CLEMSON — During the days, weeks and months spent analyzing this pivotal Georgia-Clemson game to ring in the 2013 season, there have been two consensus ways to poke holes in the case for the Bulldogs.
Inexperience on defense, and the Tigers’ significant home-field advantage, work against Georgia. Yet Clemson coaches and players aren’t making much of either factor.
First, the defense. It’s true, nine “full-time” starters are gone from last year’s defense, including seven selected in the NFL draft in April, and just three of the Bulldogs’ top 12 tacklers return in 2013.
“Don’t buy the lie that I feel sorry for Georgia, because they got a lot of great players,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday. “They’re one of those programs that just reloads, and they’ve done that in this case.”
The top returning defenders for Georgia, which was noted for its stingy second-half defense (7.7 points allowed per second half), are cornerback Damian Swann and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins. Swann’s four interceptions led the Bulldogs last year, and only All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones harassed more quarterbacks than Jenkins (5 sacks, 23 quarterback pressures.)
“I tell you, we’re not taking anybody lightly,” Clemson left tackle Brandon Thomas said. “They’re playing at this level just like we’re playing at this level, so they can play. We have to focus on ourselves, and whatever we see in the game, we have to adjust to that.”
Then there’s the obvious, time-tested advantage of Death Valley. Historically, Clemson has won 73 percent of its home games, including a 26-5 mark in Swinney’s four and a half years at the helm.
However, Georgia’s been extremely capable on the road since 2001 under Mark Richt: a 41-11 record, including 12-6 against ranked opponents in their own stadium.
“I don’t know if they’ll be necessarily intimidated, but I think every player coming in the first game of the season is always a little bit nervous, all the unknowns,” Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey said. “I’d be surprised if they weren’t nervous as well as excited, just like we are.”
Georgia has sometimes been dogged by a reputation it shies away from the big game — a suggestion which cause the normally mild-mannered Richt to spew back at a reporter last December.
Perhaps it was, ironically, in defeat that night — 35-32 to mighty Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, when Georgia came within five yards of scoring the winning touchdowns as time ran out — the Bulldogs proved they had the grit for the moment.
“They were definitely in a position to win that game, and had a great chance to be a national championship contender,” Shuey said. “They’ve been one of the most consistent programs throughout the last decade or so in college football. They have a lot of history, they know how to win those big games.”
That gave Shuey an easy transition: in a way, Georgia represents now what Clemson strives for.
“That’s the level that Clemson’s trying to get to,” Shuey said. “Being consistent and winning the big games.”
Just as Georgia earned the preseason publicity, Clemson did the same by knocking off LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last New Year’s Eve.
If the Tigers snap their five-game losing streak to Georgia — which is 15-1 against ACC teams under Richt’s guidance — Clemson would become the first non-SEC program to defeat two SEC squads ranked in the AP top ten in consecutive games.
“These are programs that are used to a big stage,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I wouldn’t expect Georgia to come in here and flinch. They’ll compete with everything they’ve got, they’ll be confident — they should be.
“But so should we. We’ve earned that right, and so have they.”