Let’s start here: I’m not about to sugar coat this game for you. That was awful. It was a complete and total embarrassment at home, on national television. Save a second-half drive where Georgia Tech moved the ball well and got into the end zone to prevent a shut out, that game really couldn’t have gone a whole lot worse.
You just watched a team, trying to reestablish its own relevance after a 3-9 season, go out and lay a giant egg on its own field, on a national stage, in front of a crazed crowd desperate for a concrete reason to believe this season would be different.
There’s no sugar coating that. The game was terrible, and there’s no two ways about it.
Still, it’s not the end of the world, nor is it the end of the season. I firmly believe Georgia Tech could still realistically win 8-9 games in the regular season. Here are three reasons why:
1. Let’s not forget who Clemson is.
If you’re the type of person who considers arguments to be a hobby, you’re probably familiar with the term “recency bias”. For those unaware, that refers to the human tendency to overvalue more recently-produced information.
The first two weeks of the season, we saw Clemson look remarkably suspect against a couple of otherwise unimpressive teams — Auburn and Troy. (Last week, they blew out South Carolina State, which really should mean nothing to anybody.)
It’s probably worth noting that this is the same team that returned basically everybody on offense, and a ton of talent on defense, from a team that gave Alabama all it could handle and was a couple of special teams gaffes away from going 15-0 and winning the national title last year.
Feel free to monitor what Clemson does going forward. At worst, they’re a 10-win team in the regular season that could easily represent the ACC in a New Year’s Six game. At best, they’re in position to finish what they started last year.
My point: there’s no shame in getting beat by Clemson right now, even in sound fashion.
2. The defense was actually pretty good for most of Thursday night.
I know, I know. Georgia Tech was down 14-0 before the second quarter started, and last year’s Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson had hardly broken a sweat. They were down 23-0 at halftime. That’s not good at all.
This is where context is valuable on some level.
Clemson’s offense had 13 drives in the game. The first three resulted in two touchdowns and a missed field goal — three scoring opportunities, good for 14 points.
After that? The Tigers’ final ten drives of the game saw a field goal, 7 punts, an interception, and only a solitary touchdown.
It’s actually a little more complicated than that, because the interception that ended a Clemson drive turned into a safety before the whistle blew off of an unfortunate and frustrating series of events. So, the drive ended by an interception gave Clemson two points, and its direct aftermath saw Clemson go 72 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. (All of this happened in the final 2:15 of the first half, by the way.) Effectively, a drive that the defense ended with a turnover turned into 15 plays for 101 yards and 9 points.
It was that kind of night for Georgia Tech.
But here’s the thing that you didn’t notice, and didn’t realize: after halftime, Clemson ran 27 plays for 95 yards (3.5 ypp), and failed to convert a third down until the third-to-last play of the game. As poorly as they started, and as bad as Ted Roof’s scheme seemed, they were really solid against a top-flight unit after making some adjustments. They were the difference between a 19-point loss and a 39-point loss, and we can’t dismiss their effort that kept the team in this game.
3. Defenses don’t get tougher from here.
Clemson’s defense has been extremely effective against Georgia Tech in three straight contests now. (The Yellow Jackets won two years ago, but scored 12 of 28 points on interceptions returned for touchdowns, and scored 9 more points on field goals. The offense, prolific as it was by that point in the year, only managed 251 yards on the ground and 353 yards overall — the team’s lowest output of the year, believe it or not.)
When looking at the schedule ahead, there are no more than 3 defenses that would even belong in the same conversation with Clemson’s in terms of potential to give Georgia Tech’s offense major issues. (I’m considering Pittsburgh, Virginia Poly, and georgia here. Even still all three have shown considerable flaws thus far.) The offense should have much, much more ability to operate in most of its remaining match-ups this season, and the team will be in good shape in those games if the defense can continue to build on its relative success to date.
Don’t quit on this team yet.
Again, I get it. That was one of the ugliest Georgia Tech losses of the Paul Johnson era. As much as I try to keep a level head and avoid rash conclusions off of any one game, I understand why so many fans are jumping straight to “let’s fire the coach” in the direct aftermath. It was really ugly and really hard to watch. It was embarrassing, and there’s a good chance you’re reading this at work on Friday after taking a few jabs from coworkers over how bad your team was last night. (If that’s the case, I regret to inform you that you’ll probably take more jabs as the day goes on. Brace yourself.)
It gets better from here. This team is still fully capable of jumping up and beating a team that nobody expects them to beat. The match-ups down the stretch are far more favorable than what you saw on Thursday night.
If we get to the end of the season and remain uninspired about the team’s accomplishments, we can reevaluate the staff members’ standings then. Until then, I’d recommend that you take a deep breath, let cooler heads prevail, and enjoy the ride. There’s more to come from Georgia Tech this season.