This weekend good ol' boy PAW=L (sic) Johnson brings his unranked, 2-3 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets into the personal house-of-horrors that has been Death Valley of late to take on Dabo Swinney's sixth-ranked, 4-0 Clemson Tigers. Johnson's Jackets have lost their pre-season "buzz," having followed up dominating wins over hapless Alcorn St. and Tulane with devastating losses to Notre Dame in South Bend, to Duke in Durham, and to North Carolina in Atlanta. Johnson won his first matchup with Dabo in the Valley 21-17 in 2008, Swinney having been on the job as interim head coach just five days and Johnson in the middle of his first year at the helm in Atlanta. Since then, however, the Jackets have fared rather poorly amidst the roar of the Tigers' den, losing three straight in 2010 (27-13), 2012 (47-31), and 2013 (55-31).
Despite this recent string of setbacks in Death Valley, Georgia Tech has legitimate reason to boast about its all-time gridiron record of 51-27-2 against Clemson, more wins over the Tigers than any other team. But that dominance deserves an asterisk, as every game (36 total) between 1907 and 1974 was played in Atlanta, with the Tigers claiming just four victories, in 1907, 1936, 1945, & 1969. Prior to that Clemson and Tech had squared off just seven times, all but one in the state of Georgia (a 41-5 Tiger victory in Greenville, SC in 1899). In seventy-eight all-time meetings Clemson has played just eighteen home games against Georgia Tech, compiling a 12-6 record to go along with a 2-1 record at neutral sites (1898: 23-0 Tigers in Augusta, GA; 1899: 41-5 Tigers in Greenville, SC; 2009: 39-34 Jackets in Tampa, FL for the ACC Championship).
In spite of a bevy of common historical traits: both were founded in the late nineteenth century (Tech—1885; Clemson—1889); both were all-male until the 1950s (Tech—1952; Clemson—1955); both desegregated in the early 1960s (Tech—1961; Clemson—1963); both have renowned engineering and architecture programs, and both have traditionally strong athletic departments and traditions, including famous fights songs (Tech—Ramblin' Wreck; Clemson—Tiger Rag) and stadium entrances (Tech—The Ramblin' Wreck; Clemson—The Hill & Howard's Rock), the Tigers and Yellow Jackets just don't get along.
Perhaps it's because Tech owned the Tigers for so long on the
uneven playing field. But maybe more recent history is to blame; since Tech football joined the ACC in 1983, the Jackets enjoy the slimmest of margins: 17-16 head-to-head after last year's debacle in Atlanta. That includes an unprecedented streak from 1996-2001 in which every game was decided by exactly three points. Twelve of the last twenty games have been decided by five points or less, and eleven of the Yellow Jackets last fourteen wins have been by seven points or less. By contrast, of Clemson's sixteen wins since 1983, only five have been decided by five points or less, with only the 1991 (Tigers 9-Jackets 7), 1993 (Tigers 16-Jackets 13), 1996 (Tigers 28-Jackets 25), and 2002 (Tigers 24-Jackets 19) home wins, and the 2001 (Tigers 47-Jackets 44) road win coming via single-digit margins. Since 1983, the series has generally led to closely contested affairs, but when Clemson wins, it tends to win by double-digits, especially at home.
Clemson didn't get out the gate at home against Tech in quite so dominant a fashion, however. The Tigers' first-ever home game against the Jackets came in 1974, which Clemson won 21-17, coincidentally the mirror image of Paul Johnson's first and only win in Death Valley thirty-four years later in 2008. The '74 Tigers were led by head coach Red Parker, quarterback Mike O'Cain, and All-American tight end Bennie Cunningham. Clemson claimed victory on a decisive touchdown pass from O'Cain to Cunningham with just 8:26 remaining on the game clock, the first win in what would prove to be a perfect record (6-0) at home on the season. Clemson finished 7-4 overall (4-2 ACC) and unranked, while Tech finished 6-5, also unranked.
The two programs played three consecutive games in Atlanta from 1975 to 1977 (the Tigers losing 33-28 in 1975, tying 24-24 in 1976, and winning 31-14 in 1977), but would not play again, in Clemson or Atlanta, until Tech joined the ACC in 1983. Georgia Tech athletic department officials had announced before the 1977 matchup their intention to end the series with the Tigers, which rankled many among the Clemson faithful who enjoyed the bi-annual trip to Atlanta. One especially prominent voice of dissent was Clemson athletic booster George Bennett, who went on a personal crusade to preserve the game. Bennett and many other Clemson fans, having been deprived of a bowl trip since 1959, relished the trek to Atlanta as a different way to experience Tiger football. To further prove the worth of the rivalry, Bennett encouraged Clemson supporters to pay for all of the expenses in Atlanta that year with two-dollar bills stamped with tiger paws, to demonstrate the economic boon provided by the Clemson fan base on a game weekend, and a Clemson road/bowl game tradition was born: the Two Dollar Tiger Bill.
In 1983 Danny Ford's Clemson Tigers welcomed the Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech back to Death Valley for just the second time ever with a 41-14 mauling. Led offensively by quarterback Mike Eppley, running backs Kevin Mack and Kenny Flowers, and flanker Terrance Roulhac, and on defense by tackle William Devane and linebacker Henry Walls, the Tigers annihilated a hapless Jackets squad that would win just three games on the season under head coach Bill Curry, finishing unranked at 3-8. The Tigers would finish at #10 in the polls with a 9-1-1 (7-0 ACC) record, but were denied the conference championship and bowl participation due to NCAA probation for previous recruiting violations.
In 1987 Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Ross brought his first Yellow Jackets squad to Clemson to receive a 33-12 drubbing at the hands of Danny Ford's Tigers. A roster stacked with Clemson legends manhandled the Jackets that day. Up front the offensive line included Eric Harmon, Jeff Bak, John Phillips, and Jeff Nunamacher, while the backfield was led by quarterback Rodney Williams, running backs Wesley McFadden and Terry Allen, fullbacks Tracy Johnson and Chris Lancaster; the flankers were Keith Jennings and Gary Cooper, and the tight end was (current tight ends coach) Dan Pearman. The Tiger "D" was led by an equally revered cast of characters that included tackles Michael Dean Perry, Raymond Chavous, and Tony Stephens, linebacker Norman Haynes, and defensive backs Donnell Woolford and James Lott. One of the most Tim Bourretian stats ever came out of this game as well: "Clemson entered the game with a streak of 999 consecutive combined punt returns and kickoff returns without a touchdown dating to 1970. Then, on the 1000th return, Donnell Woolford raced 78 yards with a punt return for a touchdown...later in the game Joe Henderson returned a kickoff return 95 yards for a touchdown. It is one of just two games in Clemson history that the Tigers have returned a punt return for a touchdown and a kickoff return for a touchdown." [the other being the 2009 Middle Tennessee State game when CJ Spiller returned the opening kickoff 96yds for a touchdown and Jacoby Ford took a second-quarter punt 61yds to pay dirt].
Georgia Tech ended the season unranked at 2-9 (0-6 ACC). The Tigers, meanwhile, finished the year off in style, demolishing Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions 35-10 in the Citrus Bowl to cap a 10-2 (6-1 ACC) campaign that was good enough for a conference championship crown and a #10 ranking in the final polls.
In 2006 Tommy Bowden's 12th-ranked, purple-clad Tigers ended an absolutely perfect day in Tigertown by dismantling Chan Gailey's 13th-ranked Yellow Jackets 31-7 with a raucous capacity crowd and millions of ESPN television viewers bearing witness. The day had begun at 9am with ESPN's iconic College Gameday show making its inaugural trip to Clemson, and it ended with James "Thunder" Davis and CJ "Lightening" Spiller running roughshod over John Tenuta's Tech defense to the tune of 321yds (8.4yds per carry!) and three touchdowns combined on the ground to go along with 116yds and another touchdown (50yds to CJ Spiller) from QB Will Proctor through the air in a completely dominant performance. It undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest Tiger game day experiences of all time.
The Jackets finished the season unranked at 9-5 (7-1 ACC) despite the Clemson loss being the only blemish in conference. They would lose to Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game, then drop a 38-35 Gator Bowl thriller to the West Virginia Mountaineers. The Tigers limped even more conspicuously down the stretch, losing four of their last five games, including a 28-20 Music City Bowl defeat at the hands of the Kentucky Wildcats, to end the year unranked in the final polls.
History certainly shows that this one could and probably will be closer than the respective team records and rankings would initially indicate. However, history also shows that Clemson wins far more frequently in the Valley, and when it does so, it tends to do it up big. That historical record plus Brent Venables track record against PJ and the Jackets triple-option attack should give Tiger fans plenty to cheer about come Saturday afternoon and into the evening. And of course, Clemson has Deshaun Watson, who's looking to even up his record against his native-state adversaries (0-1 currently after last year in Atlanta), as well as the Wayne Train, another Georgia boy primed and ready to exact revenge for last year's Hotlanta meltdown. Combined all signs point toward a beautiful orange-and-purple sun setting on another Tiger victory "where the Blue Ridge yawns its greatness."