You can find my answers to Ryan's questions here.
FTRS: It was thought before the season that the Clemson defense would take a major hit from losing guys like Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Stephone Anthony. How surprised have you been with their ability to reload and look just as dominating at times this season?
STS: In 2013, Chad Morris directed one of the best offenses in the country as Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins tortured opposing defenses all year and eventually beat Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. After their departure, the replacements were not able to quickly fill the void and Chad Morris's 2014 offense suddenly looked pedestrian.
With that experience and loads of NFL talent departing from the 2014 defense, one could only expect a drop-off from the defense. Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett left the Clemson D-line to join the 4-0 Falcons' D-line. Stephone Anthony, our outstanding middle linebacker, was selected in the first round by the Saints. Unheralded but essential guys like cornerback Garry Peters and safety Robert Smith also left. Plenty of others like LB Tony Steward also departed.
Despite this, the only dramatic drop-off from 2014's defense is depth. Last year, many of the stars of the 2015 defense were second stringers. Now, the second stringers are a bit less established. We'll have an article coming out shortly entitled "You're Irreplaceable" that will discuss a handful of defensive players that absolutely have to keep up their exceptional play for Clemson to make the College Football Playoffs.
Overall, it's a huge statement about Clemson's recruiting, culture, and coaching that the defense has refused to regress notably from a season ago.
FTRS: How satisfied do you think the fan base has been with the offensive production so far? Do most people think they could be much better, and do people feel like Deshaun Watson still isn't performing up to his caliber?
STS: The offense has been a little disappointing. Interestingly, it appears that the areas that fans expected to be weaknesses have been become strengths and vice versa. The defense is a positive example, but on the flip-side, the receiving corps has been unexceptional. Clemson has sent Nuk Hopkins (a top 5 NFL WR), Sammy Watkins, and Martavis Bryant to the NFL in recent years. With four and five star guys like Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Charone Peake, Ray Ray McCloud, Deon Cain, Trevion Thompson all still on the roster, this should be a huge strength. It hasn't been.
Mike Williams fractured his neck in the Tigers' opening game. Charone Peake moved out of the slot position to fill his role, but hasn't shown the aggression or ball skills to win the deep 50-50 balls or slap down possible interceptions. Thompson hasn't gotten his shot to fill the void yet, though it could come against the Yellow Jackets. Artavis Scott has been awesome, but is a shorter receiver, and one man does not make WR-U.
I've absolutely heard people discussing Watson's perceived struggles, but I think it's a bit premature. He struggled against Louisville's stout defense last season and did so to a small extent again on the road on a Thursday this year. He looked solid against Notre Dame, but some key drops (arguably due to the rain) and very conservative fourth quarter play calling (also possibly due to the rain) may be to blame for a humble state line. Even his interception in that game was more to blame on the receiver (Peake) than him. He was over-hyped and may not be the greatest athlete of all-time, but he's going to be just fine.
FTRS: Georgia Tech typically plays Clemson fairly well, but the Jackets have had a rough start to 2015. How much has this slow start affected the perception of Tech from Clemson fans when looking at this game? Do you think people should still be looking at this as an upset-potential matchup?
STS: Well, I think you said it yourself in the question. This has gone from a marquee College Gameday type affair to an possible upset alert. The thought prior to the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech face-off was that the winner of that game could bring College Gameday to Clemson. It was true, it just wasn't who most predicted.
So I think the overall emotion and feeling around this game is a lot different than what it could be. Students are on Fall Break, it may rain, and we're coming off a tremendously hyped ABC 8pm game. These are all good things for a team seeking an upset.
FTRS: What do you think is the strongest part of the Tigers' defense this year?
STS: Maybe the only thing about pre-season expectations that was correct, is that the Tiger secondary is the strength of the defense. Mackensie Alexander is the best cornerback in the nation. Notre Dame's Will Fuller was touted as the top WR in the country coming into their matchup in Death Valley. After catching at least one touchdown in every game to that point, he failed to find pay dirt against Clemson. In fact, he only had two catches and I believe Alexander was only defending him on one of those. He had 124 receiving yards against UVA and 131 against GT. Alexander made one of the best WRs in college football totally irrelevant for an entire football game (one could point to the rain, but four other ND players had more receptions).
On top of that Jayron Kearse is one of the more physical safeties and will play a major role is stopping Georgia Tech's vaunted rushing attack.
FTRS: Does Mike Williams likely being out for the season worry you at all in terms of Clemson lacking some playmakers on the outside?
STS: As alluded to above, yes it does. I'm still holding out hope he returns in time for Florida State and any potential postseason games, but that's still up in the air. If Charone Peake isn't able to step up to fill the void, we may be better served by moving him back to the slot and trying someone else in that role.
One comforting thing is that ScElliot (our pseudonym for Co-Offensive Coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott) is much more dedicated to the run and improvement from the offensive line and Wayne Gallman has decreased Clemson's reliance on the vertical passing game.
FTRS: Give me three offensive players for Tech fans to watch for on Saturday.
STS: Wayne Gallman is our much improved starting running back. After a rotating door of backs last season, we finally have a clear starter. He is a bit different from the C.J. Spiller/Andre Ellington types that have come out of Clemson most recently in that he's more of a power or at least balanced runner than a speed back.
Artavis Scott is our best healthy receiver has a good case against Tyler Boyd as the best in the conference. He also returns kicks and punts.
Deshaun Watson is a given, so I'll go off the beaten path and give you Mitch Hyatt. Our true freshman left tackle won't catch your attention because he's just doing his job. For a true freshman to be filling in where Isaiah Battle left off without missing a beat is quite the feat.
FTRS: Give me three defensive players for Tech fans to watch for on Saturday.
STS: I've discussed Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse so I'll just give you one more. WLB #10 Ben Boulware moved into the starting lineup and has quickly made his mark as one of the best blitzing and run-stuffing linebackers in the conference. Look for him to attack the line of scrimmage aggressively in an attempt create broken plays and tackles for loss. Paul Johnson will likely try to use his aggression against him rather than being completely bowled over by it. He's certainly one to keep an eye on.
FTRS: Finally, give me your prediction for this one.
STS: The overall rivalry record (27-50-2 in favor of GT) is not indicative of how competitive this rivalry has been. Clemson was a small football program in the Southern Conference and didn't get a chance to host the Yellow Jackets until 1974. Since that 1974 modern era checkpoint Clemson holds an 18-18-1. One of those GT wins is technically vacated, but nobody cares.
This has been a great rivalry in the modern era and is always one that worries me. I view at this weekend's game as the third hurdle of our toughest stretch (Louisville/Notre Dame/Georgia Tech). I'm always hesitant to pick Clemson (I picked GT in 2011), but in Death Valley I feel more comfortable, and with Brent Venables coaching our defense I feel much more at ease. Clemson should win this game and I believe they will. Ideally, Clemson's passing game opens up and the defense shows depth and poise in holding firm late, but I'll be more cautious in predicting a competitive 31-20 Tiger victory.