ATLANTA — With an ACC showdown looming, Clemson is still lacking the sort of performance that would show it’s capable of making another run at the national championship.
The No. 5 Tigers get a chance to sharpen their credentials when they take on unbeaten Georgia Tech in a prime-time game Thursday.
This would be a good time for Clemson (3-0) to step up its game, facing a team it hasn’t beaten on the road since 2003 and with an even bigger contest coming up on the first day of October against third-ranked Louisville.
“All I know is we’ve been treating every game as if it was the national championship,” running back Wayne Gallman said.
It sure hasn’t looked that way.
Clemson went down to the final play at Auburn before holding on for a 19-13 victory, and the Tigers had a surprisingly tough time in a 30-24 win over Troy. Last week, they blew out lower-division and South Carolina State 59-0 in what looked more like a scrimmage.
Georgia Tech (3-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) has yet to face a team of Clemson’s caliber, but the Yellow Jackets should get a boost of confidence from their success at Bobby Dodd Stadium. They’ve won five straight over the Tigers in Atlanta, including a 28-6 victory two years ago when quarterback Deshaun Watson went down with a knee injury.
“We haven’t won down there in a while,” Gallman said. “It’s time to change that.”
Watson, who grew up in the sprawling suburbs north of Atlanta, bounced back from his injury to become one of college football’s most dynamic players last season, leading Clemson to 14 straight wins before a heartbreaking 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national championship games.
Then there’s Georgia Tech, which struggled to a 3-9 mark a year ago.
The Yellow Jackets are eager to show they’ve turned things around. A victory over one of the nation’s top teams would certainly accomplish that.
“I look at this as a great opportunity,” coach Paul Johnson said. “If we play as hard as we can and execute, we’ll be in the game. We can play with them. We’ve played with them before.”
Some other things to watch for when Clemson takes on Georgia Tech:
FAST VS. SLOW: Clemson runs a hurry-up scheme that is designed to keep defenses off balance and get as many plays as possible for an offense with a plethora of dynamic weapons. The Tigers are averaging about 80 plays per game — nearly 20 more than Georgia Tech’s run-oriented scheme. The Yellow Jackets will do their best to slow the game to a crawl. “The offense needs to be able to run the ball consistently, control the clock and keep them off the field,” Johnson said.
NEW QUARTERBACK? If Clemson shuts down Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, give credit to Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables — and not just because of what he does on game day. Venables likes running the scout team and acting the part of Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas, no easy task given the uniqueness of the triple-option offense. Linebacker Ben Boulware said seeing Venables on the opposite side of the line usually means a couple of hard shoves. “I think he likes when we do that,” Boulware said.
THURSDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Georgia Tech has struggled to sell out 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium, which often diminishes the team’s home-field advantage. But the place comes alive under the lights, creating the sort of atmosphere that has produced some of the Yellow Jackets’ most memorable performances. None more so than last year’s stunning 22-16 upset of Florida State, which was Tech’s lone ACC win.
HANDS ON THE BALL: Clemson will be without clutch receiver Hunter Renfrow, who had TD catches in the first two games. He is out for about a month with a broken hand. The receiving corps played well last Saturday, but there were eight drops the previous week against Troy. The Tigers can’t afford that sort of sloppy play.
BAD MEMORIES: Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has his share of memories, good and bad, at Georgia Tech. He caught a 9-yard TD pass from Charlie Whitehurst in 2003 to put Clemson ahead 10-0 in a game it would go on to win 39-3 — its last victory against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta. Don’t mention the 2001 game, though, even though it was also a Clemson win. Elliott went down with a broken wrist covering the opening kickoff.