ATLANTA — For Georgia Tech, it’s a chance to put to rest all reminders of that dismal 2015 season.
Clemson is coming to town.
The Yellow Jackets may be unbeaten, but the level of competition — Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt — isn’t enough to lift the cloud that still lingers over this program after last year’s 3-9 debacle.
An upset over the No. 5 Tigers would certainly change that perception.
“I think we’re a little better than we were a year ago,” coach Paul Johnson said. “But this is the most talented team we’ve played — by a lot.”
Georgia Tech (3-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) is hoping the prime-time setting Thursday will rekindle the sort of atmosphere that helped produce the only highlight a season ago.
On a raucous night at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Yellow Jackets shocked mighty Florida State 22-16 when Lance Austin returned a blocked field goal for a 78-yard touchdown as time ran out.
It was one of the most memorable plays of the year.
It was also Georgia Tech’s lone ACC victory.
“We always have, for night games in general, a really good atmosphere,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we’ll have a good crowd on Thursday night and it will be fun for guys to go out and play.”
The players are eager to show — for a national TV audience, no less — that these Yellow Jackets are more like the 2014 team, which claimed a spot in the ACC title game and won the Orange Bowl.
“There’s going to be so much yelling and enthusiasm everywhere you turn,” defensive end KeShun Freeman promised. “If we can focus in and make plays and do what we’ve got to do, we’ll be very satisfied with the outcome.”
Coming into its ACC opener, Clemson (3-0) is the defending conference champion and expected to challenge again for a national title. But the Tigers haven’t looked all that impressive, struggling to beat Auburn and Troy before blowing out South Carolina State in what was little more than a glorified practice .
Another lackluster outing could put a huge dent in their championship hopes — especially with No. 3 Louisville , the hottest team in the country, visiting Death Valley next week for what suddenly looks like a September playoff game.
“All eyes are going to be on us,” said quarterback Deshaun Watson, who sustained a serious knee injury at Georgia Tech two years ago. “We’ve just got to go out and show what we’ve got.”
The Yellow Jackets rank among the top teams in the country in points allowed, surrendering just 10.3 per game. But Clemson poses a challenge at every spot on the field, from Watson at quarterback to Wayne Gallman at running back to a host of speedy receivers.
Georgia Tech certainly got a taste of that last season in Clemson, when the Tigers built a 33-10 halftime lead on the way to a 43-24 romp.
“We were not a very good football team a year ago and they were,” Johnson said. “I felt sorry for our quarterback (Justin Thomas). It looked like he was the only guy who knew what was going on.”
Thomas is back for his senior year, leading an offense that is short on plays — averaging about 61 per game — but looks to control the clock and tempo with its run-oriented option scheme. That will be vital going against Clemson, which tried to maximize its weapons by getting off as many plays as possible out of a hurry-up spread.
Johnson believes his offense could be as good as the one he had two years ago.
“I think we’ve got the same kind of skill position guys,” he said. “Our offensive line should be as good or better. It’s more athletic. And we’ve got the same quarterback.”
Now, bring on Clemson.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina contributed to this report.
AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org