WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW AND PREDICTION FOR NO.4 CLEMSON vs. GEORGIA TECH
- 2022-09-05 15:11:20
Welcome to the 2022 Chick-fil-A Classic season opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
College football is finally back in full force! We’ve already seen some fantastic games across the country in the opening week to whet our appetites for the Tigers’ season opener, which will be the final game to open the 2022 season. Hopefully the Tigers will be a participant in the final game at the end of the season as well!
This will be the Tigers’ first trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and my own as well. I was beginning to think I was never going to get to cover a game there because both times it hosted a CFP Semifinal, the Tigers were sent to Arizona for their semifinal. And the only year the Tigers didn’t appear in the National Championship Game out of five was, of course, the one year that Atlanta hosted the championship! That one really stuck in my crawl. And to add to the irony, the old Georgia Dome used to be a regular home for the Tigers seemingly every year. In fact, Clemson has appeared in the Peach Bowl more than any other school, and the Tigers played in a couple of Chick-Fil-A Classics to open their season, including the inaugural game in 2008 against Alabama—that fateful game which begat the Nick Saban dynasty and was the beginning of the end for Tommy Bowden, which in turn resulted in the Dabo Swinney dynasty. That was before I was in the media covering the Tigers, but as a young alumnus, I was one of the last in the Georgia Dome wearing orange until the bitter end of that miserable game. At any rate, I finally get to cover a game at Mercedes-Benz thanks to the Chick-Fil-A Classic, and I’ll get to cover another one in 2024 when the Tigers open their season against Georgia. Also, the Peach Bowl is hosting the CFP again, so hopefully this time the Tigers and I will finally get to stay home in Atlanta for the semifinal! I had a nice one-on-one interview with Peach Bowl President and CEO Gary Stokan last week about a wide range of topics, including how this matchup was put together, the upper deck decision, the history of the Peach Bowl, the future of the Peach Bowl and the College Football Playoff, Labor Day fan activities in Atlanta and more. Click HERE for that interview!
Speaking of the future of the CFP, huge news broke on Friday as everyone was counting down the hours until kickoff on Saturday! That being, of course, that the Board of Managers passed a vote to expand the CFP to 12 teams after just over a year since it was proposed in July of 2021. Clemson President Jim Clements is on the Board of Managers, so he had one of the eleven votes. Only one vote was needed to block expansion, so it was a unanimous decision. I’ve reached out to Clements for comment, and I’ll post it HERE when he gets back to me. I think it’s fair to presume that he was one of those who voted against expansion last summer when it was first proposed. That vote against came just after it was leaked that Oklahoma and Texas were joining the SEC, and why would anyone outside the SEC want to give the conference even more money and power by expanding the playoff to 12 teams, 5 or 6 of which could be from the SEC? Furthermore, Clemson has made the CFP in 6 of its 8 years of existence. The Tigers don’t need an expansion! That could only hurt them. Fast-forward one year, and expansion is passed. What has changed? Well, with USC and UCLA announcing their intentions to join the Big Ten almost exactly a year after the Oklahoma and Texas news, the landscape of college football has been completely turned on its head. We are now in a time of upheaval and realignment, and everyone is waiting for the next shoe to drop. Many have already speculated whether Clemson and other schools, such as FSU, UNC, Miami and even UVA will leave the ACC for the SEC because all of the schools in the SEC, including Clemson rival South Carolina, are going to be making twice what the ACC schools are making from their TV contracts. It seems that the only thing preventing Clemson and those ACC schools from leaving is the grant of rights contract they have with the ACC. Essentially, it says that any school leaving the ACC will turn over all of its television revenues to the ACC until 2035. So any money Clemson would make from joining the SEC would just go into the ACC coffers for over a decade. I have been told that there is a loophole in that contract which negates the grant of rights provision if 8 or more schools leave the ACC. So if Clemson, FSU, UNC, Miami and let’s say UVA for the sake of argument, go to the SEC, three more schools would have to join, perhaps, the Big 12 and/or Big Ten or Clemson would forfeit all that money. Although, let’s face it, even a forfeiture of that much money might be worth it in the long run. The ACC is going to have an impossible task keeping up with the SEC and Big Ten financially and athletically unless it can add Notre Dame and perhaps Penn State as well. Jim Swofford put the ACC in this hole with the terrible contract he put together with ESPN, which is far below those of the SEC and Big Ten. The ACC has been a better conference than the Big Ten in football and every other sport over the majority of the last decade, but the Big Ten has made far more money from its TV deals. And now, on the strength of the USC and UCLA news, the Big Ten has just signed a mega deal that’s even better than the current SEC TV deal. However, the SEC will soon surpass the Big Ten when it signs a new deal, and with Clemson being the only current football powerhouse in the ACC, the conference will keep falling further behind. I think it’s very fair to speculate that President Clements would not have voted in favor of playoff expansion unless he knew that Clemson would be leaving the ACC, or that they are at least seriously considering that course of action. Again, I’ll post Jim’s comments when I hear back from him.
In the meantime, it’s time to think about the here and now. Let’s talk about the Tigers and Monday night’s big game!
The legendary John Heisman coached at Clemson from 1900-1903 before leaving to become the head coach at Georgia Tech. He was also the baseball coach at both schools….Clemson trails the all-time series with Georgia Tech 51-34-2—mainly because the series was played in Atlanta for the first 40 years—but Clemson holds a 23-17 edge since Tech joined the ACC in 1983, and the Tigers have won the last 7 meetings…The rivalry has produced a couple of sacred Clemson traditions as well. In 1973, Clemson fans took $2 bills, stamped with Tiger Paws, with them to Atlanta in order to show how much money they brought to the Atlanta economy and threatened to stop playing Tech if they did not reciprocate and play in Clemson every other year to return the favor. The scheme worked, and Tech finally acquiesced to play the Tigers in Death Valley in 1974. To celebrate the occasion, Clemson held a parade on the Friday before the game, and it has since become known as the “First Friday Parade.” The tradition stuck, and ever since, the parade through downtown Clemson is held on the Friday before the first home game of the season. The $2 bill tradition, of course, has become a tradition for Clemson fans at all bowl games and road games as well. All the banks in and around Clemson make sure to carry stacks of $2 bills for fans to take with them on the road, and many of the banks will even stamp them with Tiger Paws. Ironically, however, cash will not be accepted at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night in the interest of expediency….The Tigers have won 10 or more games for 11 straight seasons, the third-longest streak in history behind FSU (14) and Alabama (14), which is also an active streak….Despite the Tigers’ remarkable continuation of that streak with a historic number of injuries, several other historic streaks came to an end. Clemson had finished in the top-4 of the AP Poll in 6 consecutive seasons, tied with Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams for the fourth-longest streak in history. FSU did so 13 straight seasons under the late great Bobby Bowden, while USC and Miami have each done so 7 straight seasons…. Clemson had been ranked No.1 in at least one AP Poll for 6 straight seasons, which was the third-longest streak of all time behind Alabama (15) and Miami (7).….Clemson had by far the longest active streak ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 57 straight weeks before dropping to No.6 because of a pick-six in the opener against eventual National Champion Georgia. At the time, Alabama was second at 20 weeks in the top 5, followed by Georgia and Oklahoma with just 3 each. If Clemson had remained in the AP top 5 until the end of the regular season, it would have surpassed Alabama’s all-time record of 68. Clemson’s streak of 96 straight weeks in the AP top 10 also ended last season. It is tied with Alabama and Nebraska for the longest streak in history behind Miami (137)…Clemson has the second-most wins and second-best win percentage since 2015 behind Alabama. The Tigers are 89-10 over that period while Alabama is 92-8. Ohio State is 3rd with a record of 79-10 since 2015. Clemson is also 2nd in wins since 2011 with a record of 131-21. Alabama is 140-14 and Ohio State is 123-20….Clemson holds the all-time record for most wins over a 5-year span with 69 from 2015-2019….Dabo Swinney has the best active win percentage in the nation (minimum 10 years) at .806. Nick Saban is second at .800 and Jimbo Fisher is third at .760….Dabo’s 150 wins are already the third-most of any coach in his first 15 seasons, but Dabo is only in his 14th full season. By the end of the 2023 season, Dabo should topple Urban Meyer’s record of 165 wins in his first 15 seasons….Dabo has the most active wins (150) that are all with one school. Mike Gundy is 2nd with 149 at Oklahoma State….With a win in the Cheez-It Bowl over Iowa State last season, Dabo tied Bobby Bowden for most bowl wins (11) by any ACC coach in history….
GEORGIA TECH SYNOPSIS
We all remember how much of a dog fight last year’s matchup with Tech was. It was a weird game to begin with because of the two-hour lightning delay right before halftime. That helped Tech out because Death Valley was packed before the delay, and only about 15,000 came back after the delay. The Tigers’ offense also kept sputtering, turning the ball over twice inside the red zone—one fumble by DJ and a turnover on downs. Will Shipley scored the only touchdowns of the game in the first and fourth quarters. The good news is that the defense was incredible, holding the Jackets to just a pair of field goals. In fact, the Tigers’ defense didn’t allow a TD until the 4th game of the season. They came up with a couple of huge stops, including one of their patented goal-line stands with 15 seconds left that we’ve become so accustomed to. They forced a turnover on downs at the goal line and just needed to run one play to end the game, but Shipley fumbled and recovered in the end zone for a safety. That gave Tech yet another opportunity for a Hail Mary to win the game, but the Tigers’ defense stopped them again on two plays to secure the 14-8 win. Tech followed that impressive performance with a big blowout win over UNC in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where Monday night’s game will be. However, the wheels came off of Tech’s season after that. The Jackets lost their last two games by a combined score of 100-0 to Notre Dame and Georgia.
Geoff Collins, now in his 4th season as the head coach, fired his offensive coordinator from last season and hired Chip Long, who has a lot of experience at several different stops. He began as a GA under Bobby Petrino at Arkansas. He was also the OC at Notre Dame in 2018 when the Tigers rolled over the Irish in the Cotton Bowl. From what I’ve read, Long’s offenses are usually very physical, and he loves inside zone runs and pulling guards. He also likes to put the tight ends in motion and likes the intermediate passing game.
Long has a talented quarterback running his offense in Jeff Sims. He’s got good size at 6’4 and 240 pounds, but he can also really run. Sims was injured last season and missed the Clemson game, so the Tigers faced freshman Jordan Yates, who has since transferred. Incidentally, former Clemson backup QB Taisun Phommachanh is now the 3rd string QB for the Jackets. And former Clemson OL Paul Tchio will be starting for the Jackets. They lost their most dynamic playmaker from last season in RB Jhamyr Gibbs, who transferred to Alabama. RB Dontae Smith will get the start at RB, and Malachi Carter is their best returning receiver.
Defensive Coordinator Andrew Thacker is back from last season, and you can expect him to throw the same scheme at the Tigers that stifled them last season, a “cloud corner coverage” that dropped 8 defenders into coverage and kept everything in front.
The biggest storyline of August camp for the Tigers was obviously the quarterback competition. From the practices I watched, DJ was the most consistent and most accurate of all the quarterbacks. I didn’t see him miss a single throw. Cade looked great too, especially his running ability, but he’s still learning the offense, and I saw him miss a couple throws. I know many Clemson fans are anxious to make a change to the freshman Cade Klubnik like we saw in 2018 with Trevor Lawrence, but my gut tells me that DJ is going to bounce back from his sophomore slump in a big way. Many people have given up on DJ and forget that players develop and improve—especially at the quarterback position! Joe Burrow was an absolute nobody when he was 19, but look what happened with him. DJ has the size and all the talent, and Dabo told us that he was great in practice last season. He just needs to take it from practice to game day and get the mental part of the game down. One thing is for sure: he has the commitment and sense of urgency that he lacked prior to the 2021 season, when he had no competition. He knows Cade is nipping at his heels, and that’s why he re-dedicated himself and lost 25 pounds of fat. He looks great physically, has the confidence and support of the entire team, and—most importantly—he has experience and talent around him, so he doesn’t have to carry the whole offense on his back. Injuries, youth and inexperience created the perfect storm for DJ last season. When Trevor, Watson and even Tajh were first-time starters, they had experience and talent all around them to overcome their mistakes. DJ did not have that. He had musical centers, freshman offensive linemen, two freshmen and a sophomore at running back and injury after injury to the receivers. By the end of the season, he was throwing to two true freshmen and Will Swinney at receiver! Going into this season, the offensive line, running backs and receivers should all be strengths for the Tigers.
Many in the national media also question how the Tigers will do with their new coordinators as well, but I expect them to pick up right where their predecessors left off, just like we saw in the bowl game. One thing that is certainly not a question mark is the Tigers’ defense, which I have said since last season will be the nation’s best in 2022. They were probably the second-best defense last season despite injuries to several starters, including Bresee, Davis, Skalski, Spector and Zanders. The Tigers are healthy now and absolutely loaded with talent and depth. In fact, every position group of the defense has at least one backup that could just as easily be a starter. As Dabo has mentioned, the defensive line is very similar to the 2014 group that led the No.1 defense in the nation and sent 7 or 8 players to the NFL, including Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley. Unfortunately, Xavier Thomas will be out for the first two or three games of the season, but they will be just fine with the rotation of Murphy, Henry and Mascoll at defensive end. Ironically, I was watching XT at practice at Jervey Meadows and commented to someone next to me how amazing he looked. There isn’t an ounce of fat on his body, folks. Looks like a completely different person compared to 2020! The Tigers are loaded at defensive tackle with Bresee, Davis, Ruke, Tre Williams, Reuben and Payton Page. Dabo told us the other day that Tre Williams, who injured his knee lifting weights just before camp, has been practicing full-go for the last week or two and is ready to go!
Starting safety Lannden Zanders, of course, retired from football a couple days before camp started, but the Tigers are still in great shape at safety with returning starter Andrew Mukuba, coming off a great freshman season, and new starter Jalyn Phillips. They also have solid backups in Mickens and “T-Bone” Tyler Venables. At corner, I expected Wiggins and Sheridan Jones to be the starters, but Fred Davis was also listed as a co-starter, which is great to see. Malcolm Greene is also a solid backup with experience, and I’m excited to see freshmen corners Toriano Pride and Jayden Lukus.
I’m also excited to see this new group of linebackers. The Tigers lose the veteran “Bruise Brothers,” Skalski and Spector, but they will have speed, speed and more speed at backer this season! They moved preseason All-American Trenton Simpson over to WILL (weak side) LB with Trotter at MIKE (middle) and Barrett Carter at SAM/nickel (strong). All three of those guys are extremely fast, athletic and versatile. Keith Maguire is also listed as a co-starter in the middle.
Offensively, I’m looking forward to seeing how Streeter and Spiller divide the reps in the backfield with the 3-headed monster they have. Obviously, Shipley will get the first touches, but if one of the three backs happens to get hot, I think Streeter will stick with him. Watch to see how they do with their pass protection too! We saw Mafah excel in that department last spring when the other two backs were out.
I’m also looking forward to seeing how the offensive line performs. I expect it to be much better than last season. A big story this week is that true freshman Blake Miller will be starting at right tackle. Mitch Hyatt was the first true freshman to start in the opener for Clemson, and I asked Dabo about the similarities between the two. He told me that Miller basically has all the intangible qualities that Hyat had as a true freshman, but he’s also bigger, stronger and longer! That’s exciting to hear. That moves sophomore Walker Parks, who started at tackle as a freshman last season, to right guard. That keeps him next to Will Putnam, who is the Tigers’ new starting center, moving over from guard. Dabo and Streeter have raved about the job Putnam has done at center in the spring and summer, and he has had very few bad snaps despite never playing the position before. Having Putnam and Parks still next to each other on the line should be good for chemistry and communication. Opposite of Miller, of course, Jordan McFadden is back at left tackle, surprising many who thought he would leave for the NFL. McFadden, Davis, Henry and Thomas all decided to return to Clemson, and that was huge!
One of the biggest things I’m hoping to see on Monday night is Ngata making it through healthy! He is the x-factor when it comes to the receiving corps. He had a great camp, but he hasn’t made it through an entire season without injury since he was a true freshman in 2019. Beaux Collins is coming off a great freshman season, and Brannon Spector—who has also been sidelined his whole career with injuries—has had a great camp at the slot. The Tigers didn’t have a true slot player last season, as Justyn Ross was playing there out of his natural position, and that was one of the things that hurt their offense. Spector is a true slot receiver. And behind him, they have Will Taylor and freshman Antonio Williams. Unfortunately, Troy Stellato was injured in camp just like last year and will miss another season, and freshman Adam Randall, a true freshman who would have been a huge weapon in the opener just like Sammy Watkins as a freshman, tore his ACL last spring. He is probably the fastest player on the team and should be back in the mix by October—perhaps the big NC State game on October 1! Speaking of Will Taylor, I can’t wait to see if Streeter uses the former quarterback for some trickery—maybe a double-pass or a pass off a reverse or end-around. Or even a reverse flea flicker like we saw from FSU for a touchdown! We’ve been hearing great things about the freshman Antonio Williams, and they’ve been working him on punt returns behind Will Taylor as well. I’m hoping the Tigers will finally make some noise in the return game with Shipley returning kicks and Taylor/Williams returning punts. Plus add Adam Randall to the mix when he comes off rehab. The Tigers haven’t had a really dangerous return game since CJ Spiller. Ray Ray McCloud did have one big punt return that won the game at NC State and another that he intentionally dropped on the goal line, but it’s been a while since the Tigers have had a real weapon on a weekly basis. I expect to see the tight end used in the passing game quite a bit with Allen, Briningstool and Ennis all finally healthy. Luke Price is also a capable pass-catcher but better as a blocking tight end.
The only starting spot that was really up in the air all August was the starter at punter. Well, I was in the middle of asking Dabo about the punter at his press conference the other day, and he revealed to me that Swanson will be the starter on Monday night. Potter was the better of the two when I watched them at practice, but it was a back-and-forth competition all camp between those two and freshman Jack Smith. It will be interesting to see if Dabo makes a change if Swanson shanks one early. I guess it makes sense that ideally, you’d prefer not to have your Groza Award candidate kicker Potter also punting. Not only could it cause fatigue on his field goal attempts and kickoffs, but it puts him at risk to injury. Dabo dismissed that idea, saying that many players, including Clemson great Chris Gardocki, have done both, and all he cares about is who can punt it better, but I think common sense says that with all else being equal, it is best to have a separate punter.
I’m looking forward to seeing what the crowd is like in the dome on Monday night. The upper deck will be closed off at the behest of Tech, which was given the prerogative because they are foregoing a home ACC game at Bobby Dodd Stadium. They didn’t want 40 or 50,000 Clemson fans in the stadium I guess, but I still expect to see plenty of orange in the stands! They did the same thing, by the way, for their game against UNC last season, and it paid off with a big win for the Jackets—their last good one.
I’m expecting to see Thacker and Tech’s defense to do what they effectively did last season, dropping 8 into coverage and keeping everything in front of them so the Tigers can’t hit them for big plays over the top. If they do, DJ has to be patient and take what the defense gives him. He has to be accurate and consistent in order to methodically march the ball down field with several first downs. He wasn’t able to do that last year. The Tigers also need to protect the football and score when they get in the red zone!
I expect Streeter to give DJ some easy throws early to get him in a rhythm and also a heavy dose of Will Shipley. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see Cade come into the game early, either for a scripted series or situationally for one play here or there, where he can use his athleticism. Hunter Johnson will be the third quarterback into the game if the score gets out of hand.
Hopefully, the offense will get off to a great start, but it honestly doesn’t make a difference if they don’t. I honestly believe the Tigers can go 13-0 with defense and running game alone. Heck, they almost did just that last year despite all the injures! They were literally just a few plays away from being undefeated, including a win over eventual national champion Georgia. Assuming we won’t see a repeat of that apocalyptic season of injuries, the Tigers will be back to dominating almost all of their opponents with lots of blowout wins, including the opener. Make it 8 straight over Tech!
The Prowl toward a 7th College Football Playoff and 4th National Title begins…..
CLEMSON 34 GEORGIA TECH 6
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