(16) Clemson (0-0) at (12) Georgia (0-0)
Saturday, August 30, 5:30 p.m. (ET)
The Sports Network
GAME NOTES: Coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons, the Clemson Tigers will open up their 2014 season in hostile territory, taking on the Georgia Bulldogs in a top 25 showdown at Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers went 11-2 overall and 7-1 in ACC play, with the lone loss coming in humbling fashion at home to Florida State (51-14), which went on to capture the ACC crown and BCS title as well. Clemson picked up the pieces from that loss and closed strong before dropping the regular-season finale to arch rival South Carolina (31-17). Still, Clemson found its way to a BCS Bowl, earning a bid to the 2014 Orange Bowl, where the Tigers put an exclamation point on another tremendous season with a 40-35 victory over Ohio State.
Swinney's team begins 2014 ranked at number 16 in the nation and just like last year, will open against Mark Richt's Bulldogs. Georgia begins the campaign ranked 12th in the nation. After finishing 2012 with a stellar 12-2 record, Georgia failed to live up to expectations in 2013, finishing at just 8-5, with a 5-3 conference record, good for a third-place tie in the SEC East.
These two teams met in the season-opener last year and the result was one of the best games of the season, a 38-35 victory for the Tigers in Death Valley. Overall, Georgia holds a 41-18-4 series advantage. Georgia holds a 26-7-1 edge in home bouts against the Tigers. Clemson has not won two in a row in this series since games in 1986 and 1990 and hasn't won in Athens since 1986.
There is simply no sugar coating the fact that Clemson needs to find an offensive identity in 2014. Gone are stars Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins, along with five other starters from a unit that averaged 40.2 points and 507.7 yards per game.
First and foremost on Swinney's to-do-list is to find himself a quarterback that can keep things rolling. Senior Cole Stoudt will get the first crack at replacing Boyd. Stoudt completed almost 80 percent of his passes in his limited work a year ago and fought off freshman Deshaun Watson for the spot in the spring.
Stoudt has patiently waited his turn in Death Valley.
"I'm proud of Cole, first of all, and how he's prepared every week for the past three years to be ready to be the starter," said Swinney. "He's never complained. He's been very patient. And then he had to come out this spring and he had to win the job, and he won the job this spring. I think we couldn't have a guy more prepared to be the starter in his first game than Cole Stoudt."
Making the transition under center a bit more difficult is the fact that Clemson must also replace Watkins (101 receptions, 1,464 yards, 12 TDs) and fellow star Martavis Bryant (42 receptions, 828 yards, seven TDs).
Senior Adam Humphries (41 receptions, 483 yards, two TDs) is the top returning receiver, although the team is expecting junior Charone Peake (6-2, 205) to return after missing most of 2013 with a torn ACL.
The ground game, which accounted for over 175 yards per game in 2013, must replace 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell. The team has senior D.J. Howard, junior C.J. Davidson and redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman to fill the void.
The Clemson defense performed well a year ago and a lot of that had to do with a ferocious pass rush that recorded 38 sacks. With seven starters returning from 2013, the defense is in great shape.
It certainly helps that First-Team All-American Vic Beasley returned to school, despite being NFL ready. The 6-3, 255-pound senior is a force coming off the edge, recording 13 sacks and 10 TFL a year ago.
Swinney knows what he has in Beasley.
"Well, I just think he's a great player that came back. He chose to come back, you know, and he's not coming back to just kind of go through the motions. I mean, he's coming back to be a great player, so he's highly motivated."
Beasley is not alone in the front seven, as he will be joined by the likes of senior tackles Grady Jarrett (83 tackles, 9.0 TFL, two sacks) and DeShawn Williams (37 tackles), junior tackle D.J. Reader (43 tackles, three sacks) and sophomore end Shaq Lawson (Freshman All-American honors with 35 tackles, 6.0 TFL, four sacks).
The linebacking corps has star power in the form of veteran MLB Stephone Anthony (131 tackles, 9.5 TFL, four sacks), who led Clemson in tackles a year ago.
The secondary must replace last year's starters at cornerback, but does get senior safety Robert Smith (79 tackles, one INT) back, as well as sophomore safety Jayron Kearse (55 tackles, four INT).
Georgia must also deal with finding a new offensive identity under center, as one of the best signal callers in school history, Aaron Murray, has moved on. Senior QB Hutson Mason will do his best to bridge the gap in 2014.
The good news is that star tailback Todd Gurley is healthy after missing three games a season ago. An elite playmaker in the backfield, Gurley still finished 2013 with 989 rushing yards, 441 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.
Mason will also benefit from a number of reliable targets in the passing game, including Chris Conley (45 receptions, 651 yards, four TDs) and Michael Bennett (41 receptions, 538 yards, four TDs).
Defense was a bit of a problem in 2013 and the hope is that new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who held the same role for the national champion Florida State Seminoles last season, can rectify the situation.
Eight starters return to the fold, so Pruitt should have a nice foundation to work with.
All four starting linebackers return. Seniors Ramik Wilson (133 tackles, 11.0 TFL) and Amarlo Herrera (112 tackles, INT) are tackling machines on the inside, while Leonard Floyd (9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) and Jordan Jenkins (12.0 TFL, 5.0 sacks) are tough to contain on the outside.
Ray Drew (8.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks) and Sterling Bailey (34 tackles) bring experience along the front line, while cornerback Damian Swann (57 tackles) and safety Corey Moore (35 tackles, INT) and Shaq Wiggins (two INTs) do the same for the secondary.
Richt spoke this week about preparation for the Tigers.
"I liked the energy and the tempo I saw today," Mark Richt said. "It's been a long, tough month of practices, but we're here now closing in on the Clemson game. The guys were focused on their assignments and got the week off to a good start. We just need to make sure we continue to prepare well for the challenge we have coming on Saturday."
This should be another classic battle, despite the absence of star quarterbacks in Boyd and Murray. Setting a defensive tone will be the key to this one. Clemson boasts one of the better defensive units in the ACC, and perhaps in the nation for that matter, but Gurley is a beast in Georgia's backfield. Expect Richt to get the ball in his hands early and often and for the Bulldogs to shorten the game as a result and pull one out "between the hedges."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Georgia 30, Clemson 27
08/29 15:18:13 ET