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Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) aims to kick off the season on a high note Thursday against Georgia Tech. Jeffrey McWhorter/AP

CLEMSON — To call Clemson the favorite in its Thursday night contest against Georgia Tech would be an understatement.

The Tigers, returning star sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a stable of talented skill players, have a 98.8 percent chance of victory, per ESPN's Football Power Index. Few are contemplating the possibility of a Georgia Tech win. 

The Yellowjackets take umbrage with the prognostications. 

"No freaking fear," Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said. "I don't think our kids are going to fear anything, I really don't."

With that in mind, here are four keys for Clemson in the season opener.

Score early, coast late

Excitement will be in the air early Thursday, and it's important for Clemson to capitalize on it. No matter what Georgia Tech coaches and players tell the media, there's an intimidation factor that comes with winning two of the last three national titles.

Playing in front of their home fans, the Tigers should be quick to drop a couple of early touchdowns on the Yellow Jackets. Upsets happen when the underdog starts to gain confidence. A couple of defensive stops here, an effective offensive drive there. Clemson must not let that happen.

There's a clear talent gap between the two teams, and it's on Clemson to exploit that early. Run up the score in the first half, and make sure Georgia Tech is running low on confidence.

Don't get lost in 2018 nostalgia

The CFP trophy has been passed around; the championship rings have been ordered. Thursday, Clemson will honor its 2018 team once more, unveiling banners and signs commemorating last season around Memorial Stadium.

It's nice to bask in the glow of last season's successes. But the Tigers must be quick to stuff feelings of nostalgia in the backseat. Repeat champions don't coast on past victories; they create new ones.

Thursday is Clemson's chance to begin the season on a high note. Many believe the Tigers to be favorites to end the season in the national championship game once again. The first step to getting there is leaving last season behind. 

Strong defensive line play

The biggest question mark for Clemson is its defensive line. End Clelin Ferrell is in the NFL. So are tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.

Swinney has been complimentary of the unit but has stopped short of naming definitive starters, aside from redshirt junior Nyles Pinckney at tackle. The other starting spots on the depth chart have multiple players listed.

The hope is that players assert themselves against Georgia Tech, with a more steady line in place for next weekend's game against No. 12 Texas A&M. 

Let the reserves shine

If Clemson has a big lead going into the fourth quarter, as it should, there's no reason to wear Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne out. Let the reserves shine. 

Tigers coaches have expressed confidence in backup QB Chase Brice, with Swinney noting Monday that Brice would start at "100-plus schools out there." Etienne's primary backup, Lyn-J Dixon, averaged 8.82 yards per carry last season.

A college football season is a grind, and opportunities for injury abound. Clemson has designs on playing into January, and so there's no reason to waste too much energy on what should be an August blowout. 

Prediction

Clemson 53, Georgia Tech 14

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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