Will Todd Gurley find running room against Clemson?
Week 1 isn’t full of outstanding matchups, but the Georgia-Clemson meeting on Saturday afternoon could be the best of the opening weekend. These two teams met last year, with the Tigers edging the Bulldogs 38-35. Both programs return a chunk of their core from last season’s squads, but there are new faces stepping into key roles. Clemson is breaking in a new quarterback to replace Tajh Boyd, while Georgia hands the keys to the offense to senior Hutson Mason. There’s plenty of intrigue in this matchup, and this is an early barometer test to see where Clemson and Georgia stack up after Week 1.
Clemson vs. Georgia
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. New Quarterbacks
Despite new quarterbacks taking over for both teams, there’s not much concern at Clemson or Georgia. Senior Cole Stoudt is slated to start for the Tigers, and talented true freshman Deshaun Watson will also factor into the mix for coordinator Chad Morris. On the Bulldogs’ sideline, senior Hutson Mason will get his third start. Mason gained valuable experience by starting the last two games of 2013 due to an injury to Aaron Murray and threw for 320 yards in the bowl loss to Nebraska and 299 in an overtime win over Georgia Tech. Although both Mason and Stoudt are expected to thrive in their starting roles, both quarterbacks will be under the spotlight on Saturday night. Georgia’s front seven is among the best in the SEC, while Clemson’s defensive line features four senior starters. Neither quarterback needs to throw for 300 yards for a win, but it’s critical for both to limit mistakes with a close game expected.
2. Clemson’s DL vs. Georgia’s OL
As we mentioned in the previous section, Clemson’s defensive line features four senior starters. End Vic Beasley – an Athlon Sports preseason first-team All-American – highlights the front group. On paper, an experienced defensive front for the Tigers should have an advantage on Georgia’s offensive line, which returns only two starters. But will that play out on the field? Can the Bulldogs’ revamped line hold its own and keep Mason upright in the pocket? How about clearing rushing lanes for running back Todd Gurley? Winning the battle in the trenches is critical to winning on Saturday afternoon, and the battle between Georgia’s offensive line and Clemson’s defensive line is a matchup to watch.
3. Georgia’s Defense
New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt played a key role in Florida State’s national championship last season, and coach Mark Richt hopes the former Seminoles’ play-caller is able to replicate that success for the Bulldogs in 2014. Talent in the front seven certainly isn’t an issue for Pruitt. Linebackers Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson each garnered some preseason All-SEC mention, and the defensive line should be solid once again. Despite the strength in the front seven, the secondary needs some work. Pruitt mixed and matched the personnel in the offseason, and this unit could be in flux early in the year. Can the pass defense hold up against a Clemson offense that averaged 332.9 passing yards per game last season? Even without Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, the Tigers aren't hurting for talent in the receiving corps.
New is the key word to remember in this matchup. Both teams have new quarterbacks and experienced and talented front sevens on defense. But Clemson and Georgia both have concerns in the secondary, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this one go well into the 30s for the final results. Of course, with all of the new faces and roster turnover on both sides, this could be a low-scoring affair as both teams acclimate starters to new roles. Much of this game’s outcome resides on the quarterbacks. Will it be Mason delivering with a quality performance? Or is it going to be Clemson’s Cole Stoudt (first career start)? With new faces stepping into big roles, it could be a lackluster defensive struggle, before UGA or Clemson takes control late.