“Are you ready for the new season?”
“Dawgs gonna do it against Clemson?’
Those are the typical greetings I’ve been getting around the office the past week or so, and the answsers are:
“Definitely” and “I think so.”
I hedge on the second because, like all Georgia fans, I’m wondering just how much better a largely inexperienced Bulldogs secondary will be with Jeremy Pruitt, late of national champion FSU, at the helm in place of the departed Todd Grantham.
My answer to a friend on that question yesterday: Well, at least they should all be on the same page of the playbook, which in itself will be a huge improvement. But, yes, three out of the four defensive backs will be inexperienced.
Fortunately for 12th-ranked Georgia, 16th-ranked Clemson comes into the game having lost a good bit of experience itself on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense with the departure of such names as Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Rod McDowell.
Which is why, despite its many question marks, the oddsmakers have had Georgia better than a touchdown pick over Clemson in this game.
Still, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers do come into Sanford Stadium with what’s expected to be a superior defensive front, and they’ll be going up against a revamped Bulldogs offensive line. Can John Theus, now taking over the left tackle spot, keep Clemson’s Vic Beasley, one of the nation’s better pass rushers, off first-time home starter Hutson Mason? And can the OL open up enough space for Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley to do his thing?
Last year, the OL had a pretty awful game against the Tigers, giving up numerous sacks and derailing drives with needless penalties. But they know how badly they played, so I do think they’re likely to come out much better against Clemson this year. They feel challenged. And if Georgia’s offense handles Beasley the same way they did South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney last year (run away from him, chip him, double-team him) that’ll help.
A glimmer of hope there is that the Tigers will have their own inexperience problem at the cornerback spots, so if Mason can make a few key completions to Georgia’s depleted receiver corps (which still will feature the terrific Michael Bennett and a slightly banged up Chris Conley), tight ends Jay Rome and Quayvon Hicks or even Gurley or Keith Marshall out of the backfield, the Clemson D might not be able to crowd the box like they no doubt are planning to do. And if that’s the case, Gurley should be able to keep them honest while racking up yards.
On the other side of the ball, Georgia may have major questions in the secondary, but its defensive front should be a strength, and if its considerable pass rush can get in the face of new Clemson starter Cole Stoudt sufficiently, it’ll take some of the pressure off those inexperienced defensive backs and perhaps slow down Chad Morris’ uptempo offensive blitz just a tad. It also won’t help Clemson’s cause that it will be missing running back Zac Brooks, the Tigers’ top returning rusher, with a foot injury.
As for quarterbacks, whether Stoudt has a good day or not, some observers expect Georgia also to see hotly recruited Deshaun Watson, late of Gainesville, take some snaps for the Tigers. But while he’s much more of a dual threat than Stoudt, he’s also a true freshman, and they tend to make mistakes. Especially in pressure-packed situations like Clemson will face Between the Hedges.
On the subject of mistakes, that leads us to the other question Dogs fans can’t shake: What about special teams?
Last season, special teams miscues cost Georgia at least a couple of games, including the loss at Clemson. Will a reorganization of special team responsibilities and what’s been reported as more detailed coaching on that front keep the Dawgs from shooting themselves in the foot? If so, having experienced kicker Marshall Morgan should give Georgia a leg up over the Tigers, who will be breaking in a new placekicker. And the addition of speedsters Isaiah McKenzie and Nick Chubb to the possible kick returners hopefully will inject some life into that previously moribund aspect of the Dogs’ game.
I’ll just be satisfied, however, if Georgia’s special teams manage not to give Clemson any meltdown-caused easy points.
So, basically, the game comes down to this: Can Georgia’s OL hold off Beasley and company long enough for its prodigious scoring attack to get the job done? Or, conversely, can Clemson hope to slow down Gurley? And, can the Dogs’ defensive front get to Stoudt and keep him from picking apart a green secondary?
I’m thinking Georgia’s advantage at the skill positions pays off and, if the defense is merely adequate, the Dogs win.
And thus begins a new season.
Georgia-Clemson. Between the Hedges. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Speaking of the new season, the other question I’ve gotten frequently over the past couple of weeks is how many the Dogs will lose this year and can they make it all the way to Atlanta.
I’ve spent the past month vacillating between predicting an 11-1 record and 10-2.
I had pretty much settled on 10-2, figuring a trip to Columbia early in the season might be too much and Georgia is likely to lose another one somewhere during the season, either to an underrated Missouri on the road or maybe to Gus Malzahn and his defending SEC champion Auburn Tigers. And, like my son says, Jacksonville is always a little scary.
But then I watched the Gamecocks against Texas A&M Thursday night and suddenly Columbia doesn’t seem quite as imposing an obstacle.
Since I can’t really split the difference, I’m still going to go with a 10-2 prediction, but if Georgia comes out of Columbia with a win I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Dogs playing in the Dome in December.
The Dawg Walk will be at about 3:45 p.m. Saturday, and Mark Richt is urging everyone, especially students, to show up early.
“I am looking forward to see our students show us what they got, by getting there early and really cheering our boys on during pregame warm ups,” he said this week. “I am also looking forward to our fans wearing red and getting after it and creating enough noise that we can hopefully disrupt some of the things they are trying to do offensively. It is going to take everybody and our fans are going to be a huge part of it.”
Students also need to be aware that more electronic “tickets” have been issued to the student body than there are seats in the student section, so if you show up late, you may not get into the game.
Finally, if you’re not able to attend the game in Athens, it’ll be on ESPN, of course, with Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe handling the coverage.
But a new wrinkle in Georgia football coverage this season will be free audio streaming of the Scott Howard-Eric Zeier radio coverage, available through Georgiadogs.com; the official Georgia Bulldogs mobile app, Georgia Game Day Live; and on a new mobile app streaming service TuneIn. You can get more details here.
Got something you want to discuss concerning the new football season? Or a question about UGA athletics in general for the Junkyard Blawg? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg