CHARLOTTESVILLE – Virginia and Clemson haven’t met since 2013, but the two will go head to head in the ACC football championship game on Saturday in Charlotte. The No. 3-ranked Tigers, the defending national champions, are 29-point favorites over UVA, making its first title game appearance.
Matt Connolly is the Clemson beat writer for The State newspaper and thestate.com. He has been with The State since 2015 and has covered each of Clemson's last four trips to the College Football Playoff, including Clemson's national title runs in 2016 and 2018.
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Connolly took time out to answer four downs worth of questions about Clemson going into Saturday’s ACC championship game against Virginia.
1) When the first College Football Playoff rankings came out, Clemson was just outside the Top 4 and the committee indicated close victories had cost the Tigers. And then, they just started rick-rolling people. They haven't won by less than 30 since then. Do they feel like just winning Saturday is enough to cement their position or will they be out for another massacre?
Clemson certainly felt disrespected when the first playoff rankings came out and has played with a chip on its shoulder since. Virginia native and Clemson safety K'Von Wallace called Clemson being ranked No. 3 "ridiculous" this week. Clemson knows it will be in the College Football Playoff with a win, but it hasn't been content with just winning lately. I'm sure the Tigers would like to make another statement against a really solid 9-3 Virginia team on Saturday.
2) The defense lost a ton of talent from last season and yet, it's arguably the most dominant unit in the nation. What's working so well for Clemson on that side of the ball?
I think a lot of it is just defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Every single year, he seems to get the most out of his unit. Clemson lost a lot of big names up front from last year, but Dabo Swinney told anyone who would listen before the season that this would be his best back seven yet. That has been the case thus far as Clemson has yet to allow 300 yards of offense in a game all year, becoming the first college football team since at least 1996 to do that. It helps that Isaiah Simmons made a huge leap this year and is playing like a potential top 10 pick. The linebacker is one of three finalists for college football's Defensive Player of the Year award. Simmons is extremely versatile and excels against the run and in coverage. He leads Clemson with 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks this season.
3) Similarly, UVA is at its offensive best when Bryce Perkins is loosening defenses up with his running ability. How has Clemson handled dual-threat QBs this season and how do you expect the Tigers to approach slowing down Perkins?
That's a great question. Clemson really hasn't seen a player quite like Perkins yet this year. Tigers safety Tanner Muse said Perkins is most similar to Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond in that he is big, a dual-threat guy and tough to bring down. But Perkins is more of a rushing threat than Mond. My guess is Clemson tries to keep Perkins in the pocket, loads the box to limit his rushing opportunities and leaves its defensive backs on islands against Virginia's receivers. As I said earlier, Clemson's back seven has been really good and the Tigers currently lead the nation in pass defense.
4) Aside from the vocal minority fixated on the five interceptions he threw in the first three games, most people seem to understand that Trevor Lawrence is the best offensive player in the ACC. What's he doing particularly well this season and has anybody found a way to slow him down?
The biggest thing for Trevor is he has stopped trying to do too much. He entered the year as the Heisman favorite and with a ton of expectations and felt pressure to live up to those expectations early on. That led to him forcing some throws and trying to pile up stats. The past several weeks he is just taking what the defense is giving him, making the right reads and has 19 touchdowns and no interceptions since the first quarter of the Louisville game to show for the change in mindset. His arm strength is insane and he can make every throw. But it also helps to have two of the top receivers in the ACC in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross to throw to and arguably the best running back in the country in Travis Etienne that defenses also have to prepare for.