Clemson University

Lesson learned

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper (right) and running back James Davis, both from the Atlanta area, will try to keep the Tigers' hot start going against Georgia Tech.
Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper (right) and running back James Davis, both from the Atlanta area, will try to keep the Tigers' hot start going against Georgia Tech.

ATLANTA -- Clemson is off to a promising start.

Hmmm, that sounds familiar.

A year ago, the Tigers won seven of their first eight games, the only slip-up a double-overtime loss at Boston College. They looked unstoppable in the last of those victories, a 31-7 rout of Georgia Tech.

Clemson couldn't keep it going, however, losing four of its last five for a disappointing 8-5 season. The memory of that collapse is still fresh as the No. 13 Tigers (4-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) get set to face struggling Georgia Tech on Saturday.

"We can't get too comfortable now," offensive lineman Chris McDuffie said. "We remember what happened last year."

So does receiver Aaron Kelly.

"I was disappointed, especially when the team kind of tailed off and started losing games," he said.

This game is especially symbolic, since Clemson could do no wrong against the Yellow Jackets (2-2, 0-2) a year ago.

James "Thunder" Davis rushed for 216 yards and two touchdowns. C.J. "Lightning" Spiller had a pair of 50-yard touchdowns -- one running, the other after hauling in a pass. The Tigers' defense held Georgia Tech star Calvin Johnson without a catch for the first time in his career.

While Clemson couldn't handle prosperity, Georgia Tech bounced back from the humbling loss to claim a spot in the ACC championship game.

"They responded to defeat a lot better than we did," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. "I've tried to use Georgia Tech as an example about being focused and playing week to week."

Well, he might not want to use this edition of the Yellow Jackets. In a first-month replay of what the Tigers went through last season, Georgia Tech got off to an impressive start by outscoring Notre Dame and Samford 102-17 in the first two games.

Then, when the competition toughened, the Yellow Jackets crumbled. Boston College romped to a 24-10 victory in Atlanta, and lightly regarded Virginia pulled out a 28-23 victory last week after Georgia Tech sleepwalked through the first quarter.

Suddenly, those first two wins don't seem so impressive, especially with Notre Dame off to an 0-4 start.

"That was not as big a win as people thought," coach Chan Gailey said. "I'm afraid we didn't handle prosperity very well."

Last season's game notwithstanding, this has traditionally been one of the ACC's tightest rivalries. Since 1996, five games have been decided by five points or less.

Georgia Tech is clearly the more desperate team, trying to avoid its first 0-3 start in conference play since 1994. As it is, the Yellow Jackets would likely have to run the table to get back to the championship game.

To turn things around, the Yellow Jackets will have to do a better job against Thunder and Lightning. Davis and Spiller are at it again, combining to rush for 280 yards in last week's 42-20 win at North Carolina State.

The Tigers also have been moving the ball through the air. Quarterback Cullen Harper, a native of suburban Atlanta, has completed nearly 70 percent of his throws for 964 yards. Most impressive is his touchdown-to-interception ratio: 12 TDs, no picks.

Harper is certainly looking forward to facing Georgia Tech. His father played at Georgia, so Jackets was a dirty word in their household.

"I grew up just about hating Tech," Harper said. "Ever since I saw our schedule, this game has kind of been on my mind. I'm really excited about being able to go back home and play in front of a lot of people I grew up with."