My answers to Ryan's questions will be posted on Shakin The Southland on Thursday.
FTRS: First things first. What does it mean for Clemson to get freshman sensation Deshaun Watson back to face Georgia Tech? Do you think the Tigers would have a shot without him?
STS: Getting Watson back is a tremendous boost for Clemson's offense. Without Watson, and with Cole Stoudt playing through injury, Clemson's vertical passing threat has been extremely limited. In fact, the vast majority of Cole Stoudt's completions have been caught behind the line of scrimmage.
Clemson has struggled to run the ball at times which when coupled with the lack of a vertical threat, makes the offense extremely predictable (screen play galore). Fortunately, Wayne Gallman has emerged over the past two weeks and Clemson's run game is starting to awaken. Watson returning gives me hope that the deep threat will return with him. Those two should work in concert to make Clemson's offense dangerous once again.
Clemson would have a shot in almost any game because of their defense, but having him back flips my prediction for who gets the "W" on Saturday.
FTRS: Factoring in that question, are the underwhelming offensive performances against Boston College, Syracuse, and Wake Forest less worrisome because Watson was out? Are there other issues in the offense that won't be immediately fixed because of Watson's return?
STS: As alluded to above, I would be picking the Yellow Jackets to win this game if Watson was still out. I believe his return, as well as the emergence of Wayne Gallman (207 rushing yards, 55 receiving yards over past two games) will at least partially solve the offensive issues.
The problem that their return does not amend is on the offensive line, particularly in the interior O-line. It's been a constant shuffle moving players around to find the right combination. Kalon Davis, David Beasley, and Isaiah Battle have taken just about every snap over the past few games due to a lack of depth (and injuries) behind them.
One example of the shuffle is at Center. C Ryan Norton lost his starting job to Jay Guillermo early in the year, but Guillermo was injured versus FSU. As a result, Ryan Norton regained the starting role. He again lost it for the Wake Forest game, this time to Reid Webster who has played all across the line. Webster struggled and Norton had to enter the game (and played better). Now, Guillermo is back at practice finally, but is taking second team reps. Similar stories can be told about others on the line such as Joe Gore who had a great camp, then struggled, then discovered an injury that may have been holding him back, and now is finally nearing 100%.
FTRS: What were the expectations in Clemson prior to this season? Would a few wins to close out this season make it a successful year to most even though the Tigers were unable to win the big ones earlier in the year and won't make it to the championship game?
STS: In our season preview article, most were predicting 8-9 wins. I gave us a 1-in-3 chance to beat UGA and a 1-in-4 chance to beat FSU, so we're about where we expected to be with two tricky games (GT and SCar) remaining. If Clemson wins out, they'll end with yet another 10-win regular season and likely get another Orange Bowl invitation. Furthermore, it will be all the sweeter with one of those wins coming against the Midland Poultry (i.e., SCar). Clemson needs to win out to feel good about this season. Losing to all or most of our chief rivals (SCar, FSU, GT, UGA) does not make for an enjoyable season.
FTRS: Why has Clemson's defense been so good this year? Can it almost all be credited to the defensive line? What's the scheme used?
STS: Obviously, a lot of credit can be given to the defensive line, where there are six seniors. Grady Jarrett is a premier defensive tackle and we'll be looking at him to play a major role in taking away the dive play as he did last year. Vic Beasley is an elite pass rusher and there is plenty of depth behind those two.
It's not just the line though. Stephone Anthony is having a tremendous senior season at middle linebacker, but the biggest surprise is the secondary. CB Garry Peters has taken great strides from last season and is now performing at an extremely high level. The same can be said for free safety Jayron Kearse.
Clemson plays a 4-3 and often shifts into a nickel, but against a run heavy offense we'll probably see less nickel.
FTRS: As I'm sure you're well aware of, Tech has handled Clemson in Atlanta four times in a row now. How much does this game scare you considering the triple option looks as good as it ever has this year?
STS: Clemson vs. Georgia Tech is one of my favorite rivalries. Unlike our other rivalries, I've always found this one to be filled with more mutual respect than hate. A Clemson vs. Georgia Tech game was the first Clemson game attended, and after that I was hooked. I've made a point to attend every Clemson vs. Georgia Tech game since - Clemson, Atlanta, or Tampa Bay.
Unfortunately for us, as you mentioned, many of those games have been Clemson losses. The Tigers lost to GT lost four times from 2007-2009 (although one was vacated) and trail the all-time series 27-49-2. That said, Clemson is 17-15 since 1977 and has won two in a row. In the modern era, this has been a very even rivalry.
Tiger fans will not be looking past Georgia Tech or showing the Jackets a lack of respect. We know this is a dangerous game for us, but we're hopeful that our veteran defensive line will take away the dive play which is the first step to stopping the option. They've seen the triple-option before and have been successful against it.
FTRS: Other than Watson, give me three Clemson players that Tech fans should be looking out for on Saturday.
STS: Wayne Gallman has emerged from the pack as the starting running back. Only a redshirt freshman, he has been the one to step up and find running room behind a sometimes shaky offensive line. Earlier in the season he was terrible in pass pro and had a tendency to out-run his blocks. He has improved in both areas and is giving Clemson shades of a respectable running game. If he and Watson can give the offense balance, watch out.
T.J. Green - along with Korrin Wiggins and Jadar Johnson - will take snaps at safety while Robert Smith sits out in the first half. Against this offense, you love to have seniors who have seen it before, but these youngsters have not. It's a fortunate break for GT, but given that this seems to be the week that everyone is returning from injury (Deshaun Watson, Joe Gore, Jay Guillermo, Charone Peake) with those who returned last week (Jordan Leggett, Tyshon Dye) nearing 100% I won't tell you you're lucky (all six injured players listed are all on offense).
Artavis Scott is a true freshman, but that isn't stopping him from leading the team in receptions. The quick and agile slot receiver turned a jet sweep into a long touchdown that finally gave Clemson control of the game against Wake Forest. Look for Clemson to find ways to get him the ball and leverage his explosiveness.
FTRS: How do you feel about the 12:00 game time? Many Tech fans have been unpleased with our scheduling this year. Two weeks after Clemson, we get the privilege to play in Athens at 12:00 on the SEC Network. Ridiculous, huh?
STS: Personally, I want all my home games to be played at 3:30 or 7:00 and all road games to be at noon. Getting the ESPN slot at noon is a big deal. Everyone tuning into College Football GameDay in Tuscaloosa will be brought to Bobby Dodd at its conclusion and they may just stay for a matchup of ranked ACC teams.
While I certainly understand why Tech fans would want a 3:30 or night game, I'm glad it'll be warmer and quieter than those alternatives.
As for your game in Athens, I assume you're mostly mad about getting stuck on the SEC Network. It's a tough break since many don't get the channel. I know I will be upset if that happens to us next year when we travel to Columbia, but it's all the more reason to head to Athens for the game or get out to a sports bar and enjoy your Saturday.
FTRS: Can the Clemson defense contain the potent Tech offense? Will the Clemson offense dominate the vulnerable Tech defense? How do you see it all turning out on Saturday?
STS: As you point out, it is certainly strength versus strength in this one. Clemson has been getting off to slow starts lately. With so many offensive players returning from injury and SS Robert Smith suspended for the first half I fear that'll be the case again this week. If Clemson can keep it very close in the first half, I think the offense will find it's rhythm, the defense will settle in and Clemson can gut it out in a 30-28 type game.
Keep on eye on Georgia Tech's dive play. If Grady Jarrett and the veteran defensive line can shut it down, the Jackets will run into big trouble. If not, well you've seen what the option looks like when it's working.