WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.2 CLEMSON vs. NO.5 GEORGIA
- 2021-09-04 12:49:51
Welcome to the Season Opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well, college football is finally back, and the long-anticipated heavyweight match between the Tigers and Bulldogs is upon us! It’s hard to believe it’s been 7 years since the once annual border rivals have met on the football field. Many of you are old enough to remember when this I-85 rivalry was played every year and was almost as heated as the Palmetto Bowl. From my own personal experience, the teams played twice when I was a Clemson undergrad in 1994 and 1995, with the Bulldogs winning both meetings. I was also at the 2002 game in Athens, narrowly won by Georgia, and I felt like I was going to die of either heat exhaustion or frustration in the sweltering 2003 noon game in Death Valley, won 30-0 by David Pollack, David Greene and the Bulldogs. That was Dabo Swinney’s first season on the Clemson staff under Tommy Bowden and the last time the Tigers were shutout! It would be 10 long years until the Tigers were able to get redemption, this time with Dabo as the head coach, and I was in the stands as Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and the Tigers won a top-10 thriller 38-35 in Death Valley to open the 2013 season. Deshaun Watson threw his first Clemson touchdown, coming in off the bench the following year in the 2014 season opener, but the Bulldogs ran away from the Tigers in the 4th quarter. Interestingly, Georgia has the third-longest active streak of season-opening wins while the Tigers have the fourth-longest, and each team’s last season-opening loss came against the other in 2013 and 2014. As big as those games were, this one is as big as those showdowns in 1980 and 1981, when Georgia beat the Tigers en route to a national title and vice-versa. Of course, the Tigers have won two more since, while the 1980 national title remains the only undisputed one for the Bulldogs. That fan base is absolutely starving for a national title, and many think this is their best chance for one in the last 40 years. It’s without a doubt the biggest college football game of the regular season and could be a prelude to a CFP or National Championship rematch! It’s just the fourth time in the last 20 years that there’s been an AP top-5 matchup to open the season—the last being Alabama versus FSU in 2017. And we have two California quarterbacks renewing an old high school rivalry in the southeast! That’s right, Daniels played for Mater Dei and DJ for St. John Bosco. Both schools are in the Trinity League, and Daniels won both head-to-head meetings. It’s funny that all the best quarterbacks are now migrating to the southeast for college. In addition to the starters for Clemson and Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State’s new starters are also from Cali. That’s a sad commentary on the state of football in the Pac-12 and the west coast!
I had a great phone conversation last night with former Clemson and NFL kicker David Treadwell, who kicked back-to-back game-winning field goals against Georgia in 1986 and 1987. He still lives in Denver but has three kids attending Clemson now. I’ll be publishing a story on those two historic wins for the Tigers later this afternoon with some great comments from Treadwell, so be sure to check back for that before the big game on Saturday! I also drove to Charlotte this morning to interview the ESPN College GameDay crew, including the aforementioned David Pollack, and I’ll have those interviews posted HERE. On Friday evening, I’ll be at the Esso Club with my friend and former CUTigers.com Recruiting Analyst Gary McDaniel to talk about Saturday’s game and other topics, and you can watch that HERE as well, so stay tuned!
For now, let’s dive into the preview and my prediction for the big showdown between the Tigers and Bulldogs….
Georgia leads the all-time series with Clemson 42-18-4, dating back to 1897. Georgia was the fourth opponent in Clemson history and the first game for the Tigers outside the state of South Carolina. The schools are 2-2 when both are ranked, splitting the last two meetings in 2013 and 2014….Clemson has not lost consecutive games since 2011….Clemson is 14-11 all-time in AP top-10 matchups. The Tigers have alternated wins and losses in their last 6 such matchups, having lost their last one to Ohio State last season in the CFP Semifinal. The Tigers played 4 AP top-10 teams in the 2020 season, tying a school record, and 3 AP top 5 teams, setting a new school record…Georgia handed the Tigers their last shutout in 2003, winning 30-0 in Death Valley in Dabo Swinney’s first year on the Clemson staff. The Tigers have scored in 240 straight games since then, a school record and the 21st-longest streak in history. It’s the 10th-longest active streak in the nation….ESPN College GameDay will feature Clemson for the 29th time and 21st time since 2015. That is the most appearances by any program over that span. The Tigers are 18-10 all-time when featured on GameDay and have won 14 of their last 17 appearances. They are 9-1 since 2015 when featured on GameDay for a regular season game….Clemson is 7-1 all-time in Bank of America Stadium, winning its last 6 games there, all of which were ACC Championship Games. The Tigers’ only loss in Charlotte was the 2010 bowl loss to USF. Dabo Swinney is 18-8 all-time in NFL stadiums….Clemson (79-7) is tied with Alabama (79-6) for the most wins since 2015. The Tigers (121) trail only Alabama (127) for the most wins since 2011. They have 9 more than Ohio State. Clemson leads the nation in Power Five wins (85) since 2013. Alabama has 81 and Ohio State has 77 over that span....Clemson has beaten at least 12 Power Five opponents in 4 of the last 6 seasons. In college football history, that feat has only been achieved 4 other times. Alabama, LSU, Georgia and FSU each accomplished it once….The Tigers have won 10 or more games for 10 straight seasons, the third-longest streak in history behind FSU (14) and Alabama (13), which is also an active streak…The Tigers’ streak of 6 straight outright conference titles is tied with Oklahoma’s active streak for the third-longest in history. Oklahoma won 12 in the 40’s and 50’s and BYU won the WAC 7 straight times in the 70’s and 80’s. However, Clemson is the only program to have won 6 straight conference championship games….Clemson has finished in the top-4 of the AP Poll in 6 consecutive seasons, tied with Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams for the fourth-longest streak in history. FSU did so 13 straight seasons under the late great Bobby Bowden, while USC and Miami have each done so 7 straight seasons….Dabo Swinney has the best active win percentage in the nation at .809. Nick Saban is second at .797….Dabo’s 140 wins are already the 8th-most of any coach in his first 15 seasons, but Dabo is only in his 13th full season. He can quite conceivably top Urban Meyer’s record of 165 wins in his first 15 seasons….Clemson has been ranked No.1 in the AP Poll in each of the last 6 seasons, which is the third-longest streak of all time behind Alabama (14) and Miami (7). Alabama’s streak is also active….Clemson has by far the longest active streak ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 57 straight weeks. Alabama is second at 18, Ohio State is third at 12, followed by Georgia and Oklahoma with one each. If Clemson remains in the AP top 5 for 12 more weeks, it will surpass Alabama’s all-time record of 68. Clemson’s current streak of 94 straight weeks in the AP top 10 is tied with Alabama for the longest streak in history behind Nebraska (96) and Miami (137)…Since 2011, Clemson has finished with an equal or higher ranking than its preseason ranking every year except for 2019 and 2020, the only two years the Tigers have been ranked No.1 preseason. The Tigers are ranked No.2 and No.3 in the 2021 preseason polls….
The big storyline coming out of Georgia’s fall camp is that the Bulldogs are riddled with injuries. Their biggest loss came last spring when their best WR, George Pickens, tore his ACL. A domino effect ensued in an eerily similar fashion to what the Tigers encountered last season after it was announced in June of 2020 that Justyn Ross would miss the season. The Tigers would go most of the season without their next two most talented receivers, Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson, but Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell stepped up and saved the Tigers’ season. Similarly, Georgia’s receiver woes did not end with Pickens. Their next-best receiver, Jermaine Burton, missed most of camp with an ankle. He returned to practice a week ago, but his status is questionable. Kearis Jackson, who was the next-most productive receiver behind Pickens and a dangerous return man, also missed much of camp with a knee injury. He will likely play on Saturday but may not be 100 percent. Another WR, Arian Smith, missed much of camp with a toe injury, but he will likely play on Saturday. On top of that, the Bulldogs’ top 3 tight ends—all potential All-SEC players—are either out of questionable for Saturday. Arik Gilbert, a highly-talented transfer from LSU, went home for personal reasons at the start of fall camp and hasn’t returned. Darnell Washington, ranked as the No.3 returning tight end in the SEC, will be out Saturday with a foot injury. John Fitzpatrick, ranked as the No.5 tight end in the SEC, missed much of camp with a knee injury but says he is ready to play on Saturday. And it’s not just the pass-catchers who have been plagued by injury this month. Returning starting center Warren Ericson has been practicing with a cast on his good hand. However, they will likely have a first-time starter at center. He will either be moved to guard on Saturday or will have to snap the ball with his off hand. On the defensive side, CB Tykee Smith, a West Virginia transfer who was expected to start, will miss Saturday’s game with a foot injury. As if that weren’t enough, just days ago it was reported that the strength coach has COVID, which calls into question every player he’s had contact with, which is the entire team. About 90 percent of Georgia’s players have been vaccinated, but one has to wonder if the team’s subsequent COVID testing will come under scrutiny and if any players will miss the game due to COVID protocols and contact tracing.
Injuries and losses notwithstanding, this is a deep and talented Georgia team—one of the few that can match athlete-for-athlete with the Tigers. They are built in the trenches and are strongest on the interior on both sides of the ball, which is why they have led the nation in rush defense in each of the last two seasons. They have talented running backs, but many would be surprised that they only ranked No.56 in rushing offense last season and No.41 the year before. After years of relying on running backs like Gurley, Chubb and Sony-Michel to carry the offensive load and struggling to find an elite passer, Georgia fans think they have finally found their man in USC transfer JT Daniels, who took over late last season and led the Bulldogs to a 4-0 record. Many, including myself, presumed he would be the starter when Wake transfer Jamie Newman announced he would opt out in 2020, but Kirby Smart seemed to think the rehabbed knee of Daniels wasn’t yet ready, so he went with Stetson Bennett, who started hot but then lost badly to Alabama and Florida. The Bulldogs were on the ropes in the Peach Bowl against Cincy, trailing the entire game and down 11 in the 4th quarter, but they were able to win it 24-21 on a last-second 53-yard field goal. Daniels is a legitimate Heisman candidate, but the question is who will step up to catch the ball for him with all of the aforementioned losses and how he will handle the pressure of the Clemson pass rush, the likes of which he still has not seen in his career. In the backfield with Daniels, of course, will be 6’0, 215-pound junior RB Zamir “Zeus” White (#3), who was heavily recruited by Clemson and rushed for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns last season on 5.4 yards per carry. Backing him up will be 5’11, 190-pound senior James Cook, who rushed for 303 yards and 3 touchdowns on 6.7 yards per carry last season. With just 16 catches for 225 yards and a touchdown, he was the Bulldog’s fourth-leading receiver last season. White had just 6 catches for 37 yards. 6’1, 210-pound junior Kenny McIntosh averaged 5.3 yards per carry for 251 yards last season. Sophomore Kendall Milton (#2) could be a back to look out for. He only rushed for 195 yards last season as a freshman, but he averaged 5.4 yards per carry and was a top-100 player out of high school in California. Another player from Cali in this game! Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken is in his second year in Athens, so the Bulldogs should have some new wrinkles that we didn’t see last year, especially in the first half of the season with Stetson.
Still, defense is where Georgia’s bread is buttered under former Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs’ scoring offense was just No.38 last season, but they were No.16 in scoring defense, No.12 in total defense and, again, No.1 in rush defense for the past two seasons. It all starts inside with monster defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Travon Walker, who each made the preseason All-SEC team. When you think of Davis, think Dexter Lawrence. Davis is 6’6, 340 pounds and can move! He is Georgia’s best candidate for a first-team All-American, and Charlotte is his hometown, so he will be even more amped up for this game! Walker is merely a meager 6’5 and 275 pounds. Needless to say, the Tigers’ new centers Mason Trotter and Hunter Rayburn, along with guards Matt Bockhorst and Will Putnam, will have their hands full with these monsters. On the edge, look out for outside linebacker Adam Anderson (#19), who had 6.5 sacks last season. That would have been a team-high for Clemson.
The back end is where Georgia is vulnerable on defense. Of course, one of the big storylines will be the Tigers’ former All-ACC corner Derion Kendrick lining up opposite his former teammates and wearing red and black. My initial thoughts were that there might be some animosity between the Tigers and their former teammate since he’s teamed up with the enemy, but after talking to several players like Justyn Ross about it, I don’t think that will be the case. Every player I talked to said how much he loves and respects Kendrick and is pulling for him. These guys still consider themselves brothers, and that is what I expect the dynamic to look like on Saturday. It will be brother-against-brother with a healthy competitiveness but also a mutual respect across the line of scrimmage. Sure, there may be some playful trash talking as well, but I don’t think it will degrade into fighting or anything ugly. Of course, if the Tigers’ receivers burn Kendrick a few times or he starts committing pass interference, who knows, it could get a little chippy as the game goes on. Having said that, I think the Tigers will test DK. Much has been made about Kendrick knowing the Tigers’ secrets and tendencies and sharing that information with Georgia, but the Clemson coaches also know Kendrick and his tendencies. Don’t think the Clemson coaches and players won’t use that information to their advantage as well! Kendrick will be wearing #11, by the way, because he wasn’t able to get #1. Kirby Smart plucked another corner from the transfer portal in first-team All-American Tykee Smith from West Virginia. He was tabbed to start opposite Kendrick but suffered a foot injury a few weeks ago in camp and will not play Saturday. Redshirt freshman Jalen Kimber (#6) or true freshman Nyland Green (#1) will likely start at the other corner spot, so look for the Tigers to test that side of the field. Green joined the team in January, and Kimber played just 3 games last season.
Special teams are a strength for the Bulldogs just like the Tigers. Their returning kicker, Jack Podlesny, is a candidate for the Groza Award. He was 3/3 in their bowl win over Cincy, including the last-second game-winner from 53 yards. And their punter, Jake Camarda, is a candidate for the Ray Guy Award. He was named first-team All-SEC preseason. Kearis Jackson has been banged up, but when he’s healthy, he’s dangerous in the return game. Georgia is also sound in their coverage units.
Obviously, the big narrative on Clemson in the offseason has been the loss of a pair of legends in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. However, I believe this offense could be even more explosive than it was in 2020 because the Tigers now have the best wide receiver corps in the nation. Remember, the Tigers were minus their top 3 receivers for most of last season in Ross, Ngata and Ladson. Thank goodness Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell stepped up and saved the season, but now the Tigers have weapons galore if they can stay healthy. When people question how the Tigers are going to run the ball without Etienne, I say they can’t do much worse than last year. The Tigers were near the bottom of the ACC in average rush yards per game because teams were cheating against the run, and the Tigers used Etienne in the passing game regularly. With an improved and more experienced offensive line, I believe the Tigers can improve on their rushing numbers from last season, and opponents won’t be able to load the box with all the weapons the Tigers have on the outside with their receivers and tight ends.
Regarding the running backs, the big question during camp was whether it would be running back by committee or if one back would emerge as the bell cow. As I’ve reported in the past few weeks, Dabo may list Dixon as the co-starter since he’s the veteran guy and he’s patiently and admirably waited his turn behind Travis. And Dixon may even get the first carry on Saturday night, but I believe Pace and Shipley have passed him by. I’ve been told by an inside source that Dixon was running with the 2’s and 3’s in the last scrimmage while Pace and Shipley were splitting time with the 1’s. The only question is whether Pace and Shipley are reliable in pass protection. That is one thing for which Dabo can count on the veteran Dixon, and it may give him an edge over the other two on passing downs. That remains to be seen, but leaving that aside, I think Pace and Shipley will get the lion’s share of the touches out of the backfield.
Another huge storyline going into this game is the return of Justyn Ross. There was a rumor started on Georgia message boards that he had a broken foot and would not play, but I wouldn’t put much stock in that one unless you think Dabo is a liar. He said on Wednesday night after practice that Ross was ready to go, and I can’t wait to see him play the slot position! It’s not every day that you see a guy with his size and length play that position, and it should create some great mismatches for the Tigers. Just think about Ross, Ladson and EJ Williams on the field at the same time. Good luck covering that with a depleted secondary! By the way, Ngata is questionable for the game with a hamstring. It’s so frustrating because he is as talented as any of them, but the guy is made of glass! He reminds me of Rendrick Taylor years ago. Just riddled with injuries. Personally, I’ll be ecstatic if Ngata plays 7 or more games this season. The good news is that the Tigers have plenty of other receivers to share the ball, and I can tell you Ajou is going to be a beat this season! He looks like a totally different player than last year, in a good way. He is going to end up just like Kyle Pitts was for Florida last season: a matchup nightmare! I think freshman Dacari Collins had a very good camp as well, and Beaux Collins has great potential too. The other freshman, Troy Stellato, is going to be a great slot receiver, but he missed most of camp with a groin injury. We’ll see if he gets in the game on Saturday night—maybe in the punt return game. Tight ends Davis Allen and Braden Galloway should also add a lot to the passing game this season, and Dabo said that TE Jaelyn Lay was one of the most improved players on the team. Speaking of punt returns, it sounds like we’ll see Justyn Ross take at least the first punt on Saturday night. Personally, I’m not sure that I would risk it, given his neck condition and the fact that he’s so valuable in the passing game. Plus the Tigers have other options in the return game, including newcomers Shipley and Will Taylor. But Dabo told me that they are going to use Ross every way possible. Dabo has always thrown caution to the wind when it comes to those decisions. He never coaches scared. He does whatever he feels it will take to win and let the chips fall where they may. For that reason, I think we’ll see plenty of quarterback power runs from DJ, regardless of the backup situation.
One thing that is intriguing to me in this game is the fact that several key sophomores—not just the freshmen like Shipley—will be playing in front of 75,000 fans for the first time ever, and that includes DJ! He played incredibly well against BC and Notre Dame, but that was in front of about 20,000. My hunch is that the crowd and noise level won’t get to him at all, but you never know until they do it. Walker Parks and Trenton Simpson are a couple other sophomore starters for the Tigers who will be dealing with the crazy atmosphere for the first time. Of course, UGA will be dealing with the same thing, including a couple freshman corners and a first-time starter at center! The Tigers, of course, have a plethora of players from the state of Georgia, including Skalski, Spector, Andrew Booth, Myles Murphy, Kobe Pace and Lyn-J Dixon, so they have been chomping at the bit for this one ever since it came out on the schedule. Trenton Simpson is from Charlotte, and he told me that he is extremely excited about playing on the big stage in his hometown in front of friends and family, saying he wants to have a big game and make his high school proud. Will Shipley is from nearby Weddington, a suburb of Charlotte, which is perhaps one of the reasons he drew so many comparisons to Christian McCaffrey.
Finally, there were rumors that starting DT Tyler Davis may not play because he's in the COVID protocol. Dabo would not address his status on Wednesday night, saying that they will practice the same policy as last season, so we won't know for sure if Davis is playing until about two hours before kickoff. However, a source told me that Davis's last test came back negative and he's been cleared to play. Check HERE at about 5:30 pm on Saturday to find out for sure who will be in and out for the Tigers!
As many have said, including Dabo, this game will be won in the trenches. It’s strength-on-strength, and the team that controls the line of scrimmage will likely win. Of course, you also have to avoid the inevitable mistakes and gaffs that are common place in an opener. We’ve seen plenty of those already across college football. This is the only sport that doesn’t get preseason rehearsals. Even the pros need a preseason! That’s why Dabo and other college football coaches have been lobbying for preseason scrimmages for years. There is little margin for error in a game like this, so we’ll see if one team helps the other one out early.
Assuming the Tigers don’t make several self-inflicted mistakes by way of penalties, turnovers, etc., I think they have too much fire power and Georgia doesn’t have enough with all of their losses. Daniels is a great quarterback, but he doesn’t have the weapons at his disposal that DJ does, and I’m not sure he won’t rattle when Brent Venables is blitzing him from all different angles. In my opinion, the Tigers have the best defense in the nation. They are strong and deep at all three levels, and Skalski is the lynch in the middle. The player/coach, as Dabo likens him to Pete Rose, is an extension of Brent Venables on the field. All you have to do is look at last year’s Notre Dame game in South Bend and the Tigers’ last two losses in the CFP after Skalski was ejected from those games from targeting. In every case, the defense was completely different without the “super senior” in the game. Incidentally, I asked him if the targeting penalties will be in the back of his mind as he’s playing Saturday night, and he said no. He said that he will just play the game without fear, although he did say he will just have to make sure he keeps his head up.
In the end, I’m not sure Georgia has gotten over the hump to the elite status of the Alabamas, Clemsons and Ohio States. I put them in the same category of Notre Dame, which played UGA very close in both meetings recently. A great program on the cusp but not quite yet ready for the big boys. Sure, you can say Notre Dame beat DJ and Clemson last year, but we all know that a Clemson team at 50%, and the Tigers still should have won, leading with the ball and a minute left. And DJ set an all-time record for passing yards at Notre Dame stadium. The Tigers at full strength blew out Notre Dame, just like I predicted they would, and I won’t be surprised (if everything goes right for them) if the Tigers blow Georgia out in this game. Also, historically, Georgia seems to start the season slow and get better as the season goes on. On the other hand, it won’t surprise me to see the Tigers make some mistakes offensively, being a first game.
I asked David Treadwell for a prediction and whether he thought BT Potter would pull a Treadwell with a last-second, game-winning field goal. He laughed and said, “Why not,” predicting a 31-28 Clemson win. As for me, I think it will be a little more lopsided than that, but I will conservatively predict a two-touchdown Clemson win. Dabo gets a big statement win for the ACC over the SEC, and he doesn’t have to listen to the ESPN narrative that his team doesn’t play anyone in the regular season!
The Prowl toward a 7th consecutive ACC Championship, 7th consecutive College Football Playoff and 4th national title begins….
CLEMSON 31 Georgia 17
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