ATLANTA -- Which side is better, the Clemson defense or the Georgia Tech offense? The answer to that question likely will determine the outcome of Saturday’s game between the two longtime rivals and help shape the bowl futures for each.
There’s no question that the Clemson defense is one of the best in the country. The Tigers rank first in the country in total defense, allowing just 252 yards per game. They’re No. 4 nationally against the run (90.9 yards) and the pass (161.5 yards) and lead the nation in tackles for loss, an impressive 10.1 stops behind the line in each game.
“I think this is one of their better teams,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “This might be one of the best defensive teams they’ve had since we’ve played them. ... It’s the best defense we’ve played to this point, no question.”
But Georgia Tech’s offense carries just as much confidence. The Yellow Jackets are No. 2 in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 335.6 yards per game and rank 12th in scoring with 38.8 points per contest. Plus, Georgia Tech gets two members of its starting backfield back for the game.
“We come home to probably face the stiffest challenge of the year, so far,” Johnson said. “Certainly Clemson is probably the most talented team we’ve played to date. So a huge challenge.”
So which one will prevail?
If No. 24 Georgia Tech wins, the Yellow Jackets would finish with a 6-2 conference record. But the Yellow Jackets would need lots of help to catch Duke in the Coastal Division. But a win would give Johnson his first nine-win season since 2009 and could elevate the team into better bowl position going into the season finale against Georgia.
If No. 18 Clemson wins, the Tigers would improve to 8-2. While they need a lot of help to catch Florida State in the Atlantic Division, they would also embellish their standing before the assorted bowl committees.
Clemson has beaten Georgia Tech convincingly the past two years, both times at Clemson. A infamous 47-31 loss in 2012 led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Al Groh, and last year’s 55-31 game played on a Thursday night was not competitive.
Those are the exception rather than the rule. Georgia Tech leads the series 49-27-2 and has won four of the seven meetings against Clemson under Johnson. The Yellow Jackets won twice in 2009, including the ACC championship game. Since 2000, eight games have been decided in the final six minutes.
“We’ve had some great games,” Johnson said. “Last year, they got up on us pretty good. We couldn’t stop them. But other than that, they’ve all been close games and really close in the fourth quarter.”
Georgia Tech will have to solve a Clemson defense that is led by defensive lineman Vic Beasley, an Adairsville product who is one of the best pass rushers in the country. The returning All-American has eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss this year and is under consideration for the Lombardi Award, the Bednarik Award, the Hendricks Award and the Ronnie Lott Impact Trophy. He is the program’s all-time sack leader with 29.
“They’ve got some great pass rushers. He’s certainly one of them,” Johnson said. “They’ve got six or seven guys up there that are really talented players on the defensive front. They’ve played really good. I mean, if you take away the first game (against Georgia), other than that they’ve played really stout all year against everybody.”
Clemson allowed 328 rushing yards against Georgia in the season opener but has allowed only two other teams to surpass 100 yards: N.C. State (119) and Boston College (120). The Tigers held Florida State and Wake Forest to 7 yards apiece.
The Yellow Jackets get B-back Zach Laskey back this week after a three-week absence. He’ll come off the bench as Synjyn Days has produced three consecutive 100-yard rushing games while Laskey was nursing his sore shoulder.
“We’ve got to win the turnover margin. That’s just the bottom line,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “(Georgia Tech) is a team that controls the clock. If you give them a short field, you’re in for a long day.”
Injury report: Georgia Tech will be without defensive tackle Shawn Green, who injured his leg last week against N.C. State. A-back Charles Perkins is listed as probable.
Hamilton honored: Georgia Tech great Joe Hamilton will be honored with a National Football Foundation Hall of Fame On-Campus Salute during the game with Clemson. Hamilton, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1999, will accept a Hall of Fame plaque that will remain on permanent display on the campus. Hamilton will be the 13th Georgia Tech player inducted into the Hall of Fame, a ceremony that will take place Dec. 9 in New York.