WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.1 CLEMSON vs. GEORGIA TECH
- 2019-08-29 07:29:21
Welcome to the 2019 season opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
The long off-season is finally over, and a couple days earlier than normal. In fact, this is the earliest opener the Tigers have ever played. Never before, in its 124-year history, has there been so much excitement and hype surrounding the Clemson program. Coming off an unprecedented 15-0 season and 44-16 blowout of Nick Saban and Alabama in the National Championship, the Defending Champs are ranked No.1 for the first time ever in both the AP and Coaches’ preseason polls. Clemson is the 23rd program to be ranked AP Preseason No.1 and the first newcomer to occupy that spot since UGA in 2008. Now the Tigers will have the monumental challenge of repeating as national champions, something rarely accomplished and rarer still for the preseason No.1. In the last 13 years, there has been just one national champion ranked No.1 by the AP preseason: 2017 Alabama, and they were the No.4 seed in the playoff after failing to make the SEC Championship Game. There has also been just one repeat national champion over that period: 2012 Alabama. Since preseason polls began in 1950, the same number of preseason No.2 teams have won the national title as No.1 teams: 11. So Dabo knows that this ranking, while auspicious to have it finally happen, is not worth the paper it's printed on! In case you were wondering, since 1950 only 2 teams have gone wire to wire as the No.1 team: 1999 FSU and 2004 USC. The Tigers will have to go 15-0 for a second straight season to become the third! If they can pull it off, this senior class will stand alone as the only class ever with 56 wins. The 2018 class tied with Alabama for the most ever, finishing with the exact same 55-4 record. If the Tigers win 12 or more games this season, Clemson will be in truly elite company as the only program other than Alabama and 1890’s Yale & Penn to win 115 games in a decade. The Tigers, of course, hold the all-time national record for the most consecutive years in which they have finished the season ranked higher than their preseason ranking, including twice when ranked No.2 preseason. It will obviously be impossible to do so this season, so if they finish 2019 ranked No.1 again, we’ll just have to call it 9 straight years and use an asterisk.
It’s an unusual start to the season for the Tigers, not only opening against an ACC opponent but on Thursday night. It’s the first Thursday night opener ever for the Tigers, and it snaps a streak of 7 straight ACC openers on the road. This will be the second straight season in which the Tigers have opened their ACC slate against Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech—last season’s meeting was on Thursday night as well but in Atlanta. This is always a special game for Clemson fans because of the history and proximity of the two schools, and it probably has a special place in Dabo’s heart as well. His first game as interim head coach in 2008 was a 21-17 home loss in which the Tigers led in the 4th quarter. In his first full season as head coach, Clemson lost to Georgia Tech in a 30-27 Thursday night overtime game in Atlanta and again in the ACC Championship Game, 39-34. Neither team punted in that ACC Championship Game, and both teams rushed for over 300 yards.
This is also the series that begat the Clemson First Friday Parade and $2 bill traditions. For over 75 years, Georgia Tech would only play football against Clemson in Atlanta. So in 1973, Clemson fans decided to use $2 bills stamped with Tiger Paws for all of their purchases in Atlanta on game day to show Tech officials how much money they were bringing to the local economy every year, and how much the city would lose if Clemson decided to stop playing Tech. The ploy worked, and in 1974 Georgia Tech played in Death Valley for the first time. To celebrate the occasion, Clemson held a parade on the day before the game, called the First Friday Parade. The parade is now held on the Friday before every home opener, but, ironically, because this will be the first Thursday night home opener in school history, the First Friday Parade will be held on September 6th, the day before the Texas A&M game.
On to Thursday night’s matchup!
Clemson is just 31-51-2 all-time against Georgia Tech since 1898 thanks to the fact that the game was always played in Atlanta until 1974. Clemson is 15-6 at home versus Tech and has won the last 4 straight meetings…Dabo is only Clemson head coach to win 4 straight versus Tech….Since Tech joined the ACC in 1983, Clemson leads 20-17. Clemson is 14-6 versus Tech all-time in games played in Death Valley….John Heisman coached at Clemson from 1900 to 1903 and at Georgia Tech from 1904 to 1919. While at Clemson, Heisman was 2-0 vs Georgia Tech and outscored the Jackets 117-5. As the Tech head coach, Heisman was 10-2-1 versus Clemson and won the last 9 straight, holding the Tigers to a combined 15 points in those games…This will be the 17th Thursday night game for Clemson but only the 5th time hosting, the 3rd hosting Georgia Tech….The Tigers are 7-9 in Thursday night games but have won the last 6 straight. They are 2-2 in Thursday games in Death Valley. Tommy Bowden’s last game as Clemson Head Coach was a Thursday night road loss at Wake Forest in 2008….Clemson has not lost a game before October since 2014….Clemson has won 10 straight games by 20 points or more, tied with 2002 Boise State for the second-longest such streak. Last year’s Alabama team set the record at 12 straight…Clemson has had a positive turnover margin for 3 straight games…Clemson has won its most recent meeting with every team in the ACC…Clemson has won its last 9 straight games featured by ESPN College GameDay regardless of home, away or neutral…Clemson is 25-3 in its last 28 night games. Two of the three losses were to Alabama, and the third was at Syracuse without a starting QB or starting kicker…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 60 straight weeks. Georgia is 3rd at 29 weeks…Dabo is 10-1 in season openers…Clemson has won 15 straight in Death Valley going back to the last-second loss to Pitt in 2016. Prior to that, the Tigers won 21 straight…
GEORGIA TECH SYNOPSIS
Thursday night will be a baptism by fire for a program in flux and a brand new coaching staff. For over a decade, Paul Johnson had forced ACC opponents to prepare for his unique triple-option offense, routinely leading the nation in rushing every year and ranking nearly dead last in passing. In most cases, the novelty was an advantage, but Brent Venables unlocked the secret to beating the Paul Johnson offense, and the Clemson defense dominated Tech in the last 5 straight meetings. However, with Johnson’s retirement at the end of 2018, it’s a new era for the Yellow Jackets under the Geoff Collins regime. Collins has only two years as a head coach under his belt but built Temple into a respectable mid-major program with a 15-10 record. Collins is a defensive-minded head coach and has tasked Offensive Coordinator Dave Patenaude with the unenviable challenge of teaching the pro-style spread offense to a group of players that have been running Paul Johnson’s triple-option for their entire careers. In his press conference this week, Collins joked that a tight end has not caught a pass for Tech since 2007, the year before Paul Johnson took over. The tight end will normally figure prominently in Patenaude’s offense, but how much so in the opener is anyone’s guess. Georgia Tech had 13 scholarship running backs and not a single scholarship tight end upon the hire of Collins, so to say personnel and scheme are a mismatch is an understatement. Patenaude has coached at several small programs like Hofstra, Columbia and Fordham over the past 20 years before running the offense for Collins at Temple the last two years. Like Collins, this is by far the highest-profile job he’s had.
Collins is playing everything very close to the vest in the hopes that he can use surprise and the unknown to his advantage in a game in which he is clearly outgunned. He does not even release a depth chart because he says he doesn’t believe in it. Instead, he releases an “Above the Line” chart. The acronym ATL fits well at his current gig. Basically, it lists all the players that will likely see action but in no particular order. He has not revealed his starting quarterback—and didn’t even let his QB’s speak to the media this week—but it will likely be either Tobias Oliver or Lucas Johnson replacing last year’s starter, TaQuon Marshall. 6’2, 190-pound Oliver (#8) is the only quarterback with game experience, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot considering he will have to learn a whole new system. On the other hand, if the staff decides to use a lot of the same option plays that Paul Johnson ran due to their personnel and what they are up against, Oliver might be the best choice. Last season, Oliver attempted just 16 passes, completing 7 of them for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns. He rushed for 876 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Lucas Johnson (#7) is a 6’3, 215-pound sophomore. James Graham (#4) is probably the most talented of the three. The 6’1, 192-pound redshirt freshman threw just one pass last season, a 22-yard completion against Georgia. He was a 4-star prospect in high school.
Tech returns its leading running back from last season, 6’1,
219-pound sophomore Jordan Mason (#27), but he rushed for just 659 yards and 7
touchdowns in 2018. Both quarterbacks, Marshall and Oliver, rushed for more
yards. Mason averaged a very respectable 6.1 yards per carry. They also return
Jerry Howard, Jr. (#5), a junior from Rock Hill who rushed for 564 yards and 5
touchdowns last season. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
Jalen Camp (#1) is a good-looking physical specimen at WR, but he recorded just 11 catches last season for 186 yards and no touchdowns. Tech’s leading receiver from last season is gone and caught just 15 passes.
The bottom line is that no one has a clue what Tech’s offense is going to look like on Thursday night, so Brent Venables will have to make adjustments on the fly. Sure, the staff and players have watched film of Temple and Georgia Tech’s spring game, but that doesn’t help a whole lot because it’s different personnel at Temple, and the spring game plays will hardly resemble their game plan for Thursday. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some combination of Patenaude’s pro-style spread offense along with a healthy dose of option plays and cut blocks that we’re used to seeing from Tech. You can expect to see some trick plays as well—anything to keep the Tigers off balance and mitigate the talent gap on the field. Given the inexperience on the defensive line for the Tigers, Tech could have some success offensively early in the game before Venables has a chance to adjust.
The Tech defense is run by Andrew Thacker, who, coincidentally, is from the same hometown as Trevor Lawrence and played at the same high school, Gainesville, as Deshaun Watson. He even played in Death Valley as a senior DB for Furman in 2007! Thacker discussed the difficulty of facing arguably the No.1 offense in the nation due to its explosiveness and number of weapons (see below).
Keep an eye on #51 Jahaziel Lee. The 6’2, 300-pound senior is a rare two-way player in the trenches, who will play both on the offensive line and at defensive tackle. You might recognize the name Swilling in the Tech secondary. Redshirt sophomore CB Tre Swilling (#3) is the son of Georgia Tech DE great Pat Swilling, a College Football Hall of Famer who was a first-team All-American in 1985 with 15 sacks, still the school record. The only game Tre missed was the Clemson game last season. Tre’s brother, junior Bruce Jordan-Swilling (#12) is also on the team at inside linebacker. Junior Antwan Owens (#89) is a versatile player at 6’4, 275 pounds, who has played at defensive tackle but moved to end in August camp.
Tech’s two leading tacklers from last season were both defensive backs—something no defensive coordinator wants to see—and neither is still with the team. Neither is their third-leading tackler from last season, LB Brant Mitchell. Tech also lost its sack leader, who only had 4 of them last season. In fact, not a single player on the Jackets’ defensive line registered a sack last season. Tech was 116th in the nation last season with just 17 total sacks.
Thacker employs a 4-2-5 defense, similar to what you’re used to seeing from the Tigers. Ironically, Tech was No.46 in total defense last season, and Collins and Thacker’s defense at temple was No.47. Temple was a little better than Tech in scoring defense, ranked No.66 and No.79, respectively. The bottom line is that it will likely be a long night for the Ramblin’ Wreck’s defense. They were able to stop Kelly Bryant on the first two drives in Atlanta last season, but Trevor Lawrence came in and led touchdown drives in 4 of his 5 possessions. In fact, it was that game that enabled Trevor Lawrence to supplant Kelly Bryant as the starter for good. The only possession by Trevor that didn’t result in a TD was due to an unlucky interception—a screen pass that hit OL Gage Cervenka in the back of the helmet. If you don’t count that one, Sir Lawrence had just 3 interceptions against 30 touchdowns! In years past, the Tech defense has benefited from long possessions by its offense, keeping them on the sideline. They won’t have that luxury anymore, at least not to the same extent.
On special teams, Tech returns both its starting kicker and punter. Sophomore Wesley Wells attempted just 9 field goals as a freshman last season, but he made them all. He made 4 from 40 yards or longer with a long of 48. Junior Pressley Harvin is an odd-looking punter, resembling Jerome Bettis at 6’0 and 245 pounds, but he’s one of the best in the nation. The All-ACC second-teamer averaged 44.3 yards per punt last season, good enough for 16th nationally. The Tigers will also face perhaps the best punter in the nation in their second game against Texas A&M.
The book on the Defending Champs has flipped from this time last season, when the Tigers returned one of the best defensive lines of all time and we expected them to have the best defense in the nation. It turned out to be exactly that. 12 months later, it is the offense that is probably the best in the nation, and the defensive line is as far from last season as you can get in terms of experience. However, there is plenty of talent in that group, so don’t expect too much of a drop in performance—especially with the best defensive coordinator in the game calling the shots. Xavier Thomas was a freshman All-American last season and is poised for a big season as a starter. On the other side of the line, Justin Foster saw a ton of playing time last season and even came up with a fumble recovery in the second game of the season at A&M. Redshirt freshmen K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll are very capable as well at defensive end, as is redshirt sophomore Logan Rudolph. At defensive tackle, Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams are the only players with significant experience, but look out for true freshman Tyler Davis! He could be the second coming of Christian Wilkins and won’t take long to make his presence felt. Hopefully, this will be a breakout season for Xavier Kelly, who moved to tackle from end and is now playing at over 300 pounds. There is plenty of experience behind the front four. Dabo told me back in July that he thinks this could be the best back seven he’s ever had! The Tigers lost their leading tackler in LB Tre Lamar as well as a couple other key linebackers in Kendall Joseph and J.D. Davis, but the coaches have raved about Jamie Skalski, who redshirted last season but saw playing time in the playoff. Actually, Skalski also played against Tech in Atlanta last season because Kendall Joseph was injured. Joining Skalski at linebacker will be Chad Smith, Mike Jones, Baylon Spector and Jake Venables. The Tigers have a preseason All-American in nickel/SAM linebacker Isaiah Simmons, and the former safety has rare size and athleticism for the position. He ran back a 100-yard pick-six in one of the camp scrimmages a few weeks ago. On the back end, the Tigers lost starting corner Trayvon Mullen a year early to the NFL, but return A.J. Terrell and both starting safeties, Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace. They also have some good depth at safety with Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner, both of whom saw playing time last season. Perhaps the biggest storyline of August Camp was the transition of Derion Kendrick to corner from receiver. He missed a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury but will be starting opposite Terrell on Thursday night. He is a natural at the position, and the coaches think he can be an NFL corner. DK will also be the starting punt returner, so it’s possible you could see him in all three phases this season, and he even played quarterback in high school. Incidentally, DK is now wearing #1. He was able to procure the number from freshman DE K.J. Henry, who is now wearing #5. The Tigers also have good, but inexperienced, talent behind DK at corner in Mario Goodrich and freshmen Sheridan Jones and Andrew Booth.
As for the No.1 offense in the nation, where to begin? I guess the logical place is the Heisman front-runner Trevor Lawrence. It’s a good thing Trevor is as low-key as could be because everyone in the world is calling him the next Peyton Manning and a shoe-in for the Heisman. That kind of hype and hyperbole might affect some, but it bounces right off of Trevor. This is one former freshman phenom who is impervious to the sophomore slump. Expect more of the same from his virtuoso performances against Alabama and Notre Dame, and he will even be better. The coaches challenged him to get better at extending plays with his legs in order to throw, and Dabo told me on Monday that he has answered the challenge. Incidentally, if Trevor passes for 300 yards on Thursday, he will tie the Clemson record at three straight games with 300 yards or more. It seems incredible that neither Tajh Boyd nor Deshaun Watson were able to string together more than three such games, but I imagine Trevor will eventually smash that record if he stays on the field long enough to do so.
The Tigers also have a legitimate Heisman contender in Travis Etienne, who led the nation in rushing touchdowns last season with 24. That was a Clemson single-season record, and he added two more on shovel passes. Etienne also set the Clemson single-season records for yards (1,658) and yards per carry (8.13) last season. Amazingly, Lyn-J Dixon actually bested Etienne with 8.82 yards per carry as a true freshman last season but did not have enough carries to qualify for the Clemson record. His average per carry was fifth-best in the nation. Last season’s second-string back, Tavien Feaster, dropped a bombshell on Clemson fans by not only announcing his transfer over the summer but joining the ranks of the hated Gamecocks. Feaster graduated from Clemson, so he is eligible this season, which should make for an even more interesting rivalry week in November. Feaster’s career 5.99 yards per carry is second only to Travis Etienne on the all-time list at Clemson. Behind Etienne and Dixon are a couple of true freshmen, Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes. Both are very talented and have great hands out of the backfield. Former walk-on Darien Rencher (#21) from nearby Anderson has also impressed the coaches as a very capable backup running back. So despite the loss of Feaster, expect a healthy rotation in the backfield, as we’ve become accustomed to with Tony Elliott.
At wide receiver, everyone knows about All-American candidates Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, the twin towers. They will certainly make big plays on Thursday. What I am looking forward to seeing is Diondre Overton at the slot position, filling in for Amari Rodgers, who has a few more weeks of rehab on his knee before entering the lineup. Overton had to sit behind Higgins and Ross at the boundary position last season but showed his value when his opportunities came. He made an outstanding touchdown catch in tight coverage at Texas A&M on a pass from Kelly Bryant, and that proved to be the difference in the game. Overton has unique size for a slot receiver, and it will be interesting to see him on the field at the same time as Higgins and Ross. I am equally excited to see true freshman Joseph Ngata in his first real game in Death Valley. He put on a show in the Orange & White Game last April and has had a great camp. You might even see him return kickoffs this season. Fellow freshman Frank Ladson will also be one to watch but might not see the field on Thursday. He had minor knee surgery just a few weeks ago, and though Dabo has said he should be ready to go, they might decide to play it safe with him. Cornell Powell will probably be the starting kickoff returner and should have his best season yet in the passing game. And don’t forget about T.J. Chase, who could play for any team in the ACC. It’s an embarrassment of riches, as usual, at WRU. It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, the Tigers miss old #13 Hunter Renfrow. Perhaps not much in this game, but there are likely to be more than a few 3rd downs this season when his presence will be missed. Wearing #13 now on offense is Brannon Spector, brother of LB Baylon.
On the offensive line, the Tigers lose a generational player in four-year starter Mitch Hyatt at left tackle, who set the Clemson records for most starts and snaps. However, the Tigers are experienced and deep on the line, and sophomore Jackson Carman is ready to replace Hyatt without missing a beat. Dabo was effusive in his praise of Carman during camp, saying he is a completely different person than he was a year ago as a true freshman. The former 5-star player of the year in the state of Ohio is ready to show why he was so heralded. Sean Pollard is now starting at center, replacing two-year starter Justin Falcinelli. Pollard has played all five positions on the offensive line and has embraced his new role. Dabo told me his snaps in camp have been consistently good. The move allowed last season’s backup center, Gage Cervenka, to move over to guard, which maximizes his strength and skill set. Cervenka was accomplished in high school as a wrestler and is easily the strongest player on the team. Even Pollard is in awe of how much Cervenka throws around in the weight room. Veterans John Simpson, a preseason All-American, and Tremayne Anchrum round out the starting five. Behind them, look for Matt Bockhorst, Blake Vinson and Cade Stewart to play big roles this season.
Finally, the tight end position will be a work-in-progress this season thanks to the NCAA suspension of sophomore Braden Galloway for testing positive for an illegal substance last December. It’s a shame because Galloway could have had a season like Leggett had in the 2016 national championship season. Veteran J.C. Chalk will be the starter with Luke Price, brother of former Clemson offensive lineman Phillip Price, coming in next. The Tigers have two very talented true freshmen in Jaelyn Lay and Davis Allen. However, it’s the toughest position to play as a true freshman next to quarterback, and Allen missed all of camp with an ankle injury. Lay’s time is coming, though. Dabo said that he has improved more than any other player since last spring. Physically, Lay already has everything he needs. It’s just a matter of learning the offense. I expect both Lay and Allen to play significant roles by the end of the season. Imagine how loaded the Tigers will be at the tight end position next season with Galloway, Lay and Allen!
As for special teams, not many have talked about the fact that the Tigers are replacing a four-year starting kicker in Greg Huegel. Want to know how valuable Huegel was? Even without their starting quarterback in 2017 at Syracuse, the Tigers would have won the game if Huegel had not been injured days before. Austin Spence missed two easy field goals, and the Tigers lost by 3. That was their only regular season loss since 2016! Sophomore B.T. Potter won the starting job, and Dabo told me it wasn’t even close. He said that Potter was nearly automatic throughout camp, and he made a 51-yarder in the last stadium scrimmage. Potter has a bigger leg than Huegel—he was the kickoff specialist all season last year as a true freshman—but it remains to be seen whether he can consistently deliver in the clutch like Huegel did. Will Spiers returns as the starting punter with freshman Aidan Swanson nipping at his heels, so to speak. Dabo told me Swanson will be a three-tool guy by the time he leaves Clemson.
By the way, keep an eye out for the Herbstreit twins! I know Kirk will be. The two walk-ons will likely get in the game late. Jake (#37) is a corner and Tye (#86) is a receiver.
As I mentioned, the Tech offense that the new coaching staff will put on the field is a bit of a mystery, and that could translate to some points early for the Jackets. Brent Venables and the Tigers’ defense will have to adjust on the fly. However, there is zero smoke and mirrors on the other side of the ball. The Jackets simply do not have the horses to keep the Tigers from running up and down the field on them. Moreover, the raucous night crowd in Death Valley will be a nightmare for the new starter under center for Tech, as well as the offensive line. The Tigers have won 10 straight games by 20 points or more. That is tied with 2002 Boise State for the second-longest such streak in history. Make it 11 straight because this one is gonna be ugly. The Tigers will have a chance to make it 12 straight against A&M, which would tie last year’s Alabama team for the most consecutive 20-point wins in history. Dabo makes it 5 straight wins over the Bees.
The Prowl Toward a 5th consecutive ACC Title, a 5th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 2nd consecutive national title begins…..
CLEMSON 55 Georgia Tech 17
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