Defending national champions open at home against new-look Yellow Jackets
For the second time in three years, the Clemson Tigers will run down the hill in their opening game as defending national champions. As a result, otherworldly expectations follow the Tigers heading into the 2019 season, as Clemson goes forth with a dynamic offense along with a re-tooled, but extremely talented defense.
Re-tooling is also a word that can be used to describe Georgia Tech. After 11 years of running head coach Paul Johnson’s option, the Jackets are expected to spread things out and go fast under the leadership of new head man Geoff Collins and offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, though the two are being coy about what type of offense they’ll utilize on Thursday night. Collins made his name as a defensive coach, so his impact will be felt more on that side of the ball, where he will look to get aggressive and create pressure.
Georgia Tech and Clemson are natural rivals, so despite being in different divisions of the ACC, the two teams meet up every year. Not surprisingly, Clemson has won the last four contests, but the Jackets hold the all-time edge by a 50-31-2 margin.
Georgia Tech at Clemson
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 29 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Clemson -36
When Georgia Tech Has the Ball
With such a radical change expected for the Georgia Tech offense, the big question is, how cohesive can this unit be? Going from cut blocks and fullback dives to up-tempo, multiple wides is a big adjustment. Paul Johnson recruited most of these players for his system and how they can adapt to Patenaude’s spread will go a long way in determining how successful the Jackets will be in year one.
It starts at quarterback and like all the other mystery surrounding the Georgia Tech program, no one yet knows who the starter will be. Collins released Tech’s Above the Line, which is essentially a list of players that could play in the upcoming game. James Graham, Lucas Johnson, and Tobias Oliver were listed at quarterback, meaning all three could see action.
No matter how Georgia Tech approaches the game schematically or who takes the most snaps, blocking the guys in Orange on the other side will be a huge issue. A Tech O-line that didn’t have to pass block all that much will now have to keep the Clemson front seven out of the backfield. All four Tiger defensive linemen are new starters, as are two of the linebackers. But each of those players is extremely talented, especially on the edge with Xavier Thomas, Logan Rudolph, Justin Foster, and K.J. Henry ready to carry on the great Clemson defensive line tradition.
If Georgia Tech can’t give its quarterback time to throw and can’t open up running lanes, the Yellow Jackets won’t score points no matter what offense it runs.
When Clemson Has the Ball
Obviously, the differences won’t be as great on defense for Georgia Tech as they will be on offense. But with only three starters returning, it won't be the same either. Going into last year, the Jackets claimed that they intended on getting more aggressive, but they still finished the year with just 17 sacks and 54 tackles for lost yardage.
The Clemson offense, though, will look very similar. Trevor Lawrence will be back throwing darts and he will be feeding the ball to big-play targets Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Star running back Travis Etienne will be around again to make the running game explosive and though there will be some changes along the offensive line, four returnees have staring experience.
The only chance Georgia Tech has is to limit the Clemson big plays. While the Jackets’ defense may take more chances this fall, it might be a better idea to start that in week two. Last year’s defense, while rarely causing havoc, also was good at limiting large chunks of yards. Controlling the Tiger home run threat is important because Clemson is not often forced into mistakes.
It’s never a good time to go to Clemson. But in game one, with a new Georgia Tech coaching staff implementing a new system, the timing couldn’t be worse. Clemson’s defensive line will beat up on the Tech offensive line and the Jackets offense will look confused on several occasions. The Clemson offensive line should dominate as well which will give time for the skill players to do what they do best: make plays. Lawrence will throw, Etienne will run, and Clemson will roll to victory on Thursday night as the ACC Network broadcasts its first game.
Prediction: Clemson 42, Georgia Tech 7
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.