For the second time in three weeks, Clemson faced a ranked conference rival on Saturday night—and for the second time in three weeks, it made its opponent look inferior from the moment the game began.
Saturday’s win, a 31–17 silencing of Virginia Tech, was all the evidence we should need to crown Clemson king of the ACC for the third straight season—and not just because the Tigers’ biggest in-division threat, Florida State, looks like a shadow of itself of late. Louisville (Clemson’s other primetime ACC victim, having lost 47–21 at home to Dabo Swinney’s team on Sept. 16) and Virginia Tech are both very, very good teams with potent offenses that went stagnant against the Tigers’ defense, the best in college football.
On Saturday, Hokies redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson was unable to work his magic for the first time this season. Jackson didn’t play poorly—he threw for 251 yards and a touchdown, and two athletic and opportunistic plays by Clemson defenders led to his interceptions—but it wasn’t enough to stop the most well-rounded team in the country, which became the only group ever to beat three top-15 opponents in the first month of the season.
I recently spent time at Virginia Tech for a story, and it came as no surprise to hear from multiple coaches and players that they view Clemson as the standard in the conference. Defensive coordinator Bud Foster, a holdover from Frank Beamer’s staff, looks back at the 2011 ACC title game, in which Clemson defeated Virginia Tech, as a turning point for the league.
Before then, the Hokies were the team to beat, and since, it’s been Clemson (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Florida State). Under coach Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech is trying to once again flip that script, but both Fuente and Foster acknowledged that they’re a few recruiting classes away from approaching the insane depth the Tigers boast. The Hokies have a strong team with talent across the board, but they’re not yet able to rotate in as many talented players as is Clemson, which seems to have waves of talent to come on in relief, especially along the defensive line. That was evident Saturday, as the Hokies struggled to develop any kind of running game and turned to fourth-down conversion attempts and trick plays to attempt to chip away at Clemson’s lead.
Barring some major flukes, injuries or an unprecedented Coastal Division run out of Miami, Saturday’s game could serve as a preview of December’s ACC title game. The two teams met in the championship last year, and Clemson outlasted the Hokies, 42–35. At this point, it’s hard to imagine any outcome other than Clemson taking the ACC crown again this year en route to a playoff berth, with a petrifying defense and an offense that hasn’t seemed to miss a beat without Deshaun Watson.