Come Labor Day, Clemson and Georgia Tech will renew their annual rivalry in Atlanta – but not at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Instead, the two cross-division ACC rivals will battle it out at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The fourth-ranked Tigers have won seven straight in the series. That’s the longest streak since the Yellow Jackets won 10 straight from 1953 to 1968. Last year’s contest, however, was competitive. In the end, Clemson emerged 14-8 in a game where neither team managed 300 yards of total offense.
For the first time since 2014, Clemson failed to win the ACC last season, but it did finish strong. The Tigers won their final six games to post 10 or more wins for the 11th straight season – all under Dabo Swinney. For Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins, the seat may be a bit warm. It was an undertaking in overhauling an offensive roster built for Paul Johnson’s triple-option attack, but Georgia Tech has won just three games in each of Collins’ first three seasons.
No. 4 Clemson vs. Georgia Tech
When Clemson Has the Ball
A big reason for Clemson’s strong finish in 2021 was its improvement on offense. The Tigers failed to score more than 20 points in regulation in any of the first six games against FBS teams last season before averaging nearly 34 points during its six-game winning streak to end the season. After filling in admirably in Trevor Lawrence during the 2020 season, quarterback DJ Uiagaleilei had one of the most disappointing seasons in all of college football. Seen by many as a preseason Heisman Trophy contender, Uiagaleilei ranked last among qualified ACC quarterbacks in passer rating while finishing the season with nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions.
Uiagaleilei is back for Clemson, but if he struggles again, the Tigers won’t hesitate to go to touted freshman Cade Klubnik. Running backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace each return after combining for nearly 1,400 yards and 17 total touchdowns last season. Joseph Ngata is the top returning receiver after finishing second on the team with 438 receiving yards. His 19 yards per catch average led the team. Jordan McFadden headlines the offensive line. As a whole, the Tigers ranked 13th in the ACC in total offense last season.
Georgia Tech ranked just 12th in the ACC last season in total defense and 13th in scoring defense. To add insult to injury, Georgia Tech will be replacing its leading tackler in Quez Jackson and its leading sack man in Jordan Domineck. Despite losing Jackson, linebacker might still be the strength of this defense. Ayinde Eley, Charlie Thomas, and Tyriq Carpenter are all experienced and can play. Although reps have not been easy to come by, Myles Sims and Kenny Bennett are veteran players in the secondary.
Last season’s contest at Clemson may have been the Yellow Jackets' best performance defensively. They held Clemson to just 14 points – the lowest any opponent scored against Georgia Tech all season – and 284 yards. In addition to giving up a lot of yards and points last season, Georgia Tech also struggled to force turnovers. It ranked 104th in the country and 12th in the ACC in takeaways.
When Georgia Tech Has the Ball
For the third year in a row, Jeff Sims will be the man behind center for Georgia Tech. With a mediocre supporting cast, Sims has had an up-and-down career in Atlanta, but did a better job of eliminating turnovers last season. Sims has a great arm and is athletic enough to make plays with his legs. In two seasons, he has nearly 900 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Joining Sims in the backfield will be Louisville transfer Hassan Hall. With the versatile Jahmyr Gibbs off to Alabama, Hall will have large shoes to fill. Hall will share duties with Dontae Smith and Dylan McDuffie and likely see time in the return game.
Out wide, Georgia Tech doesn’t have a lot of depth, but there is talent. Leading receiver Malachi Carter returns after finishing with nearly 500 receiving yards last season. South Carolina transfer E.J. Jenkins was relatively quiet for the Gamecocks last season, but at 6-foot-7 and nearly 245 pounds, he could be a real weapon in the red zone. In 2019, At St. Francis (Pa.), an FCS school, Jenkins finished with 13 touchdown catches. The Georgia Tech offensive line is relatively young and will depend on the play of three transfer starters, including former Clemson Tiger, Paul Tchio.
On the other side, former defensive coordinator Brent Venables is now the head coach at Oklahoma, but talent is not an issue for the new guy, Wes Goodwin. After ranking eighth nationally in total defense and second in scoring defense last season, Clemson should again be one of the country’s best defensive teams. That starts up front with a loaded group of defensive linemen that includes K.J. Henry, Myles Murphy, and Tyler Davis. The Tigers will have Xavier Thomas’ services later in the year.
Clemson will have to replace their top two tacklers in linebackers James Skalski and Baylon Spector, but expect redshirt sophomore Trenton Simpson to emerge as one of the best players in the ACC at the position. Likewise, Andrew Booth Jr. and Nolan Turner will be tough to replace, but safety Andrew Mukuba should prove to be among the best defensive backs in the conference. The Tigers hope this game isn’t decided by a kick, but B.T. Potter is coming off a solid season in which he hit 21 of 26 field goal attempts.
Unlike last year, this one will probably feature more than 22 total points. For Uiagaleilei, this is a chance to start the year on the right foot and build confidence before Clemson begins the tough part of its schedule. For Georgia Tech to make this interesting, Sims will likely have to make throws through the air. With the Tigers transitioning to a new defensive coordinator, there could be some vulnerabilities early in the season. With the loss of Gibbs and Clemson returning virtually its entire defensive line, it is unlikely that Sims will have much time to throw. The fact that this one isn’t at Bobby Dodd Stadium also will make it less of a home-field edge for the Yellow Jackets.
Prediction: Clemson 34, Georgia Tech 13
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.