September 10, 2009
Programming note: As always on Thursday nights, we be live-bloggin'. Tiger-Yellow Jacket chat kicks with the game at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. Your snark is requested.
Point: Georgia Tech is approaching the singularity. Contrary to what you might remember, the Jackets didn't shred every defense they faced in their triple option/flexbone debut: Through the first 10 games last year, Tech was averaging a pedestrian 23 points, including a 10-7 clunker of a win with 79 yards rushing against mighty Gardner-Webb and a frustrating loss to struggling Virginia. Tech was held below four yards per carry in four straight games in October, including a close win over a demoralized Clemson outfit just days removed from firing its longtime head coach. By the start of last November, this was a struggling offense.
No, the Tech 'bone didn't really open eyes until its only Thursday night appearance of '08, a 41-point, 516-yard rout over Miami just before Thanksgiving, quickly followed by another second half explosion at Georgia a week later. Both of those games were clinics in what Paul Johnson's offense does best, spreading carries throughout the backfield and keeping the defense guessing (usually wrongly) on every snap, with the result that the Jackets averaged almost nine yards per carry against the 'Canes at over seven per carry at UGA.
That versatility in repetition was the mantra that took Georgia Southern to three straight I-AA championship games under Johnson from 1998-2000, and that led Navy to lead the nation in rushing three times in four years from 2004-07 despite constant turnover at quarterback and very little overall talent. It was also in full force in Tech's opener against Jacksonville State, where fullback Jonathan Dwyer took the first snap of the season for a 74-yard touchdown, the team averaged eight yards per carry and nine different players finished with multiple rushes. You can say "that's just Jacksonville State," but Johnson's scheme and this lineup in particular has proven it can do the same thing to pretty much anyone when it's at full speed. No major injuries tonight could mean another show to set the tone for a prolific season.
Counterpoint: Clemson is a different team under Dabo Swinney. This is less an argument about "turning the thing around" under Swinney than it is to emphasize that these are not Tommy Bowden's Tigers anymore: The old assumptions about underachieving and big-game flopping, to the extent they ever fit in the first place, no longer apply.
That's not to say they won't revert to form when the lights come on tonight, but the record is tentatively positive so far. Last year was the perfect opportunity to quit with all those ACC championship ambitions already lying in tatters after Bowden's midseason ouster, but the team seemed to rally under Swinney with four wins in the last five to sneak into a New Year's Day bowl; under the circumstances, the fact that they lost a close game there is much less significant than the fact that they were there at all.
Clemson still has most of what made it such an overwhelming favorite going into last year -- C.J. Spiller, one of the most athletic and experienced defenses in the conference, C.J. Spiller, a pair of former blue-chip, book-end pass rushers, a bevy or reliable skill guys on offense, C.J. Spiller, etc. -- with the addition of a grizzled offensive line (last year's noobs are back with a season under their belt) and the subtraction of Cullen Harper at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Kyle Parker wasn't all that impressive in his first start against Middle Tennessee, but it's hard to argue that (like Harper) he doesn't have all the necessary pieces around him; if the kid can engineer a road win tonight, that will be a big step toward erasing the years of negativity that built up under Bowden.