ATLANTA — Georgia Tech couldn't ask for a better opportunity to show how far the program has come in coach Geoff Collins' second season.
The Yellow Jackets also couldn't ask for a more daunting challenge.
Georgia Tech will play at home against the nation's top-ranked team for the first time in 40 years when No. 1 Clemson, led by the high-profile tandem of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, puts its perfect record on the line on Saturday.
Clemson (4-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) beat the Yellow Jackets 52-14 last season in Collins' debut. Collins says Georgia Tech (2-2, 2-1) showed in last week's 46-27 win over Louisville it “has a chance to be really good in the present. I don’t think we have to talk in future tense.”
Asked if his rebuilding job was ahead of schedule, Collins said "I don't get too caught up in that.
“I have high expectations. I know what the end result is going to be. ... It’s a relentless pursuit to be as good as we possibly can be. We’ve got some really good talent we’re really blessed to coach right now, some really young talent that is playing at a high level. I’m just really proud of the guys.”
Clemson is determined to avoid looking past Georgia Tech after last week’s big win over then-No. 7 Miami. Lawrence said the Tigers can learn from defending national champion Louisiana State’s loss to unranked Missouri last week.
Lawrence said LSU’s loss “makes you realize how important the regular season is, each game, no matter if it’s a top-10 game like last week or this week a game without that much hype around it. But Georgia Tech’s a great team and you’ve got to prepare the same way.”
While Clemson's experienced duo of Lawrence and Etienne are Heisman Trophy candidates, Georgia Tech is rebuilding behind two promising freshmen, quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs.
“This is definitely a great opportunity playing against a No. 1 team,” Sims said. “We get to show how much we’ve improved since last year.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is very pleased with the effort of his hard-hitting linebackers in returning senior James Skalski and first-time starter Baylon Spector, a reserve the past two seasons. Spector leads the team with 27 tackles while Skalski is second with 23. “I call them the ‘Bruise Brothers,’ those two right there,” Swinney said. “They’re something to watch and fun to see. They play the game the way it should be played.”
40 YEARS AGO
The last time Georgia Tech played at home against a No. 1 team was Nov. 8, 1980, when the Yellow Jackets tied top-ranked Notre Dame 3-3. Georgia Tech's last win over a No. 1 team was its 41-38 win at Virginia on Nov. 3, 1990.
Lawrence has continued a streak of more than 12 games without throwing an interception. He’s gone 355 pass attempts without a pick, dating back to his game against Louisville last season. Lawrence is closing in on the ACC’s all-time leader in that category in Russell Wilson, who went 379 attempts between interceptions for North Carolina State in 2008-09.
Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said Lawrence is “a generational talent.”
“Like any quarterback he is human and does make mistakes,” Thacker said. “He is not flawless, but when it comes to talent there’s not a more talented young man in the country.”
Georgia Tech has allowed only two sacks. Clemson’s defense has 18 sacks, tied for second in the nation. Sims, who leads the Yellow Jackets with 251 yards rushing, is difficult to catch. Sims threw three interceptions in a 37-20 loss at Syracuse on Sept. 26 but kept the ball on runs instead of forcing bad passes against Louisville.
It was 12 years ago this week that Swinney, then the receivers coach, was called into the athletic director’s office and told he was Clemson’s interim head coach. It has been a run of unmatched success for the Tigers since and Swinney was reminded about it by his wife last Monday night.
“Ironically, we were playing Georgia Tech,” Swinney recalled. “Hopefully, we can get a different result 12 years later.” The Yellow Jackets spoiled Swinney’s debut with a 21-17 victory.