Clemson is less than a year separated from its most recent ACC title. For Georgia Tech, it was only two years ago when the Yellow Jackets barely came up short in the conference championship game but ultimately won the Orange Bowl just weeks later.
While both teams have been in similar places competing for the ACC crown in the not-too-distant past, the gap that currently separates the two programs was evident on Thursday night as the Tigers cruised to a 26-7 victory in Atlanta.
Clemson wasn’t even at its best in the one-sided win. Kicker Greg Huegel missed a field goal from 27 yards out. Miscommunication between Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams led to an interception on a play that likely would have been a touchdown had the two been on the same page. The Tigers never firmly established the run game. Frankly, given the team’s potential, Thursday night marked a so-so offensive performance by last year’s national runner-up.
However, the matchup wasn’t close beyond the first quarter, partly because of the stellar play of Clemson’s defense. Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas was limited to 29 yards on 4-of-13 passing and negative-25 yards on the ground. Another factor at play, though, was that the Tigers are simply the more talented, better-coached team.
According to 247Sports’ composite rankings, of Clemson’s 22 offensive and defensive starters on Thursday, three were five-star prospects coming out of high school, and 12 held four-star ratings as high school recruits. For Georgia Tech? Only three of their starters were considered four-star prospects at the prep level.
It’s easy to understand why the Tigers have an easier time finding talent. The program has strung together five consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins and is on its way to a sixth this fall. In May, Clemson put nine players in the 2016 NFL Draft. While Paul Johnson was publicly acknowledging last month that Georgia Tech is behind many of its rivals in terms of facilities, the Tigers have shown a strong commitment in that area. It also helps that Clemson doesn’t face all the same academic restrictions as the Jackets in recruiting, giving the Tigers a larger pool of prospects to recruit.
The advantages extend beyond recruiting. Months after reaching last year’s national title game, Clemson rewarded head coach Dabo Swinney with a six-year, $30.75 million contract, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the country. According to USA Today, defensive coordinator Brent Venables was the fifth-highest-paid assistant coach in the nation in 2015. The Yellow Jackets’ highest-paid assistant was defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who made roughly half as much and was No. 26 on the list.
When one program is working with considerably more resources than another, the results often show on the field. That was the case on Thursday night.
In terms of results, Clemson and Georgia Tech have been two of the bigger winners in the post-expansion era of the ACC. Moving forward, however, the Tigers are in better position for sustained success.