It’s almost time for toe to meet leather. It’s been a long, long offseason for Georgia Tech fans. 9 wins in 3 years will do that to you. There’s a level of angst around the program that I’ve never experienced in my decades of fandom. As we’ve written recently, at least it’s time for actual football, which means that one way or the other, the tension and pressure that have built up will be relieved.
Georgia Tech starts the season under the lights of Mercedes Benz Stadium, with a national audience on Labor Day night at 8 PM. Clemson awaits on the other side of the ball, ready to get their own offseason of angst behind them.
As we dive into the matchup, the numbers come from 2021 games, and the final prediction comes from our preseason TBI ratings, which include three years of performance data, opponent adjustments, and returning production.
When GT Has the Ball
Georgia Tech put together a slightly below average offensive performance last season; a new offensive coordinator and 8 projected new starters on the offense hope to create more on this side of the ball. Of course, much of the outcome will come down to the play of the most important returnee, QB Jeff Sims. Sims played significant snaps in only 7 of GT’s games last season; he led the team to solid offensive performance against North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia. None of those defenses can hold a candle to what awaits GT on Monday night.
Clemson grades out as an outstanding defense across the board. In most metrics, that defense produced at the very top of the national leaderboards. We see one exception, as the Tigers posted an uncharacteristically low havoc rate in 2021, one that could only be considered “good” instead of magnificent. With the return of players like Trenton Simpson, Myles Murphy, and Brian Bresee, Clemson looks likely to return to their normally rarified airs of disruption.
This generally isn’t good news for a Georgia Tech team that continues to struggle with preventing disruption and blocking fronts of this caliber. Teams that had defensive lines in the same class as Clemson (Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, UGA) caused all kinds of problems for GT last year. Of course, Tech will be starting four new players on the offensive line from game one of last year, and three new players from the end of last season. There’s a lot of unknown there, but it’s unlikely that this is all of a sudden a really good line. Can it be decent? Is it devoid of a massively weak link? Those questions will go a long way in determining whether Monday night quickly turns into a blowout.
Georgia Tech does not have any points of statistical advantage on this side of the ball, so we have to look for points of less disadvantage. We see that most clearly in GT’s above average rates of EPA/rush and allowing run stuffs. You’re almost guaranteed to see a heavy reliance on the run and an effort to control possessions in Chip Long’s first game in charge of the offense.
If GT does gameplan in that direction, Jeff Sims has to be central to those efforts to moving the ball on the ground. He was by far GT’s leader in EPA/rush last season, and without the big play threat of Jahmyr Gibbs, the importance of Sims to find some explosives becomes even more paramount. There is no way that GT can successfully line up and run the ball conventionally against the Clemson front. Misdirection and a heavy reliance on the QB are mandatory.
Georgia Tech kept it close against Clemson last year. Jordan Yates led a very conservative but moderately effective offensive game plan. He didn’t turn the ball over and carried the ball 12 times for an impressive 62 yards, considering that yardage also includes 4 sacks. Check out the detailed box score from gameonpaper.com for a review of that one. GT’s best chance of keeping this close involves a similar performance that combines quick passing, QB rushing, and no turnovers.
When Clemson Has the Ball
Now, we come to the side of the ball that feature’s last season’s weaker unit for both teams.
You’ve probably read a few paragraphs this offseason about how bad the Clemson offense was last year. That is certainly true. Unfortunately, the GT defense was worse. Tech does have one point of advantage here, as the GT rush defense actually ended up rating quite well by the end of last season, while Clemson’s running game was merely middle of the pack. Otherwise, the mediocre Clemson offense still looks better across the board compared to what was a historically bad pass defense for the Yellow Jackets. The personnel on the backend for GT is largely different, and in this case, that can only help. I expect Jaylon King to play much more sound, disciplined football than his predecessor, although I am worried about busts happening at the other safety spot. Starting Walton and Sims should be an upgrade at corner.
Georgia Tech became more and more susceptible to big plays through the air as last season progressed. The disruption that highlighted the terrific performance against UNC all but disappeared. Thacker and company must reverse those trends. Up front, much rides on the ability of Keion White to perform near his 2019 levels. I’m hopeful, but it’s hard to depend too much on something that is now three years in the rearview mirror. Behind him, Charlie Thomas will likely continue to be a significant part of GT’s blitz packages.
In the match up last year, GT’s defense largely prevailed. Clemson put above below average EPA and success rate numbers against Tech and managed only 14 points. It was probably the best down to down performance of the year for Thacker’s side of the ball. Will Shipley turned in a good performance; his backups could do nothing. The passing game for Clemson struggled to generate any explosives.
Is that kind of performance repeatable? Can Georgia Tech match up play after play against a mostly solid Clemson offensive line, contain the highly recruited but mostly unproven skill players, and force DJ Uiagalelei to move the ball with a steady diet of short but accurate throws? Joseph Ngata, E.J. Williams, and Beaux Collins have the pedigree to win on the outside. Can they actually get separation in a way that Clemson receivers struggled to last year? I would expect Clemson to prefer a run-first, play-action second attack given their struggles last season. If GT’s front can be solid and the backend stays sound, there’s a path to limiting this Tiger attack for the second year in a row. Of course, the talent and the history don’t point in that direction. It’s important that we keep the larger sample size in mind rather than overly focusing on what happened in the GT-Clemson match up.
The consensus Vegas line opened as Clemson -19 and has settled around -21.5, which translates to about an 8% win probability for GT. Our model here at FTRS, The Binion Index, has Clemson as a 25.5 point favorite. Looking at the more granular level, we identified 21 areas of advantage for the Tigers to go with only 1 area of advantage for GT.
We’ve tried to lay out the path to GT keeping things close, as in 2021. Looking at the big picture though, that simply doesn’t look likely. Expect a slow bleed and then perhaps a defensive score from Clemson if GT feels forced to take more risks. It’s time to put the ball down and see what this fateful season for our beloved Jackets holds.
Vegas: Clemson by 21
My Pick: Clemson 35-7
The Binion Index: Clemson by 25.5 (Clemson to cover)
Year to Date Against the Spread: 2-4 (33%, Goal: >=55%)
Average Absolute Error: 22 points per game (Goal <= 12.5 points per game)