It’s only Week 1 of the 2013 college football season, but the stakes are high for Georgia and Clemson in Death Valley on Saturday night. Both teams have national title aspirations, and while a loss won’t knock either out of the BCS Championship picture, it would be a pretty significant setback.
Clemson is a heavy favorite to win the ACC title, and the Tigers are coming off back-to-back double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1989-90. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team should be favored in all of its ACC games in 2013, but the success of the season could rest with how the Tigers perform in matchups against the SEC – Georgia (Aug. 31) and at South Carolina (Nov. 30)
Georgia fell just short of playing for the national championship last year, and even with key personnel losses on defense, coach Mark Richt should have the Bulldogs back in the mix to win the SEC.
This is the first meeting between these two schools since 2003. Georgia has a five-game winning streak over Clemson, which includes a 30-0 win over the Tigers in 2003. These two teams have plenty of history on the gridiron, as they have met 62 overall times, with the first meeting in 1897.
More Week 1 Previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Three Things to Watch
The Bulldogs return only three starters on defense and will have their hands full against Clemson’s offense. Even though the front seven has been revamped and will miss linebacker Jarvis Jones and tackle John Jenkins, the secondary might be the biggest concern. Freshmen Brendan Langley and Tray Matthews are slated to start, while strong safety Connor Norman has played mostly on special teams over the last two years. After starting all 14 games in 2012, junior Damian Swann is the team’s most experienced defensive back and will be crucial to slowing down Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.
The Tigers averaged 41 points a game and 512.7 yards per contest last season, with the catalyst being senior quarterback (and Heisman Trophy contender) Tajh Boyd. The senior has four offensive line starters at his disposal, and senior Roderick McDowell lining up at running back. With Georgia’s defense in rebuild mode, the opportunity is there for Boyd to make a statement on Saturday night.
Clemson’s run defense against Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall
If you aren’t familiar with Georgia’s backfield, it’s time to take notice. Gurley and Marshall combined for 2,144 yards and 25 scores on the ground last season and will be running behind an offensive line that has all five starters back. Considering the question marks residing on the Bulldogs’ defense, controlling the clock and keeping Boyd on the sidelines might be Georgia’s best chance to win. Clemson allowed 155.9 yards per game on the ground last season. However, six starts are back in the front seven, and the line held their own against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU. It’s impossible to control Gurley and Marshall for the full game. However, Clemson can’t afford to let the Bulldogs control the pace of the game by letting Gurley and Marshall chew up the clock.
The Tigers finished fall practice without a definitive answer at cornerback. The depth chart indicates Garry Peters and Bashaud Breeland will share one spot, with Darius Robinson and Martin Jenkins listed with an or on the other side. Clemson’s secondary ranked ninth in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 300 or more yards four times last year. Sophomore safety Travis Blanks is a future star, but the Tigers need more consistency from their cornerbacks. And this unit will be under fire on Saturday night, as Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray ranked second nationally in passing efficiency last year and will be throwing to a deep group of weapons, including Malcolm Mitchell and tight end Arthur Lynch.
Key Player: Roderick McDowell, RB, Clemson
Replacing Andre Ellington is no easy task, but Clemson feels confident in McDowell. The senior has waited his turn, spending the last three years as a backup and rushing for 674 yards on 129 carries. McDowell faces a rebuilt Georgia front seven on Saturday night, and with four starters back on Clemson’s offensive line, there should be running lanes for the senior to exploit. The Tigers don’t need 150 yards from McDowell, but with Georgia’s attacking 3-4 defense coming to Death Valley, his presence could be crucial on passes out of the backfield or blocking to keep defenders away from Boyd.
There’s not much separating these two teams. Clemson’s home-field advantage should be a huge asset on Saturday night, but the Bulldogs can lean on the experience of quarterback Aaron Murray to navigate the crowd noise on offense. The Tigers’ passing attack will be tough for Georgia to stop, especially with the injuries the secondary has dealt with this fall. The Bulldogs have to find a way to disrupt Boyd’s timing, which will be difficult with the new faces in the front seven. One x-factor that could come into play is special teams. Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan may not play, which leaves junior Adam Erickson or sophomore Patrick Beless as the No. 1 kicker. And both players have yet to attempt a field goal in a game in their career.
This one is a tossup. But let’s give Georgia a slight edge, as the combination of Gurley and Marshall could be the difference in the fourth quarter.
Georgia 38, Clemson 34
Related College Football Content
ACC Week 1 Preview and Predictions
Big 12 Week 1 Preview and Predictions
Big Ten Week 1 Preview and Predictions
Pac-12 Week 1 Preview and Predictions
SEC Week 1 Preview and Predictions
College Football's Pre-Week 1 Heisman Voting
Top 10 Games of Week 1