ATLANTA -- In the end, Clemson's national championship run ended Saturday night because the Tigers were unable to run well or stop the run.

Top Tiger tailback Andre Ellington was out with a sprained ankle, and his replacements stumbled and fumbled and failed to pick up the blitz. Georgia Tech's triple-option, mired in a slump, bounced back with a vengeance and bounced the 8-1 Tigers out of the Top 10.

No more No. 6 status after Clemson's 31-17 loss at Grant Field.

"We just physically got whipped," defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.

It was fun, entertaining and profitable while it lasted.

Clemson's current grip on the ACC Atlantic Division shows what eight wins this early in the season can buy; the Tigers following a bye week can clinch a trip to the ACC championship game with a home win over Wake Forest.

National title shot?

Such elite teams have to get to 9-0 before they can talk, and run the ball before they can walk by Georgia Tech.

"Our next goal is to win our division," coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's been our next goal since we won our opener."

The Andre factor

All of the goals officially listed on the wall at Clemson football headquarters remain in play, or have been accomplished.

In order:

Win the opener.

Win the ACC Atlantic Division.

Win the State Championship.

Win the ACC Championship.

Win the bowl game.

Anything else required all hands on deck, and on the football.

Leaning heavily on Ellington's 212 rushing yards, Clemson rallied for a 56-45 victory at Maryland on Oct. 15. Minus the Berkeley High graduate, the Tigers rushed for 95 yards at Georgia Tech.

Maybe with Ellington, the Tigers would have run the ball after Rashard Hall's interception gave Clemson possession at the Georgia Tech 9, down 31-17 with 10:39 remaining.

Instead, a rare Tajh Boyd interception.

"We got out-executed and from a defensive standpoint, we didn't play to our expectations and what we demand and what we believe we can do as defensive team," Steele said. "Too many big plays. Too many opportunities to get off the field and we didn't take it."

The Tigers were not ready for the bright lights and big city Saturday night, but there still is time to prepare for Charlotte (ACC Championship Game) and Miami (Orange Bowl).

'Sooner or later'

Clemson has a week off before Wake Forest comes to Death Valley, but that's good. Clemson has a lot to cover in the next two weeks, including how to deal with the kind of "Cover 2" (most basic zone) pass defense Georgia Tech used Saturday night.

"The open date is coming at a good time," Swinney said. "We have a lot of guys that need to get well mentally and physically. It's been a grind."

The orange drum is beating for Nov. 12 at Death Valley.

"Senior Day," Swinney said. "Again, a chance to win this division for the second time in three years. That's what we have to do, and then you have an opportunity to play for the conference (championship). And win this conference and you're going to the BCS.

"And if we can consistently, as a program, do those things then sooner or later we're going to have that special year where we put it all together."

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or 937-5593.