Clemson must beware of the Jackets

On paper, and given the last couple of weeks, Clemson should dismantle Georgia Tech on Saturday.

The game is at Death Valley where a full house of rabid fans will do their best to inspire the Tigers. The 2-3 Yellow Jackets are coming off consecutive home losses. They blew a huge lead and fell to Miami on Sept. 22, then were stunned a week later in a 49-28 defeat to Middle Tennessee State.

Fifteenth-ranked Clemson (4-1), on the other hand, responded nicely after a loss at Florida State by taking care of Boston College on the road. Wide receiver extraordinaire Sammy Watkins is back, and this appears to be a mismatch going in.

But that’s never the case when Clemson and Georgia Tech get together. Some games have been routs, such as when the Tigers beat the Yellow Jackets 39-3 in 2003. Most of these affairs are competitive, and in recent years most have gone Tech’s way.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is well aware of this, and he knows the Jackets are capable of playing the role of spoiler.

“This is a huge game for us, Swinney said. “It’s a huge game for Georgia Tech. They’ve had two overtime losses. It’s a difficult thing to deal with. … We will get their A game. We’ll get the best they’ve got, and our guys know that. …

“They scored 56 points on Virginia. This is a team that’s capable of beating anybody.”

That goes for Swinney’s Tigers, too. Georgia Tech has won five of the last six meetings in the series. The Jackets beat a 4-0 Tigers team in in 2007, an 8-0 Tigers team last season and twice in 2009, the second win in the ACC Championship Game.

This season the Tigers have been terrific other than the final 22 minutes at FSU. Offensively, they are as dynamic as any team in the ACC and one of the most explosive in the nation. But if the defense doesn’t somewhat do its job against Tech’s triple option offense, Clemson may have to score in the upper 40s to win.

While Clemson has plenty of talent and athletes on defense, the unit has had issues with assignment football.

Brent Venables’ defense is ranked 10th in the ACC in total yards, giving up 437 a game. It is eighth against the run, but it hasn’t played a club quite like the Jackets, which average 329 rushing yards per game.

Plus, Tech’s quirkiness concerns Swinney.

“This is different because it’s always assignment football,” the coach said. “But when you’re playing more traditional teams, you’re running what you practice all year, all spring, all summer, all fall camp. That’s a different deal.”

Clemson has to worry about Tech’s fullback first with dive plays, then the quarterback to see if he keeps it or pitches the ball, and then the pitch guy. For a team that allowed FSU 287 rushing yards, 27 above its per-game average, and Auburn 180, also 27 above its average, the Yellow Jackets will be the mother of all ground-game tasks.

Add the emotional component of one of the better football rivalries in the ACC and it’s a given Paul Johnson’s Ramblin’ Wreck will be ready to play. This game could take 59 minutes to determine a winner, paper be-damned.

History says Clemson has problems navigating through schedules as a weekly favorite, like last year when the No. 7 Tigers were pummeled at an NC State team which seemed down and out before the contest. Add the Georgia Tech factor into the mix, and one might say this game’s a verifiable toss-up.

But not if the Tigers are focused and the defense executes. If that’s the case, the continuance of Tech’s nosedive might be the narrative coming out of this game more than Clemson’s continued ascent.