Dan Radakovich was concerned, sort of. His current team was about to play his former team, and the Clemson athletic director was thinking of what might go wrong. He settled on the day of the week.
“We don’t like playing on Thursday,” he said. “Our fans have to come from two and three hours away, and it’s tough on them.”
Sure enough, there were a few empty seats at Death Valley when the game commenced. And the Tigers worked a distracted first half, committing three turnovers and starting four drives with penalties. The reigning national champs weren’t sharp, and Trevor Lawrence, regarded in some circles as the greatest quarterback prospect ever, threw two interceptions and was lucky not to have more. Against a halfway decent opponent, Clemson might have been in trouble.
Halftime score: Clemson 28, Georgia Tech 0.
Final score: Clemson 52, Georgia Tech 14.
This told us two things, neither of which came as a shock. First, that the Tigers are so gifted they can fool around and get away with it. Second, that these under-new-management Yellow Jackets are some distance from being halfway decent.
About that new management: For the longest time, Tech looked much as it had under Paul Johnson – the same, only worse. Remember how these 21st century men of Geoff Collins were supposed to throw the ball? They threw it nine times in the first half. They completed two passes for 11 yards.
Collins hadn’t specified which quarterback would start, but it was a mild surprise that Tobias Oliver did. As a backup to TaQuon Marshall last season, Oliver rushed for 876 yards. He threw only 16 passes, completing seven. He carries the dual-threat tag, but he hasn’t proved he can hurt anybody via the air. Clemson caught on fast, as we saw in a lamentable goal-line sequence.
With Clemson leading 21-0, Lawrence threw an awful interception. Tre Swilling took the gift and returned it to the 2, Lawrence making the tackle. Hilarity ensued. Oliver gained a yard on a fake swinging-gate sort of thing. He gained nothing on a quick snap. Tailback Jordan Mason gained nothing on a direct snap.
Fourth-and-1. What to do? Tech’s choice was to have Oliver roll right. His halting pass was deflected and intercepted. Somewhere Paul Johnson was laughing himself silly.
Let’s be clear: Tech was never going to win this game. There’s a reason it was picked last in the ACC Coastal, a reason it entered as a 37-point underdog. But Clemson built a 35-0 lead not by scrupulous execution but by hitting big plays – Travis Etienne went 90 yards after the Tigers were called for holding – and by seizing on Tech’s many lapses.
The first Clemson possession went nowhere. But, before you could say, “Here’s where Tech goes down and kicks a field goal and takes a picture of the scoreboard,” Juanyeh Thomas muffed the punt. Clemson made it 7-0. There would be no lead, even a momentary one, for Collins in Game 1 of Year 1.
That said, what did you expect? For the most part, Collins is coaching Johnson’s recruits, and Johnson’s recruits were never prime. Minus the great equalizer – Johnson’s stylized offense – what does this Tech team have going for it? Its sunny personality? Its skill at calculus?
Collins afterward: “I’m really proud of the effort. We tackled well.”
(Note: Clemson finished with 632 yards.)
Also: “The story of the game was big plays. Tre made a great interception. We weren’t able to capitalize on it.”
Then, about Tech’s offense, which mustered 294 yards: “We’re figuring out who we are and what our personnel can do.”
Then, in a rather upbeat summation: “We kept competing all the way through. When you have something like that, you’ve got something to build on.”
The over/under on Tech victories this season is 3-1/2. (Don’t blame the messenger. Optimistic Bark Madley picked the Jackets to go 6-6.) This could well be a long, long season.
On the other hand, the Jackets have already played the best team they’ll see. (Yes, this includes Georgia.) If they can right themselves over the next nine days and beat South Florida, Collins will have built a bit of a platform. If they can win at Temple the next week, they’ll be 2-1 with six games against so-so Coastal teams ahead. If there’s any sort of a passer on this roster, there are wins on this schedule.
This, duh, was among the fattest L’s in Tech annals, and it could have been worse. There was a time when Johnson’s Jackets could handle Dabo Swinney’s Tigers. That time is long gone. Clemson has risen to an exalted plane. Johnson no longer coaches Tech. These Jackets could have done their best on a night when the Tigers played their worst, and the result wouldn’t have been different. The margin, maybe, but not the result.
From a Tech perspective, the best thing about this opener was that it was aired on the just-launched ACC Network, which many major cable carriers have yet to add. Meaning: Fewer eyeballs beheld the Tigers managing to cover that massive spread, which was on a lot of minds.
Before kickoff, Tech president Bud Peterson asked this correspondent for a prediction. Then he said, “Please don’t say 36.”
At the end, the scoreboard said 38. But there will better days. It would hard to imagine any worse.