Top-ranked Clemson kicks off its 124th season of football on Thursday night, hosting Georgia Tech for an 8 p.m. tilt at Death Valley to open the 2019 campaign. It will be the first live game broadcast on the new ACC Network, and prior to the game, Clemson will honor its 2018 national championship victory by unveiling championship signage on the south side of Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers begin their title defense against a team in the Yellow Jackets that is undergoing a major transition under first-year head coach Geoff Collins, especially offensively. Nobody knows exactly what to expect when Tech takes the field with its new spread, NFL-style offense, which is completely different than the triple-option attack that was a staple during Paul Johnson’s 11-year tenure at the helm.
Ahead of the season opener, The Clemson Insider gives you several key matchups to watch in the contest as well as a prediction for the outcome.
So, who has the edge?
Clemson’s offensive line vs. Georgia Tech’s defensive line: One of Clemson’s strengths is its offensive line, which features four senior starters (left guard John Simpson, center Sean Pollard, right guard Gage Cervenka and right tackle Tremayne Anchrum) along with sophomore left tackle Jackson Carman, a former five-star prospect that drew praise from Dabo Swinney and his staff throughout fall camp. Meanwhile, only two of the 11 defensive linemen listed on Georgia Tech’s “Above the Line” depth chart are seniors in tackles Jahaziel Lee and Brentavious Glanton. Swinney said the Tigers plan to rotate nine to 11 offensive linemen per game this season, and the experience and depth of the unit figures to help it control the line of scrimmage on offense in the opener. Look for the O-line to open up plenty of holes for Travis Etienne, Lyn-J Dixon and company. Advantage: Clemson
Trevor Lawrence and wide receivers vs. Georgia Tech’s secondary: After throwing for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2018, Lawrence enters this season as a legitimate Heisman contender surrounded by a wealth of weapons at wide receiver including Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and freshman sensation Joseph Ngata. The secondary is the backbone of Tech’s defense, led by safeties Tariq Carpenter and Juanyeh Thomas and cornerback Tre Swilling. However, the Yellow Jackets will be hard-pressed to slow down Clemson’s offense, which figures to be one of the nation’s most explosive attacks. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s defensive line vs. Georgia Tech’s offensive line: With Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant now in the NFL, Clemson will roll out a much different defensive line against the Yellow Jackets. The Tigers have a bunch of talented players to help replace the Power Rangers, though they are a young group and don’t have a ton of experience up front. Xavier Thomas, Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph, K.J. Henry and Justin Mascoll are all expected to contribute at D-end, while Swinney said that Nyles Pinckney, Jordan Williams and true freshman Tyler Davis have created some separation at D-tackle heading into the season. Georgia Tech returns a solid number of veterans on the offensive line, but the unit is tasked with transitioning to a different style of blocking in the spread offense and will be asked to pass protect far more than they had to in the triple-option. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s secondary vs. Georgia Tech’s passing game: While Clemson’s defensive line may endure some growing pains early in the season, its secondary is expected to be the backbone of that side of the ball with returning starters at safety (Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace), A.J. Terrell back at corner and functional depth behind them. The biggest question is how sophomore Derion Kendrick will fare in his first start at corner after making the switch from wide receiver in the spring and dealing with a hamstring injury in fall camp. The Yellow Jackets have even more question marks in the passing game, though, as they move from the run-heavy triple-option to an offense that will likely throw the ball nearly as much as it rushes. Adding to the uncertainty of the aerial attack is the fact that Collins did not name a starting quarterback going into the opener. We’ll give Clemson the edge in this matchup. Advantage: Clemson
Bottom Line: While Collins and his staff have injected fresh energy into Georgia Tech’s program, there’s no denying that a big adjustment period awaits the Yellow Jackets as they undergo a complete makeover. Tech hopes to be competitive this season but faces a challenge in doing so with personnel that was recruited to play in Johnson’s system. Anything can happen in the first game of the season, but even if the Yellow Jackets give the Tigers some trouble early, they will have a difficult time hanging with Clemson over the course of 60 minutes. At the end of the day, there is a vast talent differential between the two teams, and the Tigers are expected to do nothing but dominate in the season opener as the 35.5-point spread would indicate. Expect there to be plenty of fireworks at Death Valley tonight.
Prediction: Clemson 52, Georgia Tech 14
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