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When the ACC began a championship game 13 years ago, the conference had visions of the type of game that will be played Saturday night (8:14, ABC) in Charlotte — a top 10 matchup with national championship implications surrounding the game.

While they had one previous matchup between top 10 teams two years ago when the No. 1 Clemson Tigers defeated the No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels, UNC was on the outside looking in on the College Football Playoff. However, this season, when the No.1 Clemson Tigers (11-1, 7-1 ACC) take on the No. 7 Miami Hurricanes (10-1, 7-1 ACC) at Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, North Carolina), they will do so with a “win and you are in” scenario in place.

The Tigers are trying to secure their third straight ACC championship and, along with that, a third straight appearance in the College Football Playoff, while the Hurricanes will be making their first appearance in the championship game.

Who to watch when Clemson has the ball

  • Kelly Bryant (QB): Bryant set the record for wins by a first-year starting quarterback in Clemson’s 34-10 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks when he captured his 11th victory of the season — breaking the previous record of 10 held by former Tiger quarterback’s Chris Morocco (1989) and Tajh Boyd (2011).

Bryant appears to have turned the corner offensively in the last few weeks as his touch on the deep pass and his accuracy on the short-to-intermediate passes have returned. But the key this week, against a Hurricane defense that leads the nation in turnover margin, is to protect the football — which he has done all season.

Bryant has been a huge improvement over former quarterback Deshaun Watson in terms of protecting the football. Last season, Watson had 17 interceptions, with seven of them coming on the road. This season, Bryant has thrown only six interceptions and only two of them on the road.

  • Hunter Renfrow (WR): The Tiger wide receiver was quiet for most of the season, but when the Tigers put on their championship orange pants — he seems to show up in a big way.

After not scoring a touchdown in the first 10 games of the season, Renfrow now has three in the last two games — including a 61-yard score in last week’s game against South Carolina.

Renfrow, historically, waits until the games mean more before showing up in big ways. In nine games against South Carolina, the ACC Championship and the College Football Playoff, he has 36 receptions for 442 yards and eight touchdowns. In his other 28 career games, Renfrow has just six touchdowns.

  • Jaquan Johnson (DB; Miami): Johnson has emerged as one of the top defensive backs in the nation through the 2017 season.

A finalist for the Walter Camp Award — given to the nation’s top player — Johnson leads the Hurricanes in tackles with 81 and is tied for the team lead in interceptions with four. Johnson was named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week three times in a row, becoming the first Hurricane player in school history to earn that honor three times in a single season — and the first player since former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson to earn the honor three consecutive weeks (2014).

When Miami has the ball

  • Dorian O’Daniel (LB): With the loss of Christopher Herndon (tight end) and Ahmmon Richards (wide receiver) for the season, the Hurricanes will look to replace their No.1 (Richards) and No. 3 (Herndon) receivers (yards per game).

That job will fall to slot receiver Braxton Barrios, who likely will be the responsibility of one of the top linebackers in the nation — Dorian O’Daniel. The Butkus Award finalist is the team’s leading tackler with 95 stops, 22 more than the next closest Tiger.

O’Daniel has two interception returns for touchdowns in Clemson’s road wins at Louisville and at Virginia Tech, while adding 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks — but this week will be O’Daniel’s biggest test as he tries to contain the Hurricanes’ biggest weapon.

  • Christian Wilkins (DT): The junior defensive leader of the Tiger defense has quietly put together a season that has him ranked by many as a first-round selection.

Through the Tigers first 12 games, Wilkins has amassed an impressive 40 tackles — including seven tackles for loss, four sacks and six quarterback pressures. While his numbers may not seem impressive, the fact that teams must game plan and double team both Wilkins and teammate Dexter Lawrence has opened up numerous opportunities for teammates to make plays.

Against the Hurricanes, look for Wilkins not only to play a role as a “block-eater” but a quarterback stuffer.

  • Malik Rosier (QB; Miami): The Miami signal-caller, Rosier has accounted for 30 touchdowns on the season — tying the single-season record set by Vinny Testaverde (1986) — and has tied Bernie Kosar (1984) and Ken Dorsey (2000) for sixth-most touchdown passes in a season (25).

Rosier ranks third in the ACC in pass efficiency, fifth in passing yards and fourth in total offense. However, this week’s ACC Championship Game not only will be his biggest game because of what is at stake, he will also be without two of his top three receivers as they suffered season-ending injuries over the last week.

Preview and prediction

The last time these two teams faced each other was more than two years ago in Miami. In that game, the Tigers trounced the Hurricanes by a final score of 58-0 and ended the career of former head coach Al Golden.

Two years later, Miami head coach Mark Richt has “The U” back — playing in its first ACC Championship Game since joining the league in 2004. The Clemson Tigers on the other hand are playing in their third straight title game, their fifth championship appearance in the last nine years.

The Hurricanes will have their “Turnover Chain” on the sideline, hoping to break it out and ride the momentum that the talisman can apparently conjure, while the Tigers will be relying on the fact that they have been there and done that in the biggest of games and come out on top.

If the Tigers can protect the ball, as they have on the road all season — only turning the ball over three times this season on the road — expect Clemson to have a big night. If they cannot protect the ball, expect this game to go down to the wire.

The crowd will be bathed in orange as the Tiger faithful will invade the Queen City and will leave watching their No. 1 Tigers punch a ticket to New Orleans and a trip to the Sugar Bowl in the College Football Playoff.

Clemson 31, Miami 17

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.


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