Ordinarily, Dabo Swinney slides seamlessly into coach speak when discussing opponents, but Georgia Tech isn’t ordinary.
Swinney has spent a great deal of time this week explaining what No. 24 Georgia Tech might do Saturday in Atlanta to create high anxiety for No. 18 Clemson.
Not once did he say, “It’s not about who we’re playing. It’s about Clemson.” Instead he dwelled on what Clemson hoped to do defensively to counter Tech’s prolific option scheme.
“Offensively, they are playing and flying at a high level,” Swinney said. “Just very impressed with how they’re executing offensively.”
Additional intrigue comes with the return of freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson, who missed three games and most of a fourth with a bone fracture in his throwing (right) hand.
“I think, mentally, he’s ready to go, and, physically, he’s ready to go,” Swinney said of Watson, who passed for 1,172 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 147 yards and three touchdowns in three starts and parts of three other games. “As far as how he’s going to play, I don’t know.”
Unknown, too, would be how Clemson’s fares against coach Paul Johnson’s option, though Swinney must feel confident with one of the nation’s most frugal defenses. Tech leads the ACC in scoring (38.8 per game), total offense (481.7 yards per game), rushing (336 ypg) and – curiously – pass efficiency.
“It’s tough because you just don’t see it. It’s kind of a season of it’s own from a defensive standpoint,” Swinney said. “It’s a whole different animal, because it’s not the same. It’s totally different preparation because it’s a totally different style of play.”
But Georgia Tech hasn’t seen a defense like Clemson’s – second nationally in total yards (252 ypg), first in tackles for loss, second in sacks, first in third-down efficiency, second in yards per play – since last season, when Clemson limited Tech to 440 yards, 248 rushing.
“At least we have a bunch of guys that understand. They’ve been in a game with them and know what to expect,” Swinney said. “From a preparation standpoint, this is one of the biggest challenges we have every year.”
“It’s incredibly stressful, mentally (and) physically,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “There’s not a lot of margin for error.”
For the first half, Venables will be without senior free safety Robert Smith, who was suspended following a targeting penalty in the Wake Forest game that Swinney has grown weary of discussing. Smith’s absence and steadying influence will require Venables to play younger players for two quarters.
“They’re very methodical in their approach,” he said. “A lot of teams get bored with doing the basic, fundamental things over and over, and they get a little bit anxious, a little bit nosey, the wheels start falling off.”
Venables said it’s the biggest challenge the defense has faced – not Georgia with Gurley or FSU with Winston in the second half.
“It’s not even close,” he said. “Nobody has stopped those guys.
“You don’t really see a weakness in their offense.”