Well folks, the time has come! We can finally stop the projecting and inferring and begin reacting to what unfolds. Clemson will look to kick start 2014 the way they did 2013, with a rousing victory over a ranked and respected UGA squad. This is when the seemingly endless SEC love-fest can work to our advantage. It is going to take an outstanding effort for four quarters, but luckily Tiger fans know we have enough horses in the stable to win a game like this. That said, let's take a look at what the Bulldogs bring to the table.
OFFENSE: UGA continues to run the basic Mark Richt offensive system he brought with him from Florida State after the 2000 season. It is a pro style offense built around a power running game which will feature the I formation. UGA, like FSU in the old days, also has some shotgun spread elements sprinkled into the system, but primarily they want to pound the ball and work the play action off of that. When UGA is at its best, they have a strong pocket guy at the controls, at least one dynamic back, at least one NFL level TE, and at least one playmaker on the perimeter. Clemson's problems with UGA from 1991-2003 mostly involved UGA's utter superiority on the lines of scrimmage and/or at QB (see the '91 game as evidence there).
This UGA squad is loaded at running back, as most everyone knows, and has the talented Clemson legacy Jay Rome at TE, and two experienced senior WR's in Chris Conley and Michael Bennett (who seems to have been at UGA for 10 years). The knee injury that took out Aaron Murray last season helped Hutson Mason get serious game experience heading into this season, which is one of the major reasons the Dawgs have been a prohibitive favorite in this game. Barring crazy turnovers, the matchup that will determine this game will be the experience Tiger front seven versus the slightly retooled UGA OL. Last year, the Tigers showed they could get to the quarterback against a more veteran OL than this one and it was a major factor in the Tiger victory. What Clemson must avoid is allowing Gurley or Marshall to bust out on them because of a wrong fit or blown assignment. You have to live with the chance their guy runs over your guy, but have somebody in position is all you can ask of the staff. Should UGA get that run game going, I don't have to tell you that it will be very difficult to win the game. The good news is that outside of about three runs, the Tiger defense did a good job against the UGA run game last year. Grady Jarrett controlling the inside was a big part of that, and he's healthy and hungry in this one to be sure.
UGA's gameplan will be very simple. They have to stay on schedule and not get to where Vic Beasley and crew can just come after Mason in long yardage situations. When that happened in the first half last year, Murray got worked over pretty good. I expect UGA to challenge Beasley in the run game and to double the hell out of him on any passing play, so the opportunities will be there for Barnes and Lawson to get one on one matchups. You also have to figure UGA will see if Kearse or Johnson can properly cover the TE and a wheel route, both of which were major problems in the bowl game. If the Tigers can control the run game (it will be very hard to stop totally, but by control I mean keep it under 150 yards), then Mason will have to show his stuff and the Tigers can get after him. I fully expect a much more physical approach from the secondary this season, which has been where Venables has been trending since having to play soft in 2012. You know you are going to see the big extended play fake for the deep ball that Richt hit us with in Tally in 2000 for 99 yards and again in Death Valley in 2003 for the first score, so having good eyes will be essential for the Tiger secondary. Here is a version of that play from last year:
The Stephone Anthony versus Todd Gurley matchup is the one I can't wait to see. That will be two grown men squaring up in the gaps. We can't sleep on Marshall who managed to drag 330 pound D.J. Reader into the endzone for a score last year.
Once last note about the UGA offense is the interesting lack of a FB listed, instead listing a 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB set. I wouldn't read too much into that because the backup listed at starting TE, Quayvon Hicks, is a fullback by trade and would line up there in I formation. Perhaps the Dawgs will use more single back this season, but that would be a departure from the Richt/Bobo M.O. UGA is missing WRs Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell due to suspension and injury, respectively, for this game.
DEFENSE: UGA is shifting gears on defense once again as Todd Grantham departed for Louisville, taking his 3-4 defense with him (and some thug players). Richt backed up the Brinks truck to lure Jeremy Pruitt from FSU after his very successful first season as the 'Noles D.C. Pruitt is a Saban clone which means he runs a mix of 3-4 and 4-3 with an emphasis on press coverage. UGA has had excellent defensive talent for the last few years but has rarely played up to their potential since the days of Brian VanGorder. Clemson should hope Pruitt won't have some of the undisciplined and selfish tendencies shown by the Grantham defenses out of the system just yet on Saturday evening. FSU's success against the Tigers last year boiled down to the inside tackles, namely Tim Jernigan, totally dominating the inside OL for Clemson. That allowed FSU to generate middle pressure and get Tajh playing on his heels while not committing more than 5 to a rush usually. This is classic Saban, who loves to bring 5 man pressures from various places in an attempt to confuse the OL and QB. HUNH offenses have given Saban's defenses problems by forcing them to stay in base packages and personnel, but this is predicated on either running it effectively (see Auburn) and/or beating the press coverage consistently (see Texas A&M and Oklahoma). Clemson was able to run it decently against FSU when it tried, but the game got out of hand early and we know the rest. The good news is that UGA doesn't have the package of talent FSU had on defense last season, especially in the secondary. UGA has talent, mainly at the linebacker position, but guys like Lamarcus Joyner were just special and allowed Pruitt all kinds of freedom, not to mention they were about the only team that could line up and attempt to challenge Watkins, Bryant, and crew in press coverage.
I would expect UGA to use more 3-4 looks simply due to their recruiting to that the last few cycles, which means they will have the ends/OLBs standing up. It is absolutely essential the Tigers are able to generate a running game to win this game. You could entertain the possibility of Boyd and the 2012 or 2013 WR stable winning with little run support, but not Cole and the current crop of WR at this stage. The Tigers were able to run it well enough last year with Hot Rod going over 100, but I attribute some of that to UGA's fear of the Clemson passing game. I doubt that same level of fear will be shown this time and the OL will have to show it can generate some push for the Tiger running backs. Pruitt is no doubt going to have his guys challenging the screen/short passing game and see if Stoudt can execute intermediate and deep throws with the WR corps. The X-factors here for Clemson are Jordan Leggett, Charone Peake, and Mike Williams. If any of these guys can whip a matchup, then Clemson can ease up the pressure on the run game.
I've said it before and I will say it again here, this is the season where The Chad can really cement his legacy as a dynamic offensive mind. Gus Malzahn has done it by working through various personnel groups in his two stints at Auburn. Now Chad will look to say "look what I did even without Tajh, Sammy, Nuk, etc." when he interviews for that coveted major head coaching gig. This game will tell us a ton about where we are as an offensive system.
UGA, as usual, is dealing with multiple suspensions and issues on this side of the ball. Most of the secondary, including the safeties, are gone, but there are veterans manning the first team in seniors Redd and Moore along with junior corner Devin Bowman to go with returning starter Damian Swann. The LB corps are where you find the stars on this defense, especially Ramik Wilson, but he's been dealing with injuries and isn't listed first team as a result. I wouldn't expect that to impact his snap counts too much. Wilson and Jordan Jenkins will no doubt look to challenge Joe Gore. It will be important for Battle to be able to handle his side by himself so Morris can help Gore with a TE or RB. Amarlo Herrera and Leonard Floyd are the guys in the middle who will look to stuff the Tiger inside run game. Can the Tigers get a hat on them enough to spring some good runs? That is something to watch for sure. Here's a highlight of Ramik Wilson in action:
SPECIAL TEAMS: UGA returns both kickers so they should be solid in that department. UGA appears to be looking at freshmen to return kicks while sophomore Reggie Davis is the punt returner. The Tigers only have to look at their last trip to Athens in 2002 to understand how special teams can determine a game. Hopefully it will be the Dawgs making the mistakes this time around.
OUTLOOK: Which team can find answers to the questions? For Clemson, those questions are almost entirely on the offensive side of the ball. It will be up to the defense to hold things down as some misfires are bound to happen in the early going with so many new faces. The good news is that most of the questions for UGA are on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary. Pruitt doesn't have the wealth of proven playmakers in the back end at this point that he had at FSU. That won't stop him from trying to challenge the Tiger WR corps at the line of scrimmage and to force Cole Stoudt to make difficult throws. Special Teams and turnovers are things you just can't ever predict and will no doubt play a major part in who wins this game. In fact, the last Tiger victory in Athens came on a special teams play when David Treadwell did this:
Oh, and God Bless Jim Phillips!
Most of the STS staff have called this one a loss for the Tigers. I'm going to predict that myself, mostly because I always allow skill to screw with my thinking. UGA has more proven skill back than Clemson, and the game is in Athens, so my brain tells me to lean that way. I'm very ready to be wrong about this. Go Tigers.