FINALLY, FOOTBALL HAS COME BACK TO DEATH VALLEY! I had to channel The Rock there because the excitement is real. We don’t even have to wait for Saturday to get that orange football drug injected directly into our veins.
ACC Coastal rival Georgia Tech comes to town for the ACC Network’s marquis launch event, giving the Tigers a very rare Thursday night home contest. Unlike that very forgettable NCSU game way back in 2002, Clemson enters this game the reigning national champions and heavy favorites to go back for another one. The program added another “first” during the Dabo Swinney era with a debut at #1 in the two major polls. It has been a magical ride, and the challenge now is to remain king of the hill while not forgetting what got us there OR growing complacent. My daughter and I re-watched the 2004 GT game disaster on Sunday afternoon just so she could have some perspective and appreciation for what Clemson has now.
Watching Miami and Florida on Saturday night gave me even more appreciation for the coaching here. Yes, the Tigers have great talent, but both the Hurricanes and Gators have some high end talent and managed to look like a Keystone Cops routine a lot of the evening, and ESPECIALLY in that fourth quarter. Clemson won’t be perfect on Thursday night, but rest assured we won’t be seeing the myriad of procedure penalties, delay of games, and mind numbing situational gaffs that littered the field in Orlando. I won’t even talk about the antics from both teams in the midst of that madness. That said, let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this upcoming game.
Clemson offense vs. Georgia Tech defense: I cannot imagine being an opposing defensive coordinator throwing on the film of this offense and trying to decide what to do. It appears the Yellow Jackets will employ a much more aggressive brand of defense than what we typically saw from Paul Johnson’s coordinators. I suppose hoping to create negative plays and potential turnovers is the only way to go, considering how lethal Trevor Lawrence can be if allowed to survey the field. If you look at the numbers, Lawrence becomes EVEN MORE lethal when blitzed though! This doesn’t even take into account that the Tigers first and foremost want to smash you with the running game and arguably the best back in the nation, Travis Etienne. The past two years have seen the final piece of the puzzle, the offensive line, take the necessary step to truly cement elite status on offense. Alabama’s complete inability to get to Lawrence in time was even more telling than when the 2015 team lined up in the I-formation and powered in for a TD against the Tide. If I were a sympathetic fan, I would pity the Yellow Jackets defense.
Both sides of the ball are going to have to deal with the element of surprise due to the staff and system overhaul, much like we saw last year against Texas A&M. However, the Jackets are younger and less talented than the Aggies were last year, plus they are on the road. We already know that the Clemson offense faces about the most multiple defense you can see at the college level in practice, so several potential advantages for GT should be mitigated. How GT chooses to try to stop the Clemson running game will determine everything else that we see beyond the initial scripted plays of the game. Run blitzes will be a given, but how involved the safeties become in run support will be what I watch the most.
If I were GT, I’d look to attack the tight end position when Clemson is in 11 personnel and hope that is a weak enough link to disrupt the run game. However, just like with Deshaun Watson’s teams, getting Clemson in third and long is certainly no assurance of getting off the field defensively. Lawrence and the Tigers ripped Notre Dame and Alabama apart on third and long situations on many occasions. Clemson is very likely to run a lot of 10 personnel on third and longs and is capable of still popping a big run if you choose to get small in a dime defense. It is game one, and there is the chance that the Tigers will have some first game issues with timing or perhaps be too excited and miss on some throws. It is more likely, at least in my eyes, that the Jackets will look a lot like the U of SC’s defense did in last year’s Palmetto Bowl when the Tigers put up nearly 800 yards of offense.
What can you say? Clemson has legitimate Heisman contenders at both QB and RB, at least two sure fire first round draft picks at WR, a veteran offensive line, and a team of offensive coaches going into their fourth full season together. Their only true opponent is themselves.
Clemson defense vs. GT offense: I find it funny how much I went from dreading facing the Paul Johnson option system to looking forward to it in the last six years. Brent Venables simply overwhelmed the GT offensive line during the last few meetings with that dominant front seven and consistently gave Paul Johnson the worst rushing numbers in his accomplished career. Even the last great GT offense from 2014 had to rely more on back shoulder fades to their big WR (and pick sixes on the other side of the ball) to produce a win over Clemson. Now new GT coach Geoff Collins will unveil a very 21st century looking attack. We will see the uber-popular 11 personnel groupings and even some empty formations. The Jackets probably haven’t shown an empty set since Ralph Friedgen was calling plays. Much of what they will do resembles a lot of what Clemson and many others are doing these days, just with GT personnel.
The biggest concern for GT has to be their offensive line. GT’s OL have been living off cut blocking and leaving certain guys unblocked to be optioned forever now. When GT did have to do some dropback passing, the pass protection was usually atrocious. Now we will see a lot more pulling and zone blocking in the run game, RPOs, and traditional play action. I fully expect GT to come out with a lot of quick game concepts to see if they can nickel and dime a few drives together while gauging how well Clemson’s retooled front seven matches up. We all know that Venables isn’t going to sit back and let GT try to get comfortable with their run game, and I expect we will see a good bit of single high looks to allow Tanner Muse to do his thing coming downhill into the box. Clemson is going to take at least a half step back in run defense without the Power Rangers, but the Tigers still possess a potentially elite edge rusher in Xavier Thomas who will feast in obvious passing situations.
This is really the most exciting part of this game in my mind because you have the unknowns of GT’s new system coupled with seeing guys like Justin Foster, James Skalski, Chad Smith, Tyler Davis, and Jordan Williams unleashed in major roles for the first time. Chances are at least one guy is going to have us saying, “Wow, where did he come from?” It will be also very interesting to see just how much multiplicity Venables will bring to this contest. I certainly recall how the supposedly “weak link rebuilding” defense of 2015 came out of the gates with its hair on fire and expect something similar this year.
Special Teams: Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the 2018 team’s dominance was just how little the kicking games tended to factor into the contests. Clemson’s largely mediocre punting never really became an issue and only the Syracuse game got dicey with an Amari Rogers muffed punt in the early fourth quarter that led to the only Orange score of the second half. This game really shouldn’t come down to this phase, but the fact that the team now has a kicker in B.T. Potter who can legitimately hit 50+ yarders is even more reason for opponents to worry. If his accuracy has improved as advertised, look out. Meanwhile, Clemson fans will get to see the 5 star duo of Joseph Ngata and Derion Kendrick on kick return. Perhaps the kickoff return TD drought will come to an end this year. I’ll be interested to see how many of the new faces we see used on special teams, particularly the young linebackers.
Overall: The Tigers will have just about every college football fan’s eyes on them on Thursday night with a chance to showcase Death Valley at night, which is always electric. Anything less than a dominant performance would be a total shock to me. The element of surprise is on GT’s side, but that will only go so far before the well oiled machine gets rolling. The best the Jackets can hope for is a Boston College or Duke-esque effort where they fight like hell and Clemson is just off enough to make it game into the third quarter. I say this is over at the half.
Clemson: 54, Georgia Tech: 10