Offensive firepower and defensive schemes will be in our spotlight for much of the week, but it's the injury report that is already grabbing headlines even before the teams set foot on the practice fields in the greater Miami area. For West Virginia, defenders Terence Garvin and Josh Taylor will miss the game, while Clemson could be absent offensive players DeAndre Hopkins and Philip Price. That's a couple of linchpins for each squad, but which absences would hurt their teams more?
First, West Virginia is in a bit of a hole right off the bat, because Garvin and Taylor are both definitely out. Garvin, a junior safety, had 72 tackles in 11 games this year, and made his presence felt all over the field. He had sacks and tackles for losses, broke up passes, and picked off two – including one which he returned for a touchdown against Maryland. He doesn't have the flair of a Bruce Irvin, but there's no doubt that he was one of the most solid members of the West Virginia defense, and the Mountaineers are going to be hard-pressed to replace him. When Garvin missed the Cincinnati game with a concussion in November, WVU tried both Travis Bell and Shaq Petteway as the substitution answer, with mixed results. Mountaineer coaches have been a bit coy as to who will attempt to fill Garvin's shoes, likely in an attempt to keep Clemson guessing, but in the end there's no doubt that Garvin is a huge loss.
Taylor, who will miss his final game in a WVU uniform, wasn't a star by any means, but he did provide valuable snaps to give Jorge Wright a rest at the nose. Both Taylor and Wright are undersized nose tackles, so having a tag team partner was an important factor for WVU. With Taylor out, the Mountaineers will have to either use Shaq Rowell or put Wright into iron man mode.
On the Clemson side, head coach Dabo Swinney provided an eerily prescient, if unknowing, glimpse of the injury to Hopkins almost a week before it happened.
"Hopefully, everybody will enjoy a nice break and travel safe," he told Tigernet.com last week. "We'll arrive down there on the 27th. Most of the guys are on the charter. We've got a few that are flying in on their own. Some will be driving there. Look forward to getting everybody back together on the 27th and getting back to work."
Just a few days later, Hopkins, who was driving back to Clemson to get on the charter flight to Miami, was involved in a car wreck and suffered a concussion. His status for the bowl game is questionable, but there's no doubt that he's one of Clemson's better offensive weapons. He had 62 catches for 871 yards and four scores, and also served as the Tigers' punt returner, where he totaled nine returns for 54 yards. Swinney said that it was too soon to speculate on his status for the game, but clearly the Tigers will have to prepare, at least for a few days, as if they won't have Hopkins on the field.
The Tigers could also be missing big offensive tackle Phillip Price, who suffered a knee injury in the ACC Championship Game. However, Swinney indicated recently that Price, who has been held out of practices at Clemson before Christmas, "should be ready to go" by the bowl game.
Obviously, if both Hopkins and Price play, the availability edge goes to the Tigers. But what if Hopkins isn't cleared to play? Does his absence make up for that of Garvin? While it's difficult to compare offensive and defensive players, the thought from here is no. WVU needs every one of its defensive players healthy and on the field in order to battle Clemson's array of offensive weapons. If Hopkins is sidelined, that obviously removes one of them from the equation, but Clemson has a lot more in its arsenal than just the sophomore receiver. It would clearly hurt the Tigers, but it's probably not a one-for-one trade that West Virginia would be willing to make.