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December 2, 2011
Maybe it's a matter of perception regarding the programs and their recent histories. Perhaps it's a reflection of the past few weeks.
Whatever the reason, Clemson is about to play in the ACC championship game against a Virginia Tech team it whipped 23-3 on the road Oct. 1. And nobody seems to think the Tigers have a chance.
Virginia Tech (11-1) heads into Charlotte, N.C., as a seven-point favorite. The last time the teams met, the Hokies didn't score seven points all night.
"It surprises me tremendously. ... They took it to us the first time," Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas said. "So no matter what, I think they should be the favorite. They're a great football team. They beat us 23-3. Beat us by 20 points, pretty handily."
Clemson (9-3) certainly was a great football team for the first two months of the season, but the Tigers have regressed of late.
After winning their first eight games, the Tigers have lost three of their past four. The hurry-up, no-huddle offense that flustered ACC foes for most of the season struggled amid a flurry of turnovers down the stretch.
Clemson racked up 40.7 points per game during its 8-0 start but has averaged just 18.5 points in the four games since. Quarterback Tajh Boyd threw 24 touchdown passes and three interceptions in the Tigers' first eight games. He has seven interceptions and four touchdown passes in the past four games.
Boyd hasn't been helped by a shoulder injury that limited wide receiver Sammy Watkins late in the season and prevented him from playing in a 37-13 loss to N.C. State. Watkins has 72 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
"I'm not naive enough to think that you're going to have a first-year quarterback and it's all going to go perfect for him," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "I tried the best I could to prepare him for that. He got off to such a phenomenal start. ... At Clemson when you have that kind of success, there's a lot of 'attaboys' that come with it, and all of a sudden when you start having some not-so-good performances and you get that added pressure, when you're a young player sometimes you don't handle it quite like you need to.
"But it's about this game, and we've got to do a good job of getting him focused on the things that he's done well and can do well, back to the fundamentals, back to the basics, and just get a good plan that everybody feels comfortable that we can execute and let them go play."
While Boyd has struggled the past few weeks, Virginia Tech's first-year starting quarterback has stepped up. Thomas had his worst game of the season against Clemson. He threw for 125 yards and rushed for only 8 yards as Virginia Tech failed to score a touchdown in a home game for the first time since 1995. He has 14 touchdown passes, nine touchdown runs and only two interceptions in the seven games since.
"What I learned that day would be don't try and play outside yourself," Thomas said. "You can't be the person that played before you. You can't be the person you look up to in the pros or whatever. You've just got to go out there and be yourself.
"I kind of recognized that after the game, and I think it's helped me in the long run just to get by some of the mental stuff I've had to get by."
While the matchup between Clemson's fast-paced offense and Virginia Tech's vaunted defense has garnered much of the attention this week, the game could come down to how Thomas and Co. fare against Clemson's defense.
Clemson has surrendered an average of 35.5 points over its past six games, allowing at least 28 points in each of those contests. But the Tigers delivered their best performance in their regular-season victory at Virginia Tech. End Andre Branch dominated the Hokies that night with four sacks. If Branch plays that well again, Thomas could have a long evening.
"I'm a little surprised that we're favored," Virginia Tech wide receiver Danny Coale said. "They came in here [to Blacksburg] and they played better. They won. And so, to me, we have something to prove. And I think for us, we're kind of underdogs in this situation because we've played them once and they came out on the winning end."
Virginia Tech has history on its side. The Hokies are seeking their fourth ACC title in the past five seasons. Twice before, the Hokies have won an ACC championship game against a team that beat them during the regular season. Clemson doesn't have a similar track record. The Tigers haven't won an ACC title since 1991 and have a history of failing to live up to high expectations.
In that regard, perhaps entering this game as an underdog is the best possible scenario for Clemson. The Tigers finished 6-7 last season and were picked to finish behind Florida State in the Atlantic Division this season. They used the skepticism surrounding the program as motivation during their fast start.
Now they have a chance to beat the odds again.
"When you have a point spread and you're not the team that's picked to win, I think that's motivation," Clemson offensive tackle Landon Walker said. "Yeah, I definitely think that's going to help our team this week."
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