7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Clemson -3, Over/Under: 51
On an opening weekend full of entertaining matchups, by far and away the most tantalizing of them is tonight’s top-five clash between the (No. 5) Georgia Bulldogs and the (No. 3) Clemson Tigers from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. After falling short of their lofty expectations in each of the previous three years, Georgia (8-2, 2nd in SEC East) looks to make a statement tonight as they feel that they have the requisite firepower, depth, and experience to win the Southeast Conference in 2020, particularly given how wide-open the league appears to be heading into the campaign. Following their narrow defeat to Alabama in that classic 2017 National Final, the Bulldogs have since fallen to the Crimson Tide and LSU in back-to-back SEC Title Games, before succumbing to Florida’s ascent in 2020. Of course, the storyline that dominated last season was the concerns over who would take the baton from (longtime Quarterback) Jake Fromm, with Stetson Bennett IV (55.5%, 1,179 YDS, 7.6 Y/A, 8 TD, 6 INT), eventually earning the confidence of (Head Coach) Kirby Smart and the Coaching Staff, and though he would go on to lead the school to an opening three consecutive victories, his inability to to keep up with the explosive attacks of both the Tide (24-41) and Gators (28-44), saw Smart & Co looking for an alternative. And man, did they find one. After tearing his ACL in the 2019 Season Opener as the Starting Quarterback at USC, J.T. Daniels (67.2%, 1,231 YDS, 10.3 Y/A, 10 TD, 2 INT) transferred to Athens, where the prolonged rehab of his knee meant that he was unable to beat out Bennett during the Offseason. However, once he received a clean bill of health he seized control of the Offense and has yet to relinquish it; the former five-star recruit went 4-0 down the stretch, highlighted by a dramatic comeback win over Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl (24-21), completing an impressive 67.2% of his attempts for 1,231 yards, and ten touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions, stretching the field (10.3 Y/A) in a manner that his predecessor (7.6 Y/A) simply could not. Furthermore, the attack averaged a lukewarm 382.3 total yards under Bennett, only to explode for 486.0 yards under Daniels. Oh, and we’ll leave you with this: in the six years that Smart has been with the school there have been only six 300-yard passing performances, and this kid authored two of them in just four starts. Needless to say, we think that the Bulldogs have found their man. He’ll have a wealth of talent and experience to work with as well, for the typically massive Offensive Line returns three starters, while the Backfield remains as as deep as ever; (Junior Tailback) Zamir White (144 CAR, 779 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 11 TD) headlines a group that goes four deep, having rushed 779 yards and eleven touchdowns in ten games last season. With that said, it’s not a matter of talent surrounding the Redshirt Junior heading into tonight’s showdown with the Tigers, it’s who will be healthy enough to be available; (Junior Wideout) George Pickens (36 REC, 513 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 6 TD) tore his ACL in Spring Practice, while (Sophomore) Dominic Blaylock missed all of last season with a torn ligament of his own, with (fellow Receivers) Kearis Jackson (36 REC, 514 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 3 TD) and Jermaine Burton (27 REC, 404 YDS, 15.0 Y/R, 3 TD) along with (massive Tight End) Darnell Washington (7 REC, 166 YDS, 23.7 Y/R, 0 TD) all labeled as either Questionable or Probable after suffering injuries in Fall Camp. Look for the electric (Redshirt Freshman) Arian Smith (2 REC, 86 YDS, 43.0 Y/R, 1 TD) to get plenty of looks against a Clemson Secondary that is breaking in a number of new faces. And speaking of new faces, Smart will be doing the same at Cornerback, with a pair of Redshirt Freshman expected to man the boundaries in the form of (2020 top-ranked CB Recruit) Kelee Ringo and Jalen Kimber, with the former coming off a shoulder injury that claimed what should have been his first season with the ‘Dogs. Furthermore, Smart acquired (West Virginia Transfer) Tykee Smith (61 TKL, 8.0 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PD) via the Transfer Portal, while also adding (former Clemson DB) Derion Kendrick (18.0 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 6 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD), who was dismissed by the Tigers last fall, though once again, both players are questionable to participate in tonight’s affair, so there very well may be a baptism by fire for this young group as they learn on the job.
Meanwhile, as is the case with other elite programs such as Alabama and Ohio State, Clemson (10-2, 1st in ACC Atlantic) find themselves in a state of transition as they look to turn the page from one successful era to what they hope will be another. Simply put, there aren’t any bigger shoes in the world of college football than those of (former Quarterback) Trevor Lawrence. In the three years in which he was the starter, the Tigers lost just three games, with the No. One Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft leading them to a National Championship in 2018 and another appearance in the National Final in 2019. Furthermore, he won over thirty games and accounted for a whopping 108 touchdowns during his tenure with the program, which once again means that there are HUGE shoes to fill in Clemson, South Carolina. Thankfully for (Head Coach) Dabo Swinney & Co, the man replacing him has huge shoes of his own; (Sophomore Quarterback) D.J. Uiagalelei (66.7%, 914 YDS, 7.8 Y/A, 5 TD, 0 INT) is nothing short of a giant himself, standing at 6-4, 250 lbs, and for all intents and purposes handled himself rather well in two starts with Lawrence sidelined due to COVID-19. Uiagalelei overcame some early hiccups to complete 30-of-41 passes for 342 yards and a pair of touchdowns (while rushing for another) in a 34-28 victory over Boston College, only to follow that up with a historic 439-yard performance in an epic, double-overtime defeat at Notre Dame, authoring the greatest passing single performance against the Fighting Irish in their lengthy history. Needless to say, we doubt that the transition under Center will be anything other than smooth for the big guy, particularly when you consider that few teams in the country recruit on the level of the Tigers. Replacing the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, Travis Etienne, is certainly a storyline, but the depth in the Backfield is very real with (Senior Tailback) Lyn-J Dixon (42 CAR, 190 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 2 TD) and (Sophomore) Kobe Pace (18 CAR, 75 YDS, 4.2 Y/A, 0 TD) vying for carries, with the former racking up a healthy 6.6 yards per carry over his career, which coincidentally only trails that of the man he is replacing. With all this talk of replacing stars, Swinney welcomes back (Junior Receiver) Justyn Ross, who a year after hauling in sixty-six receptions for 865 yards and eight touchdowns missed all last year due to a congenital spinal fracture. If he can do for Uiagalelei what he did for Lawrence, then this passing game should once again be among the most feared in the country. As Swinney beaks in a number of new faces on the offensive side of the football, the Defense returns a plethora of talent, including ten starters from last year’s group, headlined by arguably the deepest Defensive Line in the country. Led by (Sophomore Tackle) Bryan Bresee (23 TKL, 6.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 2 PD, 1 FF), the Tigers recorded a staggering FORTY-SIX sacks in 2020, which translates to an average of one sack for every 8.5 passing plays, which was good for third in the country and by far and away the top mark among Power-Five Schools. (Longtime Defensive Coordinator) Brent Venables is one of the best in the business, and you can bet that his charges will be frothing at the mouth to turn the page on last year’s disappointing showing in the College Football Playoff, in which Ohio State hammered to the tune of forty-nine points and 639 total yards. Indeed, with Bresee & Co wrecking havoc up front, this unit appears on par with that of the 2018 National Title team that saw all four starting linemen hear their names called during the NFL Draft. With that said, Venables has something in common with his counterpart in Athens, for he will also be breaking in some new faces at Cornerback; Andrew Booth Jr. (27 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 2 INT, 4 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD), Mario Goodrich (13 TKL, 2 INT, 1 PD, 1 FR), and Sheridan Jones (16 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 PD) are all talented and have seen plenty of action, but have yet to provide the consistency to make this unit complete, particularly after their humbling experience against the Buckeyes.