Preview and Prediction: The ACC Championship

Zach Lentz

Clemson will attempt to earn its 19th ACC championship and 25th overall conference championship in school history on Saturday, Dec. 7, when the Atlantic Division champion Tigers face the Coastal Division champion Virginia Cavaliers. Kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. 

Clemson entered 2019 as the only program in ACC history to win four consecutive outright titles. With wins this week, Clemson and Oklahoma can join the 1971- 75 Alabama Crimson Tide as the only members of any active FBS conference to win five straight outright titles. This week, Clemson will attempt to become the only program since the creation of conference championship games in 1992 to win five consecutive conference championship games. 

The ACC title would be Clemson's sixth under Head Coach Dabo Swinney. With the win, Swinney would tie Frank Howard’s school record for ACC titles and match Howard and Duke’s Bill Murray for the second-most in ACC history. Swinney would pull two shy of Howard's total number of conference championships at Clemson (eight), including Southern Conference titles in 1940 and 1948.

Who to watch when Clemson has the ball:

Trevor Lawrence (QB):

Lawrence continued his red-hot play against the South Carolina Gamecocks last week, as he completed 26-of-36 passes for 295 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed eight times for a career-high 66 yards—his 361 combined yards of total offense were the fourth-most of his career and his second-most of the season (437 at Syracuse). Lawrence’s 295 passing yards were Clemson’s fourth-most against South Carolina in school history. 

Including his school-best 393 passing yards against South Carolina, Lawrence is responsible for two of the top four passing yardage performances against the Gamecocks in school history.

Lawrence has thrown a touchdown pass in 22 consecutive games. His current streak is the longest active streak in the country, and he threw three touchdowns to tie his single-season career high in passing touchdowns (30), set as a freshman last year.

Lawrence has thrown three touchdown passes in seven consecutive games for the first time in his career. He had already been the first Clemson quarterback to accomplish the feat in six straight games.

Travis Etienne (RB): 

Etienne became the seventh player to be voted ACC Player of the Year twice and the second in a four-year span (Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in 2016-17). He is the first running back since North Carolina’s Mike Voight (1975-76) to win the honor in multiple years.

Etienne enters Saturday night’s ACC championship game versus Virginia as the conference’s all-time leader in career touchdowns (57) and rushing touchdowns (53).

The junior has rushed for 1,386 yards this season while scoring 18 TDs. His 2019 campaign included a school-record six consecutive 100-yard rushing games, breaking five-game streaks by Kenny Flowers (1985) and Raymond Priester (1996-97).  Etienne is the first player in Clemson history to rush for at least 15 touchdowns in multiple seasons. He ranks third among ACC players this season in overall scoring, and his 342 career points are the most in league history by a non-kicker.

Zane Zandier (LB; UVA): 

Zandier currently ranks No. 1 on the team with 85 tackles as UVA is ranked No. 27 in the nation (No. 4 in the ACC) in total defense, allowing an average of 336.5 yards per game. 

Zandier intercepted his first career pass in the third quarter against ODU and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown. It is the second UVA interception by a linebacker this season (Matt Gahm at Pitt). Zandier’s interception is the first pick-six by a UVA linebacker since Byron Thweatt returned an interception 53 yards against Virginia Tech in 1998.

As a team, UVA is No. 26 in the nation (No. 4 in the ACC) in rushing defense, allowing 123.3 rushing yards per game. The Cavaliers are No. 6 in the nation with 3.58 sacks per game and No. 20 in the nation (No. 5 in the ACC) in tackles for loss per game (7.3). 

Who to watch when Virginia has the ball:

Isaiah Simmons (LB):

Simmons owns a team-high 83 tackles and ranks sixth among ACC defenders with 14 tackles for loss. The athletic junior has also registered six quarterback sacks as the leader of a Clemson unit that leads the nation in fewest points allowed per game (10.1) and ranks second in total defense.

A Bednarik and Nagurski finalist, Simmons posted a season-high 11 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in the Tigers’ win over Syracuse early in the season. He earned ACC Linebacker of the Week, Lott IMPACT Trophy Player of the Week and Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week honors following that performance.

Simmons closed the regular season with 10 tackles, including two for loss, a sack and a pass breakup in last Saturday’s 38-3 win at rival South Carolina.

Defensive line:

In November, Clemson held Wake Forest to 1.7 yards per carry, marking the 20th time since 2014 that Clemson has held an opponent to 2.0 or fewer yards per carry, fourth-most in the country. Clemson is 19-1 in those contests. 

Prior to facing Louisville on Oct. 19, Clemson had gone 27 consecutive games without allowing opponents to produce a 100-yard rusher, which had been the longest active streak in the country and the school's longest since at least 1980. Clemson's two 100-yard rushers allowed since 2018 rank tied for the second-fewest in the country. 

Bryce Perkins (QB; UVA):

Bryce Perkins needs three touchdowns responsible for, while maintaining his 64% passing rate to join a special list of quarterbacks. Over the past 10 years the following quarterbacks posted multiple seasons with 2,500+ passing yards, 500+rushing yards and 30+ touchdowns responsible for while completing at least 60% of his passes: Marcus Mariota (3 times), JT Barrett (3 times), Robert Griffin III, Taylor Kelly, Johnny Manziel, Brett Hundley, Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott, Marquise Williams and Deshaun Watson. 

Last year Perkins was one of two players in the nation with 2,600+ passing yards (2,680) and 900+ rushing yards (923), joining Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray (Oklahoma). 

Since 2000, Perkins in 2018, Murray in 2018 and Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma) so far in 2019 are the only players in the nation in a single season to complete at least 64% of their passes, while also throwing for 2,000+ yards, rushing for 900+ yards and being responsible for at least 30 touchdowns.

Preview:

Clemson holds a commanding 38-8-1 lead in the series with Virginia including a slight 9-8-1 advantage since 1990 after Clemson won the first 29 games of the series. 

Virginia’s last win in the series took place in 2004 in Charlottesville by a 30-10 score on a Thursday night. Saturday's game will represent only the fourth meeting between the two teams in Dabo Swinney’s tenure. Swinney first faced Virginia as a head coach in his fourth game as Clemson’s interim head coach, earning a 13-3 victory in 2008. 

Clemson won, 34-21, the next year in a home finale that gave Clemson its first ACC Atlantic Division title. Clemson secured a 59-10 win in the teams' most recent meeting in 2013.

Prediction: 

Zach Lentz:        Clemson- 47    UVA-17

Jeremy Stryon:  Clemson-44     UVA-20

Susan Lloyd: They’ve given up a lot of points this year. And with being a one dimensional offense, we should be able to shut Bryce down depending on how slippery he gets. Three more passing TD’s for Trevor and at least two more rushing for ETN- maybe one for Lyn-J and a kick return for Amari: 49- 13 Tigers win. However— if Dabo decides to let TLaw and the starters play a smidge linger, Tigers will break 50. But I see that as doubtful. 

                           Clemson-49 .   UVA-13 

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