When Clemson defeated Florida State this weekend, a win that came just a week after beating defending national champion Auburn, it was just the second time in 23 years the Tigers have beaten ranked opponents in back-to-back games.
This latest victory, though, has put Clemson firmly on the national radar, and turned Virginia Tech’s ACC opener into a potential conference championship game preview. The Tigers jumped up to No. 13 in this week’s AP poll, and since the Hokies are now ranked No. 11 in the country after closing out their non-conference schedule with a 30-10 win at Marshall Saturday, it means this week’s showdown will be just the seventh time two top-15 teams have faced off at Lane Stadium.
But Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney isn’t trying to buy into the hype. He’s been saying for months his team could be on the verge of something special, but “September doesn’t make a season. It’s good that people are talking about Clemson. That means we’ve done something positive for a change.”
Instead, Swinney believes the Tigers’ biggest challenge to date will come when they encounter their first road game of the year in Blacksburg, a place where Clemson hasn’t won since 1989.
“Last time I went up there, it wasn’t pretty,” Swinney admitted during his Sunday night teleconference with reporters. He was referencing the Tigers’ trip to Lane Stadium in 2006, when they sported a 7-1 record only to lose to the Hokies, 24-7.
Virginia Tech is “the best team in this league as far as I’m concerned until somebody else says something about it,” Swinney said. “They have been a team that has been dominant in this league and obviously they’re the reigning ACC champion until somebody knocks them off.”
And yet through four games this season, it’s Clemson that is holding the banner for the ACC in terms of quality wins. Swinney called his team’s early-season slate “the schedule of champions.”
The Tigers beat last year’s Sun Belt conference champion (Troy) in week one, and then followed it up with a close victory over the Southern Conference champion (Wofford). Two weeks ago came that breakthrough win over defending SEC and national champion Auburn, and just two days ago Clemson improved to 4-0 with a victory over the Seminoles, last year’s ACC Atlantic Division champion.
“When this schedule came out back in the spring, a lot of people were mad about it and trying to talk about how hard it was and what we couldn’t do. But we really looked at it the other way around,” Swinney said. “We’ve just looked at it as if you want to be a champion, hey, you’ve got to schedule for it. There’s a lot of teams out there that can win all their games and probably can’t win a championship. But we have an opportunity, if we take care of business, to make ourselves relevant.”
So how has Clemson gone from a team that finished under .500 in 2010 to the early favorite in the ACC’s Atlantic Division? Look no further than new offensive coordinator Chad Morris and first-year quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Morris was hired away from Tulsa last January after his up-tempo spread offense averaged more than 500 yards per game and ranked fifth in the nation. And the Tigers have taken to his scheme exceptionally well.
After averaging 195 passing yards and 139 rushing yards per game in 2010, Clemson is up to 315 and 187 yards in those respective categories this season. The Tigers, who rank 16th in the country in terms of total offense and haven’t been held under 35 points in a game yet, have been particularly good at creating explosive plays and converting on third down.
The Tigers already have 13 plays that have gone for 30 or more yards, and rank second in the nation with seven plays of 50 or more yards. On third down, they are converting at a 53 percent rate, but in the last two weeks against Auburn and Florida State, that figure has jumped to 65 percent (23 of 35).
“The big thing that I thought that it would take them a little longer to grasp was the tempo, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that. We’re not where we’re probably gonna be next year, or at the end of this year, but they’re really getting it,” said Swinney, whose team is averaging close to 80 offensive plays per game this season. In comparison, Virginia Tech currently ranks second in the country in terms of time of possession but gets off about 72 plays per game.
“The passing game has been incredibly productive, in particular on third down,” Swinney added. “We’re one of the best third down teams out there and that’s kept us on the field and that’s allowed us to be explosive and score a lot of points.”
The ringleader in all this is Boyd, a Hampton, Va., native who has quickly emerged as a leading candidate to be named conference player of the year. He’s the top quarterback in the ACC in terms of passing efficiency with 13 touchdown passes and just one interception, but in the past two weeks he’s maybe been the most impressive signal caller in the country.
In those signature wins over Auburn and Florida State, Boyd completed 55 of his 79 passes (69.6 percent) for 730 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. This season he’s already become the first-ever Clemson quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in four-straight games.
Swinney said Boyd, who also runs quite a bit out of the option, “always had the skill set, but he’s really developed into a quarterback. . . . He knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He’s become the unquestioned leader. These guys rally around him.”
Swinney also pointed to Boyd’s decision-making and how he’s been able to involve so many different players. Perhaps the toughest part of defending Clemson this year is the fact that eight receivers have at least two catches through four games.
“We’ve been able to strike with big plays, and to do that you’ve got to have some guys that can really run and make plays,” said Swinney. “We brought some people into this program from a recruiting standpoint that have just changed us personnel wise.
The coach is referencing his young and dynamic receiving corps. Freshman Sammy Watkins has taken the college football world by storm, proving why he was considering the No. 3 wide receiver recruit in the country by Rivals.com with 29 catches, 433 yards and six touchdowns in four games. On the other side, sophomore DeAndre Hopkins is no slouch either, with 21 catches, 269 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Hopkins is “a little sore” from a hamstring injury, according to Swinney, and is questionable for Saturday’s game. Running back Andre Ellington, meanwhile, played through his own hamstring injury Saturday against Florida State (23 carries, 71 yards, one touchdown) and should be available to play against Virginia Tech.
But Watkins, who has 18 catches, 296 yards and four touchdowns in just the past two games, should present defensive coordinator Bud Foster with enough headaches on his own.
“What everybody is seeing is what we saw in practice for three weeks,” said Swinney, who added it only took Watkins a couple days to seize the starting job in training camp. “I mean this guy was incredible. From the moment he’s gotten here, he has been a dominant player.”
After how Clemson looked the past two weeks, it sure seems like a daunting task. But it’s important to note that while the Hokies haven’t faced an offense of this caliber yet, the Tigers have yet to show their offensive prowess against a defense as good as Virginia Tech’s unit. The Hokies currently rank fourth in the country in total defense.
We’ll have much more from Virginia Tech’s perspective as the week progresses, including Foster’s plans to slow down Clemson and how the Hokies’ offense can take advantage of a Tigers’ defense that has struggled to stop the run at times and features a young secondary with a tendency to give up long passing plays.
But I don’t think I’m alone when I say Saturday can’t get here soon enough.