When No. 1 Clemson and No. 7 Miami (FL) take the field on Saturday night, it will be just the 17th time in ACC history that two conference foes from the top 10 of the AP Top 25 poll have played against each other, and the first such occurrence since the 2017 ACC Championship Game between these same two programs.
The absence of these top-10 against top-10 battles in the league’s history points to a perception issue that the ACC is looking to tackle in 2020. One early-season sign that the rarity of these games is starting to fade can be seen in the current rankings, which feature four top-10 teams for the first time in league history with No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 8 North Carolina joining the Tigers and the Hurricanes.
Having more teams near the top of the rankings will ultimately boost the perception (and the rankings) of all the teams in the ACC. The great con of the rankings system is that if you lose, it’s not going to hurt your stock as long as you lose to a team that’s highly-ranked, and if you win against a highly-ranked team, your ranking is sure to soar. It’s the dance that’s done in the SEC almost every year, where programs get to claim top-10 wins in seasons when nearly half of the conference spends at least one week in the top 10 of the polls. The value of a top-10 win fluctuates from week to week and year to year, because even in polls where it’s hard to find sure-fire “top-10 teams”, there still have to be 10 teams in the top 10.
So in that sense, Saturday night’s game (and the 2020 season as a whole) is a chance for the ACC to change the perception that it’s a one-team league. If Miami rises to the occasion and proves to be a worthy adversary for Clemson in the ACC, even in a loss, then it will remain in the mix for “top 10” status and thus provide more opportunities for conference games between top-10 teams. More conference games between top-10 teams allows for more top-10 wins, and more top-10 wins both boosts the profiles of the teams at the top and limits the fall for the ranked teams who take losses.
If all this only cements your belief that perception-driven college football rankings are a misguided way to talk about the sport, I totally understand. But the participants looking to secure a spot in the College Football Playoff and/or receive the benefits (both tangible and intangible) that come with national rankings don’t have the option to unsubscribe from the system. The ACC has to play this perception game in order to change the narrative, and that starts with the conference showing up in an impressive way when it gets these top-10 spotlight opportunities.
Clemson vs. Miami Preview, Prediction
Matchup to watch: Miami TE Brevin Jordan vs. Clemson’s back seven
Miami quarterback D’Eriq King has done a good job of getting some of the Hurricanes’ wide receivers involved in the wins against Louisville and Florida State, but Jordan has clearly been the preferred target in this offense from the jump. And why not? At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Jordan has been a matchup nightmare in Rhett Lashlee’s up-tempo offense, leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and hauling in a touchdown in all three games. He gets moved all over the offense to exploit players he’s bigger or faster than, and when things break down or King has to extend the play with his legs, Jordan does a great job of finding open space in the field to make himself available. Clemson’s linebacker trio of James Skalski, Baylon Spector and Mike Jones Jr. have been solid at reading and reacting in wins against Wake Forest and Virginia, but they are going to have to play one of their best games of the season to make sure that Jordan doesn’t have a major impact. The same can be said for the Tigers’ safeties Nolan Turner and Lannden Zanners, who are still taking steps forward to fill the gaps left by K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse from the 2019 squad.
X-factor: Clemson’s offensive line
One thing Miami does as well as anyone in the country is get after passer and cause disruptions with its defensive front. Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips is arguably the best defensive end duo in the ACC through one month of play, with Roche as the nation’s active career sacks leader and former No. 1 high school prospect Phillips flashing after spending last year sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules. But it is a full team effort to rack up the sacks and tackles for loss that have Miami ranking in the top 15 nationally in both categories. The havoc created up front also helps bring out the turnover chain, which has made six appearances through three games in 2020. Dabo Swinney said this week that Miami will be a great test for tackles Jackson Carman and Jordan McFadden, and the whole line will have to step up to keep Clemson ahead of the chains and out of those obvious pass-rush scenarios that will let Miami’s ends tee off on Trevor Lawrence. For Clemson to control the flow of the game, it has to set the tone with its offensive line. We spend so much time focusing on the generational talent at quarterback, the prolific and record-setting running back and deep wide receiver room, but the championship standard that the Tigers are looking to showcase against the Hurricanes will hinge on the play of the big uglies up front.
Prediction: Clemson 37, Miami 20
As a program, Clemson has gotten used to building out its season with plans to peak around championship time in late-November, December and January. The first months of the season are spent with a focus on player development and utilizing the team’s depth to both get younger players experience and keep the starters fresh for those crucial games later in the season. It also allows each team to find its own identity and the things it does better or different than in previous years. When the Tigers do face a challenge like this early in the season, they have traditionally allowed the defense to lead the way. Brent Venables is the best defensive coordinator in college football, and I think that if Swinney had it his way, we’d see a 24-10-type score like last year’s highly-anticipated matchup with Texas A&M. But Miami’s offense is too dangerous to turn Saturday night into a punting contest, and the need to keep scoring and secure the victory will put Lawrence and Travis Etienne in the spotlight. The Hurricanes are almost guaranteed to hit a few explosive plays that will get them on the scoreboard, but I think Clemson’s big game experience shines in a wire-to-wire win.
Each week, we’ll be offering these top-half power rankings for the 15-team, one-division ACC. Results matter, but won’t match the standings necessarily as we look to identify the teams that have the best chance to contend for one of the top two spots (determined by winning percentage) and play for the conference championship in December.
1. Clemson (Last week — 1): We will see how far the gap is between the Tigers and the rest of the league on Saturday.
2. Miami (2): Even if they lose, there’s a chance that this is still the second-best team in the league.
3. Notre Dame (3): Welcome back, Irish! After a couple weeks off, lets see if the Irish offense can pick up where it left off in the USF game or if it is going back to the starting line and its rocky debut against Duke.
4. Virginia Tech (5): The Hokies take one of the best rushing attacks in the country to Chapel Hill in a game that will provide some separation in the ACC Championship race. The Hokies got a late start that impacted their stand in the national rankings but, they have the look of an ACC title contender. We won’t go that far yet after wins against NC State and Duke, but if they complete the Triangle sweep, it’s going to get real.
5. North Carolina (4): it’s been two disjointed offensive efforts or North Carolina. The offense struggled against Syracuse to find a rhythm until the fourth quarter. Against Boston College, things started well but the Tar Heels were hanging on for dear life to secure the victory. The Virginia Tech game will be the pivot point in North Carolina’s rankings and expectations for 2020.
6. Virginia (7): No Virginia fan wants to talk about moral victories, but the Wahoos played well against Clemson. Bronco Mendenhall should have some confidence in this year’s team after that showing, because there hasn’t been much of a step back in performance from last year’s Coastal winners.
7. Louisville (8): Circle the wagons time for Scott Satterfield on Friday night in Atlanta. I believe not all 1-2 records are alike, but if a week off doesn’t help correct some issues for the Cards, they will be falling from these top-half rankings come Week 7.
8. NC State (NR): Devin Leary showed that NC State’s offense has more to offer than a bruising rushing attack with Bam Knight and Ricky Person Jr., carving up Pitt’s secondary in a thrilling road win. Now the challenge is to maintain that high level of play with another road game, this time at Virginia.
Dropped from the rankings: Pitt (6)