What are reasonable expectations for Georgia Tech vs. No. 6 Clemson?

October 17, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Bruce Jordan-Swilling (29) gets tackled by Clemson's cornerback Malcolm Greene (21) during the second of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 17, 2020. Clemson won 73-7 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

October 17, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's running back Bruce Jordan-Swilling (29) gets tackled by Clemson's cornerback Malcolm Greene (21) during the second of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 17, 2020. Clemson won 73-7 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

On a sunny October afternoon at Bobby Dodd Stadium last year, Clemson and quarterback Trevor Lawrence delivered a beating of Georgia Tech unlike any that the Yellow Jackets had experienced in more than a century.

The No. 1 Tigers smashed the Jackets 73-7 behind 404 passing yards and five touchdown passes from Lawrence, who accumulated those career-high numbers in just over a half of play. Since its first season in 1892, Tech had allowed more points only once, to Auburn in 1894.

“So there’s some scar tissue from last year for me, personally,” defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said Tuesday. “That was not a fun moment, but you learn from those things. I think you learn from those type of things in life. It can drive you into a negative way, a bad spot, or you can come out on the other end of it.”

Last year’s win was Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney’s second consecutive blowout win over Tech and coach Geoff Collins, the first being a 52-14 runaway in Collins’ debut game with the Jackets in 2019. As his third confrontation with Clemson approaches – Saturday at Clemson – the Jackets have a fairly low bar to demonstrate that they’re closing the gap on the powerhouse Tigers, who’ve won six in a row against the Jackets, the past three by 28, 38 and 66 points.

“If they can keep them under 30, it would be great,” ACC Network analyst and former Tech captain Roddy Jones told the AJC. “Under 40 would probably be a win. Under 50 would be an improvement. Under 60 would be a little depressing.”

Tech’s season-opening loss to Northern Illinois could be dismissed as a fluky result. It’s debatable how much meaning can be drawn from the Jackets’ win over an injury-plagued Kennesaw State team. The Clemson game, the ACC opener for both teams, will be Tech’s clearest measuring stick of the young season.

When asked whether his team had closed the gap on Clemson in his tenure, Collins responded that “I don’t want to speak on those terms” and pointed out Tech’s defeat of the FCS Owls and its spread-option offense after losing in 2019 to FCS Citadel and its spread-option offense. The 45-17 win over the Owls, Collins said, is evidence of “the growth that’s been made in those instances. There’s been a lot of growth, a lot of development” with the roster, team culture, understanding of game play, confidence and maturity.

Collins also noted the significant improvement after two games with penalties. The Jackets finished 119th in FBS in penalty yardage in 2020 (74.9 yards per game) but after two games stand second (18.0).

But, of course, Collins was hired to lift the Jackets to college football’s elite and challenge the likes of Clemson, not only to beat FCS option teams and avoid penalty flags. And, while few are expecting Tech to upset Clemson on Saturday, it’s nevertheless an opportunity to demonstrate progress.

It won’t be easy. In eight quarters, a 10-3 loss to No. 2 Georgia and a 49-3 win over FCS South Carolina State, the Clemson defense has not allowed a touchdown, with Georgia scoring on an interception return.

“They’ve got really good players, completely across the board,” Collins said.

Clemson’s might, and questions about the Jackets’ progress, left Jones with modest expectations. If Tech can score on the Tigers while the game’s outcome is in doubt, “that’d be great,” Jones said.

Tech was down 52-7 at the half last year, and 28-0 after two quarters in 2019.

“It can’t be a blowout in the first half,” Jones said. “Make it a ballgame.”

The spread is 28.5 points. The Tigers have surpassed the spread in the past three meetings (16 points in 2018, 36.5 in 2019 and 27 in 2020).

“It would be great to cover (the spread),” Jones said.

Another point of reference: Last season, Clemson outscored its non-Tech ACC opponents by an average of 41.3-20.7.

Jones was also looking for other, more qualitative markers.

“The thing that I’m looking for is just playing assignments right,” Jones said. “I feel like the past two years that you’ve played Clemson, they played really good, but you’ve also blown assignments and helped them win games. And that seemed like it was the case last year.”

On offense, the Jackets turned the ball over three times, enabling the Tigers to start three possessions inside the Tech 20-yard line, leading to 17 easy points.

In the same game, Lawrence accumulated many of his passing yards by getting Tech defenders to bite on misdirection and ball fakes. Lawrence has been succeeded by DJ Uiagalelei, who has completed 54.1% of his passes with one touchdown pass and two interceptions. The scheme remains the same.

“There’s a lot of shifts, there’s a lot of formations, all of those things, that create problems for defenses, and we’ve got to be dialed in, have great gap control, great eye control, all of those things,” Collins said.

In recounting last year’s game, Thacker said that “there’s things that were certainly preventable.” He also that he, the defensive staff and Collins “have a completely different mentality as a defense now and a level of maturity, and I feel like that there’s nothing about that game that will linger into Saturday, and we’ll only use it as motivation.”

On Tuesday, Collins spoke with typical confidence in his team, saying, for instance, that his players are much more mature to handle chaotic situations like the one they will walk into Saturday in Clemson Memorial Stadium.

“But it’s still at the end of the day, one of the top five teams in the country – great team, great coaches, great environment, all of those things,” Collins said. “We’ve just got to work really hard every single day this week to be ready to compete on Saturday at a high level.”

If they’re able to do that and can return home without scar tissue, it would be a step forward.

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