Seems like just about everyone I’ve run into this week has asked me if I’m ready for Clemson and the new season.
Well, sure, but what I’m more concerned with is whether Mark Richt’s Bulldogs, especially the defensive secondary, are ready.
Overall, most fans are optimistic about Georgia’s prospects this year, despite opening with a September schedule from hell. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the wholesale remaking of Todd Grantham’s defense, and making its debut at Clemson against Tajh Boyd and the Tigers’ explosive, hurry-up, no-huddle offense certainly will mean a baptism by fire.
Also, the game will be played in a rather intimidating atmosphere — Death Valley — and Richt teams haven’t exactly come out of the gate with all cylinders firing in recent seasons’ opening games.
But you’ve got to feel pretty good about Georgia’s chances of scoring on Clemson. If the Tigers pack the box to try and stop the running game with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, that will open up the lanes for Aaron Murray and the Dogs’ talented corps of receivers, going up against a very suspect Clemson secondary.
Likewise, though, you’ve got to figure the Tigers also feel good about their scoring potential facing a Georgia defense that not only is inexperienced, but which will have one of its key players sitting out a suspension while another talented freshman who has star potential has missed most of preseason practice (including all the scrimmages) with injuries. In fact, in general Georgia’s secondary has been banged up.
On the plus side, the Dogs’ defensive front, while not as big as last year, looks more athletic, and the increased depth will allow more substitution (a big factor in the front wearing down last year against the run).
And while Clemson’s offense looks to be somewhat awesome with Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins, the Tigers will no longer have 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington and 1,000-yard receiver DeAndre Hopkins. So most of the onus for the Tiger ground game probably will fall on quarterback Boyd.
Of course, he’s shown he’s up to it, and Grantham’s defenses sometimes have had trouble dealing with dual-threat quarterbacks.
As for Georgia’s offensive prospects, it’s notable that Clemson last year was very susceptible to the big play (which Murray and Georgia specialized in). Clemson ranked 110th in the country in the number of plays yielded of 30 yards or more.
I think the key matchup, besides Boyd-to-Watkins against Damian Swann and company, will be Georgia’s experienced offensive line against Clemson’s not-that-big defensive front. A friend who’s a fan of the Gamecocks, who handled Clemson nicely last year, says if Georgia is able to get Gurley and Marshall going against the Tigers, the Dogs should be in good shape. (The added advantage of establishing the running game, in addition to opening up the play-action passing game, is that it will eat up more clock and keep Boyd on the sideline.)
Will Georgia try to slow down the pace? Maybe. As Richt put it the other day: “We have the ability to play at whatever tempo we want, and I think the fact that we have a lot of confidence in our running game helps because that’s the part of the game that can chew up a lot of the clock. If you can run the ball well and use all of your 40-second play clock, you’re going to chew up time. If you wait until zero to snap it, you’ll take double the time than if you go fast, so I think the fact that we have the ability to go either way is an advantage for us. We’ll just decide what’s in our best interest as we play the game.”
So while the game might confound all expectations and turn out to be a defensive struggle, I wouldn’t bet on it. A shootout seems much more likely. Richt said this week that Clemson’s offense most reminds him of Tennessee’s last year, and you’ll recall that the Dawgs finally came out on top in that contest (thanks to some key takeaways) by a score of 51-44.
The over-under set by Las Vegas on the expected combined points total for Saturday night’s game against Clemson is a whopping 71, and that doesn’t look out of line. No wonder the game is pretty much rated a toss-up.
Still, in a showdown of score-happy offenses, Georgia’s greater balance between its top-notch running and passing attacks would appear to be an advantage.
And by that I don’t mean half running and half passing. As Richt said at his press conference this week, “balance to me is the ability to take advantage of a team that is trying to double-cover receivers and run the ball well enough to get them out of that or vice versa. If people are trying to pack the box and stop the run, can we throw well enough or are we balanced enough to take advantage of throwing the ball? I think we are that type of an offensive team. If we do a good job of mixing the plays like Mike (Bobo) does and keeping them off balance, hopefully that will be a big key.”
I think the coach is right on the money there.
The other question I’ve been getting a lot lately is how I think the Dogs will do this season. Both my brothers are predicting 14-0 and national championship. I certainly think it’s possible Georgia could win them all and go all the way. But with the inexperience and injuries on defense, and the tough opening month, the odds are against it and I can’t quite take that leap of faith yet. (If Georgia somehow comes out of the first month of play unscathed, I’ll be happy to hop aboard that train.)
I did a little informal survey of a bunch of fans this week, and — aside from my brothers — their prediction was surprisingly unanimous: 11-1 in the regular season. As one friend put it: “We lose to Clemson or South Carolina and that’s all.” A couple of others said they see Georgia splitting the first two games but beating LSU and Florida. Added another fan: “Losing to Clemson, which looks more likely, won’t derail the season. I think Georgia can beat South Carolina in Athens this year and also will be better than LSU and Florida. That means another trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship.”
And that feels about right to me.
Let’s get to a couple of quick questions …
Josh Thompson writes: Bill, I was wondering if you had an opinion on my hypothesis for the UGA-Clemson game. With Richt playing coy and not saying who will kick against Clemson, I’m feeling more and more confident that you will not see Georgia attempt a field goal the entire game, unless it is in a game-changing situation (tie the game, take the lead, or add an extra possession to your lead) late in the 4th quarter. First, statistics show that coaches are entirely too passive with their 4th down decision making to begin with. Once you throw in the fact that Georgia has what is expected to be one of the most efficient offenses in the country, as well as how unsure our kicking situation was even before [Marshall] Morgan’s suspension, it would only make it an even more sound decision for Richt to keep his offense on the field for any 4th down within field goal range. In the same regard, I would expect to see more pooch punts from the edge of field goal range, since I see more value in giving Clemson a longer field than trusting the backup kicker to knock one in from 50 yards. Especially with the expectation of a high scoring affair, shouldn’t Georgia try to maximize their expected points by keeping their most efficient unit (offense) on the field and their least efficient unit (special teams) off the field? Judging by Richt’s comments (or lack thereof), I am thinking more and more that this may be the case.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Georgia were to go for it rather than try field goals Saturday night. Even though backup punter Adam Erickson, Georgia’s likely placekicker against Clemson, is fully capable of kicking field goals, the coaching staff may well agree with receiver Malcolm Mitchell who recently was asked if he had faith in the kicking game. He said he did, but then added with a smile: “But if we get that close, I think we might as well get the most points.” That makes sense. Plus, as I’ve said before, in a shootout with a team like Clemson, if you’re going for field goals, you’re in trouble.
Andrew Smith writes: Hey Bill, This first month of the season might give me more gray hair! Honestly, if we HAD to lose one of the first two games I’d handle a loss to Clemson more than the Gamecocks. I have friends and family near Clemson and I get the feel that the Tigers season hangs almost entirely on the UGA game. Don’t you sense they desperately want to be thought of as legitimate again?
I think there’s something to what you say, Andrew. This game is actually much bigger for Clemson than it is for Georgia. The Tigers’ bowl victory over LSU was viewed as a major step toward gaining national recognition for the Clemson program, and a win over Georgia would secure that. A loss to Georgia will have most college football observers figuring “same old Clemson.” Georgia, on the other hand, could suffer a loss in the opening game and still have all its goals, both conference and beyond, intact. That can’t be said for the Tigers.
UPDATE: Our subscriber website, MyAJC.com, has up a classic Lewis Grizzard column, written after Georgia’s 1991 upset win over Clemson. I think you’ll enjoy it. The subscriber site also has an expanded SEC section. Check it out.
One last note …
Even if Sundance Festival favorite “The Spectacular Now” wasn’t one of the most favorably reviewed films of the year, I would have gone to see it anyway because the director, James Ponsoldt, also hails from my hometown of Athens and shot the film there last summer. Athens locations are prominently featured, and the young stars, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, deserve the rave reviews they’ve gotten. But I wanted to share something that I got a real kick out of at the movie’s end: In the credits, after all the local businesses and institutions that helped out are listed, Ponsoldt gives a shout out to “the kind, cool, gracious people of Athens, Georgia.”
And then he adds: “Go Dawgs!”
How cool is that?
Got something you want to discuss concerning the upcoming football season or UGA athletics? Or a question you want the Junkyard Blawg to tackle? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg