Back Matchup Breakdown: Miami-Clemson

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Matchup Breakdown: Miami-Clemson

By Jim Johnson
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These are two of the nation’s top teams, but each has their own set of flaws for the other to exploit. Here is the matchup within the matchup in which each team has the biggest advantage, in each facet of the game.

On Saturday, Clemson seeks to lock up its third straight College Football Playoff appearance, by securing its third straight ACC Championship. In order to do so, they must knock off a Miami team that has gotten its swagger back, and is hoping to take home its first ever ACC title.

Despite both sitting at 11-1, Clemson appears to be the, relatively, overwhelming favorite, as denoted by a 74.8% win expectancy according to ESPN’s FPI, a 73.2% win expectancy according to FEI, and a 57% win expectancy according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+.

However, if this turnover chain-wearing group of Hurricanes has done anything in 2017, it’s subvert expectations.

Obviously, these are two of the nation’s top teams, but each has their own set of flaws for the other to exploit. Here is the matchup within the matchup in which each team has the biggest advantage, in each facet of the game:

Clemson’s Offense: Rushing Consistency

Clemson ranks in the top 15 in the country with a 48.9% rushing success rate. Meanwhile, Miami’s defense ranks 45th, allowing a 40% rushing success rate.

Four out of five of Clemson’s most utilized ball carriers -- Kelly Bryant, Tavien Feaster, Travis Etienne, Adam Choice, and C.J. Fuller -- gain at least five yards at a rate above the national average, with Feaster being the exception. Etienne and Bryant do so almost 8% more often than the national average. Miami’s defense allows carries of 5+ yards 38.9% of the time (75th in FBS).

Clemson’s rushing success is, in large part, due to their offensive line, which ranks 5th, nationally, in adjusted line yards. Miami’s defensive front ranks 38th in opponent adjusted line yards.

The Tigers’ rushing attack is hardly explosive, but few units stay on schedule like they do, and that trend should continue against Miami.

Miami’s Offense: Crunch Time

For as good as Clemson’s defense is -- it ranks 3rd in S&P+, 4th in FEI, and 3rd in points allowed per drive -- it has worn down, late in games, ranking 63rd in 4th quarter S&P+, as compared to 18th, 1st, and 2nd, over the first three frames, respectively.

Miami’s offense, on the other hand, gets better as the game wears on. They rank 9th in 4th quarter S&P+, as opposed to 21st, 56th, and 56th, in quarters one through three.

Clemson boasts a 108.23 allowed pass rating on the season, sitting in the top ten, overall. In 4th quarters, it’s 129.78 (82nd).

Malik Rosier’s 4th quarter passer rating is almost 20 points higher than his combined rating.

The ‘Canes are unbeaten, at 4-0, this year, in one score games. Only one team has won more of those games without a loss. If Mark Richt and company can keep it close, late, they should have the upper hand.

Clemson’s Defense: The Trenches

Clemson’s defensive line is otherworldly. Duh. They are where opposing offenses’ hopes and dreams go to die.

They have the highest opponent adjusted sack rate in the country, bringing down opposing quarterbacks on a borderline felonious 11.7% of standard downs (1st), and 10.6% of passing downs (18th).

Miami’s offensive line ranks 65th in adjusted sack rate, allowing one on 6.4% of standard downs (96th), and 4.4% of passing downs (22nd).

The Hurricanes’ offensive tackles have actually been pretty solid. Left tackle KC McDermott ranks 3rd in the ACC in pass block efficiency, having allowed two sacks and ten total pressures. Right tackle Tyree St. Louis is 7th amongst that group allowing two sacks, as well, and 13 total pressures.

The problems have come in the interior. Unfortunately for Miami, that’s where Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are. The pair forms the most formidable interior duo in college football. To the right side, Clelin Ferrell has tallied the second most sacks in the ACC, and 38 total pressures. Opposite Ferrell, Austin Bryant has added just one fewer sack, with 30 total pressures.

Miami’s offensive line has not blown anyone away, in 2017, and they have never seen anything like the group they will, on Saturday.

Miami’s Defense:  Limiting Big Pass Plays 

While Clemson’s passing offense can be effective, it has been one of the least explosive in college football, as shown by their 1.26 passing IsoPPP (123rd). Miami’s secondary has an allowed passing IsoPPP of 1.27 (9th).

The only team Clemson has played that limits big passing plays as well as Miami, is Auburn, and the Plainsmen, more or less, shut Kelly Bryant and company down.

Bryant has completed just 37% of his passes 15+ yards downfield, and Deon Cain has only hauled in four of his 17 20+ yards attempts.

Granted, Clemson’s offense relies more on the run game and short to intermediate passes -- just 11.3% of Bryant’s attempts are 20+ yards downfield -- but this will allow Miami to focus in on containing the Tigers’ strengths.

Clemson’s Special Teams: Punt Returns

Ray-Ray McCloud has been Clemson’s lone bright spot on special teams, this season. His 12.35 yards per return rank in the top ten in college football.

He puts Miami in a tough spot, as far as how to approach its punting game. Freshman Zach Feagles has forced a lot of fair catches, but sacrifices distance in doing so, leading to a 51.5% punt success rate (97th).

The Hurricanes also allow very few yards per return, but that doesn’t really matter if guys are catching it further upfield.

The Hurricanes approach, in this respect, could quietly have significant implications throughout the contest.

Miami’s Special Teams: Also Punt Returns

Clemson’s most obvious special teams struggles have come whilst kicking field goals, in 2017, but, relative to Miami, they, too, are most disadvantaged in the punting game.

Thanks to Braxton Berrios’ 16.2 yards per return, Miami has the third highest punt return success rate in FBS. Clemson, on the other hand, ranks 102nd in punt success rate, and allows 9.78 yards per return (92nd).

This year, the team that has won the field position battle has won the game, 71% of the time. Clemson ranks 33rd and 7th in offensive and defensive starting field position, respectively. For Miami? It’s 22nd and 19th.

Overall, that’s too close to call, ahead of time, but if it comes down to special teams, the ‘Canes have the edge.

All things considered, Clemson is rightfully favored, going into the game. There are things, however, that Miami can pinpoint and take advantage of, on Saturday. Turnovers, of course, are chief amongst them.

Clemson’s last two ACC Championship bouts have gone down to the wire.

Two years ago, a controversial offsides call on UNC’s onside kick ended the Tar Heels hopes of a miraculous comeback, after cutting the lead to a score with just over a minute left.

Last year, Virginia Tech nearly reached the red zone, before failing to convert on fourth down, giving Clemson yet another one-score victory.

If history is any indication, Miami’s clutch factor may need to kick in, once more, this weekend. Then again, Clemson’s had the same gene in spades, on the biggest stages, for the past few years.

If there is one sure thing, in 2017, it’s that nothing’s a sure thing.

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