With the regular season nearing its end, the eighth and final week begins with one of the more heated rivalries in the league. A rivalry fueled by talent, strong recruiting classes, strong competition, trash talk, and massive stakes. This game seems to mean something every season, and this season is no different. In fact, this season might have the most riding on it in comparison to seasons past. The title of SEC Champions and a first round bye in the playoffs hang in the balance for the winner. And that, my friends, is just the tip of this intriguing iceberg. Let’s start with the visiting Tigers.
It’s been a winding road, as the Tigers are one of the last undefeated teams in the CFSL, joined only by Ohio State. There have been some close calls, but ultimately, the wins have piled up by the contributions of quarterback Javon Mack. The senior signal-caller hasn’t been asked to do much through the air, having put up only five touchdown passes which is the fewest in the league, and he’s in the bottom three in passing yards, although he’s only 50 yards away from hitting 1,500 for the season. Receivers Anthony Robertson III, Keith Blazer, and Jay Moe have made plays when called upon, but the real damage has come via the ground game. Mack and halfback Mike Chadwick have combined for over 1,300 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. However, Chadwick himself his 11 touchdowns on the ground, one of just three rushers this season to have double digits. Impressive numbers, just don’t forget Mack can sling it with the best of them.
Defensively, the Tigers boast one of the best. They’re one of three teams to have 20+ sacks, and one of four teams to have more than 10 turnovers this season. Linebacker Kobe King is having one of his best statistical seasons right now, although it won’t reflect given the shorter season. Still, an interception, 50+ tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, and a sack. Defensive end Mike Miller is now the record holder for most career sacks in a season with 36. Corner Andrew Fuller leads the league with interceptions, the most he’s ever had in a season and it also means Fuller is two away from tying the single reason record of seven, set in season one. And Texas quarterback Ray Tatum just threw five picks last week….
Speaking of Ray Tatum, this guy is a little over 1,000 yards away from hitting 16,000 for the career, but he could certainly hit 120 touchdown passes. If he has a big game, he could 150 total touchdowns as he is nine away from that total. He did, however, throw five picks last week, almost tying former Clemson quarterback DJ Moss for the single-game record. It was a head scratching performance from Tatum who has been insane this season, putting up massive numbers and already holding several records in his name. Tonight, which Tatum do we see? The one who makes full use of receivers Scooby Lewis, Ray Conley, and Vincent McCoy? The one who adds a run to complement halfback Tarraj Walker and hits tight end Jackson James with pinpoint accuracy up the seam and on corner routes? Or the Tatum who looks flustered and frustrated en route to major turnovers? One makes for a fun game, the other will be punished mightily by a strong defense.
Oh yeah, defenses, Texas’ is top three as well. Linebacker Howard Cook has filled the void of Justin Boudreaux and safety Jimbo Smithers has had a slow start but has picked up steam. After all, he did have 15 tackles a week ago and was a defensive player of the week candidate. Cook has been impressive as well. He’s got the most tackles for a loss and sacks he’s ever recorded in a season and is a tackle away from matching his total from last season. Between Cook and Smithers, they can handle the running game. The player to really watch and have respect put on his name is corner Terrence Top. Two straight seasons of three interceptions, and he’s not done. We’ll see if he can lock down Clemson’s favorite traffic cone.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Texas and Clemson each feature top three defenses, meaning one of two things. Either both defenses get absolutely torched today and give up well more than what they’ve been giving up on average. Right now, both defenses are giving up an average below 25 points per game. So, they get lit up. That’s one option. Here’s the other. The defenses play well and the offense struggle in a game where the first to get past 30 points could win. Just something to keep an eye on.
When Clemson and Texas go at each other, it’s not always pretty. But it’s always entertaining to watch. Tonight, though, might be the best yet. Not because of how the game itself plays out – although we certainly would hate to see a rout – but because of what is at stake. The SEC title, the number one seed in the playoffs which includes a first round bye, and pride. It’s a game where guys like Tatum, Mack, Smithers, King, and Top step up and make plays. Where X-Factors we don’t highlight enough make plays, like Clemson safety Barry Allen, or Texas linebacker Dallas Greene. It’s a game where legends are cemented, or born. Heroes are made. Tonight has a lot riding on it, and Texas is at home. They’re honoring Ray Tatum by retiring his jersey – unusual since he’s still playing, but a lovely sentiment – and are facing their heated rivals in Clemson who remain unbeaten. We haven’t seen a truly bad game from Clemson like we say from Tatum and the Longhorns last week. Now would be a bad time for that to happen. But I’m betting it does as the Longhorns squeak past for the one seed.
CLEMSON 31, TEXAS 34