The biggest ACC showdown of the regular season is almost here. Virginia Tech and Clemson are making their final preparations with both knowing the winner will immediately become the ACC frontrunner for the College Football Playoff.
With that said, here are some key matchups for Saturday night’s showdown.
VT Offensive Line vs. Clemson Defensive Line
This will be one of the best matchups as Virginia Tech’s best offensive line in years faces the elite Clemson defensive line. Clemson’s defensive line has been dominant so far with 17 sacks through four games while the Hokies’ offensive line has played well, allowing 4 sacks in 4 games.
Saturday night, something will have to give.
Justin Fuente said that Clemson has “an embarrassment of riches” on the defensive line. It’s hard to argue against that especially since their whole starting defensive line could be future first round and second round picks headlined by elite defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
However, the Hokies have some future NFL players on their offensive line including Yosuah Nijman and Wyatt Teller anchoring the left side of the offensive line. Teller and Nijman will be tested, but they have shown that they have the talent to be reliable on this type of stage. The real test will be for the two new starters on the right side of the Hokies’ offensive line, Braxton Pfaff and Kyle Chung.
So far, Pfaff and Chung have been solid, but Chung wasn’t that great against ODU, and they will face their toughest test Saturday night. Expect Clemson to try to find ways to isolate Pfaff and Chung in pass rush situations and for Brent Venables to send blitzes at the right side of the Hokies’ offensive line.
Virginia Tech’s offensive line will only be as good as its weakest pieces and if Pfaff and Chung struggle, Josh Jackson will have lots of pressure to deal with and quick decisions to make.
Cam Phillips vs. CB Ryan Carter
Cam Phillips has become one of America’s best receivers this season, but will face his toughest matchup of the season so far against veteran Clemson CB Ryan Carter. Carter is likely to shadow Phillips throughout this game especially with Trayvon Mullen and Mark Fields both recovering from injuries and listed as probable on Clemson’s injury report.
Phillips has been dynamic so far averaging 15.4 yards per reception on his way to having 34 receptions for 523 yards and 5 touchdowns. Phillips has evolved from a dangerous slot weapon to a complete playmaker who can use his speed and agility to create space and make guys miss, use his route-running skills to gain separation, and win some 50-50 balls as he did on one of his touchdowns against ECU.
Ryan Carter knows he has a big challenge, but the 5’9” Clemson cornerback is tested and ready for playing in another big game. Carter hasn’t put up big numbers, but that’s kind of what you want from your cornerback as he has 10 tackles and 2 pass breakups with those low numbers suggesting QBs are looking to avoid him. Carter has lots of experience as he enters his second year as a starter and will look to rely on that in this hostile environment.
The thing is, Carter hasn’t faced a receiver as good as Cam Phillips this year.
For Clemson, Brent Venables will likely look to give Carter some help and try to minimize Phillips but in order to do that successfully, Clemson needs Carter to have one of the best games of his career. That will be a big challenge on the road against arguably the best receiver in America in Cam Phillips who no one has been able to figure out how to cover or even contain.
Trevon Hill vs. LT Mitch Hyatt
This may be an under-the-radar individual matchup, but the battle on the edge between Clemson LT Mitch Hyatt and Trevon Hill should be very interesting. Hill has been productive so far this season with 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 4 QB hurries, and an interception, but he’ll face his biggest challenge yet against one of the ACC’s most experienced and talented left tackles.
Hyatt was an elite, five-star talent coming out of high school and surprisingly won the left tackle job as a true freshman. Hyatt’s been out there ever since and has gone from the young upstart to the anchor of a Clemson offensive line that has a fair amount of experience especially with himself and senior Tyrone Crowder, both Preseason All-ACC selections.
However, Hill has been a dangerous pass rusher through the first four games and has found plenty of ways to make plays including his interception against West Virginia due largely to smart positioning. Hill has a bright future as a talented defensive end who has developed into being more than just a very good speed rusher.
This matchup is definitely under-the-radar, but could make a difference on the outcome of this game. If Hill can step up on the big stage and have a big night against Hyatt as he did in his first career start last year against Miami, he’ll be an x-factor that will help the Hokies a lot and give Kelly Bryant some nightmares.