WHAT: No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia
WHERE: Sanford Stadium (90,000)
WHEN: Saturday, August 30 (5:30 p.m.)
SPREAD: Georgia by 7.5
TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge)
GEORGIA RUN GAME VS CLEMSON FRONT SEVEN
This could be the most intriguing thing to watch in Saturday night’s opener. Clemson’s front seven is good, really good. There is a lot of talent and experience up front, led by Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett on the line, and Clemson’s linebackers could have a huge season, especially Stephone Anthony, while Tony Steward has fought through so much adversity to finally get his chance to be that guy. As strong as that group is going to be, this could be its toughest test of the season because Georgia tailback Todd Gurley is just as good. The junior is the best skill position player in the SEC, and his impact, or lack thereof, was seen last year when he was injured. He does have some question marks in front of him on the line, but Gurley is certainly the focus of the Clemson defense.
Advantage: Slight edge to Georgia
GEORGIA PASS ATTACK VS CLEMSON PASS RUSH/SECONDARY
Last season, this was an easy pick on Georgia’s side with Aaron Murray back under center for his senior season for the Bulldogs and a questionable secondary lining up for the Tigers. Clemson still has some questions in its secondary, but it certainly seems more settled, and especially more talented with Mackensie Alexander at corner and a deep and steady group at safety, as the team enters this season. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason is confident and knows the Bulldogs’ system after sitting behind Murray for several years, but Mason doesn’t have Murray’s arm strength, and the senior is going to need to perform well against the Clemson secondary because the Tigers are likely to stack their defense to try to slow down Murray. That could open things up for Mason if he can be decisive enough to find his receivers, who will be without Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley. Keep an eye on tight end Jay Rome for the Bulldogs. If Mason has time to throw the ball against an all-out rush from Beasley, Garrett and their teammates, Rome will be his most likely option.
Advantage: Slight edge to Clemson
CLEMSON RUN GAME VS. GEORGIA FRONT SEVEN
Like Clemson’s front, Georgia’s defensive line and the linebackers make up the strength of the defense. Sterling Bailey, Mike Thornton and James Deloach combine for a pretty good front in a 3-4 scheme, while Ray Drew is a key backup. The linebackers are strong, as well with Jordan Jenkins leading that group. But keep an eye on sophomore Leonard Floyd, who is an athletic wonder, along with Amarlo Herrera and Tim Kimbrough set to start on the inside. One other name to watch is freshman linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who was one of the top recruits in the nation last year. He has made a name for himself during the preseason, and is going to play and probably play a lot. That is the group that Clemson’s offensive line and its deep cast of running backs must take on. The Tigers’ line has a bit of a new look entering this season, and that group might be the key to the game. If the linemen can hold up to Georgia’s front and give D.J. Howard, C.J. Davidson and Wayne Gallman holes to run through, that will take some pressure off of quarterback Cole Stoudt and Clemson’s offense could have a big day.
CLEMSON PASS ATTACK VS. GEORGIA PASS RUSH/SECONDARY
It’s intriguing to see how the quarterback situations for the two teams mirror each other for the second straight year. Last year, the game featured two longtime starters who had terrific careers and faced off in a showdown at Memorial Stadium. Like Mason, Stoudt has sat and watched for several seasons and will get one year to make his mark on the program. Sammy Watkins is also gone, but Stoudt has plenty of weapons to choose from in Mike Williams, Adam Humphries, Chearone Peake and Germone Hopper along with three talented freshmen in Kyrin Priester, Artavis Scott and Demarre Kitt. That group has a big-time advantage over a Georgia secondary that is filled with holes outside of Damian Swann, who is coming off a bad junior season at cornerback. The other starters listed on the Georgia depth chart are Devin Bowman at the other corner and Corey Moore and Aaron Davis at the safety spots. But it’s anyone’s guess, really, what four – or five – defensive backs start the game. That’s not a good way to enter the season. Again, the key could be the Clemson offensive line. If it can stand up to the pass rush of Jenkins, Floyd, Drew and Carter, Stoudt could have a breakout game.
Coaches say it on a daily basis. The game could come down to special teams. If that’s true, it could be a close game. Both teams are pretty solid with their kicking positions with Georgia featuring Marshall Morgan at place-kicker and Collin Barber or Adam Erickson at punter and Clemson lining up Ammon Lakip at kicker and Bradley Pinion at punter. Lakip has some big shoes to fill as he replaces Chandler Catanzaro, and the junior might be the weak link of the four kickers in the game … if there is one. He has a strong leg and is just waiting for his chance to show that. While the kicking games are solid, both teams struggled with their return games last year. In short, they just didn’t do a whole lot with the chances they got, and with the kickers being so good, the chances might not be there again Saturday night.
Playing at home last year helped Clemson win the game. The atmosphere was electric, and the Tigers fed off that. Sanford Stadium, likewise, is one of the best college football stadiums around, and the Bulldogs have terrific fans. It’s going to be tough for Clemson – new starting quarterback, no Watkins and a new wave of running backs and receivers – to win this game, and neither team should be ashamed, no matter which team loses. But Stoudt’s calm demeanor will serve him well, and he’ll get plenty of help from a revived Clemson defense to pull off the win over Georgia for the second straight season.
PREDICTION: Clemson 24, Georgia 20
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.
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