Count me among those who now usually overlook Georgia Tech on the schedule — nearly unthinkable as recently as five years ago — thanks in part to the ever-widening talent gap but mainly due to Brent Venables and his monster defensive lines consistently overwhelming the Tech running game. In every year but 2012, Venables has all but smothered Tech up front. Even in 2014’s loss to the Jackets (the only loss during the Venables era), Tech managed one offensive touchdown and it came on a drive in which Tech beat Mackensie Alexander with back shoulder throws, not Grady Jarrett and company on the defensive line.
So what gives? Clemson still has Venables, even better monsters up front, and Tech replaced a three year starter QB; surely another Clemson victory, right? With Tech’s improvement across the board — especially on the offensive line and overall defense — against a Clemson offense lacking a fully-healthy Kelly Bryant, I’m not so sure.
Tech will employ the now universal 4-2-5 nickel, with its strength found in the secondary. Field corner Lance Austin, his brother nickel corner Lawrence Austin, and strong safety Corey Griffin have all played very well this season and should make life difficult for a Clemson passing game which seems to only target its field and slot receivers with any sort of consistency.
Given Tech’s relative strength in the back end, I’ve been surprised to see coordinator Ted Roof play so conservatively up until the Wake game. With a strong secondary, you’d think Roof would lean on the group and load up against the run, which has been the weakness of the defense. After a slow start defensively, Tech finished very strong in the win over Wake with plenty of pressure from linebackers and aggressively shallow safety depth:
It’s worth noting Roof still prefers to keep two high safeties behind its linebacker blitzes, and the Syracuse film (plus Clemson’s quarterback situation) will encourage Roof’s recent zeal for sending linebacker pressure even with two high safeties. Until Clemson shows it can successfully target the middle void left behind the linebackers and between the safeties, why would a defense attack Clemson in any other manner than this:
The linebacker pressure both clogs run lanes and pressures the quarterback (either a hobbled Bryant or a likely overwhelmed Zerrick Cooper) plus dissuades the deep shots to receivers downfield. Considering the situation, dare I say Tech’s secondary has a clear advantage against the Clemson passing game, especially in the rain? And by extension should be able to outnumber a Clemson ground attack likely lacking a QB run threat?
In addition to the aforementioned defensive backs on the strong side, lately it’s been free safety AJ Gray who’s best embodied Tech’s improved physicality and aggression (both in scheme and demeanor). He was a terror against Wake in the box, used primarily to further torment the ground attack and bait RPO passes:
Tech’s aggression with Gray led to plenty of opportunities for Wake’s slot receiver in man coverage and nickel Lawrence Austin had himself a rough game. This week he faces Hunter Renfrow, who is far less imposing after the catch despite being perhaps the best possession receiver on the planet. This is a gamble I expect Tech to take even more emphatically against Clemson, since they’ll especially want to test Bryant’s mobility and will trust their man coverage behind the pressure:
I think this is a bad matchup for Clemson given the circumstances. Clemson should have success running off tackle and to the edge against mediocre DEs, but perimeter and tight end blocking have been so poor that I can’t expect Clemson to find much success there; Clemson has found consistent push on inside runs, but Tech is stronger up the middle than on the edges. Something will give, but the rain and Bryant’s presumed injury will encourage Tech to play even more aggressively, keying on the running backs without fear of Bryant beating man coverage with both his arm and his legs as he’s done so well this season.
Make no mistake, Tech is a much improved team across the board this season, even without graduated QB Justin Thomas or the booted B-Back Dendrick Mills. I see this game transpiring in one of two ways, and each comes down to Bryant’s mobility: either he will prove healthy enough to burn Tech’s aggression and carry Clemson to a relatively comfortable low-scoring win in the rain, or we’ll see a repeat of the Syracuse game, in which the defense teed off on him once they realized he was a duck.
The game hinges on Bryant’s ankle and the staff’s ability to make Tech pay for coming after him. It’s easy for me to presume Clemson will come out sharp and furious after its first loss of the season; easy for me to hope the bye week gave Bryant the time he needed to heal; easy for me to believe Clemson will overpower Tech based on talent alone. But that’s irrational fan-speak, and I have to go with what I see: a defense which matches up favorably against the current state of the Clemson offense.
One could reasonably believe Tech will turn it over a few times on errant or wet ball option pitches, but that’s another irrational reach which one can’t objectively forecast. Barring a transcendent blocking performance, Clemson will have to throw in the rain or run Bryant to win. This doesn’t favor a team without a kicker and an injured-until-proven-otherwise quarterback (no matter what the staff claims; his health will be obvious if they aren’t calling runs for him).
I don’t like this matchup, and all that’s keeping me from rather confidently predicting a Tech win is a ferocious Clemson defense. Though if Bryant is his normal self, Venables and his front 7 will allow Clemson to win comfortably. But how long can he be effective on a wet field facing consistent pressure from a defense intent on testing that ankle? If Bryant is hobbled or removed — I can’t help thinking he will be hobbled at best — the offense will go only as far as inside runs and bucksweeps (plus PA and RPOs off of them) allow. Given the talent at running back and the offensive line’s quiet success at clearing a lane to the second level, I think the ground game, with some bye week creativity, will find just enough success against the Tech defensive line for Clemson to escape.