We’ve seen all the hype, all the interviews and all the highlights. Now it’s time to see some real action.
The College Gameday crew chose to open the season here for a reason. The atmosphere at Clemson rivals any in the nation. And the fact that it’s a faceoff of top-10 ranked teams as No. 5 ranked Georgia faces off against No. 8 ranked Clemson is as good a reason as any. The crew hasn’t been in Tigertown since 2006, and the last time they were… well, it’s a game that the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets don’t look fondly upon.
But this time around, there are bigger and badder bragging rights as well as national championship implications on the line as both teams are out to prove themselves as legitimate contenders. Both teams have the talent on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, but questions remain, especially on defense. What are keys to the game for Clemson and Georgia heading into their primetime matchup?
1. Secondary Play — The Tigers’ secondary was stricken with inconsistency and injury in 2012, and the Tigers never truly answered that question in fall camp. Clemson will begin the season with veterans Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins, Garry Peters and Darius Robinson all listed as co-starters at corner. All have shown flashes, but having Jenkins back from a groin injury that sidelined him in 2012 could mean the difference in a secondary full of question marks. Highly touted freshman Mackensie Alexander figured to be in the equation, but a groin injury sidelined him and he has officially been declared out of the season opener.
Travis Blanks and Robert Smith established themselves at safety over the offseason, but corner remains the question mark. And against Georgia, they will be tested by quarterback Aaron Murray. If the corners prove they have improved in year two under Brent Venables and first-year position coach Mike Reed, they have the potential to make life a little harder for Murray. True freshmen Korrin Wiggins and Jayron Kearse could also see time in the secondary as well.
2. Running Game — The Tigers lost a valuable commodity at running back in Andre Ellington, who gave the Tigers a workhorse back and great burst out of the backfield. Now, that job will become a by-committee backfield with senior Rod McDowell and sophomore Zac Brooks, who had a great fall camp to overtake the injured D.J. Howard for the No. 2 job. As a backup in 2012, McDowell was a shifty runner, amassing 450 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Brooks bulked up to 198 pounds and also has soft hands out of the backfield.
Clemson has to test the front seven of a green Georgia defense that lost seven players from 2012 and has 10 players who have never played a snap of college football, and certainly not in an environment like this one. A solid performance from Clemson’s running backs takes pressure off of Tajh Boyd running the football and keeps the defense honest. Despite Clemson’s talent at receiver or the accuracy of Boyd’s arm, Chad Morris‘ offenses still predicate themselves on a strong ground game to effectively utilize the zone-read. However, at the same time, Morris must be careful not to abandon the running game early, a mistake he made against South Carolina last season.
3. Front Seven — Clemson’s more experienced front seven in its second season under Venables gets arguably its toughest test of the season against a Georgia offense line that remains almost entirely intact from 2012. The Tigers will be hoping that defensive end Vic Beasley can put the results of his solid offseason on display at defensive end, while Josh Watson and Grady Jarrett will be looking to disrupt the Bulldogs on the interior and clog up running lanes for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who make up arguably the best running back duo in college football.
Slowing down Georgia’s running game will be essential to getting Clemson’s high-powered offense back on the field and giving them more opportunities against a Georgia defense short on experience. It will also be up to the new combination of Stephone Anthony at the Mike linebacker position and Spencer Shuey at his new Will spot after spending taking over mid-season as the man in the middle. Quandon Christian will also be counted upon to make more plays at the Sam position. The Tigers can bet that UGA will try to feed their backs to keep Clemson’s offense on the sidelines.
In this kind of matchup, the Tigers need their defense to give their offense more opportunities in a similar fashion to their win over LSU. A game like this lets us know one thing: college football is back.