CLEMSON, S.C. — It would take several more stunning upsets for No. 15 Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney to look past struggling Georgia Tech.
Swinney said the Tigers (4-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) will be focused and ready for the Yellow Jackets (2-3, 1-2) on Saturday, no matter how bad Georgia Tech looked in last week's 49-28 home loss to Middle Tennessee.
"We've had some knock down, drags out with these guys but we haven't won much as of late," Swinney said. "It's a huge game for us."
Georgia Tech has been a thorn in Swinney's side from almost the moment he got the job midway through the 2008 season.
The Yellow Jackets spoiled Swinney's head coaching debut four years ago at Death Valley. They beat Clemson twice the next season, including the ACC title game. And last season, Georgia Tech ended the Tigers' 8-0 start and national title hopes with a 31-17 victory in Atlanta.
"Oh man," Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "That was an awful loss."
The game certainly seems like a mismatch with the Yellow Jackets having lost two straight. Middle Tennessee of the Sun Belt Conference ran for 264 yards and Georgia Tech ranks in the bottom half of the ACC in giving up nearly 400 yards a game on defense.
"This is a team that I know they're coming off a tough loss to Middle Tennessee, but they've had two overtime losses at Virginia Tech and then against Miami," Swinney said. "I think everybody knows the kind of team that Georgia Tech is and the kind of coaching staff that they have. We're going to have to play a great game."
Clemson has had several of those this year, at least on offense. The Tigers surpassed 500 yards of offense for the third time in five games last week, putting up 576 yards in a 45-28 victory over Boston College.
It's the defense that has kept Swinney guessing this year. The Tigers allowed 420 yards to Boston College, although it tightened things up in the second half to take control.
Clemson's defenders, though, have rarely looked good against Georgia Tech's triple-option schemes. Yellow Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington accounted for 176 yards and a touchdown in the victory, continually running past and through tacklers.
Washington's on a tear again this season with 11 touchdowns, although it's largely been overlooked in Georgia Tech's slow start.
"We've got to bounce back from a really disappointing game on Saturday," Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. "We get thrown right back into the fire against a quality opponent in Clemson."
Swinney has stepped up the team's tackling at practices this week. The Tigers have had trouble with missed tackles, opening the way for too many big plays this season.
Clemson was stung for 667 yards in a loss to No. 3 Florida State two weeks ago. This past Saturday, Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig threw touchdown passes of 42 and 31 yards and tailback Andre Williams had a 30-yard scoring run.
Tigers defensive end Malliciah Goodman said Georgia Tech's offense is one of the most difficult to prepare for all year because Clemson doesn't see the option attack much. Clemson's run into problems when defenders try to do too much instead of playing their assignments.
And Clemson can't worry about payback for the Yellow Jackets starting the team's late-season slide — the Tigers lost three of four to close the regular season — or things will break down again.
"We just have to stay focused, don't think about getting anybody back," Goodman said. "Don't get too emotional with it. You know your job. Go do your job."
The Tigers will have star receiver Sammy Watkins back for Satruday's game and eager to make an impact. Watkins missed the Boston College trip because an abdominal virus, the third game he's missed this season. Once again, receiver DeAndre Hopkins filled the void with a record-setting performance.
Hopkins caught a school-record 13 passes in Clemson's opening victory over Auburn. He tied a Clemson record the next week with three touchdowns against Ball State. Last Saturday, Hopkins had 11 receptions for a school record 197 yards against Boston College.
Clemson's quarterback Boyd said Watkins ready to play. "He looks healthy and full speed," he said. "Should be fun to get him out there."