It’s very rare that the first week of the college football season produces a game with National Championship implications. Usually, the opening week of the season is top teams playing cream puff schools from far-flung places that no one has ever heard of. This is when Southwest North Dakota Tech and Northeast South Carolina State play the powerhouses, and get slaughtered 70-0 and call it a “learning experience” for the kids.
But this year provides an exception. The fifth ranked Georgia Bulldogs will travel to Death Valley (with major apologies to LSU fans) to battle with the eighth ranked Clemson Tigers, in front of a National television audience on ABC. Both schools have aspirations of playing in the BCS title game on January 6 in Pasadena, and a win will certainly bolster their chances of achieving that goal.
Georgia nearly made it to the BCS title game last season, only to suffer a heartbreaking loss to Alabama in the SEC title game last December. The Bulldogs are motivated to make amends and with quarterback Aaron Murray returning for his senior season, the Dawgs are primed for a run. Murray had a sensational 2012 campaign, completing 64.5% of his pass attempts for 3,893 yards, 36 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. There are some observers who are tagging Murray as a Heisman trophy candidate, and NFL scouts are pegging him to go in the first round of the 2014 draft. The Tampa native will need to tune out the hype, and remain focus at the task in hand for Georgia to succeed.
What will aid Murray is a strong running game, and the Bulldogs do have a solid ground game, thanks to Todd Gurley. The 6-1, 232 pound sophomore had an excellent first season at Athens, rushing for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012. Gurley has a punishing running style, that can wear down defenses as the game progresses. Because Clemson likes to run a fast-paced offense, Gurley will be vital for Georgia’s success in this game, as he will be asked to slow the game down, and make this a grinding, physical affair. If Georgia can pound the ball on the ground, they will have the advantage, as they will take time off the clock, and keep Clemson’s vaunted high-octane offense, off the field.
In the passing game, Georgia is expecting big things from Malcolm Mitchell. The junior receiver from Valdosta, Georgia, made 40 receptions for 572 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2012. Mitchell has the ability to stretch the secondary with his 4.40 speed, and could be a game-breaker for the Dawgs in 2013. Michael Bennett is another option in the passing game. The 6-3, junior wideout caught 24 passes for 345 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2012. Bennett is battling a knee issue and is listed as probable for this week’s game. If Bennett can’t go, look for senior Rhett McGowan to see more passes come his way. McGowan only had 12 catches for 150 yards and 1 touchdown last season, but could see a larger role this season.
As mentioned earlier, Clemson is known for an offense that runs like a Ferrari. The driver of that fancy sports car is Tajh Boyd. The 6-1 225 pound senior quarterback was brilliant in 2012, completing 67.2% of his pass attempts for 3,896 yards, 36 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Boyd was never better than in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against stingy LSU defense. Boyd completed 36 out of 50 passes for 346 yards and 2 touchdowns, leading Clemson to a surprising 25-24 win. Boyd also brings the mobility element to the table, gaining 514 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground. Boyd is another quarterback that has scouts drooling, as his athleticism and leadership abilities are intangibles that every NFL team needs. Keep an eye out for him come draft time.
The loss of DeAndre Hopkins to the NFL (Houston Texans) will hurt Clemson in the passing game. The Tigers are hoping that Sammy Watkins can step up his game, from the wideout spot. The junior receiver some his numbers drop last season, after a superb freshman campaign, but Watkins is still a big-play threat. Watkins recorded 57 receptions for 708 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2012. With his injury issues hopefully put aside, Watkins is poised for a huge season, as the primary receiver in Clemson’s offense.
The running game took a hit as Andre Ellington graduated to the NFL, (Arizona Cardinals) so the team is looking for a featured back to compliment the passing game. Senior Rod McDowell rushed for 450 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, and has impressed in spring practice. Junior DJ Howard has the speed to be a game-breaker, but lacks consistency. Sophomore Zac Brooks has potential, but lacks game experience. Freshmen Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye are, well…freshmen. How they handle the bright lights and the pressure of major college football, could determine Clemson’s fate this season. One advantage for Clemson is that Georgia’s defense is very inexperienced, with seven starters from last season plying their trade in the NFL. The Tigers need to expose Georgia’s lack of experience on the defensive side, and strike early and often.
This should be a high-scoring game. With Georgia’s losses on defense combined with Clemson’s eternal struggles on defense, this should be a field day for the scoreboard operator at Death Valley. But I have doubts about Clemson still. Even though they defeated LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl last season, the question lingers if the Tigers can win a big game with National Championship implications? Last season, Clemson lost to Florida State with title aspirations on their mind. Meanwhile, Georgia has something to prove and they will be primed for this showdown. Plus, I agree with the notion that the pressure is on Clemson to win. It is common to see a one-loss SEC team reach the BCS title game. (Alabama is a prime example last season.) However, if an ACC team loses a game, their chances of reaching the title game are slim and none. With all that said, I’m going with Georgia to win a wild one, 47-41.
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