Clemson opens conference play with a tough home test against the No. 17 ranked Miami Hurricanes, in what some think could be a preview of this year's ACC Championship Game. The last three games between these teams have gone to overtime, and it should be a close contest again this year. Here's the breakdown:
Clemson offense vs. Miami defense
Clemson's offense was firing on all cylinders in the first half at Auburn as the Tigers built a 17-point lead. After Kyle Parker's injury in the third quarter, the unit's production fizzled a little bit. The quarterback missed on a couple of throws late in the game that could have won the game. Andre Ellington ran the ball pretty well the entire game, but Jamie Harper wasn't as effective. Dwayne Allen, who had five catches for 66 yards in the first half, didn't catch a pass in the second half, and the receiving corps failed to make any plays down the field. The Tigers will need to return to form against a Miami defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation in tackles for loss and second in sacks. Defensive end Olivier Vernon has already registered 3.5 sacks, and he isn't even the best player on the defensive line. Allen Bailey, who plays the end opposite Vernon, has NFL scouts salivating with his size and athleticism. Sean Spence and Colin McCarthy are two of the best outside linebackers in the conference and are versatile enough to stop the run and the pass. All-ACC talent Brandon Harris anchors the secondary alongside strong safety Ray Ray Armstrong. The Hurricanes' defense held Pittsburgh to just three points in their own building last Saturday, forcing three Panther turnovers.
Key Matchup: Clemson offensive line vs. Miami defense line
Clemson's O-line is being touted as one of the best in the conference, and they will get a chance to prove themselves against the Canes' athletic defensive front. I already noted Miami's ability to get into the backfield, and if Ellington has no holes and Parker has no time, it could be a rough day for the Clemson offense.
Miami offense vs. Clemson defense
Miami quarterback Jacory Harris loves to throw the ball around. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn't. People expected Harris' interception number to decrease from last year's total, but he is on track for another pick-filled season with a 6:6 touchdown to interception ratio. Miami has an experienced and skilled wide receiving corps. Leonard Hankerson is a monster and an all-conference candidate that already has 16 catches and three touchdowns this season. The speedy Travis Benjamin and massive LaRon Byrd each have double-digit receptions as well. The Hurricanes have plenty of options at running back, but they will mostly stick to senior Damien Berry and freshman Lamar Miller. This duo has combined for 330 yards and three touchdowns in Miami's first three games. Clemson's defense played very well at Auburn -- minus the third quarter. The defensive line was largely able to stuff the running game, and the pass coverage was good except for the couple of busted coverages that allowed Auburn to throw over the top. The linebackers played better but still need to make their presence felt a little more. The casual Clemson fan probably doesn't know who Corico Hawkins and Quandon Christian are, and that needs to change.
Key Matchup: Harris vs. Clemson secondary
Harris is going to throw the ball deep, whether his guys are open or not. It's Clemson's job, then, to make sure they are not open. Hopefully the defensive line can get as much pressure on Harris as they did last year, when they forced the Miami quarterback into three interceptions. It's going to be up to DeAndre McDaniel and Rashard Hall to come up with the interceptions again this year.
The jury is still out on Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who has made a couple of field goals but missed the crucial second-try kick at Auburn. Hopefully he feels more comfortable in Death Valley. Dawson Zimmerman has been stellar, averaging 46.1 yards per punt. Clemson's kick return efforts may have taken a step back against Auburn, and Marcus Gilchrist will need to set the Tigers up with better field position this Saturday. Miami kicker/punter Matt Bosher is All-ACC caliber at both positions and will be an effective special teams weapon for the Canes. Benjamin and Miller are very dangerous in the kick return game, and the Tigers can't allow these two break loose.
Death Valley will be rocking at high noon for this game, and the atmosphere should be reminiscent of the 2005 meeting between these two teams. I expect it to be another nail-biter, perhaps a back-and-forth tussle similar to last year. Miami is the ranked team and the favorite, but I don't think Clemson loses this one at home.
Clemson 28 Miami 24