ATLANTA — Georgia Tech couldn't ask for a better opportunity to show how far its football program has come in coach Geoff Collins' second season. The Yellow Jackets also couldn't ask for a more daunting challenge.
They will host an opponent with a No. 1 national ranking for the first time in 40 years when Clemson, led by the high-profile tandem of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, puts its perfect record on the line at noon Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Clemson (4-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) beat the Jackets 52-14 last season in Collins' debut. Collins said Tech (2-2, 2-1) showed in last week's 46-27 win over Louisville it "has a chance to be really good in the present. I don't think we have to talk in future tense."
Asked if his rebuilding job was ahead of schedule, Collins said "I don't get too caught up in that.
"I have high expectations. I know what the end result is going to be. It's a relentless pursuit to be as good as we possibly can be. We've got some really good talent we're really blessed to coach right now, some really young talent that is playing at a high level. I'm just really proud of the guys."
Clemson is determined to avoid looking past the Jackets after last week's big win over Miami, which was ranked seventh at the time. Lawrence said the Tigers can learn from LSU's loss to unranked Missouri last week, which dropped the reigning national champion to 1-2.
Lawrence, who is from Cartersville, Georgia, said LSU's loss "makes you realize how important the regular season is, each game, no matter if it's a top-10 game like last week or this week a game without that much hype around it. But Georgia Tech's a great team, and you've got to prepare the same way."
While Clemson's experienced duo of Lawrence and Etienne are Heisman Trophy candidates, Tech is rebuilding behind two promising freshmen: quarterback Jeff Sims and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, a former Dalton High School star.
Sims has been helped by his ability to move and the protection of his offensive line, with the Jackets having allowed only two sacks so far. Like every other group for Tech, though, that line is about to take a big step up in challenge level.
Clemson's defense has 18 sacks, tied for second in the nation. Sims, who leads the Yellow Jackets with 251 rushing yards, is difficult to catch. He threw three interceptions in a 37-20 loss at Syracuse on Sept. 26 but kept the ball on runs instead of forcing bad passes against Louisville last Friday.
"This is definitely a great opportunity playing against a No. 1 team," Sims said. "We get to show how much we've improved since last year."
The last time the Jackets played at home against a No. 1 team was Nov. 8, 1980, when they tied top-ranked Notre Dame 3-3. Tech's last victory over a No. 1 team was its 41-38 win at Virginia on Nov. 3, 1990.
Tech's Gibbs isn't the only former Chattanooga-area high school standout to watch in this matchup.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has been very pleased with the effort of hard-hitting linebackers James Skalski, a fifth-year senior, and first-time starter Baylon Spector, a Calhoun graduate who played a reserve role the past two seasons. Spector leads the team with 27 tackles, with Skalski second with 23.
"I call them the 'Bruise Brothers,' those two right there," Swinney said. "They're something to watch and fun to see. They play the game the way it should be played."
For the Jackets, a win Saturday could be seen as monumental. For the Tigers, it would be an expected step toward the type of successful season that has become habitual during Swinney's tenure, which includes two national titles and six ACC championships, including the past five.
It was 12 years ago this week that Swinney, then the receivers coach, was called into the athletic director's office and told he was Clemson's interim head coach in the wake of Tommy Bowden's exit midway through his 10th season. Swinney was reminded about the anniversary by his wife last Monday night.
"We were playing Georgia Tech," Swinney recalled. "Hopefully, we can get a different result 12 years later."
The Jackets spoiled Swinney's debut with a 21-17 victory in Clemson. The Tigers bounced back with a 27-21 win at Boston College the following week, then won three of their last five games, with Swinney's interim label removed before a Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska.
Clemson went 9-5 the following season, regressed in the win-loss column by going 6-7 in 2010, then launched into a streak of seasons with at least 10 victories that reached nine in 2019.