“A tremendous opportunity,” Paul Johnson called it, and he told no lies. Beating the nation’s No. 5 team in prime time would serve as an HOV lane for Georgia Tech’s return to national prominence. One thing, though: Man for man, the nation’s No. 5 team is way better than Tech.
Johnson on Clemson: “A very, very talented team.”
And: “Their receiver, No. 7, is as good as has played here in a long time.”
And: “They’ve got good players. They’ve done a really nice job recruiting.”
And enough of that. In terms of manpower, Clemson can stand with any team in the country. We saw that in January, when the Tigers amassed 530 yards against Kirby Smart’s Alabama defense in an epic 45-40 loss. Not all of those players are back, but enough are. (And the aforementioned No. 7, whose name is Mike Williams, missed last season due to injury.)
And yet: Clemson has played three games without impressing anybody, which is how the team that ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press preseason poll has come to be No. 5. The Tigers beat Auburn by six points and Troy by six. It has been impossible to watch the 2016 version of Clemson and not be reminded of Florida State in 2014 and Ohio State last year. Difference is, those massively gifted teams underachieved coming off a national championship. Clemson is defending only its 2015 ACC title.
Deshaun Watson, the superb quarterback from Gainesville High, apologized last week for having brought “negative energy” into the season. Wayne Gallman, the splendid tailback from Loganville, made the finish at Auburn a hairbreadth thing by running out of bounds in the final minute. Ray-Ray McCloud, the inspirational receiver/returner, botched a touchdown against Troy by flipping the ball before crossing the goal line. Those expecting a Clemson colossus are still waiting.
The Tigers have beaten Tech in four of the last six meetings, but Johnson notes – he’s good at noticing stuff – that a rebalancing of the Jackets’ schedule forced them to darken Death Valley two years running. No visitor has won in this series since Tech at Clemson on Oct. 18, 2008, five days after Tommy Bowden was ousted and receivers coach Dabo Swinney named interim replacement. The only regular-season loss the Tigers have suffered with Watson as their starter came at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Nov. 15, 2014. (To be fair, he got hurt that day.)
“We can play with them,” Johnson said Monday. “We’ve played with them before.”
Sometimes, yes. Not last season. Clemson led 33-10 at the half and 43-20 at the end, outgaining Tech by 307 yards. Johnson:“They beat the fool out of us. They beat the fool out of a lot of people … We weren’t very good last year.”
Tech is 3-0 coming off 3-9, which might make you think a rapid reset has been effected. But the Jackets’ victims have been Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt. If you combined those three rosters, would you find one player who’d start for Clemson?
Tech’s defense has yielded 31 points in three games, which by Tech standards is Steel Curtain stuff. Being his pragmatic self, Johnson allowed: “I don’t think anybody would confuse (Tech’s opponents) with a stalwart trio of offensive teams. I can’t look in a magic hat and think we’re going to shut out Clemson. I haven’t seen anything to make me believe that. Have you?”
Er, no. For the Jackets to win Thursday, Clemson will have to lay an egg. Just don’t suggest such a thing to Dabo. It was after last season’s Tech game that he loosed his rant about “Clemsoning,” as in “losing to to somebody you shouldn’t.” Dabo’s deathless words: “We ain’t lost to anyone unranked since 2011, but I have to come to a press conference in 2015 and get asked that. And that’s all media bull crap.”
For the record, the Jackets are unranked. I’m not, er, bullish on their chances.
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