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Talkin’ Tigers: A Pregame Q&A with Shakin’ the Southland

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NCAA Football: Clemson at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now less than 36 hours away from kickoff between Georgia and Clemson in Charlotte. And while we’ve done our level best to bring you the absolute best in analysis leading up to the big game, there’s really no substitute for hearing from those with deep experience behind enemy lines. To do that we’ve enlisted the help of the estimable Ryan Kantor, editor at SB Nation’s Clemson flagship, Shakin’ the Southland.

Ryan’s a renowned scholar of early Prussian poetry*, a dedicated Muay Thai practitioner**, and an above average theremin player***. More than that he’s well-versed in the weapons the Fightin’ Dabos will bring to the field Saturday night in the Queen City. He also recently agreed to take a stab at answering this Georgia Bulldog fan’s burning questions about this weekend’s inter-conference throwdown.

MD: Georgia’s injury issues headed into this game have been pretty well documented. How healthy are the Tigers?

Ryan: In terms of injuries, Clemson is in good shape. The status of slot receiver Brannon Spector is unknown, but with Justyn Ross back and moved to the slot after missing all of last season, it would not be a critical loss.

We won’t know about players missing due to COVID until gameday, but the rumor floating around the web is that defensive tackle Tyler Davis could be out on Saturday. He may be Clemson’s most critical player in terms of run defense. Missing him would be a tremendous blow.

MD: Bulldog fans know who Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee are. And I think they understand that those guys will be a real challenge for a UGA O-Line that’s replacing a couple of key 2020 contributors. But who are some contributors on the Clemson front seven UGA fans should be worried about but aren’t?

Ryan: Tyler Davis, who we were just discussing, was injured for chunks of last season and the defense was not the same without him. He missed the first game against Notre Dame and his absence was crucial. He is a junior with first round draft pick aspirations. When healthy, the Davis-Bresee duo in the middle may be the best in the country.

Linebacker Baylon Spector, the older brother of slot receiver Brannon Spector, led the team in tackles and sacks last season. He is back for a fifth year, and despite his numbers, is probably the most overlooked player on Clemson defense. He and James Skalski are reliable sure-tackling linebackers that will contribute to slowing Georgia’s always-vaunted rushing attack.

MD: Sticking with the defense, when that high-powered Clemson front seven was last seen they were giving up 254 yards on the ground to Ohio State. Was that an aberration? Is this truly a new year, or is smash mouth football a viable way to attack the Tigers?

Ryan: Clemson got whipped, no doubt about it. Ohio State’s physicality certainly played a big role in that – they won in the trenches – but the more telling stat is Justin Fields’ 385 yards through the air.

Clemson’s secondary was porous and the pass rush from the defensive line was less than elite. They ranked just 41st in passing yards allowed per game. As mentioned, a linebacker (Baylon Spector), led the team in sacks. Two true freshmen led all D-linemen in sacks. It’s not what you want!

Part of that was due to unusually poor injury luck last season. Defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebacker Jamie Skalski both missed chunks of the season (including both being out for the loss to Notre Dame). The latter was ejected for targeting against Ohio State too. Safety Lannden Zanders played through a serious shoulder injury. Defensive ends Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas were hampered with COVID-19 related health issues. Foster didn’t play a snap all year.

All of them are back and healthy. In fact, the defense only lost two starters: Mike Jones, who was losing time at SAM linebacker to Trenton Simpson, and Derion Kendrick, who was dismissed. The Ohio State performance wasn’t an aberration, but the defense should be significantly better than last season.

MD: DJ Uiagaleilei is a legitimate Heisman candidate this season despite only starting two games in 2020. What is Georgia’s best strategy to make this Saturday his worst game of the year?

Ryan: This is a little bit of stating the obvious, but Georgia has to plug up Clemson’s running game. They are elite at run defense while Clemson is still breaking in a new starting center, so it is quite possible (probable?) they succeed in that. If they don’t and Clemson’s offense finds a nice run-pass balance, the Dawgs are in trouble.

I don’t think there’s an obvious schematic move Georgia can make that will just totally flummox DJ, but if they can make the offense one-dimensional and put it all on his back, they’ll be in an advantageous position.

MD: Would you rather fight a Dabo-sized horse or a horse-sized Dabo?

Ryan: Have you seen those little miniature horses before? They’re adorable. On the flipside, Dabo is so affable himself. I think I’d be forced to be a conscientious objector and refuse to fight!

MD: Because we must: What is your score prediction, and how do we get there?

Ryan: Georgia should once again have an elite run-stopping defense. While I expect improvement from Clemson in terms of run-blocking, I don’t expect them to do much damage there except potentially keep Georgia’s defense from keying in too heavily on the pass. Fortunately, Clemson has an elite QB and with Justyn Ross healthy again, they are loaded at wide receiver. I see the Tigers scoring around 28 points.

Georgia’s offense versus Clemson’s defense is where I’m more unsure. If Clemson is all-systems go up-front, I think they can stop the run and put the game on JT Daniels shoulders. If it comes down to a battle of QBs, I like Clemson’s chances. Daniels is definitely a good player, but I haven’t seen enough from him to feel like he is elite. He was mediocre in 12 games at USC and then very good in four games for Georgia – three of which came against poor defenses.

Without a good run game supporting him, Daniels needs to play an elite-level game to knock off the Tigers. If the Dawgs establish the run, then perhaps Daniels only needs to be good and that he can definitely do. Not knowing who will suit up because of COVID makes me tentative about putting out an official prediction, but I will admit I’m worried and don’t feel great about this one.

Thanks again to Ryan for his insights on the Country Gentlemen. Also go check out Shakin’ the Southland up to kick off and beyond for all your Clemson sports-related needs. And . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!!!

* I’m just making this up.

** I haven’t verified this, but it seems relatively unlikely to be accurate.

*** Honestly wouldn’t be totally surprised if this were half true.