CLEMSON -- Welcome back to Thursday of game week, and just like last year, that means a visit with an opposing beat writer.
In many cases, it'll be the same guy or gal we used in 2013, and we begin with my old McClatchy colleague Seth Emerson at the Macon Telegraph, who covers the Georgia Bulldogs like it's his job. But only because it is.
Aaron Brenner, Post and Courier: It's easy to point to Todd Gurley and say, he's goooooooood. It's even easier to stare at Hutson Mason and stammer, you're not Ron(Murray.) But Mike Bobo's track record says Georgia will throw the ball, darn it. At least for this first game against Clemson's defense - and if you must, project the 2014 season - do you see Georgia remaining balanced, or will Bobo give his stable of horses the ball and run with it?
Seth Emerson, Macon Telegraph: Balanced. That's Bobo's mantra, over and over, partly because that's the basic core of this offense and its philosophy - it originated as a pro-style - but also because they have the ability to throw and run equally well.
Outsiders may look and see not only Gurley, but Keith Marshall and two highly-touted freshman tailbacks (Nick Chubb and Sony Michel), and then look at an inexperienced QB and injuries to deep-threat receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley. And it's fair to wonder whether expectations for this offense should be downgraded, at least until Mitchell and Scott-Wesley are back. But Mason is a solid quarterback with a decent arm, and more importantly he's a fifth-year senior who knows this offense and has worked with these receivers awhile.
I've learned never to say never, but I'd be surprised if Bobo's playcalling ends up more than 60 percent in either direction. He fervently believes in keeping the defense off-balance, so much so that it occasionally annoys Georgia fans. They don't understand why, when the offense is passing downfield, they call a run play, for instance. But Bobo believes you have to keep the defense honest, and this year they still have the ability to do that.
Brenner: With Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley ruled out Saturday, who's got to step up and challenge Clemson's new starting corners and young nickelback/free safeties in space?
Emerson: Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, the top two healthy receivers, are seniors who run precise routes and have good hands. Those are two guys who potentially could eat up young cornerbacks, though they're not going to out-sprint them. Georgia does have a couple burners who could be dangerous: Sophomore Reggie Davis had a 99-yard TD catch last year, and freshman Isaiah McKenzie, who's only 5-7, has great speed and ability to move in space. But both those guys are still raw, so it'll be interesting to see how much they're involved on Saturday.
There are other potential weapons. Tight end Jay Rome, a junior, was a five-star recruit a few years ago. And don't diminish the importance of Gurley and Marshall to the passing game: Gurley was actually Mason's favorite target at the end of last year, and I have a feeling that Marshall, now healthy, will be a big part of the passing game this year.
Brenner: There's been plenty of discussion in Clemson this week about the Tigers' offensive coaches dissecting tape on Florida State to figure out Jeremy Pruitt's schemes. Do you figure Pruitt changes things up much from fellow 3-4 teacher Todd Grantham, and will Pruitt employ last year's gameplan that yielded a 51-14 victory for the Seminoles?
Emerson: Pruitt and company have obviously not provided me their gameplan, but from interviews and observations this much we do know: They're still a base 3-4, as under Grantham, and that also means heavily using the 4-2-5, especially against spread-oriented teams like Clemson. Where Pruitt is different is the nickel-back (star position) in the 4-2-5 is going to be a defensive back, whereas Grantham occasionally used a linebacker type.
Pruitt is also likely to use more formations. For instance, Grantham basically didn't use any dime packages last year, and kept the two inside linebackers (Wilson and Herrera) on the field for pretty much every snap. Pruitt has been pretty blunt that he'll use dime packages, and that means some creativity in how the linebackers - all of them - are deployed.
Otherwise, in terms of blitzes, types of coverages, etc., that will be unveiled on Saturday. We do know that Pruitt is going to keep things simple for his young defensive backs, so there won't be any attempts at exotic coverages. A criticism of Grantham, and it was justified, was he used NFL-style calls and signals, and it was too much for the young players last year.
Brenner: I read somewhere that Damian Swann is regarded as a soft cornerback, and he's really the only proven defensive back Georgia's got. Can the Bulldogs press the Tigers' receivers, and would you say this is potentially a mismatch in favor of the visitors?
Emerson: Not saying the "soft" label is unfair, but it hasn't really been mentioned much here. But Swann and his coaches acknowledge that he struggled last year. It wasn't so much the inability to jam his receiver - although I'm sure that happened plenty too - but it was more that Swann was moving into the No. 1 cornerback role, after a couple years starting in a very veteran secondary. (Both safeties and the other cornerback were all drafted.) Swann had his head on a swivel last year, trying to tutor and help young defensive backs while also covering the other team's top receiver. He just couldn't handle it.
This year, I'm buying into Swann having a better year - and yes, that's despite the secondary around him once again being young, with the exception of senior Corey Moore apparently getting a starting spot at safety. I think Swann comes into it this year with his eyes open, and I also think, frankly, he's just getting coached better. Pruitt is the secondary coach, and at practice you can just see more attention to detail being taught than in past years.
That said ... the secondary is still the weak link of the team, and yes, it's a potential mismatch in Clemson's favor. Georgia is likely going to start a redshirt freshman walk-on (Aaron Davis) at safety, a true freshman (Dominick Sanders) at nickel-back, and a junior college transfer (Shattle Fenteng) at cornerback. When those guys aren't in the game, their replacements will also be young and unproven. Georgia's hope is to mitigate its problems in the secondary, by forcing some turnovers - an emphasis by Pruitt in practice - or by the front seven really imposing its will on Clemson's offensive line.
Brenner: In hindsight, does Georgia believe it should have won the 2013 showdown in Death Valley, had a few things bounced their way? And is the change in year and venue enough to make the Bulldogs comfortable believe the rematch will go their way?
Emerson: Georgia made enough mistakes that it can look at them and say a few corrections would have turned around a 38-35 result. That muffed field goal snap proved the difference. When Clemson turned it over deep in its territory, Aaron Murray gave it right back. Georgia also fumbled deep in Clemson territory.
And don't forget, Malcolm Mitchell tears his ACL before having a pass even thrown at him. And Todd Gurley strained his quad, causing him to miss the second quarter and parts of the second half.
That said, Clemson played well and deserved to win that game. It made some mistakes too.
This year, Georgia's home-field advantage will be really important. The Bulldogs have struggled recently in these season openers against good teams: 2013 at Clemson, 2011 vs. Boise State, 2009 at Oklahoma State. But none of those games were at Sanford Stadium, although Boise State was basically a home game in the Georgia Dome.
I tend to think the betting line on the game is a bit too tilted towards Georgia, especially with Mitchell and Scott-Wesley out. That said, I think on a neutral field this game would be close to a toss-up, and with the game being between the hedges the Bulldogs should be favored.
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