Big games for both. Big games after big losses. (Three losses on the trot, in Georgia Tech’s case.) Big road games in big stadiums. Big games in Big Orange Country (though only Tennessee, Georgia’s opponent, bills itself thusly). Big games against opponents with quarterbacks from Georgia. Big games at the same time (3:30 p.m. Saturday). What’s apt to happen?
Georgia’s apt to win. I picked Tennessee to take the SEC East, but I assumed the Volunteers wouldn’t lose every single game of significance. The Vols have lost every single game of significance. They led Oklahoma by 17 points at home and lost. They led Florida by 13 on the road and lost. They led Arkansas by 14 at home and … well, you know.
As noted, Georgia isn’t very good in really big games. Tennessee hasn’t been very good in any game against any Power Five team. Losing to Arkansas, which entered 1-3 and was itself desperate, to fall to 2-3 wasn’t just a bad loss: It was the sign of a team that has stopped believing what Butch Jones is saying.
Over the game’s final 17 minutes, the Vols had three chances to drive and score the touchdown that would put them back in front. They went five-and-out on the first, three-and-out on the second. (Remember, this was in Neyland Stadium.) They actually made two first downs on the third, moving all the way to the Arkansas 49. Then Joshua Dobbs got sacked and that was that.
On those three possessions, Dobbs — who’s from Alpharetta — completed three of nine passes for 35 yards. He fumbled once. He was sacked once. Tennessee even had Jauan Jennings, a high school quarterback who’s now a receiver, throw a pass on the last drive. It was incomplete.
In the second halves against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, the Vols have been outscored 42-13. They rank 11th among the 14 SEC teams in passing. Jones’ hire of Mike DeBord — who hadn’t coached anywhere the past two seasons and hadn’t coached in college since 2007 — as offensive coordinator has gone over less well than Paul Johnson’s hire of Al Groh to run Georgia Tech’s defense. Speaking of which:
Tech is a desperate team facing an opponent that could still be riding the high of its narrow victory over Notre Dame when Saturday comes. In a post for ESPN Insider, Brian Fremeau of Football Outsiders identifies Clemson as having the best shot (41.9 percent) of the nation’s 20 unbeaten teams at staying that way. (Writes Fremeau: “Our ratings give the Tigers at least a 75 percent win likelihood in each remaining game.”)
In the not-so-distant days of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins and DeAndre (Nuk) Hopkins and Andre Ellington, Clemson won mostly with offense. That has changed. Clemson ranked 10th nationally in total offense in 2013; it was 58th last season and is 62nd now. But the Tigers led the nation in total defense in 2014 and, even without Vic Beasley Jr. and Grady Jarrett (both Atlanta Falcons), more good things were expected.
Through four games, Clemson ranks 23rd nationally in total defense, which puts it seventh-best in the ACC. (Which suddenly has become a repository of defense, for reasons I know not.) Against Notre Dame, Clemson was outgained 437 yards to 296. The Irish had four turnovers on the rainy night and consequently trailed 21-3 after three quarters. They came within a two-point conversion of tying the game.
Notre Dame gained those 437 yards with only a small contribution from Will Fuller, the splendid receiver. Fuller caught two passes for 37 yards and appeared to lose his duel with Mackensie Alexander, the mouthy cornerback. (Tech remembers Fuller well; he caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Jackets.)
Tech’s defense likewise let a lead slip last week. The Jackets were outscored 38-10 by North Carolina over the final 34 1/2 minutes, but it would be wrong to describe this defense as a dud. On the contrary, Tech’s defense is massively improved. It’s 37th nationally in total defense, 29th in third-down conversion defense. (The Jackets were 79th and 114th last season.)
The Jackets are 2-3 because Johnson’s offense has failed. Tech ranks 43rd in total offense, down from 19th last year. (Yes, Tech has played better defense than offense this season.) The Jackets scored seven points in the first 59 minutes at Notre Dame. They managed 20 over 60 at Duke. They mustered 10 over the final 34 1/2 minutes against North Carolina, which ranks next-t0-last in the ACC in total defense.
If Tech can find a way to move the ball and seize an early lead Saturday, those old Clemson fears would bubble up. (“We’re talking about the College Football Playoff but losing at home to Georgia Tech?”) To date, Deshaun Watson of Gainesville hasn’t had the breakout season many expected. He’s fifth in the ACC in total offense. (Tech’s Justin Thomas is 13th. Ouch.)
I can see Tech making Clemson nervous, and in years past a nervous Clemson would become a beaten Clemson. I believe these Tigers are made of sterner stuff and — being brutally honest — I’ve seen nothing that makes me think Tech is a good team. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a close game. I would be surprised if the Jackets win.
Further reading: UGA’s dud rekindles the questions about Richt.
And a bit further: A season on the brink: Tech’s 2-3 and headed to Clemson.
Further still: Mark Richt? Good coach. Nick Saban? Great coach.