Is Miami really back? Can the 'Canes hang with Clemson? Here are 5 key factors in Saturday's showdown

There’s an overexcitement that inevitably merges to an insult when a once-gilded college football power hints at a return to its former glory.

Asking if a team is back has turned from a query to a ground for mockery when the next program pratfall occurs.

So here comes No. 7 Miami (3-0), fresh off three blowout victories and playing at No. 1 Clemson (3-0) on Saturday night. It marks the third prime-time showcase game for the Hurricanes this season, as their curb stompings of Louisville (47-34) and Florida State (52-10) both came in a prime television window.

There’s no question that Miami has taken a huge step forward in Manny Diaz’s second season. Transfer quarterback D’Eriq King and new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have rescued Miami’s offense from the stone age and turned the Hurricanes into the buzz of the sport.

Are they good enough to hang with Clemson? Few in the ACC have been in the past five seasons, as the Tigers bring a 24-game ACC win streak, a 24-game home win streak and a general aura of dominance that few in the sport can match. (Vegas has installed Clemson as a 14-point favorite.) So is Miami back? Let’s cut through the rhetoric and dive into the matchups. Yahoo Sports spoke to more than a half-dozen coaching staff members who have played or scouted Miami and Clemson this season. Here are the factors that will be the difference in the game.

The Clemson Tigers offense lines up against the Miami Hurricanes during an ACC championship game. (Mike Comer/Getty Images)

1. Run the ball

The easiest player to project having a monster game is Clemson’s Travis Etienne, the senior star who shocked the sport by returning this season — and then not opting out. Etienne averages 6.2 yards per carry, which is actually well below what he averaged in 2019 (7.8) and 2018 (8.1).

The consistent theme running through the minds of opponents is Miami’s weakness in the middle. The strength of their defensive line is ends Jaelan Phillips (2.5 TFLs and 1 INT) and Temple transfer Quincy Roche (5.5 TFLs), but neither are elite run stoppers. Inside, teams have been able to push the Hurricanes around, as an opposing assistant explains.

“They look like ‘The U’ across the board,” the coach said. “They just have two linebackers who are stiff and aren’t great tacklers (Bradley Jennings Jr. and Zach McCloud) and their interior defensive linemen are average. When your interior and your linebackers are both weaknesses, that’s a problem if teams can run the ball.”

Here’s a stat to remember if this game gets ugly: Louisville averaged 4.3 yards per carry and rushed for 209 yards. If Clemson doesn’t fall behind, they can pound Miami into submission.

2. Miami’s offensive line test

Last season, Miami’s offensive line was one of the worst units in all college football. They gave up 51 sacks and the Hurricanes got shut out by Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl.

So far this season, the arrival of King and Lashlee’s ramped-up tempo have transformed Miami’s offense. The scheme also puts exponentially less stress on the offensive line.

“They are still a below-average offensive line,” said another opposing assistant. “The quarterback’s slipperiness allows them to not take sacks and makes plays. They haven’t played a good defense, and they haven’t played a good defensive line.”

Those who’ve played Clemson quickly point out that this year’s defensive line isn’t the caliber of past editions. True freshman defensive end Myles Murphy (5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) and tackle Bryan Bresee (1.5 sacks) are the types of revelatory talents we can expect to be three-and-done players. But they are still true freshman playing in their first marquee game.

Clemson’s defensive line has been in flux. Former blue-chip recruit Xavier Thomas, who has yet to live up to his five-star billing, may play a few snaps against Miami and it’d be his first action this season. (He’s not expected to have a big impact.) Fellow end Justin Foster, a senior who had 10.5 TFLs last year, has yet to play this season. Sophomore tackle Tyler Davis, who started every game on the interior last season, will be back after getting hurt against Wake Forest and missing two games.

Will Davis’ return help control Miami’s run game and keep King contained? One coach said the key for Clemson DC Brent Venables will be how successful he can be rushing just four linemen.

3. Is this the Clemson we remember?

The resounding answer to this was no.

“This is not the same Clemson team of the last three years,” said an assistant coach who has studied them. “I don’t know if anyone is. Just look at what they lost. But are they the best team in ACC? Yes.”

Clemson’s distinct offensive weakness is the offensive line, something coaches often pointed out during Deshaun Watson’s era with the program. That stigma left the past two seasons but appears to have returned. Opposing teams have felt like they could get pressure up front on the interior of the offensive line and identified center Cade Stewart as the lineman they attempted to exploit.

(This matches up with the Miami weakness we pointed out earlier. Smart money belongs on a relative Clemson weakness over a relative Miami weakness.)

The place where Clemson doesn’t look like Clemson is on the outside. With the departure of Tee Higgins to the NFL and the injury to Justyn Ross, the Tigers aren’t what they have been for years on the outside. “The new guys are good, but they aren’t as scary like they have been before,” said one of the assistants. After returning slot stalwart Amari Rodgers (12 catches, 3 TDs), sophomore Frank Ladson (19.9 ypc on 9 catches) has emerged. Sophomore Joseph Ngata, the presumptive breakout candidate, has been limited by an abdominal injury. All three of his catches came against Wake Forest in the opener. (Ladson has filled in for him.)

One assistant predicted that Clemson could end up using junior tight end Braden Galloway to exploit the below-average Miami linebacker crew. He’s caught seven balls for 77 yards so far this year and OC Tony Elliott could have some wrinkles for him.

Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) scrambles during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on Oct. 03, 2020. (Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) scrambles during a game against the Virginia Cavaliers on Oct. 3, 2020. (Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

4. Trevor Lawrence vs. D’Eriq King

It’s odd that we went this long without mentioning Trevor Lawrence. But there’s so little to pick apart. He’s gone 11 straight games since his last interception and is completing 73.3% of his passes this season. An opposing assistant complimented his improved decision-making, as his early struggles last season revolved around forcing the ball.

Miami’s best chance would be to pressure Lawrence with their dynamic ends and hope their rangy secondary can cover enough to be disruptive. Lawrence is still rolling along as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and carries a 28-1 record as a starting quarterback. He’s seen much better defenses in Ohio State, LSU and Alabama in his career, so it’s hard to see him getting rattled.

King has been revelatory in his short time in Coral Gables, as Miami has the ACC’s top offense and King trails only Lawrence in ACC passing efficiency. King has six touchdown passes, no interceptions and completed 67% of his passes. But the best defense he’s seen was UAB’s.

“I think he’ll struggle with these guys,” an assistant coach predicted. “They’ll mix it up enough to make him sit in pocket. I’d be shocked if he can get to the edge. I think they’ll make him sit in the pocket. I don’t think he’s a pocket quarterback. He’s 5-9, he’s not going to sit there and beat you in the pocket. That’s not what he does best. He’s not going to sit back there and beat you. Make him read the defense.”

King should have open receivers, as Clemson’s secondary is green and still finding its sea legs after losing three starters.

5. Who will win?

There was a mixed bag in how the tenor of the game will play out. But let’s be clear, no one picked Miami. A few coaches thought they could punch with Clemson for at least a half. Most coaches believed Clemson isn’t what it was but still had plenty to beat Miami.

So for now, it’s easy to see Miami’s joyride coming to a screeching halt.

Yahoo Sports prediction: Clemson 41, Miami 20.

More from Yahoo Sports: