Georgia vs. Clemson Complete Game Preview
For the past seven months, coaching changes, disciplinary challenges and position switches have defined the Georgia Bulldogs. On Saturday, the Dawgs have an opportunity to develop a reputation on the field—where they belong.
The season-opening battle with the Clemson Tigers is significant on multiple levels. From a historical standpoint, this is the final meeting of the two rivals for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the game offers new beginnings for two programs looking to replace all-time greats at the quarterback position. Perhaps most pressing for both squads, this game will leave one ranked team with a 1-0 mark and the other behind the curve.
Here's what you need to know about this game:
Time: 5:30 p.m. EST
Place: Sanford Stadium; Athens, Georgia
Radio: Georgia Bulldog Radio Network, Clemson Tigers Sports Network
Spread: Georgia by 7.5 per SportsBook.ag.
Georgia Keys to Victory
- Georgia's defensive backs must limit big plays.
- They must create turnovers.
With no disrespect to the players on the field, a rowdy crowd at Sanford Stadium will go a long way in silencing a typically potent Clemson offense before it gets a chance dictate the pace of the game. Both teams will have a new man under center this year, but Cole Stoudt of the Tigers is newer than Hutson Mason. Most importantly, he's also on the road.
Clemson recruits well and has a stellar offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, so there's no doubt this offense will eventually get moving. For Georgia, it's necessary to delay that as much as possible. Crowd volume could—and should—be a factor.
The "New" Secondary
New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt arrived in Athens with his work already cut out for him. Along the way, a host of unanticipated dismissals, transfers and position changes made his job even more difficult. And yet, optimism abounds from the outside looking in.
This will be Georgia fans' first earnest look at what is still a work in progress in the secondary. Accordingly, perfection is unrealistic. Instead, keep an eye on these two points of emphasis, as they could make the difference in this ballgame:
Last year, Georgia's struggles were directly tied to big plays surrendered. That has to change—not just against Clemson but as a whole in 2014. Quite frustratingly, those big plays allowed were not countered by turnovers forced.
If the Dawgs can keep with a host of speedy Tigers receivers and take advantage of opportunities, they could make this a rout.
Feed Gurley. Feed Everybody.
Georgia's backfield is arguably the most talented in the Southeastern Conference, and with a competent offensive line returning there's no reason not to feed these talented running backs. Todd Gurley is the most well-known of these talented backs, and he should get the lion's share of carries, but getting Keith Marshall, Brendan Douglas, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb some opportunities will bode well for a team looking to eat the clock and keep the defense off the field.
Clemson Keys to Victory
Get a Push Up Front
Games are decided in the trenches more often than not, but for this Clemson team, the offensive and defensive lines are of particular importance.
On the offensive side of the ball, there are a lot of unknowns for Clemson. Tajh Boyd, who threw for nearly 12,000 yards as a Tiger, is gone. Also departed: his best running back (Roderick McDowell) and the Tigers' two leading receivers from 2013, Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant.
Fending off a stout Georgia front seven will give Stoudt time in the pocket to find playmakers and limit the necessity for improvisations.
Defensively, controlling the Bulldogs' running attack is Clemson's top priority. Fortunately for the Tigers, a host of talented defensive linemen and linbackers led by Vic Beasley should be able to contend there. If they can take away Georgia's ability to run, an awful lot of pressure will be on Hutson Mason in his third career start at quarterback.
Deflate the Defense
At Georgia, Pruitt is still finding pieces that fit what he wants on defense from both a physical and a mental standpoint. A few big plays early could go a long way in deflating a defense that has not (under this new coaching regime) faced adversity in the form of opposition from another team.
There are veteran leaders in the secondary for Georgia, like Damian Swann, but even he can be rattled at times. Dialing up a few deep balls early may be a risk worth taking for the Tigers.
Georgia Players to Watch
Gurley is a player worth watching all season if for no other reason than the fact that this may be his final year as a college athlete. He's a legitimate threat to take it to the house on every touch and can be used in both the running and passing games.
As the season progresses, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will likely move closer to a balanced distribution between passing and running, but early on the reliance should be on the ground attack. Look for Gurley to validate Heisman hype with high usage rates and effectiveness in early season contests against Clemson and South Carolina.
A great game from Gurley bodes well for the Bulldogs as a whole.
Of course, Mason needs to acquit himself well as a passer in this contest, too. He's already very familiar with a host of weapons in the passing game, but look for him to rely heavily on proven, sure-handed playmakers like Michael Bennett and Chris Conley.
Mason will manage this offense well. He'll read defenses, find open targets and throw the ball with accuracy. A great game from Mason, however, will be one that features zero turnovers and showcases his ability to adjust before the snap.
Floyd broke onto the scene in a big way last season, and he needs to maintain that trajectory for Georgia's defense to live up to its potential. A fierce pass-rusher with tremendous leverage, a quick first step and an unstoppable motor, Floyd has the ability to impact every single game.
Look for him to be let loose early and often by Pruitt as he looks to pursue the passer and disrupt backfield passing lanes with his long arms.
Clemson Players to Watch
Beasley would have been an early round selection in the NFL draft had he chosen to leave school. Instead, he opted to come back and terrorize opponents for another year. And terrorize is the most appropriate verb for what he did to the Bulldogs last season.
Heading into the 2013 opener, Georgia fans knew about Clemson's high-powered offense. They knew about Tajh Boyd. They knew about Sammy Watkins. They did not know about Vic Beasley.
Beasley introduced himself pretty quickly and spent the entire evening in Georgia's backfield, racking up two sacks and countless disruptions. He'll be gunning for Mason or any ball-carrier in the backfield.
Stoudt may be a new starter, but he's already got an impressive track record. Last season, he completed 47 of his 59 pass attempts (79.7 percent) while throwing for 415 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions as a backup. Accuracy is his calling card, and on seven occasions over the course of his three-year career, he's completed more than 75 percent of his passes in a game.
If he has that kind of performance against Georgia, the Bulldogs don't stand a chance. Look for him to take advantage of quick out routes, screen passes and shallow crossing patterns early as he settles into a rhythm. But he does have the arm strength to take shots downfield.
What They're Saying
Mark Richt expressed concern about Georgia's personnel heading into the season. He told Seth Emerson of Macon's Telegraph, "It's just not a lot settled at a lot of positions, especially on the defensive side of the ball."
Georgia fans are hoping some of those unknowns are undervalued playmakers waiting to emerge.
Players, however, are appreciating the new scheme and coaching staff on defense. Senior safety Corey Moore told Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald that Pruitt has "brought in confidence, he's brought in swag, he's brought in attitude."
For a defense that looked lost more often than not in 2013, that sounds like a welcome change.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told Chip Patterson of CBS Sports that there's plenty to like about his new quarterback:
The thing I like about Cole is that he's very disciplined. He lives by the motto that, "You don't ever go broke by making a profit." If it's just a simple check down that the defense will give him, he will take it. He doesn't force anything, he'll just keep moving the chains.
Swinney also offered glowing praise of Beasley, telling Scott Keepfer of The Greenville News that his defensive star could play just about any position on the field. "He's one of the most explosive athletes in college football," Swinney added.
There's a danger to drawing too much off of a previous experience, but there's still some value in remembering last year's meeting between these two teams. In 2013, Georgia went on the road, was plagued by mistakes and special teams mishaps, missed Todd Gurley for sizable chunk of the game and still gave the Tigers all they could handle. Without discrediting what Clemson accomplished in that season opener, the lot could have just as easily fallen in Georgia's favor.
This year, Georgia gets Clemson at home, and that certainly matters. More importantly, however, this year's Georgia team should be a better team than last year's. The same sentiment regarding Clemson is debatable, as a few more unknowns remain for the Tigers.
While this game may pit strength versus strength as Georgia's offense squares off against a supremely talented Clemson defense, the Dawgs offense will still be able to move the football consistently. Additionally, the Georgia defense is taking no steps back from where it was in 2013, while Clemson's offense is due for a slight decline—at least early in the season.
All of these factors combine to make Georgia the favorite.
Final Score: Georgia 38, Clemson 28