CLEMSON - I'm not making the same mistake I almost made at midseason 10 months ago.
After a brutal loss leaving many questions for the South Carolina staff (we're talking Tennessee), the beat writer covering SC's rival started to think maybe the Gamecocks were a bit vulnerable based on their visible deficiencies and how Clemson could exploit those.
It's so, so easy to sit there while Texas A&M, Kenny Hill and Kevin Sumlin (who needs Johnny Football??) had their way with South Carolina, in South Carolina - and wonder what this might mean three months down the road. So, so easy.
No grandiose proclamations here. Let me make my South Carolina-Clemson prediction when it's time for South Carolina-Clemson.
These two things are true... or I believe they're true ...
Statement 1: Steve Spurrier and Whammy Ward will earn their paychecks fixing what happened last night. I think - I know - the South Carolina defense should be markedly better in late November, if not in early September. The Gamecocks are fine.
Statement 2: Chad Morris does many of the same things Kevin Sumlin does. It's impossible not to think, presuming Morris got even a glance at even one drive last night, he's a little more optimistic about that matchup now than he was 24 hours ago.
Couldn't blame Morris if he didn't get a glance, though. First things first. Georgia's comin'.
Welcome to Episode I of what I believe is the fifth season I've written this column, at both the high school and college ranks. Hope I can make your Casual Friday countdown to 5 p.m. sail by a little bit faster for the next 12 weeks.
Five X-Factors when the Tigers have the ball
#22 D.J. Howard, 5-11, 205, sr., RB, Clemson. It's hard to project exactly how the carries will be divvied up yet; Chad Morris and Tony Elliott might not even know yet, so this is more an obligation to let you know the Tigers need a solid running game to down the Dawgs. Roderick McDowell churned out 132 yards in last year's opener.
#13 Adam Humphries, 5-11, 195, sr., WR, Clemson. I'm sitting there last night in Williams-Brice Stadium, watching Kenny Hill rarely need to make a pinpoint throw (he made some; he just never neeeeeeeeded to.) Texas A&M receivers had so much room to run based on the upfield blocking by other receivers. Since Sammy Watkins is gone to the NFL, Adam Humphries does that better than anyone else in a Clemson uniform.
#73 Joe Gore, 6-5, 290, jr., RT, Clemson. Yeah, it'd kinda be in the Tigers' best interests if Cole Stoudt wasn't running for his life two seconds after every snap.
#59 Jordan Jenkins, 6-3, 246, jr., LB, Georgia. Yeah, it'd kinda be in the Bulldogs' best interests if Cole Stoudt was running for his life two seconds after every snap.
#35 Aaron Davis, 6-1, 190, fr., FS, Georgia. There's more questions in the Georgia secondary than anywhere else, and Clemson will take its shots when the time is right. It's up to Davis to make a big play himself back there, instead of allowing big plays.
Five X-Factors when the Bulldogs have the ball
#4 Keith Marshall, 5-11, 219, jr., RB, Georgia. Five touchdowns for the Bulldogs last year at Clemson. Five rushing, zero passing. You know about Todd Gurley. If he gets loose, that's one thing. If Marshall does too ... it's gonna be a long night for the visitors.
#82 Michael Bennett, 6-2, 205, sr., WR, Georgia. Top receivers last year for Aaron Murray in the Clemson matchup were Bennett (five for 60) and Chris Conley (three for 67.) Both will challenge the Tigers' unproven corners.
#87 Jay Rome, 6-6, 254, jr., TE, Georgia. Gonna be interesting for the likes of weakside linebacker Tony Steward, sam linebacker T.J. Burrell and nickelback Korrin Wiggins to try and match up with the behemoth Rome. Keep an eye on Quayvon Hicks, too, who scored last Aug. 31.
#42 Stephone Anthony, 6-3, 245, sr., LB, Clemson. Bit of an obvious name, but I honestly feel he's the most important player to the Tigers' success tomorrow night. He has to play with his hair on fire - which defensive coordinator Brent Venables says he did all of August - and prove he came back for his senior year with the NFL first round in his sights.
#2 Mackensie Alexander, 5-10, 190, fr., CB, Clemson. It's his time. It's his life. He can do. What he likes. I dunno. Apparently Alexander making his first career appearance drums up an Enrique Iglesias/Pitbull song to mind.
Names to Know: Three players you should watch since I can't see every game
#6 Jeremy Johnson, 6-5, 230, soph., QB, Auburn. Since Nick Marshall won't start due to a minor offseason drug charge, you can get a look at promising youngster (and the eventual Marshall successor) Johnson, who was Mr. Alabama in 2012. By the way, don't miss the Gus-Bret meeting at midfield during warmups.
#16 J.T. Barrett, 6-1, 225, fr., QB, Ohio State. Texas A&M obviously is making do without Johnny Manziel. Let's see if the Buckeyes can make do without Braxton Miller, in a pinch.
#25 Melvin Gordon, 6-1, 213, jr., RB, Wisconsin. Maybe the nation's top back against the Tigers' angry defense? Yes, please.
Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn ~ 4 p.m., SEC Network
Auburn was lucky last year. There, I said it. Particularly in the Georgia victory; the Iron Bowl was more a few freaky-good bounces as part of an excellent effort. But no wheel of fortune will be necessary when Bret Bielema falls to his ninth consecutive SEC defeat.
Brenner picks: Tigers 45, Razorbacks 24
No. 1 Florida State vs. Oklahoma State (Dallas) ~ 8 p.m., ABC
Florida State will be hard-pressed to defend its national championship. With a mass NFL exodus, returning players who undoubtedly (and deservedly) enjoyed themselves in the offseason, and a schedule that sets up nicely for a College Football Playoff berth but doesn't prepare the Noles for the challenges once they get there, the Cowboys might be ripe for an upset. Don't rule this out.
Brenner picks: Seminoles 40, Cowboys 35
No. 14 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 LSU (Houston) ~ 9 p.m., ESPN
Always thought this would be an entertaining matchup. Once the Clemson-Georgia game ends, if you like football, leave the TV on.
Brenner picks: Tigers 24, Badgers 22
Miami at Louisville ~ 8 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Seriously think Louisville is going to shock a bunch of people this year. Not gonna waver from that yet, even though super receiver DeVante Parker will miss the first six games or so due to injury.
Brenner picks: Cardinals 49, Hurricanes 20
Colorado 21, Colorado State 17 (Friday, in Denver.) Yesterday, I was on America's Pregame. Tonight, the channel airs Buffs-Rams. It's just not a pretty picture these days on Fox Sports 1.
UCF 27, Penn State 20 (in Dublin). I think they're still playing this game, even with a threat of a volcano? It's been a busy week.
No. 5 Ohio State 27, @Navy 24. Buckeyes have struggled with the triple option in the past.
No. 7 UCLA 48, @Virginia 10. Poor Cavs. They're just in over their head with these Pac-12 matchups.
@Michigan 38, Appalachian State 13. This was the Big Ten Network opener back in the day. Wasn't a good omen when Big Blue lost.
No. 2 Alabama 48, West Virginia 17 (in Atlanta). Maybe both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker throw for three touchdowns. Interesting personal matchup between Tide receiver Amari Cooper and Mountaineer cornerback Daryl Worley.
@No. 4 Oklahoma 56, Louisiana Tech 7. This would've been far more tasty two years ago, when the 2012 Bulldogs were the No. 1 offense in the country with head coach Sonny Dykes and quarterback Colby Cameron. Too bad.
@No. 15 USC 20, Fresno State 13. How's your week going there, Steve Sarkisian?
GAME OF THE WEEK
No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia ~ 5:30 p.m., ESPN
"I woke up this morning with a serious change of heart about tomorrow. I think Clemson can win."
That was my text to buddy and fellow Clemson beat writer Brandon Rink, who heard my musings evolve quickly into a rant Monday. Basically, I was saying something along the lines of, anyone who picks Clemson is either being cute, going with an "upset special" or flat-out just wants to take a shot in the dark.
My three ways I could see Clemson prevailing, and it could be just one of these or a combination: 1) Clemson's way better than we realize, 2) there's something wrong with Georgia's program, and/or 3) the Tiger coaches have something up their sleeve that Georgia's not ready to dance with.
Any and all of those are perfectly reasonable.
Brandon's response to my text was this: "Watching A&M's spread can be a religious experience." I think he's right. Not only were Clemson and Texas A&M lumped together into that preseason category of "well, they were really good, but they lost their stud quarterback and we just don't know about the new guy and let's just rank 'em in the high teens or 20" . . . but that team I saw on the visitor's sideline last night played a lot like Clemson does, on both sides of the ball.
As president of the "Cole Stoudt Will Be Fine Stop Chanting Deshaun's Name" Club, I don't believe Stoudt will be as stupendous as Hill was last night. Could be wrong about Stoudt being fine, could be wrong about Stoudt not being Heisman-like. We'll find out. But it just feels like there's no way Georgia's defense can be that dreadful again. The worst defense in school history doesn't have to repeat itself, especially with its new coordinator brandishing a championship ring from January.
I'm sort of a believer in Clemson's defense. I believe the Tigers will end up on SportsCenter a bunch for sacks and tackles for loss, but I'm not sure I'm sold they'll be much more consistent than they were in allowing 35 points to Georgia, 31 to Georgia Tech and 35 to Ohio State.
The Aggies gave the Tigers a blueprint last night. But Georgia will be too strong at home for it to be enough.
Brenner picks: Bulldogs 27, Tigers 14
That's it for the Pep Talk. I've been saying it all offseason, how excited I am for 2014, and I hope you're as stoked as I am it's finally here.