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GOTW Preview: Clemson vs Georgia

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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B.J. Bennett previews Clemson vs Georgia.

Game of the Week Preview: Clemson vs Georgia
Overview -- This is the game everyone has been focused on throughout the entire off-season -- and for good reason. A top five matchup of schools separated by just 80 miles, the storylines, with Clemson and Georgia, are many. The Tigers have made a remarkable six consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff and, though just the first game on the schedule, would take a major step in that direction yet again with a win. A victory by the Bulldogs would obviously make them one of the early favorites; make no mistake about it, many believe this is Georgia's year. Saturday night in Charlotte will be what the sport has looked forward to for months. It's fair to say this pairing is one of the most-anticipated season-openers in a generation and one of the signature games of 2021.  

Why to Watch -- It sounds like hyperbole for a game played in the first week of September, but there are legitimate College Football Playoff implications. The contest will have a final four feel. Given Clemson's schedule, some have speculated that a win over Georgia would essentially lock them into a playoff slot, while others have wondered if a loss would come close to knocking them out. A Georgia victory, assuming the Bulldogs still win the SEC East, would allow for a mulligan at some point in the regular season, though a loss would probably require wins the rest of the way. The quarterback showdown of D.J. Uiagalelei and J.T. Daniels, former high school foes in California, will be as good as it gets. Both defensive fronts are elite. There are future pros at every position.

Keys for Clemson
1. Defensive Disruption Up Front -- Remarkably, Clemson has either led the nation or ranked second in tackles for loss or sacks in each of the last eight seasons. It's there where the Tigers have often overwhelmed opponents and it's there where the gameplan for slowing down Georgia begins. Consistent activity from the inside-outside tandem of tackle Bryan Bresee and edge Myles Murphy would keep the Bulldogs off-balance. Bresee and fellow tackle Tyler Davis have the ability to bring rare interior pressure, which would disrupt the flow of an offensive scheme that Georgia likely wants to be balanced. Not only does Clemson have to attack quarterback J.T. Daniels directly to prevent big plays from developing downfield as he averaged 10.3 yards per pass attempt a year ago, the defensive front must prevent the Bulldogs from establishing a north-south running game. If the Tigers can find success with their front four and not have to bring extra defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, they will control the tempo of the game and limit Georgia to unpredictable play-calling. Clemson has the depth along the defensive line, the best in the country, to continuously stay aggressive at the point of attack.   

2. Use D.J. in the Run Game -- Uiagalelei stands 6'4'', 250 pounds. He is bigger than most of Georgia's defenders. Make it a point to get Uiagalelei carries in the running game. That mobility is an extra asset that can slow the effectiveness and usage rate of some of the Bulldogs' blitz packages. Part of the design of the 3-4 defensive scheme is that the variations can cause some hesitation for the opponent; here, Clemson can respond in kind. The mere threat of Uiagalelei holding the football on a read-option or taking the snap for a straight designed run may result in Georgia's timing being stalled just a bit. His size, strength and speed will also be valuable on third down and short situations and in the redzone. Uiagalelei ran for four touchdowns in limited action last season. With incredible arm strength and great touch on his passes, Uiagalelei already puts immense pressure on opposing defenses. His versatility is just one more playmaking option that the Bulldogs will have to account for.       

3. Get Ross Involved -- Justyn Ross is one of the premier playmakers in all of college football and, with 1,000 yards at 21.7 yards per catch and a national championship as a true freshman, he has the resume to prove it. Now healthy, Ross is a matchup problem for any defense and any defender. Expect D.J. Uiagalelei to make a concerted effort to get him the football early and often. Given his big play ability, Ross is the type of receiver who can demand double teams in the secondary; just him being involved will change the way Georgia plays. Production from Ross will result in more favorable coverage opportunities for others. And remember, the Bulldogs are dealing with a lot of roster turnover in the defensive backfield. Interestingly, Ross could be paired off against former Clemson standout Derion Kendrick quite often. Establishing some quick momentum between Uiagalelei and Ross will be good for the quarterback and receiver alike. In they are on the same page right away, Georgia may be forced into immediate gameplan adjustments.

Keys for Georgia
1. Play Physical -- Yes, today's college football comes with big plays and gaudy numbers through the air. The last three teams to beat Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame last season and LSU two years ago, all did that. That said, they also ran the football very effectively, with Trey Sermon, Kyren Williams and Clyde Edwards-Helaire each rushing for at least 110 yards. Those teams also won at the line of scrimmage defensively, with a combined 23 tackles for loss and six sacks in their wins. When the Tigers have given up over 150 yards rushing the past four years they are 9-4; when they have allowed 150 yards or less, they are 42-1, with the lone loss coming when Alabama rushed for 141. You have to run the football against Clemson and, if any team can, Georgia can. That puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line, though the best way to control some of what the Tigers do defensively is to run the football right at them. The spotlight will be directly on the talented-but-reshuffled front five. Defensively, Tackle Jordan Davis will need to set the tone, with outside linebackers Adam Anderson and Nolan Smith crashing down from the edge to attack D.J. Uiagalelei.     

2. Protect J.T. Daniels -- Given that Clemson's defensive front may be the best in college football, the Georgia offensive line will need to be at its best right away. This is another really good group for the Bulldogs, featuring returning starters Jamaree Salyer, Justin Schaffer and Warren McClendon. The hope is that center Warren Ericson, who injured his hand at the start of fall camp, will be ready to go. Though Salyer can play multiple positions and projects as a guard at the next level, he is set to play a leading role against the Tigers at tackle. Clemson just tied for the national lead in sacks and just about everyone returns. With increased experience and unparalleled depth across their defensive front, the Tigers will look to control the contest right there. For a downfield passing game to work, Daniels must have the time to let the routes develop. Tight end John FitzPatrick and the running backs will have to be involved in pass protection and will need to be aware of the potential of interior pressure from Bresee, four sacks in 2020, and blitzes from defensive coordinator Brent Venables. There are a number of Georgia playmakers with home run potential; those plays will have to begin at the line of scrimmage.  

3. Pressure off the Edge -- So much of what Georgia does defensively starts with attacking the quarterback from the outside in their 3-4 defensive scheme. During the Kirby Smart era, the Bulldogs are a perfect 10-0 in games where they record more than three sacks in a game. Conversely, Georgia has just 28 total sacks in Smart's 14 losses. Against a quarterback as good as D.J.Uiagalelei, pressuring the passer will be as important as ever. The challenge for Adam Anderson, 6.5 sacks a year ago, and Nolan Smith, seven quarterback hurries last season, will be to blitz Uiagalelei while also respecting his mobility. Getting sacks isn't the only goal here; disrupting timing and forcing in-play adjustments can be just as impactful. Big and physical at the line of scrimmage, there should be opportunities for the Bulldogs to attack a relatively-inexperienced Clemson offensive line, one with questions at center, from the second level. If Georgia can consistently do that, it will take the pressure off of its secondary and shift the focus to the Tigers' front five.

Players to Watch
Clemson: D.J. Uiagalelei, QB -- In his first-ever start, Uiagalelei threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a score in a win over Boston College. In his first-ever road start, Uiagalelei threw for the most passing yards ever at Notre Dame with 439. He is more than ready for the big stage. Look for Uiagalelei to be aggressive in pushing the football downfield against a new-look Georgia secondary. The expectation is that his consistency becomes the catalyst for the Tigers offensively.

Georgia: J.T. Daniels, QB -- Had Daniels finished with more passing attempts, he would have ranked in the national top ten in passer rating a season ago. Transferring from Southern Cal, Daniels went 4-0 as a starter for the Bulldogs last year, bursting onto the scene with 401 yards and four touchdowns against Mississippi State in his debut. He will likely spread the field in an attempt to keep Clemson guessing. Be on the lookout for the potential for big plays coming off of play-action. 

In Summary
The Game Will Come Down to -- which team can consistently control the line of scrimmage and allow its offensive gameplan to be implemented.

Prediction
Clemson -- 30, Georgia -- 26

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports