In Week 1 of a college football season, every game is interesting, even the bad ones, because after nine months of asking questions, we finally gets some hints at answers.
Even if your team is playing the dregs of FCS (as opposed to an FCS team that, if promotion and relegation existed in college football, might be the defending Big 12 champion), and even if you win 66-0, you still begin to figure out whether your new left tackle is going to hold up, or whether that freshman linebacker you're counting on knows what he's doing, or whether your new place-kicker is going to be as good as the last guy.
Every game is interesting, even the bad ones. But Georgia's mid-Saturday bout with Clemson was the most interesting game of the week, and not only because of the underrated rivalry itself. The Dawgs and Tigers entered 2014 with maybe the highest combinations of upside and question marks in the country.
How quickly could new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt make something of a sketchy, young Dawg secondary? How quickly can Clemson find new weapons to replace nearly irreplaceable receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant? What can we expect from a pair of career backup quarterbacks (Georgia's Hutson Mason, Clemson's Cole Stoudt) finally getting a chance to start as seniors? Depending on your team of choice/birth, the questions you have might make the difference between 4-8 and 8-4. But with satisfactory answers, either Georgia or Clemson could make runs at double-digit wins, Playoff berths, etc.
And while Clemson found a few things to like about its performance on Saturday -- receiver Mike Williams had three catches for 88 yards, running back C.J. Davidson had 13 carries for 66 yards, end Vic Beasley had his requisite two tackles for loss, safety Robert Smith had 0.5 TFLs and a fumble recovery and and a pass break-up -- Georgia found a lot more. A lot more.
Todd Gurley is still Todd Gurley
When Todd Gurley runs, all you need to watch is the first three steps. Well, you should watch more than that because he's incredibly entertaining, but if he's at full speed after three steps, he's going to be running for a while. And if he's at full speed, you might just want to get out of his way.
Gurley had a Gurley Game on Saturday in Athens: four touchdowns and 293 yards on 17 touches (15 carries, one kick return, one reception). He proved why so many people have him on their non-Jameis Heisman list, and his second-quarter kick return score ...
... completely redefined the Clemson game.
|Before Gurley's kick return||After Gurley's kick return|
|Score||Clemson 21, Georgia 14||Georgia 31, Clemson 0|
|Yards||Clemson 208, Georgia 117||Georgia 342, Clemson 83|
|Yards per play||Clemson 5.6, Georgia 5.6||Georgia 7.4, Clemson 2.1|
|Sacks||Georgia 1, Clemson 0||Georgia 4, Clemson 1|
|Turnovers||Clemson +1||Georgia +1|
From a symbolism standpoint, it doesn't get any clearer than that.
When healthy -- and with his running style, he hasn't been able to play a full season in his first two years [correction: he did play a full season as a freshman, but suffered ankle injuries in high school] -- he is one of college football's 10 best players, and of all the questions we had about this game, the winner was determined by the answer to: "Which team has Gurley?"
Of course, we knew Todd Gurley was great. He was particularly impressive on Saturday, but we knew he was capable of that. As fun as he was to watch, Gurley was firmly in the "knowns" category heading into Saturday. So while his Heisman stock has never been higher, his defense provided even more cause for celebration.
Nick Saban's defense is called a pattern-matching unit for the way that Saban adjusts to an offense's personnel, mixes man and zone, and rotates toward one side of the field or the other. For the defense helmed by former Saban assistant Jeremy Pruitt on Saturday, however, it seemed more like pattern recognition.
In an attempt to account for the speed of Georgia's front seven and exploit the Dawgs' inexperience on the outside, Clemson mixed between-the-tackles rushing with sideline passing early in the game.
- On the Tigers' first touchdown drive, they combined a couple of third-down runs by Cole Stoudt with a 38-yard pass to Mike Williams.
- On their second score, they again favored quarterback rushing (this time from freshman Deshaun Watson) with a dose of C.J. Davidson between the tackles and another nice sideline pass to Williams; this set up a vulnerable Georgia defense for a 30-yard touchdown straike to Charone Peake on a post route.
- On their third scoring drive, Stoudt rushed four times and found freshman Artavis Scott for a 35-yard completion along the sideline. Two Davidson rushes in short yardage got Clemson into the end zone for the last time.
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris got the better of Pruitt for the first quarter and a half. But Pruitt adjusted, and his defense scored a second-half knockout. The final 12 carries by Clemson running backs gained just 40 yards; the final five (non-sack) quarterback rushes gained 10. Georgia was able to render Clemson one-dimensional, and Georgia's pass-rushing prowess took over from there. Amarlo Herrera and Leonard Floyd each had two sacks, and including sacks as pass attempts, Clemson's 14 second-half attempts netted minus-2 yards: 7-for-10 passing for 29 yards and four sacks for a loss of 31.
The Georgia secondary obviously wasn't perfect. (Redshirt freshman Aaron Davis did have an interception and a break-up, and junior Devin Bowman did have a break-up to offset a pass interference penalty.) And again, anything that involved Georgia's front seven was a battle Georgia won handily. But Clemson did still have five passes of 20+ yards, and all it took was a little bit of running success for the Tigers to exploit Georgia's shakiness on the outside. This defense will remain a work in progress, but Saturday accentuated both Pruitt's strength as a coordinator and Georgia's massive defensive upside.
One question unanswered
Hutson Mason wasn't asked to make a difference on Saturday. With Gurley and the running game rolling (as good as Gurley was, blue-chip freshman backups Nick Chubb and Sony Michel chipped in 10 carries for 103 yards), Mason played a secondary role. And he did complete 69 percent of his 26 passes while taking only one sack from a fierce Clemson pass rush.
Still, excluding a throwaway, 11 of 25 passes targeted either a tight end or a running back, and those gained a combined 42 yards. His 10 completions to wideouts gained just 89.
When the full stable of wideouts is available and the quarterback is trustworthy, Mike Bobo's offense has one of the best vertical passing games in the country. We know the former wasn't true -- Malcolm Mitchell is injured, and Justin Scott-Wesley was held out, either because of injury or an offseason DUI. Was Mason asked to play it safe simply because the running game was rolling? If or when Mitchell and Scott-Wesley are back, does Bobo open up the playbook a bit? Is this just the offense we're going to see this year, one leaning on safe passes and hoping for big plays on the ground?
Mason didn't fail his first test as Georgia's starter. He wasn't given a test at all.
In this year's Georgia preview, I said, "A top-15-caliber team could begin the season 0-2 with a Clemson/at South Carolina opening, and if the Dawgs win either of the two, they could be well positioned for a run at 10-2 or 11-1 overall." Like Todd Gurley hitting the corner, Georgia raced by Clemson at full speed on Saturday, overwhelming the Tigers with depth and meat. Gurley was incredible, the front seven was as good as advertised, and the offensive line aced a tough test from the Clemson defensive line. And after a week off, the Dawgs head to South Carolina to face a Gamecocks squad that failed its first test with the same voracity that Georgia passed its own.
One assumes Spurrier's 'Cocks will be ready to bounce back sooner than later, but after an A+ performance in the opener, it's difficult not to start dreaming big for this Georgia squad. Mark Richt's Dawgs will be favored in at least nine of their final 11 games, and a win in Columbia East would make them a bona fide national title contender.
Other questions answered
Georgia wasn't the only team to pass its first test. There are plenty more to go for each, of course, but you'd rather start well than not, huh?
- Will Kenny Hill show enough poise to give Texas A&M a shot on the road against South Carolina? Yessir.
- Will Connor Cook and the Michigan State offense take another step forward in 2014, perhaps to offset some slight defensive regression? So far, so good.
- How will redshirt freshman Anu Solomon look heading up Arizona's offense? Good, thanks for asking!
- How will Nebraska handle a Florida Atlantic team that was rather underrated last year? Pretty well, to say the least.
- Can Notre Dame hit the ground running after some for-all-the-wrong-reasons August drama? Yep.
- Does Oklahoma look the part of a top-five team this year? After one game, at least!
- How long will it take for Charlie Strong's "TOUGHNESS!" mantra to pay off for the Texas defense? Well, it was only North Texas, but ... one week, maybe!
- Can USC overcome a strange week of off-the-field drama? You could say that. (Hello, tempo!)
- Can Tennessee handle a tricky, sound Utah State squad on national television? Certainly.
- In one of college football's rare stadium debuts, would Baylor's McLane Stadium live up to expectations? Think so, yeah! (The home team looked pretty good, too.)