Unbeaten Georgia Tech aims to trip No. 5 Clemson
Thanks to third-ranked Louisville's 63-20 demolition of Florida State on Saturday, many college football followers already have the Cardinals' Oct. 1 date at No. 5 Clemson circled as a potential elimination game for one of the four College Football Playoff spots.
However, Dabo Swinney's Tigers still have one big obstacle before entering that contest undefeated.
Don't laugh. Sure, the Yellow Jackets (3-0) are just midway down in the “Others Receiving Votes” section of this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll despite an impressive 38-7 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday. And Clemson (3-0), the national runner-up to Alabama a year ago, opened as a 11-point favorite for the nationally televised Thursday night contest.
But Bobby Dodd Stadium has not been too kind recently for the Tigers, who haven't defeated Georgia Tech in Atlanta since 2003, or star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who sustained a knee injury playing there his freshman season.
“We've got a tough task ahead with an undefeated Georgia Tech team in Atlanta,” Swinney said. “But we're looking forward to it.”
Clemson is 3-0 for the third time in four years, while Georgia Tech already matched its win total from a year ago when it finished 3-9, but both teams are relatively unknown quantities.
The Tigers were unimpressive in victories against unranked Auburn (19-13) and Troy (30-24) to open the season, then learned precious little about themselves in a 59-0 demolition of South Carolina State last week.
Georgia Tech carved its 3-0 start out of victories against unheralded Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt.
Watson is looking forward to taking his team to Tech again, despite rekindling the memory of the 2014 injury. He partially tore his anterior cruciate ligament early in the game, though he wasn't even hit on the play.
The Tigers went on to lose 28-6, their most recent regular-season defeat.
“It was just one of those weird things that kind of happen,” Watson said. “I have flashbacks about that play. Of course, it's going to pop up in my mind, but it won't be anything too serious.”
To a man, Clemson's players say they are not looking past Georgia Tech and toward the potential showdown with Louisville — an approach that should be expected given the Tigers' five consecutive defeats at the hands of the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.
Yet the Tigers are don't lack confidence.
“If we do our job and play Clemson ball, everything should take care of itself,” Watson said.
The contest will serve as a measuring stick for the Yellow Jackets. Through three games, the Georgia Tech offense has started to look more like its old self. The option has been effective and the drives have been long and sustained. But the question remains: How good are the Yellow Jackets really?
That will be answered this week. If Georgia Tech can move the ball effectively against the Tigers, it could have something special.
“We've gotten better each game,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “We'll have to get way better because this is the best team we've played by a mile.”
Georgia Tech is averaging 397.7 yards per game, 257.3 of that on the ground. But the Clemson defense ranks eighth in the nation in total defense (250 yards per game) and gives up just 92 yards rushing.
Johnson said his team's offense is better than it showed in 2015 but hasn't yet approached the high standards set in 2014. He added, “I think we have the potential to get where we were in '14.”
That is possible if quarterback Justin Thomas continues to play as he did in the win over the Commodores. Thomas threw for 136 yards and one touchdown and rushed 11 times for 84 yards.
“We still have some issues, but from Game One to this point, we're night-and-day a lot better,” Thomas said. “People are communicating more, coming off the ball better and as a whole we're starting to click. Got to keep getting better each week and not have any setbacks.”
Thomas has been around long enough to know that Clemson will provide a reality check. This will be his third start against the Tigers — he led Tech to the victory in 2014, but got pummeled 43-24 last year at Death Valley, rushing 14 times for 3 yards. He also threw for 159 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted once and sacked twice. That was Georgia Tech's low point for the season.
“It's going to be a huge week,” Thomas said. “We've got to dial it in.”