Standing at 3-3 overall and 1-2 in ACC play, the Clemson Tigers host the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets this weekend in a rematch of last year's ACC Championship Game.
The Tigers hope to fare better in this year's game than they did in each of the two losses they suffered at the hands of the Yellow Jackets last season.
The Clemson-Georgia Tech rivalry has been one of the ACC's most intriguing matchups over the past decade.
From the late Kerry Watkins touchdown catch to hand the Tigers their first loss in 2000 to the two Georgia Tech fourth down conversions late in the ACC Championship Game last year, this game has had its fair share of drama.
This game is huge for the Tigers for multiple reasons. First, if Clemson is to have any chance at all of defending its ACC Atlantic Division crown, it definitely cannot afford to lose another conference game.
Secondly, if the Tigers fail to pull out a victory, they will drop to 3-4 on the season and possibly fail to become bowl eligible for the first time since before the Tommy Bowden era. With upcoming games against NC State, Florida State and South Carolina looming, the remainder of the season isn't exactly filled with pushovers.
Dabo Swinney is 0-3 against the Yellow Jackets since taking over as head coach late in the 2008 season. His defense has had trouble stopping Paul Johnson's option offense and gave up fourth quarter leads in each of the two losses last season.
The Tigers' rush defense is slightly better than last season, allowing seven fewer yards per game, but has yet to face an opponent with a rushing attack as potent as Georgia Tech's, which averages over 300 yards per game on the ground.
If Kevin Steele expects his defense to have more success against the run than in the three previous meetings, it will come down to the defense sticking to their assignments. For a defense that has been hurt by busted assignments in losses to Auburn, Miami and UNC, that could turn out to be more difficult than it sounds.
The fact that the Tigers have had three chances in the previous two seasons to become familiar with the type of offense that the Yellow Jackets run should give them a better chance at succeeding in stopping it. For all the criticisms that have been directed at the Clemson linebackers, this is a game that they likely have had circled since the loss in the ACC Championship Game last December.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson comes into the game with an offense that is second in the ACC, averaging 31.9 points per game. However, that number is inflated by the 58 points the Tigers scored against FCS opponent Presbyterian College. The Yellow Jackets, on the other hand, are sixth in the ACC defensively, giving up an average of 24.8 points per game.
For the Tigers to succeed on offense, they will need better play from both quarterback Kyle Parker and the young receiving corps. Parker hasn't quite seemed like the same quarterback since taking a vicious hit to the ribs against Auburn. Also, his lack of a go-to receiver has hurt Clemson's ability to consistently move the chains.
Parker acknowledged on Tuesday that his sore ribs and back affected his ability to throw the football in recent weeks; however, he is nearly healthy and has been much more accurate throwing the ball in practice.
The return of "Nuke" Hopkins from injury will certainly help in the passing game considering he leads Clemson wideouts with 13 catches and has appeared to be the only receiver Parker has really had any rhythm with thus far.
Clemson's offensive strength this year has been the running game, with running backs Andre Ellington, Jamie Harper and company averaging nearly 170 yards per game on the ground. Georgia Tech has allowed 150 yards per game on the ground, but more importantly they have given up 5.0 yards per carry.
If Clemson can keep the Georgia Tech defense honest by having at least a little success through the air, it should open up running lanes for the Clemson running backs. However, if Al Groh is able to stack the box in an effort to stop the run and Parker can't take advantage in the passing game, it could be a long day for Billy Napier's offense.
This is a crucial game for both teams and will likely be another close one, just like the majority of the games for the past decade. As long as the Clemson defense can stick to their assignments and limit the Tech offense, that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
Also, the Clemson offense must be balanced if they want to be able to consistently move the ball against a familiar Groh 3-4 defense.
Clemson will be out to avenge their loss in the ACC Championship Game last season and will play with a fire that has been lacking since the Auburn game. With their home-field crowd providing inspiration, Dabo Swinney is finally able to pull out a victory against Paul Johnson and the Yellow Jackets.
Clemson 30, Georgia Tech 24
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