Clemson fans have waited 30 years for their team to return to the Orange Bowl, and it has finally happened. Dabo Swinney's Tigers started the year 8-0, but they lost three of their last four regular season games and seemed primed for another "Clemson collapse." Clemson regrouped, however, and slammed Virginia Tech for the second time this season to win the ACC Championship and clinch a January trip to Miami, Fla. With the confidence back in place, the Tigers are looking to notch a win in the school's first BCS bowl berth against Big East champion West Virginia. Here we go:
Clemson offense vs. West Virginia defense
After looking unstoppable through the first two-thirds of the season, Chad Morris' offense hit a wall...hard. But Tajh Boyd and Co. bounced back in the ACC Championship, putting up 457 yards and 38 points on Virginia Tech's top-10 defense. Boyd should have the same level of confidence in this game against a Mountaineer defense that has been less than stellar this season. West Virginia runs a 3-3-5 defensive scheme that will likely force Boyd to look for short passes and check-downs more often than not. It will be important for Boyd to take what the defense gives him and not force throws down the field that aren't there. This could mean Dwayne Allen and Jaron Brown may be bigger-than-usual factors in the passing game, but don't sleep on Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins on the outside. Andre Ellington has been overshadowed this season because of Clemson's dynamic passing game, but he is the most important offensive player for the Tigers in this game. The Mountaineers are vulnerable against the run if you can get blocks on their linebackers, and if Clemson gives Ellington ample opportunities to tote the ball, he could have a big day. West Virginia relies on its secondary to make plays, as five of its six leading tacklers are defensive backs. Clemson will take safeties making tackles all day long.
Key matchup: Ellington vs. West Virginia front six
If Ellington isn't having success running the ball, Clemson will struggle on offense. The Tigers have to make West Virginia pay for dropping numerous guys into deep pass coverage, and Ellington is the man for the job.
West Virginia offense vs. Clemson defense
The Mountaineers sport the most dynamic offense Clemson has seen all year, and the Tigers will have their hands full with quarterback Geno Smith, who is one of the best and most accurate quarterbacks in the country. His top two receiving targets are small, but incredibly fast. All-purpose threat Tavon Austin gets most of the publicity, but Stedman Bailey actually has more yards and nearly three times as many touchdown receptions. West Virginia's already mediocre rushing attack will take a hit with the absence of Dustin Garrison, who sprained his ACL and MCL in practice last week. Still, this unit is not to be taken lightly, as Smith has lit up nearly every secondary he has faced this season. Clemson's secondary has to keep tabs on West Virginia's speedy receivers in order to keep this offense from stringing together the big plays it is looking for. If the Tigers can stuff the running game, it will allow Andre Branch, Mallaciah Goodman and Clemson's other defensive ends to attack the backfield on pass plays. When the Tigers have been able to do that this season, they've typically been successful. Kevin Steele's unit has a tough challenge in this game, though.
Key matchup: West Virginia receivers vs. Clemson cornerbacks
It's going to be largely up to Coty Sensabaugh, Bashaud Breeland and the Clemson corners to keep West Virginia's speedsters at bay. If they can do that reasonably well, Clemson's offense should put up enough points to back them up.
Advantage: West Virginia
Both teams have dynamic kick return threats, with Watkins for Clemson and Austin for West Virginia. The tide of this game could easily turn on a big special teams play. Chandler Catanzaro has made 20 of 25 field goal attempts this year for the Tigers, but punter Dawson Zimmerman needs to return to his early-season form. West Virginia kicker Tyler Bitancourt is decent, while punting has been an issue for the Mountaineers.
All signs point to a shootout between two high-powered offenses in this game. I think the defenses, with a month to prepare, may start the game stronger than expected, however. But they will get tired eventually, and that will allow some points to be put on the board. Which Clemson team will show up, the 8-0/ACC Champion Clemson or the 1-3 end-of-season Clemson? I don't know, but here's hoping it's the one that can bring home an Orange Bowl victory.
Clemson 35 West Virginia 28