This week, we're running a series on the teams capable of dethroning two-time defending ACC champion Clemson next season. In our final installment, we're looking at Virginia Tech and two Coastal wild cards and whether they have a legitimate shot at taking down the Tigers.
How Virginia Tech can beat Clemson: Something tells me Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster already is cooking up a game plan for the meeting between these two teams in Lane Stadium on Sept. 30, the end of a brutal September for the defending national champions. The Hokies bring back one of the best secondaries in the ACC, and that should be an advantage against the skilled (and fast) Clemson receivers. In the ACC championship game last year, Virginia Tech nearly rallied for an upset victory after closing with three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes, 30 seconds. The Hokies did it by showing an ability to keep Clemson's defense off-balance, and the way Jerod Evans ran with the ball. Evans is gone, but the players who emerges as the starter is going to be a dual threat with the ability to both run and pass. Running tempo and getting the ball to the tight end are absolute musts, especially against Clemson's defensive front.
What's holding them back? Whomever starts at quarterback this season will be in their first year as a starter on this level, so that leaves some cause for concern. Isaiah Ford and Bucky Hodges are gone, leaving Cam Philips as the only reliable returning receiver. The running backs must improve and shoulder the load on the ground, as opposed to the quarterback leading the way again. And the defensive line must be completely rebuilt after losing its three best players. The biggest concern, at least in spring, is getting young players on offense ready to play, start and contribute heavily. Not even the coaches know where many of the yards and points are going to come from, at least headed into practice later this month.
X factor: Tim Settle. Many in Blacksburg have been waiting on Settle to get his opportunity, and this season could be the year when he breaks out. Settle is expected to earn one of the starting spots at defensive tackle, and his presence on the interior of the line could give the Hokies the push they need to get into the backfield and after Clemson’s young quarterback and running backs.
Georgia Tech: The crossover rivals meet Oct. 28 in Death Valley. There are some (myself included) who are giving the Yellow Jackets a strong chance to win the Coastal Division because of an improving offensive line, Dedrick Mills and experienced backs returning, and confidence in new starting quarterback Matthew Jordan. But the defense has been inconsistent at stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, and that will pose a problem against Clemson, which already has the edge in one-on-one matchups against the Georgia Tech secondary.
NC State: The Wolfpack were a 33-yard field goal away from beating Clemson last year, a heartbreaking loss that had a devastating impact on Kyle Bambard and the rest of the team. NC State returns a majority of its starters, including a defensive line that gave Clemson fits a year ago. Their game is in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Nov. 4 -- the week before the Tigers play Florida State.
Pitt: The Panthers should be excluded from this exercise because they already laid out the map for how to beat Clemson (physical power run game with plenty of the tight end mixed in). They return talent and depth at running back and should still be good on the offensive line despite losing Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty. But if they can’t figure out how to stop anybody, then they won’t get to the ACC title game.