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Head-to-Head: Tigers and ‘Dawgs square off in Charlotte

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Welcome to a new STS series, where two of our contributors go head-to-head on certain topics surrounding the Tigers and the college football landscape.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Notre Dame at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Hello! Welcome to a new series here on Shakin’ the Southland called “Head-to-head”, a series where two of our contributors will debate a range of topics surrounding Clemson football and the national landscape.

Today we have contributors Jonathan Smith and Ryan Randone discussing certain factors pertaining to the upcoming Clemson-Georgia game as well as factors surrounding the ACC and the opening weekend of the season.

We hope this series is informative and interactive as well. We’ll be releasing the series weekly before each game, so make sure to tune in. Let’s get started!

Question 1: Who has the better chance of recovering from a loss this weekend, Clemson or Georgia?

Jon: I think the obvious answer here is Georgia, but the margin for error on both sides is razor thin, which makes this match-up even more contested and important for the CFP race. From Clemson’s perspective, there is no room for error if the Tigers drop this one. It’s a long season, but there’s not another game currently on the schedule that can fill the weight of losing to the Dawgs. There’s a chance that potentially Boston College or NC State slip into the rankings at some point during the season, but I do not see anybody outside of them being a good enough filler for a Georgia loss.

On the other side, Georgia does not have a typically beefy SEC schedule to prop them up if they lose to the Tigers. Outside of Clemson, Georgia’s only remaining ranked team as of now is No. 13 Florida. The Dawgs do not play Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M, and as of now, their cross-division foe Auburn is not a ranked opponent. This makes the stakes for both sides that much higher, which feels similar to what we saw in that 2013 match-up that ended up vaulting Clemson to a BCS bowl. This feels like a must-win for both sides, but Georgia might have a slightly better chance at a rebound from a loss than Clemson does.

Ryan: Pardon my bias, but I’m going to go with Clemson.

The Tigers, under Dabo Swinney, have fallen to the most improbable of opponents before (Pitt and Syracuse to name a couple) but they’ve also rebounded into the playoff with ease in some of the seemingly unlikeliest scenarios.

In 2016, a loss to a 5-4 Pitt was followed up with a CFP appearance and eventual national championship victory. In 2017, a loss to a 3-3 Syracuse team that couldn’t win another game that year was met by the claiming of the #1 seed in the CFP. In 2020… well you probably remember that well enough for me to stop blabbering on.

My point still stands. One loss, even in a year such as 2021, where there could very well be 6 or 7 CFP contenders, won’t define the Tigers’ season. Not because of an easy schedule, but because Dabo and co. know how to use defeats as fuel down the road.

I don’t think it’s fair to say the same for Georgia. The Dawgs under Kirby Smart — and even in prior years — have never possessed the confidence needed to exercise their demons against Alabama.

Why? Because they’ve usually faced less adversity than the Crimson Tide coming from the SEC East.

This year is the chance to alter status quo. A possibility of garnering a top five out of conference win in a duel with one of the most stable programs in the nation.

Can Georgia win the national title (and beat Alabama while they’re at it)? Yes, they definitely can. The talent is there for it to transpire.

Will they? Hard to tell. But it will fail to unfold this year — or anytime in the next few years — if they lack those top wins that would instill some true confidence in the Dawgs.

Question 2: Who needs to have the better night on Saturday, DJ Uiagalelei or JT Daniels?

Jon: Initially, I want to say DJ, just because he is a new starter who does not have the college experience to lean on like Daniels, but the more I think about it, Georgia really needs JT Daniels to play out of his mind on Saturday. DJ will have a staple of running backs (granted there is not much experience outside of Lyn-J Dixon) and one of the best receiving corps around him, but for Daniels, he is not afforded the same luxury. We believe Zamir White will get the nod at running back for Georgia (c’mon Kirby, just release the depth chart, man), and the Dawgs will rely on him to establish the run against that Clemson front seven, along with Kendall Milton and James Cook. Don’t be surprised if Georgia does go run-heavy because after all, this is still Georgia football.

However, Georgia does not have the depth at receiver like Clemson. George Pickens is out, transfer tight end-turned-receiver Arik Gilbert is out (as for now), Darnell Washington and Dominick Blaylock are also doubtful, and Tre’ McKitty was drafted into the NFL. The receiving corps is young and inexperienced for the most part, and Daniels will need to hope what chemistry him and his receivers made over the off-season sticks. I think Uiagalelei can do less than JT and still succeed, but I do not think Georgia can win without Daniels having a phenomenal night. Bank of America Stadium has become a second home for the Tigers, which also plays a factor into who might have the advantage on this night.

Ryan: Depends on what category, but if I had to pick one, Uiagaleiei.

Clemson’s upcoming star quarterback has big shoes to fill at the position. National championship winners. Heisman contenders. Top 15 draft picks, etc.

The program on the other side? They haven't found that type of signal-calling success since 2009.

I think anytime a fairly new quarterback steps into a coveted role, there’s going to be some serious pressure on the kid to stand out. On the contrary, returnees from big name schools tend to feel more relaxed.

DJ has a more fitting and successful offense. He has the better coaching staff. But he also has the far higher expectations. And quite frankly, the Heisman isn’t going travel to Memorial Stadium by itself.

(In all likelihood Saturday’s match-up will be the biggest stage Uiagaleiei sees prior to the actual Heisman voting.)

Love the rest of the Clemson offense, but there’s more to this than just a match up against Georgia.

Question 3: Who is the biggest threat to Clemson from the Atlantic Division, and is UNC the biggest threat to Clemson’s 7th-straight ACC title?

Jon: It’s a toss up between Boston College and NC State for me. I want to say Boston College because of how well the Eagles played Clemson last year and because Phil Jurkovec seems like the real deal at quarterback, but there’s just something about NC State being a sneaky team this year that has me rethinking.

The Wolfpack, aside from the Trevor Lawrence era, have kept things rather interesting in most of the recent matchups, especially 2016 and 2017. NC State feels like that thorn in the side Clemson squeaks by every year, but occasionally the thorn has a little more juice than you think. The NC State game being in Raleigh and the BC game being in Clemson might have me swayed towards NC State.

I do, however, think UNC is the biggest threat to Clemson as a whole in the ACC. D’Eriq King is an amazing quarterback in Miami, but after the Tar Heels’ beatdown of the ‘Canes last year, I feel more comfortable rolling with UNC as the team to challenge Clemson. Sam Howell is a stud who will be one of the top quarterbacks taken in next year’s draft if he decides to leave early. If the Heels are as legit as they appear to be, this will be Clemson’s first real threat to the ACC crown in two or three, maybe even four years.

Ryan: Boston College for part one. Yes, for part two.

I think we’re all expecting the Tigers to win the conference outright in relatively relaxing fashion. It’s become nearly a given at this point. But, we could also all admit that Clemson’s dominance over the ACC is not as complete as it was two or three years ago.

The Eagles definitely stand out as a team in position to come out swinging against Clemson. I’ve already mentioned how I feel about Phil Jurkovec and the Boston College defense in my first article for Shakin’ the Southland. All the returning talent is there for a potential 8-4 or 9-3 run in the 2021 season.

That being said, UNC qualifies as Clemson’s biggest threat in just about all aspects. The Tar Heels own one of the best quarterbacks and possible Heisman contender in Sam Howell. The big name guys in the backfield — Michael Carter and Javonte Williams — are gone, but an already proven Ty Chandler has arrived in Chapel Hill from the transfer portal. And the majority of the rest of the offense, which averaged 537 yards and 42 points per game last year, should be up to par with the likes of a few returnees stepping up.

Question 4: What game are you keeping an eye on this weekend that could affect Clemson in the playoff race?

Jon: I’m intrigued by Alabama-Miami because of Alabama’s history when facing dual-threat quarterbacks and the start of a new era with Bryce Young, but I think Notre Dame-Florida State on Sunday night is a game Clemson fans need to tune into. I don’t know much about Notre Dame this year, but without them being in the ACC, they can directly take a spot from Clemson if they run the table and the Tigers potentially drop a game somewhere along the way.

With this being a road game in Tallahassee, it could get interesting. I like McKenzie Milton for the ‘Noles, and I think Florida State could catch Notre Dame sleeping week one. The ‘Noles played the Irish hard last year before Notre Dame pulled away late in the second half. A loss here for Notre Dame makes the path back to the playoff almost impossible without a conference championship to fall back on. Plus, the Tigers will get a good look at how the 2021 ‘Noles fare.

Ryan: I originally jotted down a few paragraphs stating the obvious: Miami vs Alabama.

Makes perfect sense, right? A top 15 match-up between two of the Southeast’s most storied programs, both historically and talent-wise. Another early fight for glory and dominance between the ACC and SEC. Two schools that Clemson could very well face towards the back-end of their 2021 campaign. And yet, I switched my pick, because all of us, and I mean ALL OF US already know how this one is going to transpire (Even you, Miami fans).

We’ve seen it one too many times before. The U being overrated. Alabama casually dispatching opponents by 20+ in a neutral site season opener.

I feel myself for the first time in a long time pulling for the ‘Canes, but it’s not going to happen. Not on Saturday. Not against a Nick Saban lead team with a vastly improved defense.

Alas, I’m trending towards UNC vs. Virginia Tech on Friday night due to the Hokies’ sleeper status. Blacksburg’s top university possessed arguably the strongest run game in the ACC last year alongside the rest of a fairly balanced offense. The wide receiver core sees the return of top receivers Tayvion Robinson and Tre Turner, and QB Braxton Burmesiter, who threw for 48 completions and 687 yards in five games last year, is expected to step up at the helm of operations on offense. There’s obviously some concern with the losses of CB Caleb Farley and OT Christian Darrisaw to the NFL, but this program possesses the majority of intangibles needed to make some noise in the ACC Coastal.

And there we have it. The opening Head-to-Head series is in the books. We hope you enjoyed our discussion, but we want to hear from y’all. What are your thoughts on these debates? Is Clemson the team to beat, or is UNC the upcoming star? JT Daniels or DJ Uiagalelei? Leave us your thoughts below. We’ll see y’all next week.