Virginia Tech had the ball on on their 41, down 42-35 with four minutes to play in the 2016 ACC Championship Game. The Hokies moved the ball down into Clemson territory over the next eight plays, threatening to take down the eventual national champions, until Jerod Evans was picked off in the red zone with 1:11 remaining.
The Tigers, of course, went on to knock off Ohio State and Alabama en route to a national championship. Virginia Tech lost Evans to the pros, but replaced him with Josh Jackson, a redshirt freshman quarterback who is already on pace to have one of the best seasons for a freshman in school history, joining the likes of Michael Vick, Tyrod Taylor and Will Furrer as the only freshman to be full-time starters since 1987.
Clemson quickly catapulted Florida State for the top pick to win the ACC, off to a 4-0 start with a win at Louisville and a quality win against Auburn for its playoff profile. Given the state of Florida State, Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech might be the toughest test on the remaining schedule. It could also be a preview of an ACC Championship Game with two top-10 teams looking to make an argument for the College Football Playoff.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 30 | Time: 8 p.m. ET
Location: Lane Stadium — Blacksburg, Virginia
TV: ABC | Live stream: Watch ESPN
Clemson: How will Kelly Bryant and the Tigers offense handle the environment and the challenge of moving the ball against Bud Foster’s defense? You can’t really call them “new starters” after four games of experience, but it’s a group that will be tasked with handling in play calls, getting in sync and handling what should be an absolutely electric atmosphere in Blacksburg. Playing at Louisville was an appetizer, and Lane Stadium is the entree as it pertains to the toughest road games on Clemson’s schedule this year.
And to speak only of the environment ignores the opposition — a fast and hard-hitting Virginia Tech defense led by brothers Tremaine and Terrell Edmunds. When it’s third-and-long and the noise is so loud you can’t hear yourself think, Clemson has to remain calm and avoid a potentially game-changing mistake.
Virginia Tech: This is a monster spot for Justin Fuente, and I expect his staff to be thoroughly prepared after going punch-for-punch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game last December. Quarterback Josh Jackson’s versatility allows for the Hokies to scheme the Tigers’ dominant defensive line out of the game with the help of Cam Phillips and a stable of talented — yet still relatively unknown to a national audience — skill position players. Jackson won’t be able to play hero ball, but he’s going to have opportunities to hit a couple of big plays. If the Hokies can convert, they’ll be in position to win in the fourth quarter, and that’s about all you can ask for with the defending champs in town on a Saturday night.
Virginia Tech is going to make this game really difficult to win, and even though I think Clemson will, there’s no chance I’m going to feel confident in a two-score victory. Clemson’s defense might be able to force field goals, but it won’t be able to stop Josh Jackson from moving the ball down the field. The Tigers also could be looking at a pressure field goal situation with their recently promoted starting placekicker Alex Spence. Give me the Tigers by a touchdown or less. Pick: Virginia Tech +7.5