Grant Field at Bobby Dodd Stadium, in its rudimentary form, dates back to 1905. It is the oldest continuously used college football stadium in FBS football. After five consecutive Tiger losses in the venue (oftentimes when favored), it seems Clemson’s last win there dates back nearly as far.
Fortunately for Clemson, they’ve steadily increased the talent gap between the two programs and will have a clear advantage in that regard heading into Thursday night’s road contest (7:30 ESPN).
In this analysis, we look at the recruited talent levels on each teams depth chart (according to the 24/7 composite star ratings). We’ve divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) each comprise one-third of the offensive rating (weighted one-third each). Similarly for the defense, the two-deep at the defensive line, linebacking corps, and secondary each comprise one-third of the defensive rating.
We start by examining the offense:
We knew that Clemson had a talent advantage, but to see how stark it is at the non-QB skill positions is powerful. In the triple-option offense, wide receivers play a little bit of a different role - namely blocking on the edge - but the talent gap is also at running back. With Hunter Renfrow out with an injury and left off Clemson’s depth chart, the Tigers only have one skill position player in their two-deep that is below a four-star (TE Jordan Leggett). Conversely, Georgia Tech has no four-star players at those positions. Paul Johnson’s scheme can certainly equalize talent, but there is a lot of equalizing to do at the non-QB skill positions.
At QB, Justin Thomas - like Deshaun Watson - was a 24/7 four-star recruit and runs the offense well. Their offensive line is also respectable and came out of high school with a 3.20 average star rating. Clemson’s offensive line averages 3.80 stars.
It was only two years ago, with a roster of Paul Johnson recruits, that the Yellow Jackets beat Clemson, Georgia, and Dak Prescott’s Mississippi State Bulldogs. He is able to run his offense efficiently, sometimes even historically efficient, with the “right” guys, even if they aren’t the most talented players.
While such a pro-GT argument holds some weight regarding their offense, it doesn’t on defense where Ted Roof engineers a fairly traditional unit. Neither team returned many starters on the defensive side of the ball coming into the season (Clemson: 4, GT, 5), which only furthers the importance of raw talent. Let’s take a look:
The most dramatic difference on the defensive side of the ball is on the line, and this may be where raw talent is most imperative. You can’t teach size. You can’t teach having a 340lbs five-star freshman defensive lineman named Dexter Lawrence. Clemson’s two deep on the line is comprised of two five-stars with the remainder being four-star players. Georgia Tech lists just a single four-star recruit on their two-deep defense.
This is the talent gap which may make the difference in the game for Clemson. Clemson has the ability to wreck Tech’s dive play and force them to rely heavily on the outside run/pitch and the passing game. Can they still win under that condition? Yes, but it will be very difficult.
Clemson also has more than half a star advantage at both linebacker and in the secondary. Brent Venables has proven to be an elite defensive coordinator and has experienced success against Georgia Tech’s option attack.
It is the vast talent gap at the skill positions and even more so on the defensive line that give me confidence Clemson will break the curse and win in Bobby Dodd - on a Thursday night, no less! Am I overly optimistic or have the statistics convinced you, too?