About 125 miles of pine trees and outlet stores separate the cities of Atlanta and Clemson, South Carolina. For 351 days of any year, it’s abundantly clear which map point is more appealing.
But on college football game days, the preferences get a little scrambled. Then, surely, there can be no better place to call home than Clemson.
For it is a whole other species of football team they have there just up I-85, a magnificent creation in orange that seems so very different at a DNA level from anything residing here in the capital of the New South. That may include the Falcons, as well. A foreign, unrecognizable breed. Bigger. Faster. Stronger. Winning-er.
So, on a bright, brisk Saturday when Clemson came to call on Georgia Tech, there never was a question as to who would get to go home with the W. The Tigers took care of that with 65 points to spare.
Clemson remains more a standard than an opponent, anyway — certainly in a conference where it has now won 26 consecutive. If you can’t beat the Tigers, you at least can measure yourself against them. And it’s always the same: Clemson’s the unattainable body model in the Bowflex ad and you still can’t get into last year’s pants.
The Tigers brought with them the No. 1 ranking in the land and left exiting witnesses wondering if there shouldn’t be something higher than that.
This band brought with them all the big names and it played all the hits. That included a quarterback — Cartersville, Georgia native Trevor Lawrence — whose name will be the first out of Roger Goodell’s lips on draft day and whose general well-being is now of great interest to fans of Atlanta’s pro team.
Here, refer to a scene in the Bobby Dodd Stadium press box Saturday: A young wise guy from the Tech student paper wore a Matt Ryan Falcons jersey, only with the name on back covered in tape and “Lawrence” hand-written over it. And, so, campaign was launched in duct tape and can only grow in sophistication from there.
The Fabio-haired quarterback did nothing Saturday to dampen any dream — however fanciful — of him leading a Falcons reconstruction. For the two-and-a-third quarters Lawrence played before being pulled in the name of compassion, he threw for 404 yards and five touchdowns. Yes, that’s right, 404 yards and five TDs in just over half. Those are all career highs attained in just half the normal time. Projecting what he’d have had over a full game here will be the work of mathematicians for years to come.
Fairness demands mention of the one interception, when under pressure from Antonneous Clayton, Lawrence let fly an overthrow that was picked off by Zamari Walton. There’s your wart, proof of humanity.
Whatever NFL team is in position to draft Lawrence, his coach at Clemson will provide an enthusiastic reference.
“He’s just having fun. He’s enjoying himself. He’s really focusing,” Dabo Swinney said after all the scoring was done Saturday. “I’ve never been around a guy who is more dialed in to today. When I see him Monday, he’ll be locked in on Monday. He’s just enjoying his journey. He loves to play. He loves to prepare. He loves the challenge. He’s so focused on his execution and his details, his reads, his footwork. All the little things.
“It’s a true joy to get to work with him every single day.”
Aside from that interception, give Tech credit for winning the first quarter, 7-17. All things are relative against Clemson, even the score.
Falling behind by 10 would be the best thing that happened to the Yellow Jackets this day. For in the first quarter, they twice took the ball away from Clemson. And they struck for one majestic scoring play, a 59-yard rainbow connection from Jeff Sims to Jalen Camp. That came at the 6:32 mark of the first quarter. Tech’s next scoring opportunity will be, presumably, next year at Clemson. This year, they would not again penetrate the Tigers 30-yard line.
Even then, the best of times for Tech was so short-lived. As if to reply to an insult, Clemson struck back for an 83-yard scoring pass play one play after Camp’s catch.
I guess I’ve put off passing along Saturday’s final score as long as possible. Cover the children’s eyes: Clemson 73, Georgia Tech 7.
There’ll be little other play-by-play offered here. But for a general idea about Tech’s day, go to any scene in the movie Titanic after the line, “Iceberg, right ahead!”
It would tie for the second-most points ever scored against Tech, falling just behind the 94 yielded to Auburn in 1894. It was by far the most points given up by the Jackets since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line.
Coming off last week’s substantial victory over Louisville, perhaps the most uplifting of Geoff Collins’ season-and-a-half at the helm, came the mother of all reality checks. The team that had rolled to 400-plus yards of offense its first four games this season saw that streak run into a creamsicle-colored wall (Tech scratched out 204 yards Saturday). The line that had yielded only two sacks through four games gave up five to Clemson.
In his two meetings with Clemson, Tech coach Geoff Collins has been beaten by a composite 125-21. While the score was uglier this time, this Tech team is considerably better than Collins’ first. Which must mean that this Clemson team also is demonstrably better than the one that got rolled by LSU in the last national championship game.
Swinney may not argue that point. “I love the mindset of our team, love the mindset, the focus, the maturity,” he said Saturday. “We got better today. Great teams show up ready. Great teams get better.”
As for Collins, he put on the best face possible after losing by 66 points. “I’m excited about where we’re going, (but) obviously not today relative to the No. 1 team in the country. We have a long way to go to get to that spot.”
At least he knows Tech will be playing within its own phylum for the rest of its conference schedule.
(Steve Hummer writes sports features and columns for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.)
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