Here’s a look at what could make the difference Saturday when No. 5 Georgia clashes with No. 8 Clemson at 8 p.m. at Memorial Stadium:
SAMMY WATKINS VS. DAMIAN SWANN
As a teammate, Watkins was happy to see his friend DeAndre Hopkins break out with an unbelievable 2012 season. As a competitor, it sticks in Watkins’ craw he fell back with the mortals during a sophomore slump. “I think I’m feared,” Watkins said this week. “But I think everybody’s waiting now to see, does he still got it? This is a season to prove to everyone I can go make as many plays as I made my freshman year.” His first test is Damian Swann, one of the few experienced players on Georgia’s defense, but an undersized corner.
TACKLE AND COVER
They’re basically the two most simplistic goals of any defense. The front seven has to tackle. The back four have to cover. When you don’t do either – and sometimes, even when you do one but not the other – big plays result. Last year, Georgia’s offense ranked third in the country in big plays (20 yards or more), while Clemson’s defense ranked 109th in the same category. It’s one thing to be pretty solid on third down and in the red zone, but if the high-powered, balanced Bulldogs explode early and often on first and second downs, it won’t matter.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
Let’s start with this figure: Georgia is 29-1 in 12 years under Mark Richt when it doesn’t commit a turnover. So the Tigers should probably get on that. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes this is the best depth of any team he’s led, which will improve special teams, which is good because that’s an area where the Bulldogs have feasted on foes. Either a big interception return for Clemson, or a costly special teams gaffe by Georgia, would seem to be part of the recipe for victory.
Both teams have explosive offenses. Both teams have questions on defense. Georgia’s the SEC power with talent to match its league. Clemson’s the home team and carries the flag for the ACC. In many ways, this matchup looks so close on paper. If the Bulldogs are more focused on an even more important date with South Carolina in week two, it’ll show early. At the same time, all the pressure’s on Clemson, and that’s an unnerving feeling when these players have had days and weeks and months to think about this game.
Georgia 35, Clemson 27