Back Inside the Numbers: Clemson at Boston College

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Inside the Numbers: Clemson at Boston College

By Jim Johnson
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Breaking down the matchups within the matchup for the de facto ACC Atlantic championship.

As B.J. Bennett pointed out earlier this week, Clemson’s current run of utter dismantlings surpasses any stretch of dominance by anyone else in college football this season, including Alabama. Given the lack of a true competitor in the ACC Coastal, many even consider the Tigers more of a lock to make the playoff than the Tide.

However, a loss at Boston College on Saturday would put the Eagles in the divisional driver’s seat and effectively stop those postseason aspirations in their tracks.

Unfortunately, while star running back AJ Dillon is expected to play, he will almost certainly be less than 100%. That said, Boston College’s passing offense, little used as it may be given that BC ranks 11th and 12th respectively in standard and passing down run rate, has been better than it has in years. Led by Anthony Brown, who ranks 4th in the league in passer rating, the Eagles are 44th in the FBS in passing S&P+, just 82nd in marginal efficiency, but 11th in marginal explosiveness.

No one receiver has even been particularly efficient -- Kobay White and Michael Walker are the only two with at least ten catches to post even average marginal efficiency averages -- but six of their eight top pass catchers are at least above average in the way of marginal explosiveness, the exceptions being tight ends Tommy Sweeney and Korab Idrizi.

The pass protection has been solid, too, ranking 48th in allowed sack rate, but, frankly, solid probably isn’t good enough against the likes of Clemson, who ranks 6th in sack rate.

Led by Clelin Ferrell’s 7.5, the Tigers have nine different defenders with more than one sack. Thanks in large part to the pressure from what may be the best defensive line ever, Clemson has been able to overcome some perceived relative deficiencies in the secondary to rank 6th in pass defense S&P+, 29th in marginal efficiency and 17th in marginal explosiveness allowed.

And though the secondary has been relatively playmaking, ranking 38th in havoc rate, its 28% pass defensed to incompletion ratio, 113th in the nation, indicates that the lionshare of the credit for Clemson’s pass defense prowess belongs to the pass rush.

Still, Boston College is a run first (and second and third) team. Dillon, operating at the height of his powers, is one of the best running backs in college football, as was made abundantly clear by his record setting freshman campaign, but the offensive line play has taken a step back since then, and his production, coupled with injury problems, has suffered for it.

The run blocking unit is ranked only 65th and 117th in standard and passing down line yards per carry and 92nd in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, behind which the rushing attack ranks 81st in S&P+, 70th in marginal efficiency, 40th in marginal explosiveness, and 90th in percentage of 5+ yard carries.

Ben Glines, David Bailey, and Travis Levy have all earned their fair share of touches in Dillon’s stead, but none possess the dynamic ability at the second level that makes the latter such a handful for opposing defenses.

On the flipside, Clemson may well have the best run defense in the game, ranking 1st in both standard and passing down line yards per carry allowed, 3rd in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage and marginal explosiveness, 2nd in marginal efficiency and percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, and 1st in overall rush defense S&P+.

All of Clemson’s defensive linemen are allowing negative marginal efficiency and explosiveness ratings, including their rotational pieces, many of whom would start for most teams in the league, with Ferrell and Christian Wilkins headlining the group, boasting 14.5 and 12 run stuffs, respectively. The defensive line also ranks 1st in the country in havoc rate.

Altogether, Clemson ranks 2nd in defensive S&P+, 2nd in marginal efficiency and 4th in marginal explosiveness allowed, 2nd in drive finishing (points per scoring opportunity allowed), and 3rd in non-garbage time points per drive allowed.

For context, Boston College’s offense ranks 65th in S&P+, 82nd in marginal efficiency and 29th in explosiveness, 29th in drive finishing, and 44th in points per drive.

Honestly, it really doesn’t look good for the home team on paper. Brent Venables with arguably the most talented defensive line in history is just an unfair combination. The one glimmer of hope may be the big play battle where BC ranks 28th in percentage of 20+ yard gainers, whereas Clemson ranks 56th in percentage of such plays given up.

That’s about it. The hope has to be that their traditionally elite defense plays the game of its life.

That’ll be easier said than done against an offense that has taken a big step forward since Trevor Lawrence took singular control of the unit.

It’s not necessarily even that the passing offense has come leaps and bounds with the freshman at the helm, more so that he keeps opposing defenses honest and unlocks increased space in which his backfield partners can work. Plus, a heavier reliance on Travis Etienne is never a bad thing.

With Lawrence currently atop the ACC and 11th in the nation in passer rating, Clemson ranks 39th in passing S&P+, 35th in marginal efficiency and 48th in marginal explosiveness, behind a pass protection group that is 37th in allowed sack rate, although that is partially due to Kelly Bryant taking more sacks during his time. The Lawrence-only sack rate would actually rank in the top 15.

Amari Rodgers has emerged as a Hunter Renfrow-esque safety valve for the freshman, just more explosive, which is really unfair since Renfrow is, well, still there and still the same old bastion of consistency. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, offer more efficient complements on the outside, with the latter actually leading the team in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness.

Even so, this will easily be the best pass defense that Clemson has faced this season. Boston College ranks 22nd in pass defense S&P+, 22nd in marginal efficiency and 42nd in explosiveness allowed, and 29th in sack rate.

Wyatt Ray leads the conference in sacks through nine games and Zach Allen is not far behind, tied for seventh. And unlike Clemson, there is a symbiotic relationship between them and the defensive backfield behind them, which ranks 12th in pass defensed to incompletion ratio and 37th in havoc.

Lukas Denis is still one of the better safeties in the game and Hamp Cheevers has developed into as effective a cornerback as any in the ACC. Cheevers and Taj-Amir Torres rank 3rd and 4th in the league in passes defensed.

This may need to be one of those let Etienne cook games, but no one has really been able to stop him yet. It’s not just him either. Etienne leads the team in marginal explosiveness, but is second to Tavien Feaster in marginal efficiency, second to Adam Choice in percentage of 5+ yard carries, and second to Lyn-J Dixon in yards per opportunity upon reaching the second level, which is really incredible because of how elite he is in that respect.

Behind an offensive line that ranks 20th and 12th in standard and passing down line yards per carry and 19th in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, the group as a whole is 7th in rushing S&P+, 17th in marginal efficiency, 28th in marginal explosiveness, and 22nd in percentage of 5+ yard rushes.

This will test a fairly bend-don’t-break Boston College run defense that ranks 62nd in S&P+, 76th in marginal efficiency and 17th in marginal explosiveness allowed, and 46th in percentage of opposing 5+ yard carries, behind a defensive line that is 59th and 120th in standard and passing down line yards per carry and 110th in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Allen, Ray, Tanner Karafa, and linebacker Isaiah McDuffie all have at least 8 run stuffs, led by Allen’s 13.5, but Addazio’s group has been pretty hit or miss outside of those four in this facet of the game.

Altogether, Boston College’s defense ranks 28th in S&P+, 37th in marginal efficiency and 23rd in explosiveness allowed, 20th in drive finishing, and 28th in points per drive allowed.

Correspondingly, Clemson’s offense ranks 7th in S&P+, 22nd in marginal efficiency and 30th in explosiveness, 8th in drive finishing, and 10th in points per drive.

This matchup within the matchup is obviously more evenly matched than the other side of the ball, but Clemson should be able to run the ball efficiently and as long as they continue to take advantage of their scoring opportunities, they should once more hold the advantage.

Special teams doesn’t offer much in the way of hope for the hosts, either. Although Clemson is only average, at best, here -- really good on kickoffs and solid on kick returns with everything else ranging from bad to baaaaaaaad -- Boston College isn’t any better. The place kicking is better with Colton Lichtenberg and the punt return game efficiency could potentially garner some shorter fields, but the Eagles have been a disaster on punts and kickoffs.

Plus in spite of Clemson’s special teams inconsistencies, they still rank in the top 25 in average offensive and defensive starting field position. BC is 12th in average offensive starting field position, but just 71st in average defensive starting field position. And, though the turnover battle favors the Eagles, on paper, the two teams’ expected turnover margins are actually about right in line, near the top of the national rankings.

There’s really not a ton going for the upset in this one. Clemson is a historic-level juggernaut, in a class all alone with Alabama. Numbers, of course, don’t account for home field advantage, potential extenuating circumstances, or the fickle, any given Saturday nature that makes college football the best sport in the world, but it would be nothing short of stunning to see Clemson’s death march to the playoff halted or even moderately slowed this weekend.

There is, to be sure, a path to victory for the Eagles, but I’ll let Dave Holcomb get into that.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP