CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Miami traveled a long way, physically and as a program, to be here. Clemson is used to making the three-hour drive, which it has done the last three years.
A spot the College Football Playoff is on the line when the seventh-ranked Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1 ACC) meet the top-ranked Tigers (11-1, 7-1) in Saturday’s ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte (8 p.m., ABC).
Clemson, the defending national champion, is a 9.5-point favorite.
The matchups, and a prediction:
When Miami passes
Malik Rosier’s greatest quality may be his ability to shake mistakes. If he makes too many Saturday, the Hurricanes are in trouble.
Rosier’s completion percentage (55.3) ranks 96th among FBS starting quarterbacks with a minimum of 15 pass attempts per game. That’s percentage points ahead of Florida’s Feleipe Franks. His inaccuracy last week at Pittsburgh (44.1 percent) was a major reason the Hurricanes lost. If he’s off-target again, it’ll be a long night for the Canes.
Clemson ranks seventh nationally in opponent passer rating (108.23), two spots ahead of Miami’s defense. Though not quite as opportunistic as the Hurricanes, the Tigers (12 interceptions, 41st nationally) can still match up with most receiving corps. With Ahmmon Richards and Chris Herndon out, several others will need to rise. Among them: true freshman receivers Jeff Thomas, Mike Harley and sophomore tight end Michael Irvin II, who will be seeing his first major action in Miami’s biggest game. Edge: Clemson
When Miami runs
The Clemson defensive line includes Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, all of whom were first-team All-ACC selections and likely first-round NFL Draft picks next spring. That will make it tough on a Miami offensive line that played well in the last month before struggling at Pitt. Outside linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, a rugged run defender, can clean up anything that gets through.
Sophomore Travis Homer has done an admirable job replacing injured star Mark Walton, and Rosier’s mobility has allowed Richt to continually add wrinkles to his play-calling. But the front hasn’t been consistent enough. UM is 27th in rushing yards per carry (5.10) but averages just 1.96 yards on third down. That’s good for 119th nationally. Clemson’s run defense, which is 12th on third down (1.81), ranks is eighth overall (3.10). Edge: Clemson
When Clemson passes
Kelly Bryant, whom Mark Richt called a “true dual-threat,” is a better runner than passer. But he’s not an awful thrower. His completion percentage (66.4) ranks ninth among FBS starters. Juniors Deon Cain (team-high 620 yards, five touchdowns), Hunter Renfrow (50 catches), Ray-Ray McCloud and impressive freshman Tee Higgins (20.29 yards per catch) have plenty of speed and ability, and will test a UM secondary that has feasted off turnovers all year.
The Hurricanes’ 11th-ranked pass defense (109.01 opponent passer rating) is one of 14 units nationally to post fewer touchdowns allowed (14) than interceptions (17). If they can force Bryant into third-and-long situations, he may make mistakes. UM is third nationally in takeaways (29, best among Power 5 teams), and could break out the Turnover Chain a few times if it forces Bryant to pass often. Edge: Miami
When Clemson runs
It’s hard to find freshmen backs better than Travis Etienne, who has 720 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 97 carries. Bryant (639 yards, 10 touchdowns on 164 carries) gets more touches, and would likely beat Rosier in a footrace. The Clemson offensive line, with future NFL starters Mitch Hyatt (left tackle) and Tyrone Crowder (right guard), provides plenty of room.
Miami’s front seven is the strength of the team, and will have to put up another strong performance. Limiting the run, as the Hurricanes did over the last month (104 rushing yards allowed per game), is a must. If Clemson establishes play-action and spreads the Canes thin, it may be game over. Edge: Even
The Tigers rank 90th in ESPN’s special teams efficiency ratings, which take into consideration returns, coverage and kicking success, and 116th in Football Outsiders’ S&P+. Miami is 66th in the latter metric, but ESPN’s numbers dislike UM’s special teams (115th). Hurricanes punt returner Braxton Berrios and kick returner Jeff Thomas have been solid, as has kicker Michael Badgley — he was UM’s only first-team All-ACC selection — but freshman punter Zach Feagles is coming off a shaky day at Pitt. Clemson’s McCloud returned a punt 77 yards for a touchdown against North Carolina State, but special teams haven’t helped the Tigers overall. Kicker Alex Spence has been a liability, and coach Dabo Swinney often goes for it unless a field goal try is under 40 yards. Edge: Miami
A meeting of head coaches with sparkling resumes, though Swinney has done more winning lately than Mark Richt. The Tigers have won 35 of their last 38 games, played for the national title twice in two years and won last year. Richt has made all the right moves since taking over two years ago. It feels like this won’t be the last time these programs meet on this stage. Edge: Even
There’s a path for Miami to win, but it’s a tough one. Rosier cannot throw interceptions. Receivers of all shapes and sizes must step up for Herndon and Richards. UM will have to establish some semblance of a running game. Richt will have to get creative calling plays. Miami’s defense will have to force multiple turnovers and give Rosier short fields. The Canes will fight hard, but that’s a lot to ask of a program that lacks Clemson’s depth and experience. Clemson, 28-17
2017 ACC CHAMPIONSHIP