The 2012 college football season ended just over a week ago, but for college football die-hards that only means it’s preseason 2013. And what a year 2013 looks to be for the Georgia Bulldogs.
It will all begin just a short drive up I-85 North in Clemson, S.C., where, on Aug. 31, Georgia will face Clemson for the first time since 2003. Georgia and Clemson both finished the 2012 season in the top 10, coming in at fifth and eighth, respectively, in the final AP poll. However, bowl season was a different experience for both teams.
Georgia's regular season ended in disappointment with a loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship, denying the Bulldogs a shot at the national title. The victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl was met by more relief than excitement amongst Georgia faithful. It stopped a repeat of last year, losing to a Big 10 opponent after losing in the SEC Championship.
For Clemson, the victory over LSU in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl has been viewed as a major step on its way to national prominence by Clemson fans. The Tigers have now won two of their last three games against SEC competition and will open a lot of eyes if they can beat Georgia opening weekend to make it three out of four.
The matchup in August will also be the renewal of a rivalry which has largely been forgotten on a national stage, due to lack of games over the past few decades. The two schools played each other nine times in the 1980s, which fell to four games in the 1990s. Since 2000, the schools only played each other twice, in 2002 and 2003. Clemson is the second-closest FBS school to Georgia after Georgia Tech, a fact easily forgotten when the teams don’t meet for many years.
The last time the teams played each other, Georgia stomped Clemson 30-0 in Death Valley. The most notable moment in this blowout came on Clemson’s first drive of the game, when walk-on center Tommy Sharpe vomited on the ball before snapping it to Charlie Whitehurst, who promptly fumbled.
Things haven’t always gone well for Georgia in Death Valley, though. Just ask Herschel Walker. The teams met in the third game of the 1981 season. Georgia had started the season 2-0 after winning the national championship the year before. However, Clemson beat Georgia 13-3 and forced nine turnovers, three from Walker fumbles. It was the only regular season game Walker would lose at Georgia. Clemson won the national championship that season.
These factors amalgamate to create the marquee game on next season's opening weekend slate. Both teams will likely enter next season ranked in the top 10. Many think ESPN's College Gameday could make Clemson its on-site location for week one, likely beating out LSU-TCU at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas and Alabama-Virginia Tech at the Georgia Dome. Add in kickoff possibly at 7 p.m. or later and it is a recipe for one of college football's rowdiest environments in recent memory.
All the off-field story lines add to the excitement, but the true excitement comes from the performances both teams will put in on the field. The skill and talent of the players on each team could make this one of the most competitive Georgia-Clemson games of all time.
Georgia will have to be wary of Clemson's dynamic "hurry up, no huddle" offense, made famous by the likes of Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Oregon's Chip Kelly. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris, who knows Malzahn from his high school coaching days, is the highest-paid assistant in college football for a reason. Clemson ranked sixth in total offense last season after only two seasons under Morris.
Clemson's offense also loses only a few players. Tailback Andre Ellington graduated and his place will be taken by Roderick McDowell, who few Clemson fans have faith in. The true power of Clemson's offense, however, comes from the passing game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd was one of the most productive players in college football last season, totaling 3896 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and 9.12 yards per attempt, all superior to the numbers of Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
Boyd's effectiveness will be determined by the players around him. Star receiver Deandre "Nuk" Hopkins has already declared for the NFL Draft. The spotlight will focus once again on Sammy Watkins, who slumped in 2012 after missing a third of the season to suspension and injury. Clemson need Watkins to return to his stellar freshman form, when he gained 1,450 yards of total offense, in order to be competitive.
Morris predicates his offense on running as many plays as possible during the course of the game. Against LSU, Clemson's offense ran an even 100 plays; 50 pass plays and 50 runs plays. The effect on LSU's defense was dramatic. On Clemson's game winning drive, LSU players were dropping left and right due to fatigue from playing almost an extra quarter's worth of plays.
This is the challenge for a young Georgia defense, which loses a majority of its defensive contributors. The key to beating Clemson's offense will be in the preparation. Conditioning is of the utmost importance. If the Bulldogs' defense can run with the Tigers' offense it will be in good shape.
The best way for Georgia to beat Clemson's offense, however, is with its own offense. Georgia returns all five starters on the offensive line and the Bulldogs must run the ball effectively to neutralize the Tigers.
The two most important players in the game for Georgia will be Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. The freshmen sensations must dictate the tempo of the game. By running the ball and pounding Clemson’s defense, Georgia will not allow Clemson’s offense to get on a roll and run the number of plays necessary to win. If Georgia can run the ball, Clemson’s secondary will creep up and linebackers will fill the box. This opens the play-action, vertical passing game for Heisman-hopeful Aaron Murray.
Clemson’s defense, simply put, is unlikely able to stop Georgia’s offense. For the most part, Clemson’s players on defense are not as talented as the defensive players Georgia usually sees against the likes of a Florida or South Carolina.
The shape of Clemson’s defense will also depend on how they finish this season’s recruiting class. Cornerback Mackenzie Alexander, defensive end Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Montravius Adams, who is considering Georgia as well, would all walk into starting spots on the Clemson defense. However, even if Clemson is able to somehow reel in all three, the game with Georgia will be the newcomers' first collegiate game. They won’t be expected to effect a game enough to shift the outcome one way or the other immediately.
This far removed from kickoff, it is difficult to predict just how the game will go. These will be two of the more evenly matched teams in the country next season. But, if Georgia can establish the run and shut down Clemson’s offense, Death Valley may only be the first stop in a special campaign for the 2013 Bulldogs.