Clemson opens the 2019 season in a familiar spot — as a heavy favorite.
The Tigers won each of their final 10 games last year by at least 20 points and are favored by 36 points in Thursday night’s season-opener against Georgia Tech.
It’s easy to see why Clemson is expected to roll against the Yellow Jackets and first-year head coach Geoff Collins. Clemson has most of its pieces on offense back from a unit that scored 44 points against Alabama in the national championship. The Tigers are also playing under the lights at Death Valley.
Still, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes the opener is the hardest game to prepare for all year.
“Once you get through that first game, you can kind of start building a little bit of a rhythm. You have a normal practice week and everybody has some experience as far as how we do things,” Swinney said. “There’s just a lot of stuff that you have to cover. ... The first game to me is always the hardest, even though we have more time (to prepare) than any other game.”
Swinney pointed out that it’s not just a football game that you’re planning for when getting ready for Week 1 — players have to learn their routines.
Clemson stays at a team hotel the night before games — even home games — which can be an adjustment for freshmen. Tigers players then have to learn their plan on game day, from when to come out of the locker room, to where to go for pregame warmups, to where to stand on the sideline, to halftime organization.
“There’s so much newness. You have to reinstall and get the rhythm of the season,” Swinney said.
This year’s opener adds another challenge in that the Tigers are facing a new-look Georgia Tech squad.
Paul Johnson and the triple-option offense are gone, replaced by Collins’ more traditional offense. Clemson has been watching tape of Temple — where Collins previously was the head coach — to prepare for Georgia Tech.
“We don’t have any Georgia Tech offensive tape to prepare,” Swinney said. “Geoff’s done a great job coming in there and really creating an identity for them and giving them very clear direction on what they’re trying to do. He did an awesome job at Temple. So we’re just studying that and that’s really all.”
Collins led Temple to an 8-5 record and Independence Bowl berth a season ago. The Owls faced three Power 5 teams last season — defeating Maryland 35-14, falling to Boston College 45-35 and losing to Duke 56-27 in the bowl game.
Collins has the task of building back up a Georgia Tech program that went 24-25 the past four years.
Facing the No. 1 team in the country and defending national champion in Clemson isn’t an easy first game for Collins, but it’s one he is anxious for.
“I mean, it’s exciting,” Collins said at the ACC Kickoff event last month. “Anytime you can play such a high-profile game against a great team, it narrows your focus a little bit more throughout the offseason, throughout winter conditioning and even throughout the summer to know you’re going against a program with such great coaches, such great players, and a great environment.”
Georgia Tech linebacker David Curry added that the Yellow Jackets won’t be intimidated coming to Clemson.
“If you’re a competitor, there’s nowhere else you’d want to be than Death Valley on a Thursday, opening day versus the defending national champions. It’s a dream come true,” Curry said. “That environment is so much fun and I can’t wait to step into that stadium. I don’t buy into all the big hype and, ‘Oh, they’re this and that.’ I just think it’s another football game and it’s gonna be a really fun football game. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people. ... “We’re excited to go into Death Valley on that Thursday and shock the world.”
Clemson vs. Georgia Tech
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
How to watch: TV on ACC Network, stream via WatchESPN
Line: Clemson by 36