Game week. Hard to believe isn't it? This week has a tendency to be the longest work week of the year, as fans anxiously await the start of the season. Clemson quickly comes under the microscope of the college football world in week 1, as was the case last year. There was lots of hoopla around the kickoff game in Atlanta last year, but it certainly doesn't have the amount of hype that this one includes. Most teams don't learn a lot about their squad until at least game two or three. Clemson doesn't have that luxury this year and in six days we are going to learn a lot about this program. Can they beat a top five SEC team at home and vault themselves into the national title picture?
If you look at what Georgia is returning on offense and what they were able to accomplish last year, this is the best and most-balanced attack the Tigers will face in 2013. Everyone knows about the two-headed monster of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall (both guys Clemson strongly recruited out of high school) and Murray (first team All-SEC and holds the Georgia record for career touchdown passes). They are also strong at WR/TE, and despite losing their #1 guy to the NFL in Tavarres King, they return Mitchell (572 yards, 4 TDs), Lynch (431 yards, 3 TDs), and Bennett (345 yards, 4 TD's). The shaky Clemson secondary is going to have its hands full, especially if Georgia is able to establish the run to open up throwing lanes for Murray.
And if healthy, this receiving corps could be ridiculous, as well. Malcolm Mitchell has the potential to fill in for the explosive Tavarres King, Arthur Lynch was a revelation at tight end, Michael Bennett was in the middle of a breakout season in 2012 when he hurt his knee, four-star junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph joins the mix (along with two four-star freshmen), and if you want to get an idea for Chris Conley's potential, just watch the above clip a few more times. His technique is still a work in progress (but hey, whose isn't?), but that speed is just ridiculous.
On the defensive side of the ball, the situation isn't as pretty for the Dawgs. This squad lost seven players to the April NFL draft and have been struggling with extensive injuries to their secondary all camp. Tray Matthews, who was the expected starter at free safety, has been out since the second week of camp. Other safeties Corey Moore and Shaq Fluker have also missed significant time. It's possible the Bulldogs trot out Quincy Mauger (freshman) and Connor Norman (former walk-on) in six days and if that's the case, Chad Morris will be licking his chops in exploiting the depth issues. There have also been injuries at cornerback, but it appears the Bulldogs are finally getting healthy there. Is Richt sandbagging at this point or is his team legitimately beat up in the secondary? It's probably a mix of both, and I'm not counting on Matthews, Moore, and Fluker to miss the opener in a week.
The injury-ravaged secondary looms as Georgia is now eight days away from the opener. Swann and senior safety Connor Norman are at least healthy, but free safety Tray Matthews has missed a lot of practice and scrimmage time with shoulder and hamstring issues. Strong safety Corey Moore is increasingly looking doubtful with a sprained knee, and strong safety Shaquille Fluker has been out sick this week. Read more here:
By now, Clemson knows what it's up against Saturday night. The entire college football world will be tuned in and we'll soon find out answers to critical questions that could be the difference between a good season, and a great one:
- Will the light go on for Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake and will they emerge as #2 and #3 WR's to compliment and alleviate some of the pressure on Sammy?
- Will Clemson be able to be successful on the ground with the loss of Ellington? Do McDowell and Brooks pave the way for a big year offensively?
- Does Anthony have the year we've been waiting on after the demotions and fluky play of last year?
- How does the secondary respond? This is a unit that has faced criticism all offseason for their overall play last year (which was further illuminated when Clemson brought in a stable of DB's in February's class). Do they take a step forward with another year under Venables and a new (and hopefully improved) secondary coach?
I doubt Clemson can run this gauntlet – Georgia, Florida State and South Carolina – and come out unscathed heading into the ACC title game, though even the doubters must at least acknowledge the possibility that this team has what it takes to play for the national championship. What I don't doubt, not even slightly, is the Tigers' chances at reclaiming the ACC crown after a one-year absence. This is an offense-driven squad with the firepower to run with anyone; this is also a team with an improving defense, even if the defense is still too questionable to be included among the nation's best. In total, with this offense, defense and special teams, CU must be viewed as one of the best teams in the FBS and a very strong contender for a BCS bowl.