Ah yes, friends, the long-awaited college football season is finally upon us! The first Thursday night turned in two major treats with Penn State pulling out a late win over Purdue (apologies to Drew) and an EPIC Backyard Brawl revival game where Pitt stormed back late to defeat West Virginia (who nearly had a 4th and 16-eqsue play of their own). It was nice to see another ACC school produce a top-level atmosphere. If the ACC is really going to survive the megaconference shift, having more interesting and relevant football programs (and subsequent fan followings) is going to be the ultimate factor.
But the REAL show for Clemson fans is of course Monday night’s tilt in Atlanta. That 10-3 season has tasted a little better after the fact than going through it, but current Tiger supporters are spoiled with conference titles and playoff bids. Games like Monday should be no-doubt displays of power and dominance, not the touch-and-go pressure cookers like we saw last year. All those lingering questions about the offensive line and the wide receivers and, most importantly, the quarterback can finally start being answered. We’ve heard all the right things coming out of fall camp, but when have we really not? I’m still waiting on any coach to say, “Yeah, well, we definitely suck up front and it will be a miracle if we cross the 50-yard line” or “Our defense can’t stop a nosebleed, bet the over!” in a preseason press conference. We heard about the red flags about last year’s OL heading into that UGA game...just a week or two ahead of the following season.
GT had that ultimate morale victory last season when the Tigers survived 14-8. It was ugly, it was frustrating, it was embarrassing. GT was not a good football team. Not being able to deal with a sudden shift to a 3-3-5 was akin to the second half of the 2008 Maryland game disaster that helped lead to Tommy Bowden’s ultimate ouster. Now we’ve heard buzzing (pun intended) from at least one GT player believing they will pull the upset off this time around. After all, their last game in this venue was an upset victory over UNC last year.
Last year’s unprecedented run of injuries resulted in “Diet Clemson” most of the season. This year, the Tigers are starting almost completely healthy across its two deep. I know it is just game one but the differences should be palpable even now if this program is really ready to step back up to top 4 elite status.
Clemson offense vs. GT defense: Here it comes, DJU 3.0. Version 1.0 was exciting and brimming with potential. Version 2.0 had all kinds of bugs, got dropped a few times and busted its screen, and most of the apps crashed and didn’t work worth a darn. Now 3.0 is out and is a slimmer, trimmer, cracked-screen free edition that looks great coming out of the box. Clemson fans are all anxious to see if that look translates into performance.
The good news is the Tigers have three top-shelf running backs and a much more seasoned offensive line, even with a true freshman coming out as first-team RT. DJ lined up in the Cheez-It Bowl with two true freshmen and a walk-on as his first team WR. Now he’ll have nearly every guy the staff has planned on him having on the perimeter. DJ really just needs to drive the car and the rest should take care of itself, at least in this game.
GT threw a defensive curve ball at the Tigers last year and, as noted above, it worked. Clemson should line up and pound the ball at the Jackets until they have no choice but to bring 8-9 guys up to deal with it. I don’t care if GT has a 3-man front or a 6-man front, get a hat on a hat and let Shipley, Pace, and Mafah win against the GT secondary. Then, if Joseph Ngata really is a future pro and Beaux Collins really is fully weaponized, they should punish the GT secondary in the inevitable 1 on 1 matchups.
In the Trevor Lawrence days, Clemson usually could execute the 5-8 yard hitch routes in its sleep as corners usually were desperate to keep things in front of them. Last year’s Tigers really didn’t have anything in the passing game that seemed automatic. If the Tigers can make a couple of passing plays look routine, that would be a huge step in the right direction for 2022.
Clemson defense vs. GT offense: While I approach the 2022 offense with cautious optimism, I look to the 2022 defense with giddy anticipation. We’ve finally reached the post-Venables era, but many of the hallmarks of his best units should still shine through with this group under the guidance of BV’s behind-the-scenes lieutenant Wes Goodwin. Former DL coaching legend Dan Brooks used to always talk about making a new line of scrimmage about two yards behind the original one with his DL. The peak Venables-era units usually made a habit of this practice. Opposing run games got abandoned and quarterbacks were often chucking and ducking.
The Tigers had to go through a DL reboot after the “Power Rangers” unit took their talents to the NFL with two National Titles to their names. That reboot has finally reached its fruit-bearing stage with a two-deep unit of monsters who have the proper mix of talent and battle-tested experience. More importantly, Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee will come out fully healthy, a rare sight over the past two seasons as both have struggled with frequent injuries. Guys like Ruke Orhohoro and Etinosa Reuben are no longer projects but seasoned dudes ready to make an impact. This unit truly rivals the elite 2014 front.
GT has quarterback Jeff Sims, but there isn’t a whole lot else that is familiar with this year’s GT attack versus the previous two seasons. GT had a huge roster overturn with transfers out (most notably star RB Jahmyr Gibbs) and transfers in (like former Tiger backup QB Taisun Phommachanh). Head Coach Geoff Collins is on the serious hot seat and desperately needs a landmark win like this would be to sell that his program is indeed making steps forward and not just spinning wheels in the mud. They had an unbelievable chance last year, but it feels to me a bit like missing the exhaust port of the Death Star with that one shot, and now your planet is going to die.
Sims is a classic boom/bust player. He was held out of last year’s game in favor of the much less talented but conversely more efficient Jordan Yates. Goodwin will be looking to harry Sims into the mistakes he has shown he will make in previous years. The Tigers are equipped with a deep and speedy LB corps which SHOULD be even more adept and handling a run threat at QB. LB play still has to begin with good eyes and gap integrity, but these guys can get home a half-tick quicker than the last couple of units. GT wants no part of having to throw the ball to win this game and the Tigers will be geared to make them do just that. Should Taisun enter the game, the GT game plan shouldn’t change much at all as his skill set is similar to Sims, just with slightly less arm talent.
Facing this DL will be a serious shock to the system for a lot of these opposing linemen whose programs can’t begin to simulate it in practice. What might have been good enough during scrimmages (and especially vs. the scout team) will quickly be exposed as not nearly good enough. GT will just hope to not have disastrous turnovers and to hit a few plays while the Tigers staff locks in on their approach. It is hard to see GT gaining any traction as this game progresses considering the depth Clemson enjoys across its front seven (even without Xavier Thomas available).
Special Teams: Any real upset usually features something going down in this phase of the game. Thursday night, the underdog WVU Mountaineers benefitted from a blocked punt they used to set up a touchdown in what ultimately was a one-score outcome. Of course, Pitt’s big pick-six play (thanks to a really bad drop/deflection) trumped that blocked kick in the end, but you get the gist. GT will certainly be looking to make something happen here. Clemson will be breaking in a new punter in a road game, so I would be shocked if they didn’t really come after whoever that punter ends up being.
Meanwhile, Clemson is still waiting for a kick or punt return touchdown after a long stretch without one. Will Taylor is back to provide an explosive threat at punt return, and Will Shipley and Kobe Pace are slated to return kickoffs. One would hope that kind of talent will pay off with some big returns over the course of 2022.
B.T. Potter should be poised for a run at the first team All-ACC kicker spot, if not more. He’s had the cannon leg from the start and his accuracy has improved over the last two seasons. This game shouldn’t come down to him but it's nice to know he’s there just in case.
Overall: Clemson has had a full year following last year’s loss to UGA hearing about the end of the program’s dominant run. That 10-3 season was a great accomplishment considering the many challenges that team faced and how many of those games easily could have gone the other way. There is something to be said for finding a way to win.
However, Clemson fans much prefer relaxing through the second half of a game put to bed before the half. I do firmly believe this team understood the cost of being elite in a way the 2021 team perhaps did not prior to that year. They ramped things up but midway through the season is too late to make sweeping changes. As they say, titles are won mostly in the offseason with preparation and focus. Everything I have seen and heard about this team points to what happened between 2014-2015, coincidentally the last time Clemson won “just” 10 games. That 2015 team was on a mission long before it took on Wofford.
It is foolish to expect a flawless performance in game one, but the Tigers should enforce their will on GT and dominate both lines of scrimmage. The Tigers should eclipse 200 yards rushing and stuff the GT offense.
Tigers 40-GT 6