When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was an assistant at Alabama in 1999, the Crimson Tide went to Florida and beat the Gators, and then managed to do it again in the SEC championship game.
It was the only time Swinney had ever faced the same team twice in one season -- until now.
There will be a sense of familiarity when Clemson and Georgia Tech meet on Saturday in the ACC championship game, as Georgia Tech beat the Tigers, 30-27, on Sept. 10 in Atlanta. Whether it will be an advantage for either team remains to be seen, but both teams are better now than they were in the second week of the season, and the coaches expect a few new wrinkles from each other.
“This is a little different for them and for us in that I don't think either team really knew what we were getting into back [in the] second game of the season,” Swinney said. “Neither one of us really had a lot to go on from a film standpoint, and there's a lot of new people playing on both sides. You know, our freshman quarterback and we've got some young linemen, and some freshmen playing in the secondary and things like that. So you know, now that you've got a lot of film to really study them throughout the season, and they'll have all of ours and we'll have all of theirs, from a scheme standpoint that's a good advantage this time around.”
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said he can’t remember playing a team twice in the same season since he was at Georgia Southern (1997-2001). Johnson said Appalachian State and Furman would usually make the playoffs, and his team would see them again there.
“I don't think on the 1-A level we've ever played anybody twice in the same season,” Johnson said. “That usually doesn't happen.”
Georgia Tech outscored Clemson 24-0 in the first half earlier this year, but allowed the Tigers to battle back to a 27-24 lead in the fourth quarter. The Jackets’ defense stifled rookie quarterback Kyle Parker to preserve the win, but it was kicker Scott Blair who stole the spotlight with his 34-yard touchdown pass and last-minute, game-winning field goal.
“You know, we know their personnel well,” said Clemson guard Thomas Austin. “We've gone against those guys the last couple years and this season, but from a schematic standpoint, we know what they do, they know what we do, so I think for us it'll just be a matter of not trying to hide things but just doing what we do a little bit better.”
Georgia Tech has won five of its past six games against Clemson, but this time, the Tigers will have had a full week to prepare for that triple-option offense -- again.
“It's six of one, half dozen of the other,” Johnson said. “It probably helps them, but we also know how they lined up the last time. There's no guarantee everybody is going to line up the same way or do the same thing, but at least you have a little bit of familiarity. The first time we played them with a new coordinator, we had no idea what they were going to line up in. Like I said, I'm sure they'll have some tweaks and do a few things differently, but at least you've got some idea.”
The other similarity between these two teams is that they’re both coming off a loss to their respective SEC rivals that raised questions and revealed weaknesses. Clemson’s offense all but disappeared against South Carolina, and Georgia Tech’s defense was more than welcoming to Georgia’s running game. Still, both coaches agree their teams have improved since they last met in September.
“You know, I think they've improved a whole lot offensively since they've played us,” Johnson said. “I hope that we've gotten better, too. If we haven't, it's going to be ugly.”