Last year, Clemson and Georgia were both disappointed. They were both playing in non-BCS bowls and looking back at their schedules with questions of “what ifs” floating around all over the place. The Bulldogs were five yards away from the national championship game, while the Tigers were one night in September away from earning another ACC title and, consequently, another trip to the Orange Bowl. Both teams walked away from their lesser bowls with a win, top ten preseason rankings, a scheduled game on August 31st in Memorial Stadium and another “dark horse” label.
In the past few years, the two schools have recruited enough talent to make the dream of winning a national championship possible, but not necessarily probable. Clemson especially has struggled heavily against public perception due to its struggles against in-state rival, South Carolina, as well as perfecting the art of underwhelming (I believe the term is called “Clemsoning”). But if you look at Georgia in recent years, it has a tendency to disappoint except that it picks the beginning of the season to do so. Thus, the dark horse perception sticks. They have enough to win, but with historical trends as an indicator, each program can’t quite get over the hump and become a national favorite to win all the marbles.
The two schools have been chasing a national championship since the 1980s: UGA won its last in the 1980 Sugar Bowl, while the Tigers were awarded the national title in the subsequent year at the Orange Bowl. They have been rivals, but without all of the vitriol that you see when the Gamecocks or Gators come to town. Their rivalry is one built out of annoyance. Herschel Walker and Vince Dooley were denied a shot at back-to-back championships with a regular season loss to Danny Ford’s soon-to-be-legendary ’81 squad. And Dooley and Co. were the reason Clemson was denied, not once (1978), not twice (1982), but three times (1992) a piece of college football history. If these two teams had not gotten in each others’ way, the make-up of football in the Southeast could be completely different than it is now. Instead, they are their own worst enemies as they both look to exit Death Valley on Saturday night with the first win of the season.
Georgia returns its top offensive play makers from last year in Aaron Murray, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley. UGA has the potential to have the best running game in college football with the running back tandem who, last year, rushed for a total of over 2144 yards. But the duo of Marshall and Gurley do not have to do all of the heavy lifting; the Bulldogs have capable receivers in Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley whom Murray more than rely on. All of the firepower on offense is devastating and can be a little scary if you’re Clemson, but it’s not like Clemson is not without its offensive name brands.
The Tigers return this year with an aspiring Heisman quarterback, senior Tajh Boyd. Boyd, unlike Murray, has the ability to extend plays and scramble, if need be. He also returns with the talented Sammy Watkins as well as Martavius Bryant and Charone Peak, two receivers who showed flashes of the ability to step into DeAndre Hopkins’ huge shoes. The Tigers are without a great running game and could rely mostly on the hands of Bryant, Peak and Watkins which could make their offensive attack one dimensional. But Chad Morris’ strategy may not have to be that intricate to outwit Todd Grantham, who is working with a relatively young defense.
Last year, the Bulldogs were defined by linebacker Jarvis Jones. He was a standout in a front seven that was decent, at best. His impact is shown in the outstanding numbers he racked up in 2012: 24.5 tackles for a loss, 14.5 sacks, and seven forced fumbles. That is a bad, bad man. Now, UGA has the unfortunate of trying to replace that hole with a relatively young defense and little time to prepare them for the real opponents of consequence in the first two weekends of the season. This is also defense was also learning from an above average squad that was bolstered by the tremendous play making ability of Jones. Compared to Clemson, UGA may have a more difficult task of stopping the Tigers’ Chad Morris coached offense.
The Tigers’ defensive system has been good enough for the ACC, but they have yet to prove that they can stop effective play makers. Brent Venables was brought in from Oklahoma to revamp Clemson and its defense, which looked like a fumbling mess in the 2011 Orange Bowl. Last year, the Tigers ended the season as the 65th overall defense, with the 52nd best rushing defense and the 67th best passing defense. This year, they are more experienced, with solid corners in Garry Peters and Darrius Robinson. The make up of the front seven includes multiple starters from last year, with Quandon Christian and Spencer Shuey returning to the linebacker position. They are better positioned than Georgia on the defensive side of the ball but given the talent UGA has on its offensive it is going to be a tough test for Clemson to make sure this game is not a boat race.
There is no doubt that this is the most important game of the college football kickoff weekend. That sentiment was co-signed by ESPN when they decided to air the first College Gameday show of the 2013 season live from Clemson, SC. August 31st is huge. It will decide how the rankings shake out going forward and how each team approaches the rest of their season. If the Tigers win, it will be a huge confidence boost for them to beat an SEC team and not just an inconsequential SEC team (cough – Auburn – cough) at that. If Georgia wins, it boosts its appeal and will definitely move up in preseason rankings as being one of the only SEC teams to play an ACC of national title relevance. Both teams go into this game looking to beat one another, but it’s also a chance for them to beat the expectation of being a dark horse for the rest of the season.