I don’t know if anything else can be said about the enormity of the season opener that awaits on September 4th, 2021. It's not unusual to have great matchups to open the college football season, but the opener between Clemson and Georgia at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte puts college football in a different category. In the past, there have been regular-season games labeled Game of the Year or even Game of the Century, but I can't recall a time that a season opener has carried that label. Yet, that is what this game represents. These are two teams on a mission to of win the National Championship that many expect to make the playoff. Clemson has hoisted the trophy as recently as 2018 and 2016, but the last and only time Georgia won the National Championship was 1980. The Bulldogs, of course, were at the precipice of another National Championship in 2017 but came up short against Alabama in overtime. Both fan bases are well aware of those facts, but what about the unknown factors that could decide who wins this game? The die-hard fans know what starters Clemson and Georgia have on both sides of the ball, and this will be an old-fashioned I-85 grudge match, 1980’s style. It's usually hot and humid in the first weekend in September, and there is nothing more refreshing than going into a game of this magnitude, knowing that you have experienced depth and fresh legs going into the 4th quarter. This is where the game will be decided.
BREAKING DOWN THE OFFENSE
Clemson will be starting second-year freshman DJ Uiagalelei, and Georgia will counter with the more experienced JT Daniels. Both starters have proven to be more than capable of playing at a high level, but which team has the edge if the starting QB’s get hurt? We have already seen the injury bug bite Clemson last spring, as backup QB Taisun Phommachanh tore his Achilles and it out for the season. That leaves Clemson with former walk-on Hunter Helms as the only other QB on the roster with any experience, and that is limited mostly to the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta last season. He performed extremely well in that game with 2 TD passes, a Clemson record for a walk-on QB. The Tigers were supposed to have 3 incoming freshmen QB’s that Dabo was excited about, but 4-star Georgia native Bubba Chandler was picked in the 3rd round of the MLB Draft and decided to go straight to pro baseball. That leaves Will Taylor, another big-time baseball prospect, and preferred walk-on Billy Wiles, but is fall camp enough time to get them ample reps to put them in a game of this magnitude? It would be a last resort, for sure, and far from ideal, no matter how quickly they pick things up. So expect former walk-on Hunter Helms to be your quarterback against UGA should something happen to DJ.
Georgia gets to counter with backup Stetson Bennett, who gained considerable experience last season as the starter before he was supplanted by USC transfer JT Daniels for the last 4 games. Bennett came in to rally the Bulldogs to victory in the opener at Arkansas and then started the next 5 games. He beat Auburn, Tennessee and Kentucky but lost to Alabama and Florida before Daniels took over the starting spot. One has to wonder if Bennett will consider transferring with talented youngsters Carson Beck and Brock Vandergriff coming off good spring performances. However, as it stands now, UGA has significantly more experience behind Daniels than Clemson does behind Uiagalelei.
The Running Backs
Georgia is going to run with Zamir White and Kendall Milton. Those are a given. Don't let that fool you, though, because Georgia is loaded with plenty of experience behind White and Milton. James Cook has shown flashes of greatness while fighting the injury bug here and there, and Kenny Mcintosh is the one guy that seems to fly under the radar. But when his name is called, he has yet to disappoint. This is the most experience Georgia has had from a depth standpoint for a program that prides itself on being “RBU.” You very well could say that Georgia has the best backfield in the country from top to bottom.
Clemson is going to counter with Lyn-J Dixon, who is returning for his fourth year and will finally get his shot at the spotlight with future Hall of Famer Travis Etienne moving on to the NFL. There is some experience behind him, but is it enough to match what Georgia has? Chez Mellusi figured to be the first backup in, but he entered the transfer portal after the spring game and will be playing for Wisconsin this fall. Michel Dukes came into the Clemson program at the same time as Mellusi, but he hasn’t shown the same level of productivity as Mellusi over the last two seasons. Dukes has played in 18 games but only had 8 carries in 2020, while Mellusi had 3 rush TD’s and a TD catch in 2020. The elder statesman of the group is “super senior” Darien Rencher, who just seems to want to stay at Clemson forever. Don't get me wrong, Rencher is the big brother you want around, your locker room, and his leadership qualities are impeccable. Sophomore Kobe Pace had a great spring and could wind up being one of the Tigers’ top rushers, but with only 18 carries for 75 yards last season, can they count on him to perform on a stage of this magnitude right out of the gate? True freshmen Will Shipley and Phil Mafah are the future for the Tigers at running back, and Shipley very well could be the X-factor for the Tigers in this game. Shipley, who has drawn comparisons to Christian McCaffrey, is ahead of his time. If he can demonstrate in fall camp that he can pick up and handle pass protection and keep DJ upright, it could keep Georgia’s offense off the field and offset the Bulldogs’ experience and depth at running back.
The Offensive Line
This is Georgia’s biggest question mark coming into the season. There are three returning starters under second-year Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken, whose offense looked world-class one minute and inconsistent the next. The biggest question for Georgia is whether the offensive line can open up holes for the running game. As we saw in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, the UGA offensive line was pushed around and dominated by a physical Cincy team that honestly won the game on the field. It just didn't show on the scoreboard at the end. The UGA offensive line is a very fluid situation. There is plenty of depth but not a lot of experience. With the lack of consistency from the starters, look for Monken to play his starters while slowly integrating others just to get them more experience and comfortable with their assignments.
Clemson has similar issues along the offensive line. It held up well last season when passing the ball but at times had issues opening running lanes for Travis Etienne, albeit against defenses that were loading up against the run. It was a good thing that Travis learned how to catch the ball out of the backfield because that often compensated for the Tigers’ struggles between the tackles. The Tigers’ offensive line brings back plenty of experience this year, though. In addition, with a full spring and offseason under its belt—unlike last year—one has to expect the Tigers to be much stronger and better in the run blocking department in 2021. Players like Walker Parks, Mitchell Mayes and Paul Tchio, who showed promise as true freshmen last season, should show significant improvement and enhanced strength after a year in the weight room. The Tigers, like the Bulldogs, have the depth, but it doesn't come with a lot of experience. Dabo’s policy is that if his players dress, they will play. Although he doesn't guarantee how much they will play, they do get opportunities. In fact, Clemson has played more players than any team in the nation over the last few years. While I see Georgia integrating its offensive linemen slowly to get them experience, Dabo will throw his guys into the fire without hesitation and if you play for the Tigers and see the field, you’d better perform.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Georgia suffered a major blow when WR George Pickens went down with a torn ACL. That leaves the Bulldogs without a true No.1 at the receiver position and a big question mark as to who the next man up is. If there is one area where the injury bug has obliterated Georgia, this is it. Demetrius Robertson had the potential to step up and be the guy, but he transferred. Blaylock is back after missing the 2020 season due to his second ACL tear, and Burton was the only receiver to play a full season last year. However, don't let that fool you into thinking Georgia isn't going to throw the ball. There is talent with this bunch, and JT Daniels is going to throw the ball regardless of who’s running routes. Still, 79% of Daniels’s passes went to Pickens last season, so his absence should be a major concern, and, at this moment, no one has separated himself as the go-to guy for Georgia’s passing game. Look for the Bulldogs to turn their attention to the middle of the field and the tight ends. At 6’7 and 260 pounds, Washington is going to be a monster to handle. If you want to see how much impact a tight end can have on a game, look no further than the Bulldogs’ 2019 game versus Notre Dame. 6’6, 262-pound Irish TE Cole Kmet had 9 catches for 108 yards and a TD; Georgia had no answer for him.
It’s not like the injury bug picks on certain teams, but between Clemson and Georgia last season, you’d think that when they came out of the tunnel, they’d just run straight over to the sideline and check themselves into a triage unit. There was nothing more damaging than to find out about the freak injury to Justyn Ross last summer, causing him to miss the 2020 season and putting his career in doubt. Mix in the fact that Ngata and Ladson—the two next-most talented receivers—were injured throughout the year, and you’d think that Clemson would need the transfer portal just to have someone to throw the ball to. The Tigers relied heavily on Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, who had less than 40 career catches prior to 2020, and both stepped up in a big way. Injuries can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. It gives you an opportunity to get other guys some much-needed experience. For Dabo and company, that surprise was true freshman EJ Williams. Clemson will be a full force with its plethora of wide receivers and the anticipation that Ross will be back, fully healthy. With the emergence of Williams, a former high school teammate of Ross, DJ Uiagalelei must be licking his chops to toss that football all around Bank of America Stadium. Delta Air Lines might need to give DJ and the football some frequent flyer miles when it's all said and done. Where injuries hurt Georgia last year, for the Tigers, the injuries were somewhat of a blessing for the 2021 season. It allowed Dabo and Tony Elliott to get some much-needed experience for the backups, and with TE Braden Galloway and Davis Allen running the middle of the field, can you say "AIR TIGERS?”
BREAKING DOWN THE DEFENSE
The Defensive Line
Georgia has been the top-ranked defense against the run over the last two seasons, and this is by far Kirby Smart's most veteran group. In the past, Georgia has relied on its linebacking corps for tackles-for-loss and sack production, not the defensive line. That will change this coming season. As we all know, with change can come some inconsistency, and it showed at times last season. The defensive line generated just 13 tackles-for-loss and only 4 sacks. The Bulldogs’ back seven is very inexperienced and is the second-biggest question mark coming into the season, right behind the offensive line. Kirby Smart has said several times that Georgia will need to play to its strengths and build on its weaknesses. That brings in the question of experience behind the starters, and in a game as big as the opener, having that experience and fresh legs in the 4th quarter is going to play a big part in who wins this game.
The Tigers are loaded as well across the up front, and one has to look no further than sophomores Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy as the anchors along the defensive line. This unit led the nation in sacks last season and was second in tackles-for-loss, just 2 behind Pitt. Look for those numbers to be even better this season. It's no secret that the Tigers were embarrassed in the CFP Semifinal against Ohio State, and some speculate on whether the book is out on Brent Venables and how to beat him. Then you add in the accusations that Venables was stealing signs, that Clemson doesn't play anyone during the regular season and the last two playoff games were blowout losses. That should give enough bulletin board material to make Brent Venables hotter than firecracker. Consider the fact that Venables and the defense will have had about 8 months to think about their last outing. It's not a good recipe for anyone going into a season opener against the Tigers. The X- factor in this game could be DE Xavier Thomas who missed most of 2020, including the last two games, due to injuries and sickness. I have yet to see anyone have an answer for him when he’s at his best.
This is undoubtedly the deepest and most experienced of any group on the defensive side of the ball for the Tigers. Along with that experience, you have leadership. Look no further than “super senior” James Skalski, entering his sixth season, to lead this group. After being ejected for a targeting call against Ohio State, Skalski will be looking for retribution against the Bulldogs. Fortunately for Clemson, the ejection occurred in the second quarter, so Skalski will not miss any of the opener against UGA. All you have to do is look at the Tigers’ last two playoff games after Skalski was ejected or the Notre Dame game he missed in South Bend to see how much he means to this defense. He’s an extension of Venables on the field, and he just might be the most valuable defensive player in the nation. Returning starter Baylon Spector led the Tigers with 72 tackles last season to go along with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks. Look for that production to increase in 2021 and for Venables to bring a lot more pressure from the middle of the field. If Myles Murphy is the Butch Cassidy of the defense, then Trenton Simpson has to be your Sundance Kid! He had 32 tackles, 4 sacks and 6.5 TFL’s as a true freshman last season along with a forced fumble. Perhaps the Three Musketeers would be a better analogy because Simpson, Murphy and Bresee each had 4 sacks, tying them with William Perry, Ricky Sapp and Shaq Lawson for third-most by Clemson freshmen. Consider the fact that Patterson, Maguire and Bentley all return with incoming freshmen Jeremiah Trotter and Barrett Carter, and the Tigers have plenty of depth and experience to fill in without a drop-off, should Skalski get tossed again for targeting.
The linebacker group is the Bulldogs’ biggest question mark on defense coming into the season. We are all aware that Kirby Smart has dipped into the transfer portal for help, and that speaks volumes to how he feels about what he has on campus and who he’s recruited. Nakobe Dean is the leading tackler and was a Butkus Award Semifinalist last season. He returns alongside Channing Tindall, who played sparingly in 2020. Quay Walker is highly regarded but fought through injuries last season along with Trezman Marshall and Rian Davis. This group was riddled with injuries all season last year, and the lack of depth and experience nearly cost Georgia in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati.
The Defensive Backs
This is the least-experienced unit for Georgia. So much so that Kirby Smart has once again resorted to the transfer portal for help. One of the big storylines of this game will be All-ACC corner Derion Kendrick, who picked UGA after being dismissed from Clemson by Dabo Swinney for disciplinary reasons. Both sides have been civil about the dismissal, but look for that to change as the game gets closer. Outside of Kendrick and Tykee Smith, a West Virginia transfer who Smart plucked from the portal, Georgia literally has no experience on the back end and would have started four true freshmen in Kimber, Ringo, Green and Lassiter. If there is a group that will give Kirby more migraines than he can handle, this is the group. Kendrick is still a question mark because of his inconsistent play, especially against Ohio State, not to mention his off-the-field issues.
If there was ever a chance that the Tigers’ defense could be as good as the 2018 group, this is the team. The defense is intact with the exception of Kendrick’s dismissal. Safety Nolan Turner is back for a 6th season and Lannden Zanders returns along with sublimely talented Andrew Booth, Malcolm Greene and several others. With newcomers like Wiggins and Mukuba, the Tigers’ secondary is as deep and talented as it’s ever been, and a return trip to the playoff -should be a given. Just like everyone else, this defense finally gets a full off-season, full spring and a full summer leading into fall camp to look in the mirror and reassess itself. There should be no reason for this defense not to be one of the best, if not the best, in the country at the end of the season. They will have had 8 months to think about the loss to Ohio State and the way they lost that game. I do not expect a repeat of that in 2021.
BREAKING DOWN SPECIAL TEAMS
Clemson returns place kicker BT Potter, a Groza Award Semifinalist who has been automatic when it comes to putting kickoffs into the end zone for touch backs. He was nearly as impressive on field goals and PAT’s, going 18-20 (not counting 3 blocks that weren’t his fault) on the former and missing just one of the latter. We all remember the two blocks by Miami, one of which was returned for a TD just before halftime. Neither was Potter’s fault, and Dabo took full responsibility for attempting a 60-yarder in the rain. Potter seemed to lack focus on a couple of his misses, but he has a prolific leg. Look for BT to improve in the consistently department on field goals and make a few over 50 yards.
Will Spiers had his best season average last year at 44 yards per punt. He is another one of those super seniors, back for a sixth year, and look for Spiers to continue that consistency we saw last season. If the punt protection can keep guys off of him, I wouldn't be surprised to see Spiers add a few more yards onto his average and be in the mix for the Ray Guy Award.
If there is any big improvement needed on special teams, it has to come from blocking up front, especially on 4th down and field position late in a close ballgame. One has to look no further than the aforementioned Miami game with a pair of blocked field goals. The blocking got better as the season went on, but if that trend continues, eventually it will cost the Tigers a game at some point down the road.
The Tigers were No.34 in punt returns last season with Amari Rodgers as the primary return man. It remains to be seen who will take over that job, but it looks like Justyn Ross will get an opportunity after taking reps on punts last spring. Georgia was No.62 in punt returns last season, but he Bulldogs were No.5 in kickoff returns, while the Tigers were No.36. True freshman Will Shipley could be a real difference maker in the kickoff return game for the Tigers.
Georgia will have senior Jake Camarda handling punting duties and will be looking to improve on his impressive 46.6 yards per punt average from last season. Camarda will also handle kickoff duties, recording 36 touchbacks on 41 kickoffs last season along with 18 punts inside the 20-yard line. Jack Podlesney, another Lou Groza Semifinalist, will return as the Bulldogs’ field goal kicker. He only made 13 FG’s in 2020 but saved his best for last with a 53-yarder to beat Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. Kearis Jackson was one of the best punt returners in the SEC last season, averaging 27.1 yards per return.
Georgia is going to be one of the top teams in the nation, but the inconsistencies and questionable play-calling in the past will leave you scratching your head. A home loss to a 4-8 South Carolina team a couple years ago and inability to slay the giant that is Alabama continues to haunt Georgia and its fan base. That was compounded by the Florida loss last season, as Kirby Smart has yet to prove that he can win the big game. I would venture to say that the opener against Clemson in Charlotte will be as big as any game Kirby has coached up to this point, with the exception of the 2017 CFP games against Alabama and Oklahoma. The schedule sets up nicely after the Clemson game for the Bulldogs. With Florida taking a step back, they shouldn't have any worries until the SEC Championship game. If there is a year that Georgia could raise the big trophy, this is it. It’s been 41 years, and Georgia fans have been practically begging to be handed a National Championship, but as we know, it isn't handed to you, it has to be earned, and Kirby has yet to prove he can earn it.
For the Tigers, this has to be a "statement game.” The narrative that Clemson plays no one in the regular season, not to mention losing badly in its last two playoff games, has to be put to rest with a win over Georgia. Clemson has proven it can play with the big boys of college football. One has to look no further than 2015, 2016 and 2018 to see that, and beating Nick Saban and Bama twice on the biggest stage speaks volumes. However, that doesn't seem to be enough for anyone outside Clemson, South Carolina. The last time these two teams met for a home-and-home series, Clemson won in Death Valley in 2013 and Georgia won in Athens in 2014 when Deshaun Watson made his Clemson debut. These rivals will not meet again until 2024 unless they meet in the playoffs between now and then. All I can say is that September 4th can't get here quick enough.
Clemson has made itself a very comfortable home in Bank of America Stadium, winning its last 8 games there, including 7 ACC Championships. Georgia has made itself comfortable in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome and Mercedes Benz Stadium, the site of the 2024 meeting. However, this game is being played in Charlotte. Nothing more needs to be said!
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