It’s a stat Paul Johnson acknowledges every chance he gets.
Since Johnson took over as Georgia Tech’s head coach almost nine years ago, his teams are 5-4 against Clemson. That’s a record he doesn’t want to get lost in the conversation of where each program stands in the college football hierarchy.
As the two undefeated teams prepare for their Thursday matchup, though, the Tigers are viewed nationally as head-and-shoulders above the Yellow Jackets. Dabo Swinney’s team enters the contest at No. 5 in the AP poll, while unranked Georgia Tech received fewer votes this past weekend than two-loss Notre Dame.
Nevertheless, it’s a hurdle Clemson has to clear. The Tigers don’t want to sleep-walk their way through this one.
After two shaky performances to start the year against Auburn and Troy, the defending ACC champions hit on all cylinders in a 59-0 blowout win over South Carolina State last weekend. Thursday presents a different challenge — the Tigers have only a few days to prepare for Georgia Tech’s spread-option attack.
Through three contests, the Yellow Jackets rank No. 18 in the country in rushing yards per game (257.33) and No. 23 in yards per rush (5.44). Leading the way is senior Justin Thomas, a third-year starter at quarterback who has helped Tech’s offense bounce back and match last season’s win total in its first three games.
“He knows where all of the crooks and crannies are,” Swinney said of Thomas in a Tuesday teleconference.
“That is what you get with a veteran player, and he doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to throw the football. You want to watch the tape and not see a good, accurate thrower, but that is not what you see. You turn the tape on and he is making back shoulder throws.”
Joining Thomas in the backfield are multiple big-play threats at running back. A-backs Clinton Lynch and Qua Searcy are each averaging over nine yards per carry, while B-backs Marcus Marshall and Dedrick Mills have combined for 216 yards and five touchdowns rushing through three games. (Mills sat out the team’s 35-10 win over Mercer with a one-game suspension.)
Although Clemson lost a lot of talent from its defensive front seven in the offseason, the Tigers have reloaded. While allowing only two touchdowns on the ground to date, they’ve held their first three opponents to an average of 2.6 yards per carry.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that Clemson will be at its greatest advantage while on offense against the Jackets, but the early part of this season indicates that might not be the case. While Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson quarterbacks a unit loaded with proven playmakers, the Tigers have had trouble moving the ball at times, particularly in their first two games. One priority will be taking care of the football.
“The biggest thing with playing Georgia Tech, and really each and every week, you have to try to find a way to win that turnover battle,” Swinney said. “By nature in what they do, they minimize and cut down on some of your possessions that you have offensively anyway, so you can’t give them extra possessions.”
The turnover battle is one area where Clemson has excelled this season, winning it in each of its last two games and logging eight takeaways on the year compared to five giveaways. The offense will try to avoid mistakes at a place that has been a thorn in the program’s side for over a decade; the Tigers haven’t won at Bobby Dodd Stadium since 2003.
“It is usually the same recipe for defeat there as it is anywhere else,” Swinney said. “If you lose the turnover battle and give up big plays on special teams, give up big plays against your defense, you’re in for a long day.”
With that in mind, the Tigers will try to ensure that Johnson won’t be boasting a 6-4 record against Clemson this time next year.