Georgia vs. Clemson pick: Strength against weakness all over the field

Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

One of the South's oldest, most interesting rivalries resumes on Saturday when Georgia visits Clemson on Saturday night. It is the teams' first meeting since 2003, and the matchups couldn't be more fascinating. Visit Georgia site Dawg Sports and Clemson site Shakin' the Southland for more.

Since I wrote lengthy previews about each team, and no games have actually been played yet, allow me to quote from them.

From the 2013 Georgia preview

Pace aside, this offense might be even better in 2013. Bobo was relying on a pair of freshman running backs and really did have to deal with a rotating supporting cast in the receiving corps. But freshmen turn into sophomores, and receivers get healthy.

Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, whose last names combine to rhyme with "Herschel," gained 2,144 yards and scored 25 touchdowns last year. Gurley was a strong every-down power back with some explosiveness, while Marshall was a homerun hitter with a little bit of power. They are basically the entire show this year -- the Nos. 3-5 running backs are gone, so if Gurley or Marshall gets hurt, more true freshmen are getting carries -- but what a show that is. Oh yeah, and basically the entire two-deep on the offensive line returns, with 101 career starts.

And if healthy, this receiving corps could be ridiculous, as well. Malcolm Mitchell has the potential to fill in for the explosive Tavarres King, Arthur Lynch was a revelation at tight end, Michael Bennett was in the middle of a breakout season in 2012 when he hurt his knee, four-star junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph joins the mix (along with two four-star freshmen), and [...] Chris Conley's [...] speed is just ridiculous.

We see a lot of four-star freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores on the Georgia roster here. But we also see a whole lot of empty space at the top of each unit. Georgia must replace four of its top six linemen, four of its top five linebackers, and four of its top five defensive backs.

And despite all of those upperclassman stars -- Jones, John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings, Branden Smith -- this was still only a good, not great, defense for most of the year. Yes, there were suspensions and injuries involved, and yes the unit caught fire late in the year. But it caught fire mostly because of players who are now gone.

As high as I am on Georgia's offense, I'm equally wary of Georgia's defense.

From the 2013 Clemson preview

But Clemson makes its bones with the pass, and while Sammy Watkins is incredible when at full strength (1,225 receiving yards, 9.9 per target, as a true freshman in 2011), the Tigers benefited significantly from having DeAndre Hopkins around, first as a tremendous No. 2 in 2011 (when Watkins erupted), then as an even more tremendous No. 1 in 2012 (when Watkins was struggling). As good as we all know Watkins can be, he needs help.

Hopkins, tight end Brandon Ford, and Jaron Brown all averaged at least 8.6 yards per target, and all three are gone. Adam Humphries was a solid pitch-and-catch guy last year, and four-star juniors Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant could be ready for a step up. But the best news for this unit could be if redshirt freshman Germone Hopper and freshmen Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett keep making plays like they did in Clemson's first fall scrimmage. There are former four-stars galore here, which means the odds are pretty good that somebody will step up in to the No. 2 role. But we won't know somebody can do it until they do it.

We think back on the 2011 Clemson defense as a reckless abomination, awful in every game. It wasn't, but following the humiliation the Tigers faced against Dana Holgorsen and West Virginia in the Orange Bowl that year, changes were still necessary for Clemson to become a truly elite team. Former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables took over, and as mentioned above, Clemson's defense improved, especially over the last half of the season. The Tigers were aggressive and efficient against the run, and it paid off with stellar red zone defense and the ability to force opponents to sometimes become one-dimensional.

The problem was that, while efficiency is incredibly important, preventing big plays is even more important. And Clemson was still wretched in that regard. It's difficult to rank 16th in Rushing Success Rate+ (efficiency) and 95th in Rushing PPP (explosiveness). That means that basically every time you let a runner get more than about four yards, you're letting him gain 20. Clemson's line stats were decent, but it still appears Venables has a way to go when it comes to structuring the back seven as he prefers.

Clemson's biggest advantage

Since the Georgia preview was written, the Dawgs' likely starting safety, Josh Harvey-Clemons, was suspended for a game, limiting an already young secondary. Against Clemson's devastating spread offense, Georgia will be starting junior corner Damian Swann (a quality piece from last year with 3.5 tackles for loss and nine passes defensed), senior strong safety Connor Norman (a bit player last year), and two true freshmen: corner Brendan Langley and blue-chip freshman safety Tray Matthews.

So basically, Georgia's biggest question mark became a bigger question mark, right in time to play a team that can ding the hell out of that weakness.

Then again, Clemson's not exactly brimming with seasoned weapons in its skill position corps. You know about Sammy Watkins, obviously, but the Tigers do have to replace a solid runner (and blocker) in Andre Ellington and one of the best receivers in the country in DeAndre Hopkins. Roderick McDowell and Zac Brooks will start the year atop the running backs hierarchy, and lord knows big wideout Martavis Bryant made the most of his opportunities last year (16 targets, 10 catches, 305 yards), but these guys are only a little bit more proven than Georgia's defensive backs, not a lot.

Georgia's biggest advantage

Georgia averaged more yards per play (7.09) than anybody in the country last year. The Bulldogs made a living off of big plays, whether they were coming from Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall from the running back position or any number of receivers. The top six Georgia targets last year all averaged at least 10.1 yards per target. That's incredible. And while since-departed Tavarres King (14.0 per target) led the way, there is a load of experience and potential wherever you look. Gurley and Marshall are each now sophomores, split end Michael Bennett returns after injury, flankers Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley are each terrifying, and even tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome manage to combine tight-end efficiency (combined catch rate: 67 percent) with big-play ability (yards per catch: 16.7).

Clemson's biggest weakness in 2012 was Georgia's biggest strength, and there's no immediate reason to think that's changed.

Verdict

This is the most exciting matchup of week 1. Both teams are athletic on defense and ridiculous on offense, and both teams' weaknesses will be exploited by opponent strengths. The projections and spread each favor Georgia slightly, but this one's close enough that counting turnovers and big plays will probably tell you who won.

I feel slightly more confident in Georgia this year, but I'll feel more confident in the Dawgs once that secondary gels. But give me Georgia by 1, I guess. For now.

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