It took three tries, but Clemson finally notched its first conference win against Maryland last week. Sitting at 1-2 in the ACC, however, Clemson needs to win out to have a realistic shot at defending its Atlantic Division title. Next up is a home date with Georgia Tech, who has beaten the Tigers four straight times, including last year's ACC Championship.
Clemson offense vs. Georgia Tech defense
Lost in the shuffle of Clemson's 24-point win over Maryland was a troubling fact: Clemson's offense was terrible. The Tigers gained just 213 yards on offense, mostly because the Maryland was able to focus on stopping the run because Clemson posed no threat in the downfield passing game. Kyle Parker continues to look uneasy in the pocket -- perhaps a combination of his lingering injury and his lack of confidence in his receivers. DeAndre Hopkins returns this week, and will hopefully give Parker at least one target he can rely on. Andre Ellington had his worst rushing day of the year (41 yards on 16 carries), thanks to Maryland's continuous stacking of the box. Handing the ball to Jamie Harper is turning into more and more of a lost cause, as he rushed for just eight yards on eight carries. This offense is simply struggling to move the ball, and it starts and ends with the nonexistent passing game. Luckily for Clemson, Georgia Tech's defense has been suspect all year. The Yellow Jackets have allowed at least 20 points five times this year, including giving up 45 at home to North Carolina State. There defensive numbers have improved, though, as the players are becoming more comfortable with Al Groh's 3-4 scheme. The Jackets haven't been able to replace the production of top-20 NFL Draft pick Derrick Morgan at defensive end. Junior Jerrard Tarrant (3 INTs) has done pretty well to replace Morgan Burnett at free safety. Middle linebackers Brad Jefferson and Steven Sylvester have combined for 77 tackles, including 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks.
Key Matchup: Ellington vs. Georgia Tech front seven
If Clemson can't pass the ball (and we have reason to believe they can't), the onus is going to be on Ellington to produce yet again. It's unfair to ask this guy to make plays when there is no passing threat to keep the defense honest, but it may come down that for the Tigers. Tech has been vulnerable against the run, so the potential is there for Ellington to break off some big runs.
Georgia Tech offense vs. Clemson defense
Georgia Tech hasn't been running Paul Johnson's wingbone offense as effectively this year, but they are starting to come around. The Jackets lost top offensive weapons running back Jonathan Dwyer and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas to the NFL Draft. Veteran quarterback Josh Nesbitt is still around to run the show, however. Anthony Allen has stepped in nicely in Dwyer's B-back spot (600 yards on 99 carries), but Nesbitt (33-of-83 passing) hasn't been able to identify a passing target of Thomas' caliber. The closest thing is 6-foot-5 sophomore Stephen Hill, who has 11 catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Nesbitt has carried the ball 145 times for 649 yards and eight touchdowns. A-backs Roddy Jones and Embry Peeples have combined for 365 yards on 52 carries. After having success in the second half of its first meeting with Georgia Tech last year, the Clemson defense forced the Yellow Jackets to punt exactly zero times in the ACC Championship Game. That will get you beat...every time. The Clemson defense only allowed seven points against Maryland and intercepted Terrapin quarterback Danny O'Brien three times. They did allow O'Brien to throw for over 300 yards, however, so the team's coverage issues are far from sorted out. Defensive end Da'Quan Bowers is the frontrunner for ACC Defensive Player of the Year after tallying three more sacks against Maryland. The rest of the defensive line needs to catch up. Clemson fans are still waiting on one of the linebackers to make something resembling a big play. DeAndre McDaniel snatched his second interception of the season against Maryland -- hopefully a sign of good things to come.
Key Matchup: Georgia Tech running game vs. Clemson defensive line
We've come to expect a heaping pile of mediocrity out of Clemson's linebackers to this point, so they may be even worse against an unusual offense like Georgia Tech's. Therefore, it will be up to Bowers and Co. to dominate the line of scrimmage and put the Yellow Jackets in as many third-and-six type situations as possible.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
You can't ask for much more than what Clemson has provided on special teams this year (aside from that Auburn situation). Ellington and Jaron Brown made noise in the return game last week, and punting and kick coverage have been as good as you could hope. Tech kicker Scott Blair has been nearly perfect this year, and, if history is any indication, he will be money against Clemson. Georgia Tech's kick returners, Tarrant and Orwin Smith, are nothing special.
Key Matchup: Georgia Tech kick coverage vs. Clemson kick return
Ellington has looked almost Spiller-esque in his short stint as a kick returner, and Brown and Hopkins have shown flashes on punt returns. Clemson will likely need more big returns to assist in the battle for field position.
I haven't included coaching in a preview yet this year because I haven't viewed it as a major factor in any of Clemson's games. This week, that is not the case. Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson is as experienced as they come, and the Yellow Jackets execute their headman's gameplan as well as any team in the country. Dabo Swinney and his staff are still trying to put it all together, and, in case you haven't noticed, Johnson has Swinney's number.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
This matchup always produces a classic, and I expect nothing different this week. The Tigers have homefield advantage in their favor, and the crowd will need to be a factor early and often. But until I see Clemson prove it has a respectable passing attack, I don't see the Tigers beating a good team.
Georgia Tech 28 Clemson 24