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2013 College Football Season Preview: Georgia Bulldogs at Clemson Tigers

The defending SEC East champion Georgia Bulldogs kick off their 2013 campaign by renewing the Red and Black's age-old rivalry with the Clemson Tigers. Another close game between the two teams is likely . . . but not in the manner most longstanding fans have come to expect when these clubs meet.

Here's hoping Aaron Murray's trip to Clemson in 2013 goes more like David Greene's in 2003 than Buck Belue's in 1981.
Here's hoping Aaron Murray's trip to Clemson in 2013 goes more like David Greene's in 2003 than Buck Belue's in 1981.

Each summer, the fine folks here at Dawg Sports bring you game-by-game previews of the Georgia Bulldogs’ upcoming college football slate, with the duties being divided among the site staff. While, technically, I’m not on the site staff anymore, MaconDawg nevertheless was kind enough to ask me to kick off the series by giving you the lowdown on the autumn’s opening opponent, the Clemson Tigers, seeing as how some folks seem to think I wrote the book on the Georgia-Clemson rivalry. In defense of the commentators who take that view, I literally wrote the book on the Georgia-Clemson rivalry.

Let’s begin with the Joe Friday approach, by looking at just the facts. These are they:

  • Head Coach: William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney (40-21 in five years)
  • Location: Clemson, S.C., approximately 70 miles from Athens
  • League Affiliation: Atlantic Coast Conference (since 1953)
  • Last Year: 11-2 (7-1 ACC), No. 9 coaches’ poll, No. 11 AP
  • Series Record: Georgia leads, 41-17-4 (10-6-1 since 1977)
  • SB Nation Affiliate: Shakin’ the Southland

This game, to put it mildly, is a big deal. Georgia and Clemson, who squared off against one another in all 20 of the seasons between 1897 and 1916, then again in 24 of the 26 seasons between 1962 and 1987, are taking the gridiron against one another for the first time since 2003. That decade-long interruption marks the longest gap between series meetings in the history of the rivalry; previously, neither team had ever in its history gone more than seven years without facing the other.

Despite the lengthy layoff, the timing of the upcoming August 31 clash could not be better. Last year, the two teams went a combined 23-4, both finished in the top ten of the coaches’ poll, and each won a bowl game. The Tigers’ Tajh Boyd finished 2012 as the ACC’s top-rated passer, and the Bulldogs’ Aaron Murray was second only to Alabama’s A.J. McCarron as the most efficient quarterback in the SEC nation. With both clubs entering the autumn as projected conference frontrunners with probable top ten rankings, it is no wonder that ABC elected to make this a nationally-televised night game. (The Red and Black, for the record, are 6-0 all-time in night games against the Orange and Purple.) In light of all that, it is not surprising what Clemson’s Coach Swinney had to say about the season-opening showdown:

Well, yes and no. Certainly, this year’s renewal of the rivalry carries overtones of the 1982 showdown between the two teams, which pitted the two previous national champions in a nationally-televised game featuring two top-ten teams on Labor Day night, but a low-scoring defensive struggle of the sort that defined the series in its pivotal years almost certainly is not in the cards.

During the modern heyday of the rivalry between 1977 and 1987, the winning or tying team scored 21 or fewer points nine times in eleven outings; on five of those occasions, the victor managed a measly 13 or fewer points. Only once in that span did either team score more than 26 points, in the 1986 clash that remains tied (with the 2002 contest) for the top spot as the highest-scoring Georgia-Clemson game in history. That record is apt to be challenged on Labor Day weekend when the Bulldogs, whose 37.8 points per game were the 18th-highest scoring tally in Division I-A in 2012, meet the Tigers, whose 41.0 points per game ranked sixth in the land last year.

Due to that fact, as I have been saying on every podcast that would have me, this is a game in which the best defense will be a good offense. There are valuable lessons to be learned from the instructive examples of the Tigers’ last two games, a loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Fort Hill Felines’ season finale and a win over the LSU Tigers in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With 13 minutes and change remaining in the fourth quarter of their loss to the Garnet and Black, the Orange and Purple had possession of the football while trailing by a field goal, yet they lost by a double-digit margin; conversely, in the Georgia Dome, Clemson entered the final period down by eleven points, but the Country Gentlemen came back to edge the Bayou Bengals. What made the difference?

In a word, possession. Against South Carolina, Clemson ran just 59 plays (to the Gamecocks’ 86) and held the ball for just over 20 minutes of clock time. In the fourth quarter, the Garnet and Black ran twice as many plays as the Orange and Purple, taking 22 snaps while the Tigers took just eleven. In Atlanta, by contrast, Clemson wore out Louisiana State. The Fort Hill Felines dominated the Pelican State Panthers in first downs (32-9), total offense (445-219), and offensive plays (100-48). In a balanced display in the City Too Busy to Hate, Clemson ran 50 passing plays and 50 running plays . . . and, in the final 15 minutes, Coach Swinney’s Jungaleers took 34 snaps (to LSU’s paltry seven) in a trio of scoring drives to notch a one-point victory.

In the 2012 season, Clemson ran the seventh-most offensive plays in Division I-A. The trick to taming the Tigers is to limit their offensive opportunities, which means sustaining drives that drain clock and score points. Fortunately, the Athenians appear reasonably well equipped to accomplish this. Last year, Louisiana State ranked 57th nationally in scoring offense, South Carolina checked in at 44th, and, as noted before, Georgia cracked the top 20, setting school records for points and touchdowns and earning independent accolades for Mike Bobo as the country’s best play-caller in the process. Moreover, the Bulldogs not only scored a boatload of points, they did it at a comparatively “slow” pace. The bottom line is that the team that takes more offensive snaps in the fourth quarter will win this game.

(As an aside, I would note that the two highest-scoring games in series history, the 31-28 contests of 1986 and 2002, both took place between the hedges. In Clemson, the two teams have never combined for more than the 52 points they tallied in the Tigers’ 28-24 win in Death Valley in 1974, the year the Bulldogs fielded statistically their worst defense ever, producing a 6-6 season that had many fans calling for Vince Dooley to be fired. Georgia has scored more than 20 points on just one of the Bulldogs’ last eight trips to Memorial Stadium, and the Classic City Canines last topped 30 points by the shores of Lake Hartwell when Ray Goff was in Athens . . . as a player.)

(As an additional aside, I would note further that, between 1892 and 1991, the Red and Black lost just two games in which Georgia scored at least 28 points, in the 1949 Orange Bowl and against Clemson in 1986. From 1992 to 1999, it happened seven times; it would not happen again until 2005, and it has occurred only thrice in non-overtime outings since 2008. Thank you, Todd Grantham.)

(This is neither here nor there, really, but, inasmuch as I am in the midst of a string of parenthetical asides, I felt compelled to embed this tweet, which features a Kelly Ripa .gif that is disturbing in a number of ways:)

(As a final aside, I would note the fact, for whatever it is worth, that Aaron Murray, whose quarterback rating is apt to decline this season, threw the second-highest number of interceptions of any signal caller among 2012’s eleven most efficient QBs. Which of those eleven quarterbacks threw the most interceptions? Tajh Boyd.)

So, we now know that the key to victory is for Georgia to score more points than Clemson. (I mean, duh!) The question then becomes how the Bulldogs will score those points. Well, I’ll tell you how the Athenians aren’t going to score their points: three at a time. This series has been hallmarked by game-winning field goals, from Kevin Butler’s immortal 60-yarder in 1984 to David Treadwell’s back-to-back heartbreakers in 1986 and ’87 to a fourth-quarter 43-yarder in the 2002 opener off the foot of a Georgia placekicker whose accuracy had been questioned in the preseason: Billy Bennett. However, with Marshall Morgan likely sidelined due to offseason antics, the Red and Black may be compelled to go for it more often, which is fine by me. Last year, Georgia attempted only nine fourth-down conversions, tied for the second-fewest in the SEC; the first Saturday of the season might be a good time to start reversing that trend, particularly now that we finally have depth among the road-graders up front.

I’ll tell you another place from which points have come in this series: special teams runbacks. Playing at Clemson in 1932, Georgia right halfback Norman “Buster” Mott took the opening kickoff of the second half 95 yards up the middle for a touchdown. Freshman fullback Floyd “Breezy” Reid returned the opening kickoff of the first half 89 yards up the middle for the score against the Jungaleers in 1945. Freshman split end Gene Washington, who later would take his place in Bulldog lore by scoring a game-winning touchdown against Florida, spanned 97 yards versus the Tigers on his second career kickoff return. Most famously, Scott Woerner salvaged the Red and Black’s 1980 national championship campaign with a 67-yard punt return in the Athenians’ 20-16 win over Clemson. Most recently, Fred Gibson brought back a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown in the latest series meeting in Sanford Stadium. In 2012, the Fort Hill Felines ranked next to last in the ACC in kickoff coverage; I think it’s time for the Classic City Canines to take another one to the house. Just call it a crazy hunch.

This revelation will shock exactly no one, but here it is: I am a traditionalist. That is not news, I know, but the truth of it was brought home to me recently by a pair of postings appearing in the blogosphere, in the first of which Tyler Dawgden wrote this:

I get that LSU doesn't like having two the East's big three on their schedule just because 'it is their' turn. I get South Carolina didn't like it when they got the short end of the stick last year. I get they don't care about the rivalries. I think they should some, but I don't think they are so sacrosanct that they should cause the conference to come apart.

Shortly thereafter, Spencer Hall offered the following observation:

It's dangerous to state any preference online, because you are wrong, and those who are wrong must be utterly destroyed with fire. I'll risk it by saying that in one Us Vs. Them format, I will always choose the more chaotic, less orderly, and more aggressive version of that particular game. I'll take the guns-forward philosophy of Total Football in soccer, Team Fortress 2 and the Grand Theft Auto series for my video game preferences, Hunter S. Thompson and other people who hated editing over the Jane Austens of the world, and a no-huddle spread that attacks for 60 horrible minutes over slugball clock-control any and every day of my life.

I respect both men, and I respect both men’s views, but it struck me, upon reading their respective postings, that, well, yeah, I am all about slugball clock-control, and I consider rivalries so sacrosanct that I am fully prepared to see the SEC come apart over them. That’s why I love the Georgia-Clemson series so much, because, historically, it has provided the Bulldogs with one of our best rivalries and one of our best examples of old-school football. This year’s revival of the series promises to provide us with the former, but almost certainly not the latter, and, in this rare instance, I am prepared to see the glass as half-full, rather than as half-empty.

I think we’re in for another classic, folks. Although four of the six series meetings in the 1990s and the 2000s were decided by double-digit margins, two of the last three showdowns have been nailbiters, in keeping with the history of the rivalry. (If you feel you need to get better-acquainted with that history, by the way---and, trust me, you do---just download one of these .pdf bad boys, fill it out, and send it my way, or join me for a book signing at Dawg-Eared Books in McDonough between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. AST on August 17!) The last four seasons in which Georgia opened against Clemson (1946, 1982, 2002, and 2003) have produced for the Bulldogs two division crowns, three conference championships, and four top-ten seasons featuring at least eleven wins apiece. I like our chances to add to each of those integers in 2013.

My Prediction: Georgia Bulldogs 42, Clemson Tigers 38.

Go ‘Dawgs!