Clemson heads to Atlanta on Saturday to take on Joe Hamilton and the explosive Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in an Atlantic Coast Conference showdown with bowl implications. The winner will likely head to Jacksonville, Florida for the Gator Bowl while the loser travels across town to the Georgia Dome for the Peach Bowl.
QUARTERBACKS- If Hamilton was just a quarterback with a good arm, that would be one problem for opposing defenses, but the fact that he runs like tailback makes him nearly impossible to defend. Hamilton is the nation’s #1-rated passer (with Chad Pennington and Michael Vick, two other quarterbacks the Tigers have faced, ranked second and third, respectively) and third nationally in total offense, averaging nearly 330-yards per game. These numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Hamilton by himself averages more yards in offense every Saturday than 31 Division 1 teams register as a whole. Brandon Streeter should have another big day against the porous Yellow Jacket defense, but the edge has to go to the potential Heisman Trophy winner in this case.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
RUNNING BACKS- Travis Zachery finally broke loose for a long touchdown last week against Duke. The sophomore’s 44-yard burst up the middle was the longest of his career, helping augment a 141-yard afternoon, another career best. Zachery will have another opportunity to shine against a Yellow Jacket defense ranked seventh in the ACC against the run, allowing 162-yards per game. Sean Gregory of Georgia Tech has been solid in not spectacular thus far. The 6-0, 203-pound sophomore leads the Jackets, averaging 73-yards per game on only 11 attempts. Phillip Rogers has chipped in with 310-yards and eight touchdowns in the backup role while Hamilton has accounted for more than 500-yards on the ground on his own.
GEORGIA TECH RECEIVERS VS. CLEMSON SECONDARY- Kelly Campbell has been Hamilton’s favorite target in the Yellow Jacket’s second-ranked ACC passing offense. The 5-11 sophomore has hauled in 50 receptions and is among the top-20 nationally in receptions per game. Junior Dez White has contributed 30 catches while senior Kerry Watkins has pulled down 20 with five touchdowns. After shutting down the Duke passing game last weekend, the Tigers will be tested again by Tech’s talented trio. With the unit of Robert Carswell, DoMarco Fox/ Charles Hafley, Dextra Polite, and Alex Ardley, the Tigers are ranked #7 in the nation at stopping the pass. This battle should be fun to watch, but for now, Clemson gets the slight edge.
CLEMSON RECEIVERS VS. GEORGIA TECH SECONDARY- If the Tigers are to walk out of Bobby Dodd Stadium with a win, this will be one match-up Clemson has to exploit. Georgia Tech’s secondary has struggled, allowing 235-yards per game in the air and ten touchdowns and a host of big plays. Clemson’s receiving nucleus of Rod Gardner, Brian Wofford, and Mal Lawyer are coming off one of their strongest performances of the season against Duke. Combined, the three accounted for 19 catches, 234-yards, and two touchdowns. After pulling down ten grabs, Rod Gardner moved to seventh in the nation in receptions per game. He will need another big day against Georgia Tech for the Tigers to be successful.
GEORGIA TECH OFFENSIVE LINE VS, CLEMSON DEFENSIVE LINE- With a relatively weak defense, Georgia Tech has been forced to rely on the point-scoring ability of its offense to win games. While Hamilton grabs most of the headlines, the Yellow Jacket offensive line has been highly effective in controlling the line of scrimmage. Georgia Tech is one of those rare teams with the ability to beat teams with speed and athleticism while also having the muscle to shove the ball down an opponent’s throat. The Yellow Jackets are big and experienced, with an average weight of 298 pounds and three seniors and two juniors as starters, including 6-8, 335-pound all-star Jon Carman. The Tiger defense is coming off perhaps their best effort of the season, limiting Duke to only 31-yards rushing and consistently pressuring Blue Devil quarterbacks. Clemson’s defensive front will have a tough chore against Tech, and if the unit performs as poorly as they did against Virginia Tech and Maryland, the Yellow Jackets will roll up big rushing numbers.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
CLEMSON OFFENSIVE LINE VS. GEORGIA TECH DEFENSIVE LINE- The Tiger line bounced back against Duke after a horrendous performance against Wake Forest. Clemson truly dominated an opponent at the line of scrimmage for the first time this season, racking up 239-yards rushing and keeping Streeter’s jersey clean. Georgia Tech’s run defense has been poor, giving up 162-yards per game, second worst in the ACC. The Tigers will have an opportunity to establish the run early and it is critical that they do just that in order to open up the passing game.
LINEBACKERS- IF Keith Adams zeroes in on Joe Hamilton like he did Duke’s Spencer Romine, then Hamilton should forget about the Heisman trophy and worry about merely surviving. Granted, it is unlikely that Adams, Chad Carson, Altroy Bodrick, and Braxton Williams will corral the elusive Hamilton entirely, but it is critical for the Tiger linebackers to keep him from running wild. Clemson’s speed and athleticism at the linebacker spots should help, although shutting down Hamilton completely is almost impossible. Georgia Tech’s linebackers have been a disappointment thus far, with the Yellow Jackets giving up far too many big plays in the eyes of head coach George O’Leary. The Tigers need to help continue that trend on Saturday.
SPECIAL TEAMS- Like Clemson, Georgia Tech hasn’t relied on field kicking to win games. Kicker Luke Manget has hit only seven field goals all season, one less the Tigers’ kicking duo of Tony Lazzara and Chris Campbell. The Tigers’ punt coverage will be critical against Tech’s Marvius Hester, the nation’s eighth-leading punt returner. The Yellow Jackets also boast a threat in kick off returns in Dez White, who averages 24-yards per attempt. Clemson needs a mistake-free afternoon from its special teams to keep Georgia Tech from getting any easy points.
Advantage: Georgia Tech
COACHING- George O’Leary has done a masterful job in his five seasons in Atlanta. O’Leary has raised the Yellow Jackets from the ACC cellar and returned them to national prominence in a relatively short period. Behind offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, Tech’s offense has evolved into one of the most unique and effective units in the nation. While the Yellow Jackets’ defense has been unusually weak this season, Georgia Tech has managed to win games through shear offensive explosiveness. On the other hand, the Clemson offense, dormant for much of the year, finally erupted last weekend with 58-points. In short, both teams have the ability to score in bunches. However, unlike Reggie Herring’s Tiger defense, Georgia Tech has failed to show that they can stop anyone. It is this factor that swings the coaching advantage into the Clemson corner.
PREDICTION- Exactly one year ago, the Clemson Tigers had won two games, the fans were in an uproar, and the only bowling they had as an option was at AMF. Now, suddenly, Clemson has a legitimate shot not only at a bowl, but a respectable one. If Tommy Bowden’s team isn’t jacked up for Saturday’s contest then it might be time for widespread drug tests. The Tiger offense can and will be effective against Georgia Tech’s generous defense but can not match the Yellow Jacket scoring machine blow for blow. Thus, the key to this game lies on the defensive side of the ball for the Tigers. Clemson’s remarkable improvement in stopping the run will have to continue. Joe Hamilton will get his yards; what Clemson can’t do is allow a member of his supporting cast have a career day.
Watch for Zachery and Gardner to have big days offensively while Adams and the Tiger secondary put a dent in the Rambling Wreck offense. This one should be fun to watch.
Clemson- 42 Georgia Tech- 31