Originally created 10/22/06

Tigers win the big matchup, but little decided



CLEMSON, S.C. - The new "it" rivalry in the Atlantic Coast Conference begs one question - this is IT?

This disaster of a prime-time showdown after a knuckle-biting afternoon of college football was the best the Atlantic Coast Conference has to offer?

It was obvious months ago that this would be THE game of the year in the ACC. C'mon, Florida State-Miami is, like, so yesterday. Really, does either one of those ancient powers even have an offense that doesn't include beating someone over the head with a helmet?

Clemson-Georgia Tech is the new "it" rivalry in the new ACC - even if Saturday night's 31-7 Clemson cruise didn't reflect the historic tension of a series usually decided by the narrowest of margins.

It's still as big as it gets - at least until Boston College and Wake Forest pit the Catholics against the Baptists in two weeks. It's so big the Tigers and Jackets might have to do it again on neutral ground in six weeks in Jacksonville, Fla.

Yes, who didn't predict that with only five weeks left in the season that the four highest rated teams in the conference wouldn't include anyone named Miami, Florida State or Virginia Tech?

Truthfully, Clemson and Georgia Tech did possess the greatest preseason promise of any two teams in the conference - even if nobody outside of their own campuses noticed. Everybody naturally assumed that each team would follow their abhorrent pattern of having a couple of ridiculous losses by this point.

Instead, Clemson is just a missed extra point in overtime vs. Boston College and Georgia Tech is a questionable unnecessary roughness call against Notre Dame from being undefeated and meeting with national championship implications on the line.

Some might argue that the rise of the ACC's middle class makes a case for the relative weakness of a conference that expanded with visions of BCS titles. But credit ESPN's College GameDay for recognizing that two teams with double-digit rankings are actually better than advertised.

Clemson has the most exciting rushing combination in the nation and possibly the best defensive end in the country. And Georgia Tech has a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate at wide receiver.

At least they did until Saturday night. Calvin Johnson returned to the place where he burst onto the national consciousness two years ago with a heroic game-winning performance. The Yellow Jackets commemorated the event by ignoring him after the opening pass of the game.

Never before limited to zero receptions in his career, Johnson was somehow invisible in a purple sea of Tigers. Reggie Ball threw twice to him in the first four plays and then not again until 31 seconds remained in the third quarter. Johnson's only statistical contribution on the night was one option rush for minus-4 yards. You can cancel his Heisman candidacy.

Really, did Chan Gailey annex the play-calling duties away from Patrick Nix? Whatever the plan was, it was a disaster.

Clemson, on the other hand, made a strong bid to be considered among the nation's elite. If this was THE game of the year, than Clemson is THE team - even if its quest to reach the ACC Championship game is currently outside its control.

The Tigers simply dominated the Yellow Jackets by doing what they do best - running it right down the throats of the opposition.

Recognizing that this was the biggest game in Death Valley since they established their 1981 national championship campaign by beating defending champion Georgia, the Tigers came rushing down the hill wearing all purple uniforms for the first time in at least the modern era.

Clemson's rushers provided a bruising performance - at least it might have been bruising if anybody from Georgia Tech's defense had actually bothered to touch them. Atlanta native James Davis and freshman C.J. Spiller put on a show that was every bit as good as what Reggie Bush and LenDale White were doing to dazzle the college ranks at Southern Cal the past few years.

By the time it was over, Clemson had thoroughly embarrassed the Yellow Jackets on the national stage. Davis piled up 216 rushing yards while Spiller contributed 165 all-purpose. Each of them had two touchdowns.

The biggest game of the year at least yielded some conclusions, if not some drama.

It was a night that sent Georgia Tech home searching for answers with only a week to prepare for Miami in a game that could clinch an ACC championship berth in spite of Saturday's horrific showing.

And it sends Clemson into a critical showdown at Virginia Tech with the confidence of a team that knows it's the best in the league even if they get aced out of the title shot by an errant extra point.

If this showdown was as good as it gets in the new ACC, please bring back the old one.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.