Trying to pick a winner Saturday’s showdown between No. 11 Virginia Tech and No. 13 Clemson is a difficult proposition, and judging from history, it’s pretty much a toss-up. This will be the eighth time Lane Stadium will have hosted a matchup of two top 15 teams, and the Hokies are 4-3 in the previous seven.
But as I’ve thought about predicting the outcome of this game, four matchups stand out to me. The team that can win the majority of these battles will likely emerge from this weekend undefeated.
Chad Morris vs. Bud Foster
Two coordinators, one who’s just 17 games removed from being a high school coach and another who has been at Virginia Tech as long as Coach Frank Beamer. In his fast-paced no-huddle approach, Morris uses multiple formations and signals in the play to quarterback Tahj Boyd. It often forces opposing defenses into mismatches, though the Hokies hope to minimize that by using their nickel package.
Foster will have to diagnose what Morris is doing quickly if he plans to bring any of the exotic blitz packages that could confuse Boyd in the first road start of his career. I think the battle of pre-snap wits between Morris and Foster, more than any player on the field, will determine whether Clemson’s explosive offense or Virginia Tech’s improved defense wins out.
Clemson WRs vs. Virginia Tech DBs
As I pointed out in a post Thursday, this is a big moment for Virginia Tech’s secondary. Junior Jayron Hosley and sophomore Kyle Fuller might not face a better receiving corps than the one Clemson will bring to Lane Stadium on Saturday. Wide receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, as well as tight end Dwayne Allen, could all be headed to the NFL some day. Then again, the Tigers haven’t dealt with a defensive backfield with as much talent, and the type of complex coverage schemes, that the Hokies will show Saturday. Clemson is averaging 34 pass attempts per game, so Virginia Tech’s secondary will have to be better than it was a week ago at Marshall.
Virginia Tech’s OL vs. Clemson’s DL
The Hokies have been facing eight-man defensive fronts of late, and that won’t change on Saturday. Clemson loaded the box against Florida State, allowing the Seminoles to rush for just 29 yards. But Virginia Tech won’t win this game if running backs David Wilson and Josh Oglesby aren’t chewing up some clock and that means the Hokies offensive line must control the line of scrimmage against a Clemson defensive line that’s considered the strength of its defense. No matter how much the Tigers sell out on the run, the last thing Virginia Tech wants is for quarterback Logan Thomas to have the game on his shoulders because he has to throw the ball 35 times.
Logan Thomas vs. Tajh Boyd
This battle isn’t strictly about numbers. It’s almost guaranteed that Boyd will have better statistics just because of Clemson’s offensive philosophy. But Thomas must keep the Tigers’ defense honest by replicating the high completion percentage he’s shown off the past two weeks and avoiding some of the costly interceptions he’s thrown thus far. Thomas and Boyd are the same age, and though Boyd has a little more big-game experience from the past two weeks, nobody is quite sure how he’ll perform with a riled-up Lane Stadium crowd making it hard for him to think. Thomas doesn’t need to out-perform Boyd, but he can’t succumb to the moment and must make an impact in his first big game.
It’s also worth mentioning that Clemson hasn’t won in Blacksburg since 1989, and no ACC team has beaten ranked opponents three weeks in a row. Something tells me the Tigers won’t be making history in their first road game of the year. I’m going with the Hokies in a squeaker largely because of Lane Stadium.
My prediction: Virginia Tech 31, Clemson 28
But what do you think will happen Saturday when Virginia Tech opens its ACC schedule against Clemson? Vote in the poll below and then give me your final score in the comments section. The past four weeks, these polls have been awfully lopsided, but I’ve got a feeling this week I’m not the only one a bit torn on who will win.