers to wins over Pitt and Duke. If he does, this game isn't close. If he plays like he did against UNC, Virginia Tech, or even Louisville, Clemson has a chance.


    Thank you all for an exciting 2020 season in the best damn conference in the land. Best of luck to both teams as they vie for the ACC Crown in the Hornet's Nest.

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