ATLANTA --- Just when you thought this was the town where Clemson football seasons go to die, the Tigers turned Georgia Tech's Thursday night white-out into a white-knuckle affair.
Georgia Tech seemed to have erased Clemson's illusions of this being a title contending season with a first-half scoring blitz that seemed eerily as psyche-crushing as the last time the Tigers visited Atlanta a year ago and got splattered in the season-opener by Alabama at the nearby Georgia Dome.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Clemson's funeral and Georgia Tech's coronation. Neither scenarios happened as Kyle Parker and the Tigers came roaring back from a 24-point deficit at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
The mood swings weren't through, however, as a drive-killing holding call on Clemson and one last offensive surge allowed the Yellow Jackets to escape with a 30-27 victory.
While Clemson suffered the loss, it mitigated the damage by displaying a resilience that's been missing far too long. Instead of the kind of embarrassing defeat like the 'Bama beatdown that triggered the eventual mid-season firing of head coach Tommy Bowden, the Tigers showed the kind of guts that might spell opportunity for the energetic young Dabo Swinney.
The white-clad Yellow Jackets loyalists who had plenty to be excited about in the first 20 minutes were wondering what had happened. Just when Paul Johnson's second-edition team looked even better than advertised, the offense went dormant and the defense went off the rails.
They could absorb that kind of behavior against a patsy like Jacksonville State, not against Clemson. But they got just enough to keep from choking on a loss that would have lingered.
This Atlantic Coast Conference portion of the annual border bash traditionally takes second billing to the Southeastern Conference edition that will kick off Saturday night in Sanford Stadium. But unlike Georgia and South Carolina, both the Tigers and Yellow Jackets came into this conference opener harboring much more serious and realistic title hopes -- mostly because neither needs to contend with the defending national champion Florida Gators.
Georgia Tech quickly seemed to establish itself as contender Thursday night -- even after the potential home-run ball on its opening offensive play got picked off deep by the Tigers.
On the second offensive snap, Johnson called a more conventional play suited to his style. Josh Nesbitt's option pitch sprung Anthony Allen up the sideline. The tailback outraced the Clemson defense for an 82-yard touchdown that consumed all of 13 seconds.
The Jackets didn't even need an offensive snap the next time, as they sniffed out Clemson's transparent faux 57-yard field goal attempt directly into the wind. Placekicker Richard Jackson instead took a direct snap and pooch punted. But Jerrard Tarrant was waiting for it and took it 85 yards for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Clemson wasn't nearly as bright, when on its next possession, Georgia Tech switched out the punt unit and sent in its field goal team for a would-be 50-yarder. This time Jackets kicker Scott Blair took the direct snap and passed it to a wide open Demaryius Thomas in the right flat for a 34-yard touchdown.
Not even 13 minutes into the game and anyone watching assumed that for all intents and purposes this game was over. After the Jackets added a field goal in the second quarter to make it 24-0, they could settle into their ball-control running game and start looking forward to a mega-showdown next Thursday night at Coastal Division rival Miami.
Then someone passed out the halftime notes that gave anyone already writing Clemson's obituary pause. The last time the Tigers trailed 21-0 in the first quarter was Nov. 13, 1999, on this same field. Final score of that affair was a nail-biting 45-42 Yellow Jackets victory.
The Tigers must have gotten the message because they refused to roll over while the Jackets got a little complacent.
A 63-yard Parker to C.J. Spiller touchdown pass in the second quarter showed signs of life, but that was only prelude to what Swinney and Parker had in store for the second half.
Clemson came out with a seven-play, 57-yard touchdown drive that cut the lead to 24-14 and trimmed the volume inside the stadium considerably. The drive ignited the Tigers defense, as well.
Next Clemson possession, Parker hit Jacoby Ford for a 77-yard strike that made it a whole new ballgame.
Two Jackson field goals actually gave the Tigers the lead 27-24 before the Jackets rallied with two Blair field goals of their own to win it -- the last a 36-yarder in the final minute.
The Jackets won't be able to afford such lapses next week in Miami. Word is that the Hurricanes specifically requested a Thursday night game to set the stage for their revenge plot after being embarrassed 41-23 a year ago when Georgia Tech piled up 472 rushing yards against them.
Clemson, despite taking the loss, takes away hope that better results await them in a pivotal Atlantic Division matchup with Boston College next week.
That's the kind of strange night this was, where winners seemed like losers and losers left like winners.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org