Previewing Georgia Tech

Forget about forking over $7 for all the preseason magazines devoted to conferences and Top 25 pre-season teams. The only pre-season magazine you need to read is right here online at CUTigers.com. Today we take a look at the Tigers' 4th opponent in the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

For the next few weeks I will preview each match up the Tigers have this Fall in the order in which the games will be played. The articles will feature items such as key returning players, opponents Strengths, opponents weaknesses, intangibles, an unofficial spread, and of course a prediction.

So save your precious money and stick to CUTigers.com for previews you can actually use.

The Breakdown
Clemson at Georgia Tech
September 20th, 2003

Clemson will hit the road for the first time in 2003 by taking the short trip down I-85 to the land of Coca Cola, The Varsity, and The Cheetah.

Georgia Tech is coming off a 2002 campaign under first year head coach Chan Gailey in which the Jackets went 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the ACC. The Jackets finished the season by absorbing a 51-7 loss to arch rival Georgia in the regular season finale and losing 30-21 to Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Classic.

Clemson defeated Georgia Tech 24-19 in the third week of the 2002 season when Eric Sampson intercepted a pass in the waning seconds as Georgia Tech was driving for the game winning score. The Clemson/Georgia Tech game has been one of the most competitive and exciting series in college football the last 10 years, with almost every game being decided by 7 points or less and many of the games coming down to the final seconds.

The Jackets will have some new faces on the sideline in 2003. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien bolted Gailey's staff to coach for Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. Gailey claims that he will be calling the plays in 2003 for the Yellow Jackets, hiring Buddy Geis as a passing game coordinator. Reading between the lines you get the feeling the Jackets will try to be a more run oriented team under the direction of Gailey.

This game will mark the ACC opener for Clemson, and the second conference game for the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech plays 3 brutal games in a row on the road against BYU, at home versus Auburn, and on the road versus Florida State.

Key Returning Players For The Yellow Jackets
The first area of concern for Georgia Tech and their 2003 prospects rest with the academic ineligibility of 10 football players (announced in May). 5 of the 10 names have been officially released. They include starting running back Tony Hollings and starting defensive end Tony Hargrove. Three reserve players also have been ruled ineligible. They include linebackers Anthony Lawston and Kingi McNair as well as running back Michael Sampson.

The other five players ruled ineligible have not been released officially, although rumors abound as to who these players actually are. In fairness to those players and in fear of releasing a player's name incorrectly, I will stay away from attempting to name the other five.

Unrelated to the academic issues, 3rd string quarterback Al Pena has decided to transfer.

Back up QB Damarius Bilbo may see significant playing time in 2003. (AP)
Given the known departures on offense, the most starters the Jackets will return on offense is 7. A.J. Suggs will be back at quarterback, with Damarius Bilbo contending for playing time if Suggs cannot improve on his interception rate of last year. The offensive line returns mostly intact with tackles Nat Dorsey and Kyle Wallace returning along with center Hugh Reilly and guard Leon Robinson. The Jackets appear gutted at running back and wide receiver, however. Running back Tony Hollings is ineligible. Wide receivers Kerry Watkins and Will Glover have graduated. That leaves receiver Johnny Smith as the only returning starter at the skill positions.

On defense, the Yellow Jackets will get the return of end Greg Gathers who successfully applied for a medical red shirt after only playing in three games last year. That will help the Yellow Jackets at the end position since Hargrove has been ruled ineligible. Both tackles return in sophomore Travis Parker and junior Alfred Malone. Linebackers Daryl Smith and Keyaron Fox will return as well. Smith sat out the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but he is expected back by August. The only returning starter in the secondary is senior cornerback Jonathan Cox.

The kicking department will also have a new face in place kicker Dan Burnett, who has the job of replacing Luke Manget. Hal Higgins, having sat out the 1999 and 2000 seasons with Hodgkin's disease will handle the punting duties for the Yellow Jackets.

Georgia Tech Strengths
The offensive line should be a solid area for the Yellow Jackets in 2003. Returning four of five linemen, the Yellow Jackets should have a group that plays well together and gives experience to an otherwise young offense. The play of Nat Dorsey will be key to making the offensive line really good, or just good.

The return of Greg Gathers anchors a good defensive line for the Yellow Jackets. Had Hargrove not been ruled ineligible, the defensive line may have been one of the best in the ACC. As it is, it still should be a very good group nonetheless.

Georgia Tech Weaknesses
The 2003 Yellow Jackets are full of question marks; some of them pretty big question marks. Suggs has all the attributes to be a pretty good quarterback, but his play last year left many Tech fans scratching their heads. Many in Atlanta think Bilbo will not only challenge for the job in August, but could become the starter during the season if Suggs does not improve.

As much as Gailey wants to run the ball, we are left to wonder who will be running it for the Jackets? Ace Eziemefe appears to have the job locked down, but the sophomore is almost a complete mystery to most in the ACC having only run for 280 yards in his career in Atlanta.

The receivers for the Yellow Jackets are also a big mystery, and appear to be lacking a go-to guy. This may be why Gailey has said Tech will be more run oriented in 2003. That sounds well and good, but if you are not scaring anybody with your passing game, it becomes very easy to strangle the running game by shoving 7 or 8 in the box.

On defense, the front 7 look solid if not spectacular. But, the secondary is a huge concern with only young, unproven players making up 75% of the defensive backfield. Even the lone returning starter in the secondary, Jonathan Cox, is not considered a lock down corner.

Intangibles
Georgia Tech's schedule prior to the Clemson game looks daunting, to say the least. A trip out to Utah to face Brigham Young will most certainly have the Yellow Jackets underdogs. In game two, Tech hosts arguably the best SEC West team in Auburn, again making the Yellow Jackets underdogs. And a trip to Tallahassee awaits the Yellow Jackets the week before the Clemson game. If not a certainty, it is very possible that the Yellow Jackets will enter the Clemson game 0-3. What kind of mental shape will the Yellow Jackets and their fans be in if that is the case?

Clemson will be playing in their first ACC conference game, and at 3-0 should have a pretty good amount of confidence heading into Atlanta. Of the four road games Clemson has in 2003, Georgia Tech may be the one that the Tigers will be favored the most to win.

And even though Georgia Tech will have had 6 months and 3 games to get over the loss of the 10 players, it is hard to imagine that the effect will not be substantial. Coming into 2003, Tech looked like a middle of the pack ACC team. But with the loss of those 10 players (regardless of if they all were starters or not), depletes an average team to a below average team really quick. Tech will spend most of 2003 trying to stay ahead of Duke, Carolina, and Wake in the ACC standings. And that may be tough to do.

Unofficial Spread
Clemson will be favored in somewhere in the 4-to-7 point range against the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.

Prediction
Clemson Pounds Past Georgia Tech 28-13. Clemson will move to 4-0 on the season by exploiting a depleted Georgia Tech team in Atlanta. Even though this series is almost always filled with close games, this year the Yellow Jackets simply have too many holes to fill to keep this game a nail biter. If you are going to open the ACC schedule on the road, Georgia Tech is not a bad first stop to get you a much needed ACC win.

Clemson moves to 4-0 and enters the polls at #25. Unfortunately, the schedule will get much more difficult.
Scott Rhymer can be reached at scottrhymer@msn.com. Scott and CUTigers.com publisher Roy Philpott are the co-hosts of the CUTigers.com Pregame Show on WCCP 104.9 FM, which airs 2 hours prior to the Tiger Tailgate Show on Clemson Gamedays.

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