Following Friday night’s upset loss (my thoughts on that game here), the Tigers enjoyed a bye week to rest and prepare for Georgia Tech. This 8pm home game represents the start of the de facto playoffs for the Tigers. It’s the dynamic that makes the college football regular season the best in sports. With Syracuse’s loss to Miami this weekend, Clemson controls their own destiny in the ACC, but may need to win three-straight to punch their ticket to Charlotte.
The S&P+ ranks Georgia Tech as the third toughest opponent the Tigers have faced this season (23rd) behind Auburn (12th) and Virginia Tech (17th). The Yellow Jackets are coming off their best win of the season, a homecoming victory over Wake Forest in which they ran for 427 yards and outscored the Deacs 25-3 in the second half to secure a 38-24 victory.
Under Paul Johnson, the Yellow Jackets are obviously best known for their ground-and-pound triple-option offense and we start our analysis with the offenses, but first our usual explanation and caveat.
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) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.
This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Eric Dungey) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2017 Clemson v. Syracuse), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2017 Clemson vs. Wake Forest). As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope it’s an especially informative one.
Notes specific to this analysis:
- CB Marcus Edmond has returned from injury and re-enters the two-deep. This pushes five-star freshman AJ Terrell out of this week’s analysis and drops the average rating for Clemson’s secondary from 3.38 to 3.13. Terrell will still see snaps and the secondary will have even more depth now.
The Tigers head into another contest with a clear talent advantage on offense. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they haven’t maximized their offensive talent to this point in the season. Deon Cain has just 299 receiving yards and two TDs through seven games. TE Milan Richard has only tallied 12 receptions and 155 yards. CJ Fuller has struggled with fumbles and has been passed on the depth chart by younger more explosive players.
There certainly have been bright spots. Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud have been the Tigers most impressive receivers combining for 64 of the team’s 148 total receptions. When healthy, Kelly Bryant has been a dynamic runner, tallying 393 rushing yards (2nd on team) and seven rushing TDs (1st on team). True freshman Travis Etienne leads the team with 446 rushing yards and averages 8.7 YPC.
Where Clemson must grow if they are eventually going to beat a team like Georgia, Alabama, Notre Dame, or Penn State is their red zone passing. This becomes even more important with a struggling kicking game. Bryant has just four passing touchdowns on the season. His ability to run is especially useful in the red zone, but this offense’s inability to to pass against congested goal line defenses is a concern. Against GT, this may not be as much of a problem though. If Kelly Bryant is back to near 100%, they should be able to push their way into the end zone. If he is not healthy, GT’s defense is certainly good enough to take advantage.
On offense, Georgia Tech hasn’t missed a beat after replacing QB Justin Thomas. TaQuon Marshall has taken over at QB and proved to be quite the dynamic runner himself. He had a 70-yard TD run against Wake Forest this weekend and showed a little of that “Travis Etienne type” burst. TaQuon Marshall’s excellence and Paul Johnson’s triple-option system go a long way in neutralizing the talent-deficit.
In Georgia Tech’s option offense, the B-Back is the bruiser that lines up directly behind the QB and can take the dive play. The A-Backs start out wide and can receive the pitch when the QB runs to the outside.
B-Back Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team prior to the start of the season after leading the team in rushing last season. This obviously left a big void to fill coming into the season. KirVonte Benson has filled that void racking up 652 rushing yards and 5 rushing TDs while averaging 5.6 YPC.
The A-Backs have received far fewer carries than QB Marshall or B-Back Benson, but the committee of players filling the position all average over 7.0 YPC. When GT pitches it out, they’re dangerous.
Georgia Tech does not pass the ball often and averages just 76 passing yards per game. If Clemson’s aggressive defensive front can put Georgia Tech in third-and-long situations, the Yellow Jackets will be in major trouble.
S&P+ ranks Clemson’s offense 35th and Georgia Tech’s 31st. Clemson’s offense has more long-term upside as they (may) improve as the year progresses, but right now this is likely a push and potentially an advantage to Georgia Tech if Kelly Bryant has not fully recovered.
Fortunately, Clemson’s defense has performed admirably against Georgia Tech in recent years. Last season, the Tigers held them to just 95 rushing yards. In 2015 it was even more dominant as they held the Yellow Jackets to just 71 rushing yards. When looking at the talent Clemson has recruited, particularly to the defensive line, that’s not too surprising:
Clemson’s defensive line starts four future NFL players. Defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant have 5.5 sacks each. Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins have been excellent at clogging running lanes. This defense has allowed just 2.90 rushing yards per carry and only two total rushing TDs on the season.
Dorian O’Daniel in particular will see a lot of snaps as Clemson will stay in base defense (rather than nickel or dime) throughout the game. He has the speed to track down ball carriers from across the field and prevent big plays and is a sure tackler. He will play a big part in stopping this option offense. Where the Tigers struggled defensively against Syracuse was with individual matchups against big WRs. That will not come into play much against Georgia Tech.
The Yellow Jackets defense is ranked just 43rd by S&P+. They’ve only played one good offense (Miami), and held them to just 25 points, but were aided by a rain storm and still surrendered a game winning TD driving in the closing minutes. There’s no reason Clemson shouldn’t move the ball against Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech does not have the raw talent to keep up with electric players like Travis Etienne and Ray-Ray McCloud and there is no unique defensive scheme they can hide behind. Clemson should be able to do things like:
That said, Clemson’s offense really struggled when Bryant was immobile. His ability to run opens up other options so it’s critical that he is healthy. While coaches and Zerrick Cooper himself have said they were happy with his play, his misses to open receivers in the biggest situations have to be a serious concern to those who want to see orange in the end zone.
The talent, the matchup against a run-heavy offense, and the home field advantage in Death Valley (at night!) favor the Tigers. If Kelly Bryant is back to his usual dynamic self, the Tigers should have enough offense - with their significant advantage on defense - to improve to 5-1 in ACC. If he’s not healthy, we could be in for a low scoring battle.