The Virginia Tech Hokies are back to being relevant nationally in college football with the Hokies making their return to the ACC Championship ranked 23rd by the College Football Playoff committee against the third-ranked Clemson Tigers who know that if they win this game, they’ll be back in the College Football Playoff.
Clemson have a lot on the line in this game with their playoff hopes being dependent on this game while Virginia Tech enters this game as the underdog with nothing to lose in a season in which they were picked to finish fourth in the ACC Coastal. These two teams also face off next year at Lane Stadium so a rematch will be coming for what is also a rematch of the 2011 ACC Championship when the Hokies were last in the ACC title game and lost to Clemson.
The Hokies are the underdogs against the very talented Hokies, but Virginia Tech definitely has a chance against a Clemson team that has looked vulnerable at times this year so with that said, here’s our look at the biggest matchups on Saturday night.
WR Isaiah Ford vs. CB Cordrea Tankersley
This is the type of big time showdown on the outside that not only will interest fans but will also catch the attention of many scouts between Clemson’s senior All-ACC First Team CB Cordrea Tankersley, and Virginia Tech’s star WR that was snubbed from the All-ACC First Team, Isaiah Ford. Both of these players have the potential to be selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft and create the type of big time matchup that will have tons of fans, analysts, and scouts interested.
Tankersley has stepped up as Clemson’s star cornerback in replacing Mackensie Alexander with 50 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 1 interception, and 9 pass breakups. Meanwhile, Ford may be the greatest receiver to every touch the field in Blacksburg as Ford has had a strong junior season with 69 catches for 949 receiving yards and 7 receiving touchdowns while also breaking Virginia Tech’s career receptions and receiving touchdown records plus being less than 70 yards away from breaking the career receiving yards record as a junior.
Ford will be a big challenge for Tankersley as Ford is a very good all-around receiver that has great speed to make big plays happen over the top, is a very good route-runner that can get separation in man coverage, has very good hands, and has great athleticism to be able to go up and make plays in the air while also being able to box out opposing cornerbacks to make tough catches in the end zone.
However, Ford may not have faced a cornerback as good as Tankersley all year and will be in for a major challenge in what is a premier matchup between two players who may be facing off against each other again in a few years on Sundays. Tankersley is also one of the few cornerbacks in the country that has the talent to shut down Ford and will create a big matchup that could have a big impact on this game.
If Tankersley can shut down Ford in this game, Virginia Tech’s offense will have to get creative to get Ford involved in the game or have to go the more difficult way of relying more heavily on Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges to have big games against Clemson.
VT Offensive Line vs. Clemson Defensive Line
Clemson has one of America’s most talented defensive lines and the best defensive line that Virginia Tech has faced all season which will present a huge challenge on Saturday for a Virginia Tech offensive line that has been up-and-down this season but had one of its best games this past Saturday against Virginia.
However, Virginia’s defensive front is nowhere near as good as Clemson’s which had three of their four starting defensive linemen make the All-ACC First or Second Teams. The Hokies did have three of their five starting offensive linemen receive All-ACC recognition in the form of Third Team and honorable mention spots, which was somewhat of a surprise outside of McLaughlin who has been solid at right tackle this season.
Overall, Virginia Tech will be facing a Clemson defensive line with plenty of size with their three All-ACC First or Second Team defensive linemen being over 300 pounds. More importantly, Clemson’s strong defensive line is at its best in the interior with Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence who combined for 131 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 12.5 sacks with neither player having less than 5 sacks, 60 tackles, or 7.5 tackles for loss.
The interior of Virginia Tech’s offensive line has been a weak point with Eric Gallo struggling and Augie Conte having a couple of bad weeks though he seems to be starting to play better after the UVA game. Gallo, Conte, and Wyatt Teller all have plenty of experience but this game will put them up against a challenge that they haven’t faced all season and the trio will have to be consistent throughout the game or Clemson will wreak havoc on Jerod Evans and the Hokies’ running backs.
The interior offensive line may also have to deal with the talented Christian Wilkins crashing in as well with Clemson having the talent to blitz someone like Ben Boulware or Dorian O’Daniel. Virginia Tech’s offensive line has had an up-and-down but will have to be at their best on Saturday against the best defensive line they will face this season to give Jerod Evans time to throw against a talented Clemson secondary.
If not, the Hokies’ defense will have to pick up the load in a big way against the one of the top players in the country in Deshaun Watson and the explosive Clemson offense.
CB Brandon Facyson vs. WR Mike Williams
While Virginia Tech may not focus too much on having one cornerback cover a particular wide receiver, the Hokies may prefer to have Brandon Facyson covering Clemson’s star receiver Mike Williams as much as possible with Greg Stroman just making his return for this game, and Facyson proving to be a better and more consistent corner than Adonis Alexander.
Much like the other big matchup on the outside, NFL scouts will be very intrigued as Williams is seen by many as the top wide receiver prospect in the nation while Facyson has around a third to fourth round grade and a strong performance on this type of stage against Williams and Artavis Scott would undoubtedly bring him plenty of attention and push his draft stock higher.
Williams is the latest big time Clemson wide receiver from a program that has produced Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, and Martavis Bryant over the past few years with Williams being the latest explosive playmaker averaging 14.1 yards per reception and having 10 touchdowns on the season. Williams also has tremendous size at 6’3” and 225 pounds, and is not an easy player to bring down or go up in the air against and fight for a jump ball.
For Facyson, the focus shouldn’t be on trying to get interceptions but making sure Williams doesn’t get a clean chance to make a catch. One of Facyson’s strengths is his ball skills while his man coverage has shown some improvement this season and it will be of the upmost importance for Facyson to be consistent in his coverage throughout this game.
This will be a big challenge for Facyson and whoever else may cover Williams with Clemson likely to move Williams around if Facyson is able to play well against him early to test guys like Stroman and Alexander. With Virginia Tech having a deep stable of receivers and a mobile QB in Deshaun Watson, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see the Hokies play zone with Facyson being towards the outside where they may try to hit some down the field passes with Williams.
If Virginia Tech can find a way to contain Williams, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be able to slow down the Clemson offense that much more but it will make the task a little easier and for Facyson, a big game against Williams will provide a big boost to his draft stock and may force him to start thinking about making a jump to the pros or coming back for his senior season.
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