Tajh Boyd and Clemson ended 2012 with a win over an SEC team. Can they start the 2013 season the same way? Photo: USA Today Sports
No. 8 Clemson vs. No. 5 Georgia
Saturday, 8 p.m. EST, ABC
Line: Georgia -2
The college football season kicks off with a dandy in Clemson, South Carolina. Some would argue Clemson is a favorite in the ACC (two of us are picking the Tigers in the ACC this fall), and with the kind of talent returning to suit up for the Tigers it is easy to see why. Clemson brings back a lot of veteran players on offense and defense and the schedule is somewhat favorable. Clemson also plays two of the top threats in the SEC's East Division, ending the regular season with rival South Carolina and beginning the season against historic rival Georgia.
Georgia is also full of optimism in 2013, although none of us tabbed the Dawgs for the SEC championship. But with Aaron Murray back behind an experienced offensive line and with the support of a punishing running game, Georgia has every right to be in the conversation. When these two teams get together Saturday night in one of the top atmospheres in college football, there should be plenty of offensive fireworks to lay eyes on.
In fact, if you wanted to go out on a bit of a limb you could even put together a respectable scenario that would suggest this could be a BCS Championship Game preview. Clemson would, in all likelihood, have to go through the regular season without a loss. That would include wins over Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina, plus an ACC Championship Game victory over Miami, North Carolina or Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, Georgia could easily survive with one loss especially if it came in the opening week. But let's not focus on the what ifs and hypothetical scenarios. Instead, let's focus on this one game, which is a big one.
For Clemson to Win: Protect the football. Clemson started to get a little sloppy with ball protection as the 2012 season unfolded. The Tigers had a turnover margin of +5 in August and September but had a -5 in November (hindered by a -4 against Duke) and Clemson lost the turnover battle in their final two games of the season, ironically each against an SEC opponent (South Carolina, LSU in Chick-fil-A Bowl). Last season Georgia's defense may have had their holes, but they created turnovers and took advantage of them. Georgia had a +6 November last season and won the turnover battle against Alabama in the SEC championship game and the bowl game against Nebraska. If Clemson is going to keep pressure on Georgia's retooled defense, they must avoid turnovers.
For Georgia to Win: Wear down Clemson's defensive line. The Bulldogs are packing an extra 439 pounds in the trenches in the battle between the Georgia offensive line and Clemson's defensive line. That means Georgia has plenty of muscle to clear running lanes for the running game, led by 232 pound tailback Todd Gurley. While Georgia will look to pass against a defense that was 9th in the ACC in opponent passer rating in 2012, it will be the running game that proves to be the difference. When Clemson has the ball, the battle at the line of scrimmage will be different because Georgia will only have three men on the line in their 3-4 defense. Georgia is built to take advantage of the running game, and that can happen with a beefy offensive line.
Key Player, Clemson: If this game is about offensive stars, then take your pick between quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins. I think Watkins has a pretty solid bounce back season after a down 2012 for a variety of reasons, and he is capable of making a big play any time his hands are on the football. But it will be Boyd who is getting him the football. Boyd will be looked to see if he can improve his pass accuracy a little more this season, and against a secondary with a sophomore and freshman in the starting line-up, you might think he can find some open receivers on key downs.
Photo: USA Today Sports
Key Player, Georgia: He may not be as athletic as his Clemson counterpart, but many of the same things can be said about Georgia's Aaron Murray. He may be the best quarterback in his conference, one that includes Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and a two-time BCS champion QB in AJ McCarron. Murray is a more accurate passer who has developed each year he has been in Athens, but the pressure of getting Georgia over the top is mounting. Leading Georgia to a 1-0 start with a top ten win on the road would certainly be a solid start.
Key Stat: 2
Georgia returns just two starters on defense, CB Damian Swann (JR) and DE Garrison Smith (SR). Ordinarily that should be a cause for concern, and it is. However, this could turn out to be a good thing after Georgia finished 12th in the 14-team SEC against the run (allowing 179.86 yards per game away from home). On the flip side, no team in the SEC was more effective inside the red zone than Georgia in 2012, scoring a touchdown on 76% of their red zone opportunities.