This week is where the rubber meets the road for the No. 4 Clemson Tigers (7-1, 5-1 ACC) and the No. 20 N.C. State Wolfpack (6-2, 4-0 ACC) as they battle for supremacy in the ACC Atlantic Division.
While neither team can secure a spot in the title game Dec. 2 with a win, the loser of the game will be all but eliminated from the race — as the winning team would need only to secure one victory to clinch the title.
The Tigers have won the last five meetings against the Wolfpack and 12 of the last 13. However, with 10 of the last 20 games being decided by 10 points or less, this game has all of the makings of another classic between the two schools that are not only playing for the Textile Bowl, but a division title and, for Clemson, a return trip to the playoffs.
Who to watch when Clemson has the ball
- Deon Cain (WR): The Tigers’ junior wide receiver has caught at least one pass in 31 consecutive games —the 10th longest streak in the nation.
After being the invisible man for the first half of the season -- through no fault of his own, as teams tried to bracket him with safety help over the top in hopes of eliminating the big plays — Cain once again found his stride last week. He finished the game as the Tigers’ leading receiver with four receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown.
- Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne (RB): The duo of dynamic running backs have helped the Tigers establish a ground game that has not been seen in Tiger town since the days of C.J. Spiller and James Davis.
Through the first eight games this season, the Tigers are averaging 3.8 more rushes per game than last season, 50.3 more yards per game than last season and have 15 20-yard plays, four 200-yard games and two 300-yard rushing games.
The Tigers will have a difficult time putting together those kinds of numbers Saturday against a Wolfpack defense that features one of the premier lines in the nation, but they will be asked to take some of the pressure off of quarterback Kelly Bryant.
- Bradley Chubb (DE, N.C. State): Senior defensive end Bradley Chubb is one of the most dynamic playmakers on the defensive line in the country.
Chubb currently sits at No. 2 in N.C. State history with 51 career tackles for loss, behind the No. 1 pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Mario Williams — who has the school record of 55.5 tackles for loss.
Chubb ranks second in the FBS in tackles for loss, averaging 2.1 per game — the top mark in the ACC -- and also ranks seventh nationally in sacks per game at 0.94, also the best in the ACC.
When N.C. State has the ball
- Dorian O’Daniel (LB): The Tiger linebacker was named a semifinalist for the Dick Butkus Award Monday, an honor that goes annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
This season, O’Daniel leads the Tigers in tackles with 72 — while adding 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions, both of which he returned for touchdowns.
Against the Wolfpack, O’Daniel will face arguably his most difficult challenge as the middle linebacker will be tasked with keeping up with running back Nyheim Hines — whose breakaway speed and unique skillset make him a difficult matchup for the most seasoned defender.
- Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence (DT): Arguably the best defensive tackle combination in the country will have to play their best game of the season if the Tigers want to emerge victorious.
The Tiger duo will be tasked not only with stopping a dynamic rushing attack led by Hines, but also with forcing quarterback Ryan Finley into making mistakes — something he has avoided. If the Tiger duo can manage to hold their own against one of the best offensive lines in college football, Clemson should have success. If they don’t, it could spell disaster for the Tigers.
- Ryan Finley (QB, N.C. State): Redshirt junior quarterback Ryan Finley has been one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country through his first seven games of the 2017 season.
The only ACC quarterback named as a semifinalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, Finley is one of only four quarterbacks in the ACC with a touchdown pass in every game this season.
He ranks second in the ACC in completion percentage (.694,) and after 20 games at N.C. State ranks eighth in school history in career passing yards (5,027) and ninth in career touchdowns (29).
Will the Wolfpack avenge last season’s overtime loss to the Tigers and stake their claim as the new kings of the ACC’s Atlantic Division or will the Tigers continue their march toward a third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff?
While neither one of those scenarios can be etched in stone with a victory this week, one team will take a significant step toward one of those goals and the other will be left to wonder what went wrong.
The last time the Tigers went on the road, the result was a shocking loss at Syracuse. But that was without quarterback Kelly Bryant — who left the game with a concussion with 59 seconds to play in the first half.
This week will be different. Bryant proved in last week’s victory over Georgia Tech that he was as close to 100 percent as he has been all season. With a “healthy” Bryant and a renewed focus, the Tigers will be ready to receive the Wolfpack’s best shot, but it won’t be enough as Clemson emerges with a victory and a date with Florida State next week for the division crown.
Clemson 27, N.C. State 23