I welcomed the hype Miami got prior to last week’s game. In all honesty, it gave Clemson a chance to experience the perception boost that we often complain the SEC teams get. Miami is still a team that can compete for 10 wins, but they are not on Clemson’s level and, as I predicted, the Tigers won handily by more than three scores. It was physical domination, as well as mental, all night long.
The Tigers now hit the road for the short trip to Atlanta for a high noon kickoff. In days of the not so distant past, trips to Atlanta were rightfully met with serious trepidation. The Tigers went from 2003 to 2016 without winning a game there. One year, Clemson had to play without star running back James Davis and lost a close game. Another year, Charlie Whitehurst played with a hurt shoulder and wasn’t the same, and the team lost. Of course, in 2014, Deshaun Watson tore his ACL, giving way to a pretty banged up Cole Stoudt and a subsequent defeat. Now it seems beating GT and winning in Atlanta is a formality. GT Coach Geoff Collins is hoping to change that narrative in year 2 of his tenure.
Clemson offense vs. GT defense: All hail Travis Etienne! He has been great, as we know, but he delivered one of his electric long TDs on a huge stage and may actually be getting the type of national attention he frankly has deserved for two+ years. Let’s not forget the folks behind the Doak Walker Award didn’t even make him a finalist last year. All I can say is I can only remember two times in the last 30 years where a team had a QB/RB combination like Clemson’s in 2020: The Penn State team with Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter and the Southern California team with Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. And you can make a strong argument that Lawrence and Etienne are better than all of those guys.
GT’s defense does have some strong pieces here and there, namely the members of the legendary (for GT) Swilling family. Their strength is in their back four, but they have proven to be a bit of a boom or bust defense so far this season. Etienne ran all over them last year in Death Valley. Their run defense is still problematic, as seen by the big yardage Javian Hawkins of Louisville put up on them, but at the same time, they have created some turnovers and made some big plays. This is still a big mismatch, especially when you consider this year’s Clemson offense is built around the running back and tight ends much more than last year’s was. That means your linebackers and safeties need to be a strength, and I’m not sure GT has the horses there to slow this offense down much. They will need to hope for more opportunistic takeaways like they got vs. Louisville to stay competitive.
I would expect Clemson to focus more on its running game this week than last, when the Tigers came out with the quick passing game to loosen up the Miami defense. Etienne eventually busted loose to go well over 100 yards, but it took a while to get to that point. GT doesn’t have nearly the front four Miami has and needs to scheme up pressures. The Jackets were shredded by Central Florida’s offense earlier in the season, but were not at full strength in the secondary for that game. They looked a lot better in pass coverage against Louisville’s good skill people. Just as Etienne has taken things up a level, so has quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who continues to be surgical. Lawrence did have the one fumble last week but has yet to throw a pick or even really come close to one. The Tigers need to get the staple inside runs going better than last week, and that will be something I’m looking for in this game.
Clemson defense vs. GT offense: Coach Collins is in year 2 of transitioning out of the Paul Johnson option offense, but things have to be considered ahead of schedule for them. Former FSU commit Jeff Sims coming to Atlanta has been a major shot in the arm for their spread attack. He has helped lead the Jackets to over 400 yards in every game this year. Of course, this hasn’t been against the 85 Bears, 02 Bucs, etc; but is noteworthy nonetheless. GT wants to run the ball with their pretty deep running back corps, then attack with RPOs and quarterback runs, primarily. Like Miami, they are not refined in the drop back passing game, and are in some trouble if they have to rely upon it. If Clemson can stuff the run the way they did last week, the Jackets will be in for a very long afternoon.
GT will turn the ball over, which is partly due to the overall youth of their major skill guys. Sims has thrown 8 interceptions already this season. Those are bumps that usually happen with youth. They certainly haven’t seen anything like the Clemson defense to this point in the season. Louisville has one of the worst defenses in the power 5 that I’ve seen, right up there with Ole Miss. Miami found out very quickly that they were dealing with a different animal going from facing Louisville and FSU to facing Clemson. Sims is about to go through the Brent Venables trial by fire. He’s got some swagger to him, and it should be fun to see him take the test.
This is certainly a much more dangerous offense than the one Clemson saw last year. They can actually throw the ball at a decent clip for the first time since Calvin Johnson was suiting up in the blue and gold. They will need to be precise because the Tiger secondary, especially the corners, has really emerged. Clemson now has four legitimate corners in Derion Kendrick, Andrew Booth, Jr., Mario Goodrich, and Sheridan Jones, Jr, who have all made big plays and were absolute nails last weekend. Jaelyn Phillips responded to his first start at safety with several bright moments. There is a serious upward trajectory for this defense as some of these talent young parts get more experience.
Special Teams: Oh boy, last week was rough with the field goal unit surrendering not one, not two, but THREE blocked field goals, with one being returned for a TD. Miami clearly exploited a serious flaw they found on film on the right side of the protection. Luckily Clemson was able to win comfortably despite these disasters and will hopefully correct the exposed problem before it might lead to real danger in a future game. I agree with Dabo that the decision to kick the 61-yarder wasn’t smart. I would have liked to have seen Potter give that one a rip, but the game situation wasn’t right for that risk and gave Miami some life when they had very little going into the half. Dabo owned it, though, and that’s all you can ask as you move on. Spiers has had by far his best year to this point, and delivered the few times he was called on last week. Miami’s kicking was good and the Tigers were limited to fair catches and taking touchbacks primarily. As for GT, we get to watch THIS guy punt for them!
Overall: I think Geoff Collins is doing a very good job, but his Yellow Jackets are not yet ready for what is about to unfold on Saturday. They will need to play flawlessly and hope Clemson really takes the foot off the gas after last week’s big win over Miami. However, I don’t see that happening and Clemson cruises to another victory.
Clemson 52-GT 13