Last week went as planned with Clemson putting the game away early and playing nearly everyone who had a uniform against SC State. Now, the Tigers turn their attention to conference foes with Coastal rival Georgia Tech coming to town. This used to be a high-stress opponent as recently as 2014, but Clemson has completely dominated the Yellow Jackets since that last loss. Clemson and Georgia getting their acts together had to be a huge factor in Paul Johnson’s decision to call it a career. Clemson’s dominance was especially apparent in last year’s 73-7 laugher in Atlanta, which featured punter Will Spiers finishing the game at quarterback. The Jackets are looking for traction with their new program under Geoff Collins, but as we saw in the Q&A Ryan did with their SB Nation site, patience is already wearing thin with some of the GT faithful.
Clemson is still looking to build the offense around all the guys taking on new featured roles. Last week was encouraging in terms of the running game, but that won’t mean much if the Tigers struggle this week against an FBS opponent. Let’s take a look at the matchups.
Clemson offense vs. GT defense: This year’s attack looks much more 2017 than 2018-2020. That ‘17 team really needed the running game more than the Trevor-era teams. Kelly Bryant was definitely a good runner and his best passing games came when the Tigers had a running game working. Even though DJU is a far superior arm talent, his two great games last season were helped by facing defenses geared to stop Travis Etienne. The Tiger staff looks determined to set him up that way once more, but UGA was able to stop the Tigers while keeping the safeties back deep. You have to think teams will try to use that strategy as much as they feel they have the personnel to do it. Thankfully, very few teams can say they have what UGA brings to the table in the front seven. GT is not one of those few.
There has been some controversy with Lyn-J Dixon and new running backs coach CJ Spiller. Spiller is a new voice with a new vision of how he wants to create the hierarchy of the position group. Elliott tended to rotate his backs by series rather than within a series and the starter typically took the first two series exclusively before any subbing happened. Spiller has run his backs in every two to three plays so far. The downside of this approach is that a back will have a harder time getting into a rhythm, but the upside is the backs should stay fresher and, in theory, be more engaged knowing they really are one or two plays away from being in the game at any time.
I think this will calm down once Spiller and the staff feel a true alpha has emerged, but who knows how many games it will take for that process to happen? We are likely to see heavy rotation again this week vs. GT. It certainly appears that Will Shipley is emerging as the leader in the clubhouse to be that RB1 going forward, but Dixon is a talent whose response to this latest test of his mettle could either result in being a Kelly Bryant scenario or a Cornell Powell scenario.
GT’s secondary is considered the strength of their defense, both in experience and in recruiting ratings coming in. The Tigers might see them actually try to challenge the Clemson WR in more traditional man coverage with a single safety or perhaps even cover zero, which very few teams have tried to do in recent years. UGA played a ton of man under but that is much easier to do effectively when you know your two safeties are behind you to help you over the top. This is essentially what the Saints did to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last Sunday — as great as Davante Adams is, he wasn’t getting free much. This is all dependent upon the front being dominant, which the Saints certainly were (UGA was too).
Tiger fans will be eager to see if DJU can take another positive step in the passing game after a big step was taken with the running attack last week. GT will have to hope for some splash plays on defense to hopefully get Clemson behind the chains or turning the ball over. The Tigers were loose with the football last week, so that will be a point of emphasis.
Clemson defense vs. GT offense: Clemson’s defense has been as advertised so far this season. The only thing that we haven’t seen yet is a flurry of sacks, but that has largely been due to two teams either getting rid of the ball within 3 seconds, max protecting, and/or using a lot of roll-outs. SC State was able to hit a couple of big plays but that had more to do with excellent throws and catches than subpar coverage or blown assignments. That is how you want to see a team have to beat you because more often than not they won’t be able to make those plays consistently. GT is in year three of their total offensive rebuild from the triple-option to a spread system. There has been a lot of talk about the quarterback situation and who will start, but the keys to their entire system are running backs Jahmyr Simms and Jordan Mason.
GT is like a poor man’s North Carolina or Miami in that both of those teams really struggle to throw the ball effectively if their run games are not setting it all up even though both of those teams have good quarterbacks. Tech has very little hope of moving the ball unless they can generate at least a decent run game to help either Jordan Yates or Jeff Sims.
We’ve seen a lot more zone coverages from the Tigers this year and a big reduction in blitzing. This isn’t too much of a surprise thanks to a much improved and deeper front four. This has really helped the Tigers cut down on giving up explosive plays through two games. They are better suited to contain the quick passing game and potentially deal with a dual-threat QB. Venables wants a team to have to rely on longer developing routes to really hurt the Tigers through the air knowing his front is likely going to get that QB off his spot or sack him before that can happen. Zone allows more eyes to be on the football and should help create more interceptions, and we’ve seen two good ones already this season from Spector and Mickens. This should only get better with Nolan Turner’s return to the lineup as he’s been the best zone safety in the program going on three years now — it really plays to his strengths.
Of course, you never really know with Venables because he is so unpredictable. We could easily see a game plan with a lot more man or aggressive cover 4 mixed with exotic blitzing, but my guess is he will keep a certain amount under wraps if he is able. GT will hope they can find a way to get some angles with misdirection and option principals, and Sims, Mason, and especially Gibbs are capable of winning one on one in the open field. Clemson will aim to get multiple hats to those guys, and playing zone helps with doing that.
If Clemson has a weakness on defense, it hasn’t really shown itself as of yet with the first unit. There is always the chance that complacency could become an issue, which we saw at times in the past with otherwise stellar defenses in 2015 and 2017 in particular. Even the 2018 group had the embarrassing night against Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks before being tremendous through the postseason. You hope the depth will mitigate any chances of that happening this year. The defense needs to remain sharp while the offense continues to find itself this season.
Special Teams: How about that Will Taylor? I didn’t talk about him earlier in the offensive preview, but I’m certainly excited about what he brings to the table as a wildcat QB and punt returner. We’ve all been hoping for the next Hunter Renfrow to come along, and Taylor may very well be that. Now, Renfrow is a legend and his ball skills and route running were elite, but Taylor has the short-area quicks with a little more size and probably better speed. Hopefully, he can stay healthy because we could be in for some treats with his talents.
Dabo rolled B.T. Potter out there to see just how far he could kick a field goal. It was a 58-yard attempt and it brought back memories of the 1983 UGA game where Kevin Butler and Donald Iwebuikwe were kicking from the paw at midfield. Potter came up short, unfortunately.
Kick return isn’t getting much work at all, which is fine by me. It has been so far, so good with the special teams to this point. I must say that I will miss GT rolling out Pressley Harvin at punter now that he’s moved on to the Steelers. Harvin was to punting what Jared Lorenzen was to quarterbacking in my eyes.
Overall: GT really shouldn’t be able to compete in this game. Clemson is having some growing pains on offense, but the list of ACC teams who might be able to take advantage of such weaknesses was short to begin with, and it only appears to be getting even shorter with recent injuries across the league. Potential Atlantic contenders NCSU and BC have had some really bad news on the injury front. The Wolfpack already laid an egg in Starkville, and the jury is out on how the Eagles will adjust to losing their future NFL quarterback. This won’t be the 73-7 beatdown that we saw last year, but the Tigers will cruise to victory and hopefully stay healthy in the process.
Clemson 41-GT 13
FOCO has created a limited edition (only 321 being made) Trevor Lawrence bobblehead commemorating Clemson’s perfect 15-0 2018 season. It is now available for pre-order. You can see it here.