When Paul Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech, the schedules were set up with conference opponents and uga to provide a really great home slate one year, and a really great one for the other teams in the off years. In the odd years, the Yellow Jackets would host North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Clemson, and uga -- four of their top five toughest annual opponents, at this point. It made for exciting & prosperous odd years, and a lag in ticket sales in the in-between years. Prior to departing Georgia Tech, Athletic Director Dan Radakovich was able to remedy this situation by agreeing to "flip" the Clemson-Georgia Tech series starting in 2013, meaning the Jackets would be tasked with playing in Death Valley two years in a row in order to better balance out their alternating annual schedules. (It ended up working out fairly well for the new Clemson AD Radakovich -- if he had departed Atlanta a month earlier, his teams would have been 2-0 in the series.) So, for the last two years, Georgia Tech has gone to Clemson, played in Death Valley, and lost. Last year's game was particularly tough, a Thursday night affair that was close for about a quarter before getting out of hand. A highly-talented Tigers team (that then saw 5 players drafted) took home the win, 55-31.
2014 is a new year, however. As you read in the opponent preview, the Tigers' impressive offense from the last couple of seasons is now finding itself needing to replace a lot of its core weapons, including its starting quarterback Tajh Boyd, its starting running back Roderick McDowell, and its top two wide receivers in Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, not to mention three starting offensive linemen. That said, they've recruited very well recently and have a ton of talent to replace all of those players, but the question remains of how much the lost experience will factor into the new players' success rate. On the other side of things, they have one of the brightest offensive minds in all of football in Chad Morris, their offensive coordinator. Morris is in the upper echelon of OC's nationwide, and could leave any year now if the right job offer comes his way. (For now, though, he's one of the highest-paid assistants in the country and working for a team that's seeing a lot of success.) As we discussed against North Carolina, Clemson is another opponent where more comfort with and emphasis on the nickel 4-2-5 set will come in major handy for Georgia Tech's defense. As much as they love to spread the field with 3-4 receivers and run shotgun, single-back sets, the Yellow Jackets defense needs to be prepared to counter a pass-heavy, high-flying attack with plenty of DB's on the field at all times. At the same time, a lot of the success to be had against them defensively will be related to crashing the backfield with a pass rush, so a lot of the success will be on the defensive front to create. Be prepared to see the Jackets in either a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5 for the entirety of this contest -- Clemson will rarely have less than 3 receivers on the field, and if they do it probably means they're within 5 yards of a safety or touchdown.
As much as Clemson lost offensively, they lost a more reasonable amount defensively. The Tigers bring back everyone on their defensive line, by which I mean literally everyone that was on the roster as a DT or DE last year is returning. They'll have three seniors starting up front in DT Grady Jarrett, DE Corey Crawford, and big, bad DE Vic Beasley. Oh, and they also have multiple backups that bring a lot of talent and experience with them as well. As mentioned in Bill C's preview of Clemson, this should be a top-10 defensive line in the country. That's concerning, or at least should be for Tech fans -- this offense traditionally has struggled against the best defensive fronts, even though they were able to go for almost 250 yards on the ground last year against this same front. If there's any part of this that's comforting for Yellow Jacket fans, it's that Clemson is replacing both starting corners and both starting outside linebackers, who play a considerable role in stopping what we do offensively. What that means is that you could see Georgia Tech make more of an effort at attacking the perimeter, where the less-experienced players are more prone to make mistakes and get caught out of position. That implies the offense is able to get away from Clemson's D-Line though, which is going to prove a tall task for Georgia Tech's "Goon Squad" (or whatever we're calling it these days) up front.
One thing that also needs to be pointed out here is that Dabo Swinney has never won at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and Clemson hasn't won there since 2003. The 2009 contest saw the most unlikely of heroes, K Scott Blair, hit 3 field goals, 3 extra points, record a tackle, and hit Demaryius Thomas for a 34-yard touchdown pass. Then, 2011 saw an undefeated, 8-0 Clemson team journey to Atlanta for the Yellow Jackets' Homecoming game. Even coming in on a two-game losing streak, the Jackets took it to Clemson for a huge 31-17 win (and the second field-rushing of my college career...Virginia Tech 2009 was the first). It's been a while since they've had to come in and win, and a lot has happened since then, but it's an interesting piece of history that could see itself repeat this fall.
I don't like this matchup, at least for Georgia Tech's offense. The Clemson front four, combined with MLB Stephone Anthony, is going to be a load to try and get past. Plus, I'm scared any time my team's defense has to go against a Chad Morris-coached offense, regardless of who's on that defense. This late in the season, Morris will have had the ability to coach up their players, and will be using them in a system that he's historically been able to manufacture a LOT of points with (tied for 8th nationally last year in scoring offense at 40.2 points per game). Georgia Tech will have the home field advantage, which is nice, but will be playing a game for the 7th straight week at this point. (Clemson will be coming in off of a Thursday night game against Wake Forest -- it'll be their second game in three weeks, and their first in 9 days.)
I don't know how this one will turn out, but a win would be huge for Paul Johnson in so many ways. If the Jackets can jump on Virginia Tech or Miami earlier in the season, this could be a pretty high-profile game where they're playing for a spot in Charlotte. If that's the case, I'd hate to bet against our guys on their home turf, hopefully under the lights.
How are you feeling about this game, Tech fans? Will Clemson be a more equal opponent after last year? Will their defense be hard to get past, or will Tech's offense roll on their home stage?