Dabo Swinney and Clemson celebrated in their last meeting with an SEC foe. Will it happen again this week?
2012 results: Clemson 11-2, ACC Atlantic co-champions, beat LSU 25-24 in Chick-fil-A Bowl
Georgia 12-2, SEC East champions, beat Nebraska 45-31 in Capital One Bowl
Most important storylines of the week:
Can Clemson handle the hype?: 2012 marked the first time since 2000 that Clemson began and ended the season in the national top 25. In 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008, the Tigers began in the top 25 but fell out by season’s end. 2008 was the most egregious example; Clemson began No.9 nationally but took a wicked 34-10 season-opening beating from Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. It was the beginning of the end of Tommy Bowden’s decade-long tenure at the Tigers’ helm; he resigned under pressure just over a month later.
Clemson’s Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU showed they could compete with an elite SEC team, but can they back it up? Make the Bulldogs heel, and they’ll have an impressive start to 2013 that should quiet many of their national detractors.
Can Georgia’s secondary slow Tajh Boyd?: Boyd has established himself as one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks; a two-time ACC Player of the Year and returning All-American, he threw for 3,896 yards and accounted for 46 touchdowns last fall (36 passing, 10 rushing). Boyd has a stable of talented wideouts, led by junior Sammy Watkins, one of four players ever to be named a first-team Associated Press All-American as a true freshman, as well as juniors Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake and highly-touted freshman Mike Wiliams.
Junior cornerback Damian Swann is the secondary’s only returning starter from 2012, and the unit has been further thinned by suspensions and injuries. Projected starting safety Josh Harvey-Clemons will miss this week due to a suspension connected to a May incident involving marijuana possession. And freshman Tray Matthews, a projected starter at free safety, only returned to practice this week while battling shoulder and hamstring injuries which have limited him this month.
Can Clemson’s secondary slow Aaron Murray and Georgia’s offense?: The secondary was Clemson’s Achilles heel in 2012; the Tigers yielded 240 passing yards per game to foes. Veteran cornerbacks Martin Jenkins, Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland have returned from injuries that sidelined them for parts or all of last season, but along with junior Garry Peters, no clear starters have emerged. In addition, sophomore Travis Blanks (a freshman All-America at strongside linebacker) and junior Robert Smith will be making their first career starts at safety.
Murray is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks; he threw for 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as a junior last fall, completing 64.5 percent of his passes. Combine his arm with the powerful backfield duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, and you have a pick-your-poison scenario for Clemson’s defense. The Tigers’ front seven will be a strength, but can it overcome a questionable secondary?
Time: 8:22 p.m. EDT
Place: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
TV: ABC (national)
Radio: Clemson and Georgia radio networks (regional); Compass Media Network (nationally syndicated).
Spread: Georgia -2 via Bovada
Clemson junior defensive end Vic Beasley has emerged as a pass-rushing force.
- Get pressure on Aaron Murray: Clemson had only nine sacks as a team through its first seven games last year, and 25 in its final six. It’s no coincidence that the Tigers’ defensive performance improved significantly, allowing more than 27 points only twice in that season-closing span. The only new starter on the Tigers’ line is junior Vic Beasley, who had 8.5 sacks in 288 snaps. Georgia’s offensive line returns all five starters from 2012, but if Clemson can pressure Murray, containing talented tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall could be easier.
- Push the tempo: Clemson averaged 83 plays per game a year ago, and offensive coordinator Chad Morris wants an even quicker tempo this fall. Against a Georgia defense which will feature an inexperienced secondary and youth across the board, Clemson moving fast and scoring early success behind a raucous home crowd could make a big difference.
- Win the line of scrimmage: With Andre Ellington gone to the NFL, senior Rod McDowell and sophomore Zac Brooks will carry most of the backfield load behind an offensive line that returns four starters from 2012. Morris needs physical running to make his fast-tempo offense go and control the ball, meaning McDowell and Brooks must prove they’re worthy early.
Georgia's Aaron Murray has emerged as one of the nation's top collegiate quarterbacks.
1. Exploit Clemson's secondary: The Tigers’ secondary, which allowed 240 passing yards per game a year ago, remains unsettled with co-starters at both cornerback slots, a pair of safeties making their first career starts and plenty of youth. Aaron Murray – last seen torching Nebraska’s secondary for 427 yards and five scores in the Capital One Bowl – is one of the nation’s top passers, and he should have plenty of chances to excel against the Tigers’ secondary.
2. Control the ball: South Carolina displayed the blueprint to slowing Clemson’s offense: keep it off the field. The Gamecocks held the ball for 39:58 in last November’s 27-17 win, putting the onus on Clemson’s offense to produce when it did get the ball. Clemson felt the pressure, as Tajh Boyd committed a pair of crucial turnovers.
3. Control the line of scrimmage: Talented sophomore tailback duo Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined for 2,144 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns as freshmen. Clemson’s run defense was solid last season, giving up more than 200 rushing yards to foes only twice – to Ball State and to Georgia Tech’s option-based offense. But if Gurley and Marshall can get in space against the Tigers’ linebackers and safeties, Death Valley’s decibel level could drop precipitously.
Clemson junior wideout Sammy Watkins hopes to rebound from a down sophomore season.
1. Junior WR Sammy Watkins: Watkins endured a sophomore slump in 2011 fueled by injury, illness and a drug suspension, dropping to 57 receptions for 708 yards and three scores after piling up 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 scores as a freshman. But he’s completely healthy and focused, and with DeAndre Hopkins off to the NFL, he’ll be a focus of Clemson’s offense.
2. Senior RB Rod McDowell: McDowell nearly transferred twoyears ago after being buried on the depth chart behind Andre Ellington, but after rededicating himself to football, he’s Clemson’s top tailback. He has excellent speed, burst and blocking ability, and is poised for a breakout final year.
3. Junior DE Vic Beasley: When Beasley arrived at Clemson three years ago, he couldn’t find a home, shuttling from tight end to linebacker to defensive end. He’s found a home as a pass rusher, piling up a team-best 8.5 sacks in 2012 despite playing behind senior Malliciah Goodman. With Goodman graduated, the spot is Beasley’s, with room to grow while attacking opposing quarterbacks.
Sophomore tailback Todd Gurley is coming off one of the best freshman seasons in UGA history.
1, Senior QB Aaron Murray: Murray is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks and a preseason All-SEC selection. He passed for 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns against 10 interceptions last fall, coming a few yards short of an SEC title that would’ve landed the Bulldogs in the BCS national title game. While top target Tavarres King is gone, he still has a wide variety of targets to torment opposing secondaries.
2. Sophomore RB Todd Gurley: Gurley’s 1,385 rushing yards were second-best ever by a Georgia freshman, trailing only Herschel Walker. He added 17 touchdowns and is a powerful, violent runner who is very difficult to bring down at 232 pounds. If he breaks past the first level, watch out.
3. Junior WR Malcolm Mitchell: Mitchell began 2012 as a defensive back, but moved back across the line in time to catch 40 passes for 572 yards and four touchdowns. With King gone, he’s Murray’s top target, and should blow past those numbers this fall.
Longtime Georgia coach Mark Richt is hoping his Bulldogs take the next step this fall - to an SEC title and BCS title game shot.
“They’ve got some young guys that are trying to earn their stripes. They’re trying to get in there, prove a point that that’s where they need to be. We see that, we’ve seen it on film, from guys they had last year. There are some young guys who got there in January who have been through spring and a fall camp and they’re starters. They’re very well coached, they’re sound.”
– Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris on Georgia’s young defense.
“There are going to be 300,000 people in Clemson, the largest game in Clemson history,” he said. “There’s so much thrown at you but you have to realize when you’re here for.”
– Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd on the overall atmosphere in Clemson Saturday.
“(Georgia) wouldn’t have been my first choice. I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I like to know I can play my (third-stringers) substantially. The flip side is it’s exciting and it’s been exciting. It gets your juices flowing in March when you’re throwing the Georgia-Nebraska game on, or in late summer when you’re watching the Georgia-Alabama replay. So they’re all big.
“ As coaches, the openers, you’re always a little uneasy about them. And I wouldn’t call it ever fun as a coach. One thing you’re not able to manufacture is time. You recognize every waning hour is an hour less you have to prepare for your team. It’s a great challenge on a great stage with two great programs with a storied history, and tradition of playing each other. It’s a huge rivalry game. That was exciting, again, three, four, five months ago. Now it’s about business and getting ready to play.”
– Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables on the challenge of playing a team like Georgia in a season opener.
"If you like quarterback play, I imagine a lot of people will really enjoy this game. You've got two guys that are very accomplished and have played a bunch of games. They've won big games, and they've lost some big games, too. They have complete control of their offensive systems and have complete respect for their coaching staff, their team and their fan bases. It should be interesting, and if you're looking for a subplot, that's a pretty good one."
– Georgia coach Mark Richt, on the matchup between quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd, from Georgia’s official website.
- Unless noted, all quotes were gathered by the author.
Expect a down-to-the-wire game before Clemson and Dabo Swinney prevail in a shootout.
With a pair of high-powered offenses led by talented senior quarterbacks and experienced offensive lines and a multitude of explosive offensive players, it’s easy to imagine Clemson-Georgia unfolding as a back-and-forth offensive celebration.
It’s even easier to do so when you realize that both teams’ biggest defensive liabilities lie in the secondary. Georgia’s back end is inexperienced, while Clemson’s is uncertain and inexperienced. This could be a night where the team with the ball last wins. Clemson loves to wear down opponents with its fast-paced tempo, and I could see the Bulldogs being lulled into its trap by the fourth quarter, much as LSU was last New Year’s Eve.
I’m going to go with Clemson 42, Georgia 38.