No. 1 Clemson and No. 7 Miami will square off in the ACC championship game Saturday with a College Football Playoff spot on the line. It seems hard to believe that just two years ago, Clemson beat Miami 58-0. But that loss was the catalyst to get Mark Richt into the fold as Miami head coach, and he has led the Hurricanes to their first ACC title-game appearance. Meanwhile, this is old hat for Clemson: The Tigers are making their third straight appearance.
Here's a guide to everything you need to know about the ACC championship game (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Clemson: From Deon Cain and Travis Etienne on offense to a defensive line chock full of future NFL first-rounders, Clemson is certainly not without elite talent. But stars? That's sort of the beauty of this team. It's not a group that lives or dies by one big star. In the post-Deshaun Watson era, Clemson has found all sorts of ways to win and, depending on the week, has relied on a different hero nearly every time out.
Miami: The same description fits Miami, which had only one player on the All-ACC first team: kicker Michael Badgley. But if there is one player who has emerged beyond quarterback Malik Rosier, it’s safety Jaquan Johnson because of all the momentum-changing plays he has made. If there’s one player who embodies the Turnover Chain and all it represents, it’s Johnson.
Clemson: If last year's Clemson team was built around Watson and the passing game, this year's strength is on the ground, where Etienne, the true freshman who opened the year fourth on the depth chart, has emerged as one of the most explosive backs in the country. For the year, he averaged 7.4 yards per rush, trailing only Stanford's Bryce Love and Alabama's Damien Harris among Power 5 backs with at least 90 carries.
Miami: The Hurricanes have made it this far largely without their two best players on offense: Mark Walton (out for the season) and Ahmmon Richards (nursing a hamstring injury all season). But for Miami to have any shot at pulling the upset, they are going to need Travis Homer to be at his absolute best, to help take pressure of Rosier and the passing game. Homer has done well filling in for Walton, but last week the Hurricanes had nowhere to run – an ominous sign considering Clemson’s run D is the best in the conference.
Where Clemson is vulnerable
When kicker Greg Huegel went down in early October, it was little more than a blip for a team riding high. In Clemson's next game, however, backup Alex Spence missed two kicks and the Tigers fell to Syracuse. Since, Spence has been up and down, but the kicking game is hardly a strength, and if the ACC championship comes down to a field goal, no Clemson fan will be feeling secure until the ball sails through the uprights.
Where Miami is vulnerable
Miami has been a slow-starting team all season long, and many of its victories have come thanks to frantic fourth-quarter comebacks. In 11 games, Miami has scored 54 total first-quarter points. Contrast that to Clemson, which has 115 first-quarter points in 12 games. Rosier emphasized this week it is imperative for Miami to get off to a fast start in this game. If the Hurricanes can’t do that, they might find themselves in a hole too big to overcome.
What's at stake
For both teams, the stakes are clear: The winner is in the playoff, the loser is probably out. Miami's final-week loss to Pitt undermined its hopes of surviving a loss to Clemson, so this is clearly a win-or-go-home outing for the Canes. For Clemson, the picture may be a little more nuanced, but Dabo Swinney isn't interested in waiting on the particulars. The bottom line is the winner of this game will have a chance to add to an already rich national-title pedigree, so the stakes don't get much bigger.
Matchups to watch
Kelly Bryant vs. the Miami front seven
Bryant has been far better than most outsiders expected this year, but that doesn't mean he has stepped right into Watson's shoes. Bryant's success depends much more on his legs, and that could be a challenge against a stout Miami defensive front. The key to getting things going on the ground may be finding some downfield success, but that hasn't been Bryant's strong suit, and his pocket awareness in the face of pressure has been a mixed bag throughout the season.
Miami’s offensive line vs. Clemson’s defensive line
The key to this game rests on Miami’s ability to run the ball, and that all starts up front with the Hurricanes’ offensive line. Miami has played better as a whole this season, but the line is coming off a performance in which Miami ran for just 45 total yards against Pitt. That won’t win many games period, let alone against one of the best run defenses in the country. Miami true freshman Navaughn Donaldson has had a solid season, but expect Clemson to try and go after the more vulnerable right side of the Hurricanes’ line.
David Hale: Clemson 23, Miami 20. If QBs get the buzz, it’s often the defensive lines — and the interior linemen, in particular — that really separate the great teams. Miami and Clemson have some of the best in the nation, so it’s no surprise they’ve wound up here. It also likely means a low-scoring affair. That offers some advantages to Miami, which has the better kicking game and a knack for takeaways, but in the end, I think the difference will be Clemson’s experience. There is no stage too big for the Tigers. Bryant and Co. don’t have to be great, they just need to avoid big mistakes and take advantage of opportunities when they come.
Andrea Adelson: Clemson 30, Miami 20. Miami’s offense has been a work in progress all season and faces its biggest test against the best defense it has faced all season. I give the edge to Clemson’s defense in this matchup. I think the Tigers will be able to limit Miami’s run game and ability for explosive plays. Miami will make some big plays on defense, the way it has all season, but in the end it won’t be enough to pull the upset.