Our Staff sits around a virtual table to discuss the ACC regular season and to take a look at the 2016 Dr. Pepper ACC Championship Game. The conference has undoubtedly upped its game this season, so we bring you our best with Justin Cates, Jeff Greenberg, and Mike McDaniel.
1) What surprised you most about the ACC this season?
Cates: Probably Lamar Jackson. He flashed potential during a freshman season that saw him as part of a QB rotation, but his growth from year one to two was astounding. He’s going to win the Heisman, and I don’t think the vote will be all that close. Louisville faltered a bit down the stretch but despite some turnovers, it’s hard to blame Jackson given his continued production during that stretch. I knew he’d be good, but not Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl good.
Greenberg: The ACC had quite a few surprises this season. Boston College became bowl eligible. FSU will not be in the playoff. And Lamar Jackson’s jump in production from his freshman to sophomore year was amazing. However, one surprise stuck out to me more than those. Virginia Tech’s performance. I thought it would take a season to get adjusted to Fuente’s offense. The keys were hitting a home run with Jerod Evans at quarterback and the defense looking like a Bud Foster defense again. With Evans, transfers can sometimes have some growing pains; but he helped carry this team early in the season and never let up. Add that to an improved defense that I expected to struggle more after key personnel losses, and you have your Coastal Division Champion.
McDaniel: Anybody else feel like Clemson has sleep-walked through the campaign offensively? This is a Tigers team that was essentially returning that entire side of the football, while returning All-American receiver Mike Williams, who missed all of last season after fracturing his neck in the 2015 season opener. Despite adding a weapon to one of the best offenses in college football from last season, they have not been running the ball nearly as much, despite Wayne Gallman running as well as he ever has, the offensive line has struggled, and Deshaun Watson has missed many, many more throws than a year ago, especially in the middle of the field. The Tigers have improved of late on offense, but this is a team that will need to bring their A-game from here on out on both side of the football, or they will find themselves in a world of trouble.
2) If you had to win one game, do you take Lamar Jackson or Deshaun Watson?
Cates: Elementary my dear Watson. While he lacks some of the wow factor and speed that Jackson has, Deshaun is a more refined passer and just overall a more consistent player. There’s also the fact that Watson has been victorious in both head-to-head match ups between the two.
Greenberg: Deshaun Watson. He’s been there before and won on the biggest stages, including beating Louisville this year. Jackson’s turnovers down the stretch give the nod to Watson for me. Talent is important, but experienced talent is hard to come by. If he has a big game in the ACCCG against Virginia Tech, don’t be surprised to see Watson catch Jackson down the stretch for the Heisman Trophy.
McDaniel: For me, it has to be Watson. As good as Jackson has been this year, Watson is more proven on the big stage, which ultimately is what it’s all about this time of year. Jackson is a fantastic player and the sure-fire Heisman winner as it currently stands, but I’ll take the guy in Watson who has gotten it done time and time again in pressure situations.
3) Justin Fuente won ACC Coach of the Year. Who else really impressed you this season?
Cates: Fuente was the correct pick, but Paul Johnson really did a job of work down the stretch. With the season on the brink at 3-3, Johnson rallied the Yellow Jackets to a 5-1 finish that included wins over Virginia Tech and rival Georgia. That’s a good way to get yourself off the hot seat.
Greenberg: I voted for Fuente in the ACC COY race. His turnaround in year one was remarkable to me. The guy who impressed me most after him would have to be Pat Narduzzi. His Panthers managed to beat Penn State and Clemson. And it wasn’t his vintage defense that carried them this season. Their defensive front was dominant, but their offense racked up a ton of points this season in those big games. Not a bad season. VT winning the Coastal is what put Fuente over Narduzzi for me, but Narduzzi’s run at the end of the season was impressive.
McDaniel: Dave Clawson of Wake Forest stands out to me. Granted, his team has stumbled a bit to the finish line, but Wake Forest was bowl eligible at the beginning of November; name the last time that happened. I’m not sure anybody saw this team being this improved on both sides of the football, and it will be interesting to see if Clawson can get his Demon Deacons a bowl game win,
4. What are the keys to Virginia Tech pulling an upset over Clemson for the ACC title?
Cates: The Hokies have to protect the football. When Tech has lost this season it’s minus-8 in turnovers. It’s no secret that protecting the football is critical for any team, but against a group as good as Clemson Tech will have to play virtually perfect football to come away with a victory.
Greenberg: The Hokies will need to focus on a few things to win this game. No turnovers. Touchdowns in the red zone. Force a turnover or two. Keep the chains moving to sustain drives. Oh, and again, no turnovers. Last but not least, they need to keep their composure under the spotlight of this game. They did not fair well in protecting the football in their opening game against Tennessee under the bright lights. That’s a focus and concentration issue. They can’t have that issue in this game if they want to win.
McDaniel: Keeping Deshaun Watson in the pocket and pressuring him in the passing game is the biggest factor for Virginia Tech pulling an upset. Bud Foster’s defenses have an excellent track record, but their struggles against true dual-threat quarterbacks are well-documented. If the Hokies can force a couple of turnovers against the pass, they’ll have a fighting chance to win this game.
5. If Clemson wins, can they win the CFB Playoff??
Cates: The Tigers scraped by in the ACC title game last season and then impressed everyone by pounding Oklahoma and nearly knocking off Alabama in the national championship game. My point is, the Tigers peaked at the right moment last season and there’s reason to believe this group can do the same. I don’t think this edition of Tiger football can interrupt ‘the process’ either though.
Greenberg: Right now, I don’t think anybody can beat Alabama. Can Clemson beat whoever else may be in the Playoff? Yes, but the Crimson Tide really do look unfair this season. Anything can happen in any given game, but Clemson’s offense would have to be explosive and flawless to beat Alabama.
McDaniel: Clemson is hitting their stride at the right time of year, but I’m unsure that anybody is going to beat Alabama. If there is one team out there that can potentially knock Alabama off, I believe that it would be an offense that is like Clemson when they are at their best, combined with a defensive line that’s extremely effective pressuring the passer, which is yet another box that the Tigers check off. Alabama does have a freshman in Jalen Hurts at quarterback who has been very good all season long, but his one Achilles’ heel has been in regards to consistency in the downfield passing game, which will only take on greater precedence if he is under pressure. With all that being said, I’m not sure any team is beating the Crimson Tide.
6. Who do you have winning the ACC Championship game?
Cates: This will sound moderately insane, but I think this game might go like the national championship game last season. Both Clemson and Alabama had top notch defenses, but the offenses rose up and had a shootout. That’s how I see this game unfolding, though in a slightly muted fashion. Both teams will be focused and ready, but Clemson should win.
Clemson 38 Virginia Tech 31
Greenberg: I have Clemson winning a game that will stay within a touchdown in the end, much like last year’s ACCCG. Virginia Tech needs to prevent going down early and keep this game within reach. If they can do that, then an upset is possible. It just looks like Clemson had their wake up call against Pitt and is rounding into form. Their experience in this game will carry them through to the title.
Clemson 27 Virginia Tech 20
McDaniel: This should be an exciting football game, but I’m going to have to go with Clemson. They are beginning to hit their stride on offense at the right time of year, and their defense, with the exception of the Pittsburgh game, has been stout all season long. I think that the difference in this game will ultimately be the Hokies’ struggles running the football. If those same struggles with running the football that have plagued the team for the majority of the season bleed into this match-up against Clemson, the one-dimensional nature of the Virginia Tech offense will be too much for the Hokies to overcome.
Clemson 27 Virginia Tech 17