Georgia Tech is paying homage to the 1990 NCAA Championship team on Saturday by wearing the navy-blue jerseys that team sported during its title run. Chances are it will take more than that to keep the Yellow Jackets close against No. 3-ranked Clemson on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta.
Georgia Tech (1-2, 0-1 ACC) will host the Tigers (3-0, 0-0) at 3:30 p.m. on a game that will be nationally televised on ABC.
“They’re a talented team,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “They might be the most talented team we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
That includes the 2016 Clemson team that won the national championship and the 2017 Georgia team that finished second in the nation.
No wonder Las Vegas has set the line at 17 points, making Tech the biggest underdog since Johnson arrived at the school 11 seasons ago.
Depending on your source, Georgia Tech either leads the series 50-30-2 (by Tech’s records) or 51-30-2 (by Clemson’s records) or 50-32 (according to the ACC). Regardless, Clemson has dominated the series of late, winning the last three and five of the last six. Georgia Tech’s last win came in 2014 when Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson blew out his knee in the first half.
Clemson won 26-7 last season in Death Valley. The game was played on a rainy day. Clemson scored a touchdown and Tech fumbled on the ensuing possession, which led to another Clemson score. The Tigers scored 17 straight points and put the game away.
Clemson has had less trouble than most opponents when it comes to defending Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack. Last year Georgia Tech rushed for only 198 yards against the Tigers, their second-lowest total of the year (they had 188 against Georgia). And Georgia Tech’s most successful runner last year, KirVonte Benson (16 carries for 129 yards) hurt his knee in the second week of the season and is out for the year.
“We’ve played Clemson for a long time now,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a pretty good idea of what we’re going to do. They’re a talented team.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he knew little about defending a triple-option team until he landed the job with the Tigers.
“I’d never been around the triple option not a day in my life,” Swinney said. “I grew up in the I Formation. I get the Clemson job on a Monday and … oh, by the way, we’re playing a triple-option team on Saturday. It’s Paul Johnson’s first year. Nobody knows anything about it.”
Georgia Tech ran for 207 yards that day in 2008 and beat Clemson 21-17.
“I learned real quick that if we’re going to have a chance, we’re going to have to make this a part of what we do,” Swinney said. “If you don’t, you’re going to be behind the eight ball.”
Clemson began to devote time to defending the triple option during the spring and fall. They set aside time to work against the offense in practice, even on weeks when they weren’t playing Tech. (The same approach has now been taken by Georgia and Pittsburgh, which beat the Yellow Jackets last week in the ACC opener.)
“Those little 5-, 10-minute periods going a long way in the grand scheme of things,” said defensive end Austin Bryant. “So I’d definitely say that helped a lot.”
It also helps that Clemson has some very talented defensive players. Bryant, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell were all named preseason All-ACC.
“They’ve got three or four guys who could first-round draft picks,” Johnson said.
Last week Clemson beat Georgia Southern 38-7 and allowed the Eagles to gain only 140 yards, 80 of that on the ground.
“At one time Georgia Southern had run 30 plays and had 39 yards,” Johnson said. “They had one first down in the first half.”