College football Week 6 preview: Can Miami take down No. 1 Clemson?

    Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

This weekend’s college football slate appeared to have a pretty strong tag: Red River Week. No matter what else was going on, you knew there would be at least one season-defining game on the docket.

So much for that. Texas and Oklahoma are a combined 3-3, and neither is in the AP top 20.

Big games remain, however. We have four matchups of ranked teams — two in Saturday’s early slot, one in the afternoon and a top-10 banger (OK, possible banger) in the evening. This is the biggest weekend of this strange season thus far. So let’s swim around in these matchups and figure out how things are going to go.

No. 7 Miami at No. 1 Clemson

If you don’t trust Miami yet, it’s understandable. The Hurricanes have lost their past three games as top-10 teams, and they haven’t finished a season in the AP top 10 since 2003. They have beaten three decent but unspectacular teams — Louisville, Florida State and UAB each ranked between 35th and 52nd in SP+ — by an average score of 43-19. They have risen to ninth themselves in SP+, but now comes the ultimate progress check: a trip to Clemson. Combined score of their past two meetings: Clemson 96, Miami 3.

What does a Clemson loss look like?

We see Dabo Swinney’s Tigers fall so infrequently that after a while it becomes pretty difficult to even envision it. They are 72-5 since the start of 2015. But in those five losses you do find a few trends:

Every team generates better stats in wins than losses, obviously, but it’s sometimes instructive to look into what specifically changes for certain teams when they do well or poorly.

For Clemson, it appears you have to be able to keep up on the scoreboard; you aren’t going to shut down the Tigers. They have scored at least 24 points in four of these five losses.

Success usually comes through the air. Taking out the outlier of the losses, a 24-6 slog against Alabama in 2017, opponents have completed an average of 22 of 36 passes for 346 yards and 3.8 touchdowns in the Tigers’ other four losses. You cannot turn the ball over — opponents suffered only three turnovers in these five losses — and you have to generate some explosiveness.

Miami has had plenty of the latter. The Canes are seventh in marginal explosiveness, and while a lot of those big gains have come from the run game, quarterback D’Eriq King has still completed passes of 75, 47, 40, and 31 in his first three games as a Hurricane. He also has yet to throw a pick.

Despite losing some stars from last season’s secondary and getting only 21 snaps from standout cornerback Derion Kendrick thus far, Clemson’s pass defense numbers have been fine: 17th in passing success rate allowed, 28th in ANY/A (a yards-per-attempt measure that includes sacks, adds 20 yards for every touchdown and subtracts 45 for every interception). But that’s not necessarily great considering the competition (Wake Forest, The Citadel, Virginia).

Miami’s receivers might have an opportunity to make some plays, but they absolutely must capitalize on their chances. Wide receivers Mike Harley and Mark Pope have suffered three drops each overall, and a lot of King’s success has come from throwing to tight end Brevin Jordan and running backs.

Pressure Trevor Lawrence … or else

Clemson’s offense is generally strong even in losses, but if there’s a weakness, it comes against a strong pass rush. The Tigers have allowed a 3.6% sack rate in wins since 2015 (1.3 per game on average) and a 6.3% sack rate in losses (3.0). Snuffing out an extra drive or two with a negative play can work wonders.

That’s easier said than done, but after losing four offensive-line starters, the Tigers have been a bit glitchier than normal up front. Both Virginia and Wake Forest sacked Lawrence twice, and despite facing minimal blitzes, Clemson ranks 35th in sack rate allowed so far (5.1%).

That is an opportunity for Miami. The Canes always hunt for tackles for loss under coach Manny Diaz, and they are currently 15th in sack rate and second in pressure rate. Temple grad transfer Quincy Roche has been as good as advertised, and end Jaelan Phillips is enjoying a late-career explosion, too. If they can hurry Lawrence, they can prevent him from hitting Amari Rodgers and Frank Ladson Jr. (combined: 21 catches, 385 yards) downfield.

If the Canes can’t pressure Lawrence enough, though, or if they overpursue and leave themselves vulnerable to screens and dump-offs to running back Travis Etienne (nine catches, 172 yards), they probably won’t get many stops. Etienne is also averaging 6.2 yards per carry, and Braden Galloway is getting more involved than any Clemson TE was last season. The Tigers are averaging 3.2 points per drive (ninth in FBS) despite never really being forced to dip all that far into the playbook.

The Tigers’ secondary and offensive line will gain in experience as the season progresses. They are the only team to rank in the top 10 in all three phases of SP+ (third on offense, fourth on defense and seventh in special teams). Their final 2020 form is likely to be devastating, but this might be the best possible time to face the Tigers.

SP+ projection: Clemson 32, Miami 21

No. 14 Tennessee at No. 3 Georgia

Tennessee is coming off of a 35-12 victory over Missouri that featured efficient running and great red zone execution on both sides of the ball. The Volunteers’ reward is a top-15 battle against Georgia and the nation’s top college football defense.

Avoiding obvious pass situations

Against what were supposed to be solid South Carolina and Missouri defenses, Tennessee has scored 30-plus points twice, ranking 20th in success rate and 22nd in overall points per drive. The Vols are finishing scoring chances in the end zone. Wide receivers Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson are making plays downfield, and after ranking 101st in rushing success rate last season (39%), Tennessee is currently 21st (50%).

However, on blitz downs, the Vols are 71st out of 74 teams in success rate, 44th in big-play rate and 72nd in sack rate. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano stands tall in the pocket and looks to make plays downfield, and he often ends up on his back.

So far, 66% of the third downs Georgia opponents have faced were of the third-and-long variety (7-plus yards to go). Opponents have gone three-and-out 52% of the time, most in the country. Auburn threw almost everything it could think of at the Dawgs and was rewarded with 216 yards and six points.

In parts of three games against Georgia, Guarantano hasn’t thrown any picks, but he’s been sacked four times and averaged just 5.2 adjusted net yards per pass. The Vols have scored only 26 combined points in their past three games against the Dawgs, but you figure they need at least 21 or so to have a chance. That will require perfect execution, and some creativity from offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, on standard downs.

The final piece of the puzzle for Georgia: big plays

With Georgia already up 17-0 on Auburn midway through the second quarter last Saturday, Stetson Bennett heaved a lovely deep ball to Kearis Jackson for a 49-yard gain. Four plays later, it was 24-0 and the game was effectively over.

The play was noteworthy for reasons other than its general beauty: First, it came to Jackson, a sophomore who has thrived thus far, catching more passes (15) than incumbents George Pickens and Demetris Robertson combined (12). Second, and less positively, it was also the only gain of 30-plus yards that Georgia has generated this season.

Granted, the Dawgs’ field position has been so good — their average starting field position is 37.4, second in FBS — that they haven’t necessarily had a ton of 30-yard opportunities. But UGA ranks 71st in marginal explosiveness, and 51% of the Dawgs’ third downs have been third-and-long. As efficient as Bennett has been so far, big-play issues are not yet solved.

If Tennessee’s defense can get off the field when it gets the chance, this could turn into quite the defensive slugfest. But the Vols have some cracks to paper over in that regard. They allowed Missouri to convert first downs on third-and-14, second-and-12 and two second-and-10s last week, and they rank just 48th in passing-downs success rate allowed. For an otherwise solid defense, that’s a blind spot. But if Georgia offers you a shot at a three-and-out and a field-position boost, you have to take it, because you just aren’t going to get many good scoring chances.

SP+ projection: Georgia 28, Tennessee 15

No. 4 Florida at No. 21 Texas A&M

Texas A&M is 1-1 and has yet to play like anything close to the borderline top-10 team many thought the Aggies would be. The Aggies get an early-Saturday shot to turn things around.

Kyle Trask’s Heisman opportunity

Through two games, Dan Mullen’s Gators have been as good as anyone could have hoped on offense, scoring a combined 89 points on Ole Miss and South Carolina and ranking second in both yards per play (7.8) and success rate (56%).

Florida was dreadfully inefficient running the ball last season, but the Gators are eighth in rushing success rate so far. Trask has posted nearly Burrow-ian numbers — 72% completion rate, 10-1 TD-INT ratio, 196.4 passer rating. Tight end Kyle Pitts has caught 12 of 17 balls for 227 yards and six touchdowns — in two games! — and wide receiver Kadarius Toney is a yardage thief. He catches mostly short passes and turns them into double-digit gains (13.2 yards per catch). Neither has dropped a pass yet.

Texas A&M could render Florida one-dimensional. The Aggies limited Alabama’s Najee Harris last week and rank seventh in rushing success rate allowed. Linebacker Buddy Johnson doesn’t miss tackles, and linemen Micheal Clemons and DeMarvin Leal already have 4.5 tackles for loss.

Unfortunately for the Aggies, you have to also stop the pass. Alabama’s Mac Jones was 20-for-27 for 435 yards, four touchdowns and a pick last week. A&M is now 63rd out of 74 teams in passing success rate allowed and ANY/A. Now Trask gets a shot at this shellshocked secondary. Jones threw over the top of the Ags, which isn’t necessarily Trask’s M.O., but, well, Florida watches film. While Pitts runs a good seam route, and Toney could always get involved with double moves, this could be an opportunity for one of Florida’s more go-route-heavy receivers — Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland or Xzavier Henderson — to get involved. Whatever the Gators attempt, it will take a massive turnaround from A&M to stop much of it.

Florida’s defensive inefficiency

Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s solution to just about everything is “blitz it.” He appears to be the prototype boom-or-bust type of coach, but Florida’s defense has been far more bend-don’t-break in 2020. The Gators prevented big plays pretty well against South Carolina, but they are 65th in success rate allowed.

Even worse, on blitz downs — second-and-super-long, third-and-5 or more, which I should basically call Grantham Downs — they are both 69th in success rate and 69th in big-play rate. They’re sacking the QB, sure (seventh in blitz-down sack rate, 17th in overall sack rate), but at quite a cost.

Veteran A&M quarterback Kellen Mond has been definitively mediocre this season while breaking in a new receiving corps. WR-turned-RB Ainias Smith had a good thing going against Bama (six catches, 123 yards), and tight end Jalen Wydermyer is solid, but the top three Aggies wide receivers — Chase Lane, Jalen Preston, Caleb Chapman — have caught just 20 of 37 passes for 212 yards. Not good enough.

A&M’s biggest offensive strength thus far is three-and-out avoidance. The Aggies do so only 13% of the time, fifth in the country. If A&M can generate a couple of first downs on each drive, and Mond can connect with a wideout on a key third-and-7 or two, maybe the Aggies will control the ball well enough to limit Trask’s opportunities.

SP+ projection: Florida 33, Texas A&M 23

No. 19 Virginia Tech at No. 8 North Carolina

This is the week we get clarity in the race for the ACC’s No. 2 slot. Notre Dame, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech so far have all mostly looked the part.

Tech will probably actually have to throw the football

Virginia Tech’s offense has been hyper-explosive so far. Running back and Kansas transfer Khalil Herbert has rushed for 10-plus yards on 10 of his 26 carries (which have gained a cool 312 yards) and wide receiver Tayvion Robinson has reeled in a couple of go routes. The Hokies rank fifth in marginal explosiveness, a field-position-adjusted measure of the magnitude of a team’s successful plays.

Hendon Hooker’s abilities could come in handy against North Carolina, however. Tech’s returning starting quarterback has yet to play this season because of coronavirus quarantine and a lack of practice time. He might be up to speed this week.

The Tar Heels’ defense ranks both ninth in success rate allowed and fourth in marginal explosiveness. Star linebackers Tomon Fox and Chazz Surratt have accrued 22.5 tackles, eight for loss.

Tech, meanwhile, has been more “nothing” than “all” in throwing the ball in Hooker’s absence. Oregon transfer Braxton Burmeister has completed only 44% of his passes, with a 110.8 passer rating. Tech has been a one-trick pony, ranking 11th in run rate on standard downs and seventh on passing downs. Hooker’s presence is good for a run game, too, but we assume the Hokies will have to take to the air a bit more to keep Jay Bateman’s defense from loading up to stop Herbert.

Inconsistency vs. vulnerability

As good as the North Carolina defense has been, the offense has been a bit disappointing.

In two games, the Tar Heels have battled two droughts, scoring only once in their first seven drives against Syracuse and twice in their last seven against Boston College. Overall, their 2.3 points per possession ranks just 37th, their 35.9 yards per drive 48th. Star wide receiver Dazz Newsome has yet to really get involved, and while efficiency levels are solid, big pass plays have been rare.

Virginia Tech’s pass rush has been dynamite — its 6.5 sacks per game leads the country — and the fact that the Hokies rank 22nd in ANY/A allowed despite playing against Duke without basically their entire starting secondary is a minor miracle. (It’s also an indictment of Duke’s offense.) The Hokies have been pretty sketchy against the run, though, and that could be problematic against the UNC rushing duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who have combined for 313 yards (6.5 per carry) and four touchdowns. If Tech can’t put itself in pass-rush situations, and if it has to overcommit to stopping the run, the secondary becomes awfully vulnerable.

SP+ projection: North Carolina 31, Virginia Tech 26

Week 6 playlist

Here are 10 weekend games — at least one from each time slot — you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both information and entertainment perspectives.

All times Eastern.

Friday night

Louisville at Georgia Tech (7 p.m., ESPN): This is a prime rebound opportunity for 1-2 Louisville, but the Cardinals allow a lot of pass pressure, and Georgia Tech generates a lot of it. Not a layup for Louisville.

Early Saturday

No. 4 Florida at No. 21 Texas A&M (noon, ESPN): If the SEC is to get two teams in the College Football Playoff, it probably needs Florida and Georgia to maneuver through quite a few “favored, but not dramatically so” games like this one without a blemish. Easier said than done.

No. 19 Virginia Tech at No. 8 North Carolina (noon, ABC): Winner remains well-positioned for a shot at the ACC title game. Loser has some work to do.

No. 22 Texas vs. Oklahoma (noon, Fox): It’s not nearly as big as we expected, but let’s not pretend it won’t be exciting.

Saturday afternoon

No. 14 Tennessee at No. 3 Georgia (3:30 p.m., CBS): A perfect chance for Tennessee to show how far it has come over the past 12 months (or learn how far it still has to go).

UTSA at No. 15 BYU (3:30 p.m., ESPN2): BYU has been utterly incredible so far, overachieving against the spread at record levels. The Cougars are five-touchdown favorites against Jeff Traylor’s 3-1 Roadrunners. Can they keep the great run going?

Kansas State at TCU (4 p.m., Fox): The Big 12 race could be determined by who best pulls out close games, and all four of these teams’ conference games have been determined in the final minutes. This one probably will be, too.

Saturday evening

No. 2 Alabama at Ole Miss (7:30 p.m., ESPN): Ole Miss’ Matt Corral is averaging 15.5 yards per completion in 2020, and Alabama’s Mac Jones is averaging 18.0. Yes, Bama will probably win, but there could be lots of explosions in this one.

No. 7 Miami at No. 1 Clemson (7:30 p.m., ABC): A perfect chance for Miami to show how far it’s come over the past nine months (or learn how far it still has to go).

Mississippi State at Kentucky (7:30 p.m., SEC Network): Mike Leach brings his Air Raid back to its (FBS) birthplace. Hell yes.

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