5 things to know about Georgia Tech’s matchup with No. 6 Clemson

Georgia Tech defensive back Tre Swilling (3) intercepts a pass intended for Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell (17)  at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. on Thursday, August 29, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia Tech defensive back Tre Swilling (3) intercepts a pass intended for Clemson wide receiver Cornell Powell (17) at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. on Thursday, August 29, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The odds are against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are a 28.5-point underdog to No. 6 Clemson on Saturday.

“Great coaches, great players, great environment,” Tech coach Geoff Collins said. “It’ll be a packed house, I’m sure, and we know we’ve got our work cut out for us, and the leadership in our program has to get us ready.”

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The third game of Collins’ third season has arrived, and it is a doozy of a measuring stick. Five things to know about the game:

1. Clemson’s firm control of series

The superiority that Clemson has claimed in this 123-year-old rivalry isn’t fully conveyed through its six-game win streak over the Jackets – the longest that the Tigers have claimed – or in the average final score of 44.5-13.8 of those six meetings.

In those games, the Tigers have outgained the Jackets in offense by an average of 531.7-214.2. The smallest margin was 198 yards. (As a point of reference, Tech outgained Kennesaw State 412-272.) Tech has not led at any point in any of the six games and has trailed by no fewer than 18 points at halftime of each. Last year’s 73-7 win for Clemson at Bobby Dodd Stadium set an ACC record for largest margin of victory in a conference game.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called the Jackets a “much improved team” from last year, citing their experience.

“You can definitely see the improvements with what coach Collins and his staff are doing,” Swinney said. “They play with great effort. I think that’s a sign of belief. You don’t see guys loafing around or anything like that. They play hard, they play tough.”

2. Potential advantage for Jackets

Tech could profit from ball-security issues that Clemson has encountered in its first two games. The Tigers have fumbled seven times, losing one. Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker has made creating fumbles a high priority, even setting a goal of leading FBS in takeaways. (The Jackets have four in two games, tying them for 24th.)

“That’s definitely a concern,” Swinney said. “Ball security is the No. 1 way to get beat for sure, and we’ve had a lot of balls on the ground.”

Further, Thacker’s defenses were able to cross up (to some degree) former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw three interceptions in 55 passes in the 2019-20 Tech-Clemson games while he averaged one interception for every 77.4 passes against other opposition.

In two starts this season, Tigers quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has completed 54.1% of his passes with two interceptions in 61 attempts.

“There’s always things that teams like to do, and we try to figure those things out, but we try to bring those things to the game and see if it gives us success,” said cornerback Tre Swilling, who picked off Lawrence once in the 2019 season opener.

Thacker said that Clemson is “super talented at a bunch of spots,” but that offensive coordinator Tony Elliott seems to be figuring out the offense’s personality with Lawrence in the NFL and new pieces like Uiagalelei and running back Will Shipley. The Tigers could muster only three points and 180 yards against Georgia, but mauled FCS South Carolina State in a 49-3 win (with 504 yards) on Saturday.

3. Clemson expects both quarterbacks

The decision of Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude not to name a starting quarterback has complicated preparations for Clemson. Swinney said he expected both Jeff Sims and Jordan Yates to play.

“If y’all got any intel, go ahead and let me know,” Swinney said to media at his weekly news conference. “We don’t know if (Sims) is going to play. They’re going to do what they do regardless, but there is a little different emphasis (with the two quarterbacks).”

His evaluation of both: “Yates is a good football player, man. He’s a winner – state champion quarterback – savvy, savvy kid. Tough and very consistent. But Sims is maybe a little bit better of a runner, a little more explosive in that part of the game, and he’s a gunslinger, too, now. He can rip it.”

Swinney reserved his highest praise for running back Jahmyr Gibbs.

“The back is special,” he said. “He is a special, special player. He can do it all. He’s going to touch it every which way they can get it to him. He’ll have 20-plus touches when the game is over, there’s no doubt about that. He’s a dynamic player.”

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said that Tech’s running backs – Gibbs, Jordan Mason, Dontae Smith and Jamious Griffin – “are as good as we’ll see all year.”

4. Adjusting for speed

The Tech defense has prepared for Clemson to employ an up-tempo pace. The Jackets had some issues against Northern Illinois when the Huskies shifted to a faster pace between plays.

“We are preparing more often, because it is a tendency for (Clemson), especially after earned first downs, to go fast,” Thacker said. “Very similar to what a lot of teams do in the country.”

Thacker said that the defense can keep up by making simpler play calls from the sideline and rehearse getting lined up quickly between snaps. The Jackets will need to be particularly wary of Shipley, the freshman running back, and wide receiver Justyn Ross, who missed the entire 2020 season after surgery to repair a congenital spine condition.

Thacker said that Shipley is “absolutely dynamic” and compared him with Gibbs. (Shipley splits time with Kobe Pace, a Cedartown High product whom Tech recruited.) Thacker described Ross as “one of the elite players in the country when he’s healthy.” Ross is a standout route runner and has over-the-top ball skills. Tech’s defensive backs may not face a better wide receiver this season.

5. Sellout crowd awaits

Saturday’s game will be Tech’s first away game in a stadium at full capacity since 2019. The largest road crowd that the Jackets played in front of last year was 17,358 at Florida State as schools limited attendance as COVID-19 protocol. A sellout crowd is expected at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, which has a capacity of 81,500. Clemson and Virginia Tech are considered to have the two loudest home crowds in the ACC.

For several players, it will be their first experience in that sort of environment. Three of Tech’s starting 22 against Kennesaw State – right tackle Jordan Williams, defensive end Jared Ivey and Gibbs – played their first season of college football in 2020, as did Sims. Yates has played in one game in a full-capacity road environment, before 21,741 at Duke in 2019.

Clemson has won a school-record 29 consecutive games at Death Valley, also the longest active home winning streak in FBS.

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