Atlanta -- How Georgia Tech fares tonight against Clemson could determine the way this season is viewed.
If Tech knocks off the No. 8-ranked Tigers, it would validate the team's second-half resurgence. It would keep Tech's longshot hopes for an ACC Coastal Division championship alive. It would move the team up in the pecking order when it comes time for bowl committees to select their teams.
If Tech loses, it would continue a lack of success against ranked opponents; Tech hasn't beaten a ranked team since beating Clemson in 2011. A loss would mean the Yellow Jackets would finish in the middle of the pack in the division and likely end up going to a lower-tier bowl game.
Regardless, this game has more intrigue than it did a month ago. Tech has established it can run the ball (even without the option at peak efficiency) and has made great strides on defense, especially against the run. The Yellow Jackets have started to establish an identity.
"We're a team that's fairly physical," coach Paul Johnson said. "We run the ball pretty good and defend the run pretty good. We've been in every game we've played. I think if we don't turn the ball over and don't commit a lot of penalties, we're a tough out.
"Will we win every game? I don't know; that's why you play. But when we do the things that we do well and take care of the ball, we could be a tough out."
It might seem that the biggest test for the new-and-improved Yellow Jackets may come on defense. Clemson is averaging 39.8 points and ranks 15th in the country. The Tigers rank 11th nationally in total offense behind quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. But Johnson said the real hurdle will be the Clemson defense.
"They've got good skill," Johnson said. "They've been good offensively, but this might be their best team defensively since I've been here, just personnel-wise and athletically. They've had some good individual players, but as a whole this might be their best defensive team since I've been here."
The Clemson defense ranks fourth in the nation in third-down conversion (28.6 percent), first in tackles for loss per game (9.4), fourth in sacks and ninth in interceptions. Clemson's scoring defense (20.6 points) ranks 23rd in the nation.
The games with Clemson have traditionally been close. Since 2000 there have been eight games decided by five or fewer point. Since Johnson's arrival in 2008, some of the better games have included:
2008: Josh Nesbitt throws a touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas with 5:22 left in Tech's 21-17 win.
2009: Scott Blair kicks a 36-yard field goal with 57 seconds left to give Tech a 30-27 win.
2010: Jonathan Dwyer scores on a 1-yard run with 1:20 left to give Tech a 39-34 win.
Even in last year's 47-31 Clemson win, Tech had a 31-30 lead in the fourth quarter before the game unraveled.
"It's just been good games," Johnson said. "Last year up there, I don't think the score was indicative of the game. I think it got away from us, but we were up one in the fourth quarter and had the ball at the 12 yard line on fourth-and-1 and fumbled the snap. So they've been good games. This may be the best team they've had since I've been here."
This will be the 27th time Tech has played in a Thursday night game. The Yellow Jackets lost to Virginia Tech earlier this season. Tech's last Thursday night victory came against Clemson in 2009.