Clemson faces Virginia Tech in ACC championship game
Which teams are going to show up for the ACC Championship Game?
Will it be the Clemson team that romped past South Carolina 56-7, Syracuse 54-0 and Boston College 56-10 and won 37-34 at Florida State? Or will it be the one that lost to Pittsburgh 43-42 and would have lost to North Carolina State had the Wolfpack not missed a chip-shot field goal as time ran out in regulation?
Will it be the Virginia Tech club that waxed division rivals North Carolina 34-3 and Miami 37-16, or the one that lost to Syracuse 31-17 and Georgia Tech 30-20, the latter with the Coastal title on the line?
The answers will be forthcoming when the Tigers (11-1, 7-1 ACC) and Hokies (9-3, 6-2 ACC) kick off at 8 p.m. ET Saturday in the ACC championship game at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. ABC will do the telecast.
For third-ranked Clemson, the stakes are huge, because a victory is likely to mean a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff.
That Clemson is playing for a second consecutive ACC title and 16th championship in program history is no surprise. Yes, the Tigers had to rebuild a defense that lost eight starters from the 2015 club and had a key date in Tallahassee with Florida State.
But they also returned eight starters to an offense that ranked No. 16 in the country in scoring last year and No. 11 in total offense and had a Heisman candidate in quarterback Deshaun Watson to run the show.
Virginia Tech, however, was coping with all the trials that go with a coaching change. Justin Fuente came from Memphis to take over for legendary Frank Beamer and installed a more up-tempo approach on an offense while looking for a new starter at quarterback.
An early 45-24 loss to Tennessee seemed to confirm the media's pick of a fourth-place finish for the Hokies in the Coastal Division, behind defending champion North Carolina, Miami, and Pittsburgh.
But the Hokies beat each one of those teams to earn their sixth appearance in the ACC title game, which is being played for the 12th time.
“The kids wanted to win and were willing to do whatever we asked them to, under no guise of a guarantee,” Fuente said. “Kind of the way I put it to them is, if we do all these things then we at least have a chance.
“If we don't do these things, then we have no chance, and the kids have bought into that and have done a good job.”
Junior college transfer Jerod Evans has been a big key. He beat out last year's backup, Brenden Motley, at quarterback and ended up setting Tech's single-season record for touchdown passes (26) and total offense (3,752).
He passed for 3,039 yards, the second most in a single season at Tech behind Don Strock's 3,243 yards in 1972, and also owns the school's single-season record for touchdowns accounted for (34).
Such numbers actually rival those Watson put up for the Tigers. The junior, who announced his intention to enter next spring's NFL draft, has passed for 34 touchdowns and 3,626 yards and is on a roll of late. Over the last three games, he completed 74 percent of his passes for 1,129 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I've never been around a guy like this guy,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “The moment's never too big for him.”
Both quarterbacks have a plethora of receivers to throw to.
For Tech, Isaiah Ford has 69 receptions for 949 yards, Cam Phillips 58 for 776 and Bucky Hodges 42 for 598. Mike Williams has 79 catches for 1,114 yards for Clemson, Artavis Scott 64 for 544, and Ray-Ray McCloud 44 for 434, and tight end Jordan Leggett 34 for 588.
There is also an interesting link between the two coaches.
Fuente, who was at TCU at the time, was one of two assistants Swinney interviewed several years ago for the offensive coordinator job that ultimately went to Chad Morris.
Swinney and Fuente have remained in contact since.
“I knew when they hired him it wouldn't take long for him to get them back to this point,” Swinney said. “I'm certainly happy for Justin and the job he's done in his first year.
“He's a great guy and a heck of a football coach. He's going to do a fantastic job at Virginia Tech.”