Welcome back to football season my friends! I’m certainly stoked, especially as the sport moves away from the quasi-fan situation of last year’s season. There is no denying the impact of that fan energy on the game whether you are in the stadium or watching on TV. I think my first real dose of that came watching the end of the Euros this summer. Watching those fans go crazy after goals or big saves reminded me of just how special sport can be when it is at its best. I was certainly very thankful for last year’s football season actually happening (appreciate you Trevor Lawrence and crew for that!), but it certainly didn’t feel the same with 25% or less capacities in the venues.
Now, onto the business at hand. Let me first say that as a guy who grew up in the 1980s, the University of Georgia sits very comfortably at #2 on my hate hierarchy. To be honest, there have actually been times I’ve nearly pulled for the Gamecocks to beat the Dawgs and have certainly chuckled to myself when that has happened (particularly in 2019, LOL).
My hatred runs very, very deep for UGA and I relish the opportunity to beat them right out of the gate. They really qualify as Clemson’s main rival in just about every way other than state lines and not playing every year. Recruiting? Proximity? Worthiness? Enemy number one. This is big and handling business on Saturday night will resonate beyond simple polls and playoff projections.
Unlike the feathered folks from Columbia, UGA brings some actual clout to this with their four and five star studded roster and recent dominance of the SEC East division. Many talking heads have made UGA their pick for this game and even to win it all, though we all know how far back 1980 is in the rear view mirror. But, truthfully, 1981 was pretty far back for a long time until that magical 2016 run led by Deshaun Watson. It could very well be UGA’s year to do it, but putting a huge bullet hole in that dream right out of the gates would be extremely, extremely sweet. It will certainly be “big boy football” as Dabo said this week in his press conference. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Clemson offense vs. UGA defense: Clemson fans have shown the usual trepidation regarding the offensive line, though the unit is in much better shape heading into this game than at any point in 2020. That said, this game may very well come down to how Clemson’s center position performs against a massive interior defensive line.
The best comparison I can come up with here is when Clemson had to deal with the BJ Raji/Ron Brace combo that Boston College rolled out in the 2006-2008 seasons. Dabo’s first win as interim head coach came up there in Boston, breaking a three game losing streak to the Eagles in the process. One of the keys to that game was the staff moving Thomas Austin to center. Brad Scott said back then, “we needed a war daddy in there.” Well, Clemson needs to find another one for this game, which will likely be veteran Matt Bockhorst. UGA will run a lot of 3-4 hybrid looks with their All American monster Jordan Davis lined head up on the center.
Clemson’s primary run game staple has been the inside zone, so losing the battle at the center spot will likely mean the Tigers won’t be able to run it much if at all. It is a little unrealistic to expect any OL to just move the UGA front backwards, but simply getting them moving laterally can hopefully create some creases for the Clemson runners to hit.
Clemson’s running back room has no obvious alpha, and the starter will be a mystery right up until kickoff most likely. It doesn’t matter if it is Lyn-J Dixon, Kobe Pace, or even Will Shipley, the guy who is out there must take those singles, as they say, and protect the football. A “boring” 2 yard run is a whole lot better than getting stuffed with a TFL because the back tried to bounce it for a big play. Hopefully those 2 yard runs will turn into 4 or 5 as the game goes on. If you can hit one right and pop a big play, just call it gravy.
I strongly believe this game is going to come down to whose QB and skill guys can make the plays down the field. Expecting either offense to put together multiple play drives is probably not that realistic, so finding those chunk plays will determine things (along with turnover margin).
The good news for Clemson is that starting QB DJ Uiagalelei has had two starts and both times the Tigers essentially had to throw it exclusively to win (or come close as in the case of ND in South Bend). The Tigers are much deeper at WR in game one here than at any point in 2020. Justyn Ross is back and promises to be featured in a variety of ways. The other guys have the comfort of knowing Ross will draw significant attention and create one on one opportunities down the field.
The Tigers struggled to run the ball efficiently last season, but pass protection was objectively a strength. UGA hasn’t been particularly scary as a pass rushing defense, but they still have guys like Nolan Smith who are certainly capable of creating serious problems, particularly if the Tigers are in obvious passing situations. Thankfully Uiagalelei has all the arm ever needed to fire balls into tight windows and keep defenses honest down the field.
Clemson doesn’t have to run for 150 or more to win this game, but the run game does need to do enough to stay on schedule and convert short yardage and goal line scenarios. Having the physical presence of Uiagalelei as a run threat should certainly help in that regard as well.
Another interesting thing to watch is how much impact the tight end position has considering Clemson returns all its front line talent at the spot with Tony Elliott now coaching them up. I hope the staff watched a lot of film from what Florida and Alabama’s offenses did to the Dawgs last season. The only two teams UGA faced in 2020 with offensive personnel approaching or surpassing Clemson’s scored 44 and 41, and UGA was likely better in the secondary in 2020 vs. 2021.
Clemson defense vs. UGA offense: This is where the rubber really meets the road for me in this matchup. Every game of this magnitude in this dynastic era except the 2017 Sugar Bowl has been won or lost thanks to how Clemson has defended. The last time out, the defense was a no show after the initial drive of the game, and even though the offense scored some points and had the game in reach, the defense just couldn’t get stops in the second half. The same problem occurred in South Bend earlier in 2020, and in the LSU natty before that.
As good as UGA is on defense, it is hard for me to see Clemson not getting to 24 points as they have done every game but one since that Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama. Can Clemson keep UGA to 21 or less? The parts are certainly in place to think it can be done.
Brent Venables should finally feel the transition from the legendary Power Rangers to a similarly built DL is complete. Clemson fans saw more 3 man fronts in 2019-2020 than in any of the seasons from Brent’s arrival in 2012 to 2018. The Tigers had to rely a lot more on multiplicity in the back and creative pressures.
Venables should be able to return to the more familiar 4-3 Over front thanks to more confidence in the 2 deep at DT, and in particular the ascension of Bryan Bresee to full cyborg status. Bresee is perhaps the best athlete to ever don the Paw at DT, and that is saying something considering guys like William Perry, Chester McGlockton, and Christian Wilkins played here. Bresee was forced to play a much heavier snap load last year than what the staff would have ordinarily wanted, but the payoff should come in the version we see this season. Much like Michael Dean Perry’s camp prior to his ACC Player of the Year season in 1987, Bresee has done some practice wrecking of his own.
Meanwhile, defensive end is an embarrassment of riches now that Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas are back and in the best shape of their lives. Foster’s absence was a big deal in 2020, and XT was a shell of himself in the limited action he was able to get. The staff knows it essentially has five starter level guys at the position.
UGA has their usual stable of great running backs. Perhaps the most dangerous is James Cook, the younger brother of Dalvin Cook, who they like to feature in the passing game. It should go without saying that Clemson cannot allow UGA to dictate with their running game. Ohio State did that early on and it led to the problems everywhere else as the game went on.
Clemson will want to force J.T. Daniels to win the game with his arm, and Venables should feel more comfortable with his call sheet considering the returning experience of this year’s defense. He was able to brilliantly bait Tua into some huge mistakes for the last title largely because he had veteran guys like Mullen, Terrell, Wallace, and Muse to do it with in the back. This UGA offense doesn’t approach the firepower of that 2018 Alabama unit Clemson blew out, but the Clemson front must live up to the hype so Venables isn’t forced to throw numbers at the line of scrimmage the way he had to in South Bend and New Orleans last season.
UGA will no doubt test Clemson’s edges to see if the second and third level can tackle any better than they did in 2020. I certainly would take my chances there vs. up the middle, even if Tyler Davis isn’t available. The Tigers should be able to set the edge much better with the DE’s, but there will be times a safety in the alley must be able to make the play one on one. Clemson can’t afford the woeful attempts there like last season. Limiting the yards after contact will be a major factor and Clemson’s hope is that an older and healthier group in the back can do just that.
Special Teams: Clemson traveled to Athens in 2002, when I was living there, and should have scored a major upset that night if not for horrendous special teams play. The defense played great and the offense had done enough against a stout UGA unit, but nearly every terrible thing that could happen with Special Teams happened and the Tigers lost. I feel a whole lot better about this phase going into this game than I have in a while.
Clemson returns two veteran kickers, including a super senior in punter Will Spiers, and should be poised to perform in the kicking game. Returning has not been as strong in recent years, especially kickoff returns, but Clemson does have the type of athletes to turn this around if the execution can improve. Popular scape goat Danny Pearman is no longer in the picture, so I’m interested to see if we notice any immediate differences which potentially could be attributed to that change.
A big return or made kick or missed/blocked kick could most definitely be the difference in a game like this where teams are so evenly matched. Both of these defenses are going to be very hard to go 75-80 yards on, so field position will be at a premium. This game could very well come down to kicking the way 1983, 86, and 87 did. Thankfully Clemson has B.T. Potter who can potentially hit it from 55-60 yards out.
Overall: I have a little pause in terms of predictions because we aren’t really sure what the availability list for either team will end up being on Saturday until game day. We’ve heard rumors and UGA certainly has their own potential issues to worry about as well. I do feel pretty strongly that if neither team can really run the ball much that Clemson is better equipped to win.
UGA does have some new offensive blood and might try to throw more than what they have traditionally done in the Smart era early in the game. I still like the track record Brent Venables has had when he has A) come off a bad defensive performance and B) has a veteran unit to work with. I have to expect the Tigers to be a lot more physical in the back seven than what we saw at times in 2020. Clearly the Tigers likely lose if that isn’t the case. I’ll say Clemson finds a way thanks to defense and Potter and takes this 23-20.