It's only Week 1 of the 2021 college football season, but the stakes are massive on Saturday night in Charlotte when Clemson and Georgia meet in a showdown of top-five teams. While it's early and many twists and turns remain this year, this matchup could have significant playoff implications by December. The showdown between the Tigers and Bulldogs was hyped all offseason as the must-see game in college football for '21, and nothing transpired over the last few months to alter that storyline. Putting aside the championship stakes on Saturday night, a matchup between two top-five teams with some of the best talent in college football, an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions, and likely Heisman Trophy candidates at quarterback is an excellent way to kick off this season.
Clemson opens 2021 as a heavy favorite to win the ACC for the seventh year in a row. Coach Dabo Swinney's team returns 15 starters, including the best defensive line in college football, along with a rising star quarterback in D.J. Uiagalelei. However, the Tigers also come into the season as a hungry bunch. Ohio State dominated Clemson in the Sugar Bowl State (49-28), and Swinney's program is eager to put the loss behind them with a strong performance or a statement win on Saturday.
Georgia has been on the doorstep of a national championship under coach Kirby Smart and has recorded four consecutive finishes in the top seven of the final Associated Press poll. The Bulldogs nearly won it all in 2017 but haven't returned to the CFB Playoff since an overtime defeat to Alabama. Smart's program has the pieces in place to win it all this year, starting with a revamped offense under quarterback JT Daniels, along with a defense loaded with talent at all three levels. Regardless of what happens on Saturday in Charlotte, Georgia should be favored in the remaining 11 regular-season contests — which could set up a massive showdown against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game this December.
Georgia holds a 42-18-4 series edge in the all-time series versus Clemson. They've met just twice since 2004, with Clemson winning 38-35 at home in 2013 and Georgia dominating 45-21 at Athens in 2014.
Clemson vs. Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Spread: Clemson -3
When Clemson Has the Ball
Trevor Lawrence leaves big shoes to fill, but Uiagalelei has already proven he can deliver at a high level. The California native ranked as a five-star prospect coming out of high school — the second-best quarterback and 10th overall recruit — and certainly delivered in two starts last season. Against Boston College, Uiagalelei threw for 342 yards and two scores and added another touchdown on the ground. Although Clemson fell short in an overtime defeat versus Notre Dame, Uiagalelei impressed by throwing for 439 yards and two touchdowns in South Bend.
Helping to ease Uiagalelei's transition into the full-time role is the return of receiver Justyn Ross. The Alabama native missed 2020 due to a neck injury but was entrenched as one of the top receivers in college football prior to last fall. He caught 66 passes for 865 yards and eight scores in '19 and nabbed 46 catches for 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman the previous year. Ross' return gives Clemson a big-play threat on the outside, but it's also important for the offense to get contributions from Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr., E.J. Williams, and Ajou Ajou to divert attention away from the No. 1 target.
While Uiagalelei is going to garner most of the pregame attention, the battle up front is likely to decide this game. Clemson's offensive line struggled in the Sugar Bowl versus Ohio State and had issues at times opening up rushing lanes (4.5 yards per carry) in 2020. Also, the loss of running back Travis Etienne to the NFL means the backfield is in flux, albeit with talented options like freshman Will Shipley and upperclassmen in Kobe Pace and Lyn-J Dixon. Can Clemson's offensive line match the physicality of Georgia's defensive front to give Uiagalelei time to throw? And will this unit be able to clear rushing lanes to give Dixon, Pace, and Shipley opportunities to hit a few chunk plays on the ground?
Georgia's defensive front is anchored by Athlon Sports All-Americans in lineman Jordan Davis and linebacker Adam Anderson, with this unit expected to give Clemson trouble on Saturday night. The Bulldogs held teams to just 2.4 yards per rush last fall and generated 32 sacks in 10 contests. Getting pressure and winning the battle up front is crucial with a young secondary on the back end. An x-factor to watch: Former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick transferred to Athens this offseason and should be the top coverman for the Bulldogs this year. Assuming Kendrick holds up as expected, how will the other options in Georgia's revamped secondary fare against Clemson's playmakers?
When Georgia Has the Ball
The unusual nature of last offseason, combined with Daniels' recovery from a knee injury suffered at USC, likely prevented Georgia from unleashing its entire playbook under new coordinator Todd Monken in 2020. But the Bulldogs got a glimpse of what the offense could look like in the final four games, as this unit scored at least 30 points in three of those contests, and Daniels averaged 10.3 yards per attempt — showcasing the ability to push the ball downfield and open up the offense in '21.
Daniels' emergence and the overall modernizing of Georgia's offense should continue into this fall. But the Bulldogs will be without a few key playmakers on Saturday night. Top receiver George Pickens is out indefinitely after a torn ACL in spring practice, No. 1 tight end Darnell Washington is questionable due to a foot injury suffered in the fall, and receiver Dominick Blaylock is still on the mend after ACL surgery. Additionally, LSU transfer Arik Gilbert is away from the team. Daniels won't lack for options despite those missing pieces, however. Jermaine Burton is primed for a breakout year after catching 27 passes last year, while Kearis Jackson (36 receptions), Arian Smith, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, and freshman Adonai Mitchell round out a talented group of weapons on the outside. Clemson's secondary figures to be a strength with cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. and experienced safeties in Nolan Turner and Lannden Zanders leading the way, but this unit was torched for 385 passing yards and six touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State. Of course, this group may not have to cover too long on Saturday.
Clemson's defensive line is deep, talented, and loaded with difference makers on the edge and interior. The Tigers registered 46 sacks and ranked second in the ACC in rush defense last season, and here's a scary thought for the rest of college football: This group could be even better in '21 with the development of sophomores Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, along with a healthy Xavier Thomas off the edge. Georgia's offensive line boasts plenty of talent of its own, but this unit is unsettled going into the opener. In addition to holding up in pass protection, the front five has to generate a push in the ground game to create running lanes for James Cook (a potential x-factor as a receiver on Saturday night) and Zamir White.
The quarterbacks and skill talent are generating most of the pregame buzz. However, the team that wins the battles up front on both sides of the ball is going to come out on top on Saturday night. Clemson's offensive line has to play a lot better than it did in the Sugar Bowl to give Uiagalelei time to pick apart a young group of Georgia cornerbacks. The same theory holds true on the other side. Daniels isn't particularly mobile, so a relentless pass rush from the Tigers could be problematic. This one is tough to pick with neither team holding a significant edge in one area. The guess here is Uiagalelei and Ross hook up for one big play in the second half, while Clemson's defense gets a crucial stop late in the fourth quarter to seal a close win.
Prediction: Clemson 27, Georgia 24
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