CLEMSON – This is it. This is the game that everybody talks about when they ask me about the upcoming football season.
South Carolina is distant second.
Everybody wants to beat Georgia Tech, especially after losing twice in dramatic fashion to the Yellow Jackets a season ago. Once in front of a national TV audience on ESPN on Thursday night, and the other in the ACC Championship Game in early December, a loss that dashed Clemson’s dreams of a warm BCS bowl in January and relegated the Tigers to the Music City Bowl on a chilly, late December evening in Nashville.
Whether it’s wanting to prove that the option can be stopped, or wanting to knock a hole in Paul Johnson’s arrogance, or simply realizing that beating the Jackets would help Clemson’s chances of advancing back to the ACC Championship Game, Clemson fans want to win this game.
In 2009, Johnson’s second season in Atlanta, he guided Tech to an 11-3 record, 7-1 in the ACC, and it was Tech’s first 11-win season since the 1990 national championship campaign. However, a loss to a 6-5 Georgia squad at the end of the regular season, plus a 24-14 loss to Iowa in the Orange Bowl, has Johnson once again answering questions about whether the option can survive on this level, but he returns 18 starters from a season ago.
The Jackets lose playmakers in WR Demaryius Thomas, RB Jonathan Dwyer, DE Derrick Morgan, S Morgan Burnett, and have some spots up for grabs on the offensive line, but this is a team that once again should be in the mix for an ACC Coastal Division crown.
In the offseason, Johnson added former Virginia head coach Al Groh to his staff as defensive coordinator, a hire that makes the Jackets doubly-hard to prepare for – the triple option on offense and the 3-4 defense that Groh specializes in.
The Yellow Jackets led the ACC in rushing, scoring, and total offense season ago, and only Miami, Georgia, and Iowa kept them under 28 points. Losing Dwyer and Thomas hurts, and the offensive has to be rebuilt in spots, but there’s no reason to believe the offense will suffer too much.
Back is quarterback Josh Nesbitt, the senior that passed for 1,701 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 1,037 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2009. Nesbitt will be better as a rusher this season, and has a knack for bouncing off of the first one or two would-be tacklers. However, Nesbitt is not the most accurate passer in the league, and a lot of the big plays by the Jackets in the passing game were more because of the ability of Thomas than Nesbitt, so it will be interesting to see how does in this, his third season at the helm.
Jaybo Shaw, Nesbitt’s backup last season, transferred to Georgia Southern during the offseason, so if Nesbitt gets hurt, the Jackets will be relying on sophomore Tevin Washington, who made one appearance last year.
Losing Dwyer to the NFL won’t hurt the Jackets at running back, not with Anthony Allen waiting to show what he can do as the feature or “B back after playing as the “A” back last season. Allen, the former transfer from Louisville, carried 64 times for 618 yards [over nine yards per carry] and six scores last year. He also added five receptions for 112 yards and another touchdown.
The A-back is 5-9, 195-pound junior Roddy Jones, who only needs a small crease to make a big play, carrying 53 times for 345 yards and three touchdowns in 2009. The third back in the triple option attack is junior Embry Peeples, who logged 31 carries for 170 yards a season ago. Ironically, Peeples is the leading returning receiver for the Jackets, snaring eight passes last year.
LOCATION: Atlanta, Ga.
FOUNDED: 1885 (First football season in 1892)
NICKNAME: Yellow Jackets
STADIUM: Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field
HEAD COACH: Paul Johnson
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Paul Johnson
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Al Groh
The loss of Thomas might be assuaged with the development of sophomore Stephen Hill, who caught six passes for 137 yards and a score in 2009. He also had five rushes for 84 yards and a touchdown, and looks to become the next big playmaker. He is joined by junior Tyler Melton, who is really more of a blocker than someone the Jackets look at as making plays down the field.
Just two starters return on the offensive line , but one of those is 6-1, 274-pound senior Sean Bedford , last year’s All-ACC first team center, a former walk-on at defensive tackles. The other returnee up front is right tackle Austin Barrick , who’d started 13 consecutive games before injuring his lower leg and missing the final four games of 2009. Junior Nick Claytor was one of the top recruits in 2007, and has yet to live up to his billing, but he gets the chance at left tackle this season. Sophomore Omoregie Uzzi played in all got 12 games last year at guard and will get to start this year, while left guard will be manned by 6-4, 296-pound sophomore Nick McRae .
As good as the offense was a season ago, the defense was on the other end of the spectrum, giving up almost 25 points per game. The only two stars of the defense were lost to the NFL draft, so Johnson hired Groh to come in and make changes to a defense that was just too soft.
Morgan was the ACC sack leader, but he opted for the NFL draft instead of his senior season. He is the only loss on the defensive line, however, and sophomore Izaan Cross will look to step into Morgan’s shoes at defensive end after he started two games a year ago, finishing with10 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.
The other end is 6-4, 273-pound junior Jason Peters, who has bounced around from end to tackle and made just 11 tackles a year ago. The nose tackle spot will more than likely be manned by 6-2, 275-pound senior Ben Anderson, who suffered a knee injury against Georgia. He had 15 tackles, five tackles for loss, and two sacks while starting 12 games.
The leader of the linebacking corps will be 6-2, 242-pound senior Brad Jefferson, who finished with a team-high 95 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles in earning honorable mention All-ACC honors last season. Also on the inside in Groh’s 3-4 will be 6-2, 233-pound junior Steven Sylvester , who started eight games while playing outside last season.
Senior Anthony Barnes has never lived up to the hype, but he gets the chance at OLB this season, while former J.L. Mann player, Anthony Egbuniwe, a 6-4, 255-pound senior, moves from defensive end to try and fill the other outside spot. Egbuniwe went from Mann to Tulsa before transferring to Tech, and he managed to make 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks while starting nine games last season.
In the secondary, it appears that 6-4, 208-pound sophomore Cooper Taylor has fully recovered from heart surgery and will once again man the rover position. He started the first three games of 2009, but he was diagnosed with a rare heart condition that required surgery. At free safety, 5-11, 198-pound senior Dominique Reese hopes to find a home after bouncing around a year ago.
The cornerback spot looks to be in good hands, especially with 6-1, 182-pound senior Mario Butler, who has started the last 27 games dating back to the beginning of 2008. He had 45 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and two interceptions. The other corner is 6-0, 202-pound junior Jerrard Tarrant, who posted 58 tackles, two interceptions, and recovered two fumbles last year.
Place-kicker Scott Blair hit 14-of-20 field goal tries last season, and showed a talent for hitting the big kick, but the Jackets will look to get more out of him this season. Sophomore punter Chandler Anderson returns after averaging 42.3 yards per punt last year.
Tarrant is also one of the ACC’s top punt returners, and he scored all four of Tech’s non-offensive touchdowns in 2009 [yes, he had one against Clemson], and is a threat to break a long one at any time, ranking 13th nationally at over 13 yards per punt return. Sophomore Orwin Smith returns to help Tarrant in the kickoff return game, and he averaged 24 yards per kickoff return in 2009.
Sep. 4 --South Carolina St.
Sep. 11--at Kansas
Sep. 18--at North Carolina
Sep. 25--NC State
Oct. 2 --at Wake Forest
Oct. 9 --Virginia
Oct. 16--Middle Tennessee
Oct. 23--at Clemson
Nov. 4--at Virginia Tech
Nov. 27--at Georgia
Other 2010 Season Previews (Click logo to view)