No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Georgia brace for heavyweight opener

NCAA Football

There will be no easing into the 2021 season for Clemson or Georgia.

The Tigers and Bulldogs, ranked No. 3 and No. 5, respectively, will kick off their seasons against one another in the Duke’s Mayo Classic in Charlotte on Saturday night in what could be a College Football Playoff preview.

“It’s time, it’s here and we’re excited about it,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team is the only one in the country to make the playoff each of the last six years.

The first meeting between the two regional rivals since 2014, Saturday night’s prime time showdown has been eagerly anticipated since being announced last year. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be on hand.

The significance of the early-season showdown isn’t lost on Clemson’s players, either.

“This is a heavyweight matchup,” right guard Will Putnam said. “We’re gonna learn real quick what we’re made of.”

Clemson is coming off a 10-2 season that culminated with a 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Sugar Bowl. Georgia went 8-2 last season, capping the campaign with a 24-21 win against Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl.

This will be Clemson’s first game in years without the record-setting tandem of quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, both of whom were selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the NFL draft last spring. But the Tigers are far from bereft of talent.

D.J. Uiagalelei, a sophomore who filled in admirably last season when Lawrence was sidelined by COVID-19 protocols, will take the reins at quarterback.

“Their quarterback got some experience last year when Trevor was down,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s got one of the biggest arms I’ve ever seen.”

That’s a concern for Georgia’s defensive secondary, which will be breaking in three new starters, including former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick.

The Tigers’ replacement for Etienne, who left school as the all-time leading rusher in the Atlantic Coast Conference, is considerably less clear. Clemson has a crowded running back room, with senior Lyn-J Dixon the most experienced of the bunch. However, true freshmen Will Shipley and Phil Mafah were so impressive in fall camp that they could see considerable playing time.

The Tigers’ biggest challenge could come on the offensive line, where they must break in two new starters against a Georgia defensive front that is expected to rank among the nation’s best. The Bulldogs led the country in rushing defense last year after finishing among the national leaders in that category in 2019.

Georgia’s Smart feels much better about his quarterback situation this year what with JT Daniels the clear-cut starter. Daniels, a junior, started the last four games in 2020 and passed for 10 touchdowns with two interceptions.

He will face a stiff challenge against a Clemson defense that returns nine of 11 starters and boasts one of the most imposing front lines in the country.

“It’s probably one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen returning in terms of number of starts, number of games played,” Smart said. “The volume of experience in unmatched.”

The Bulldogs, however, are loaded with a talented running backs, led by junior Zamir White, who paced the team with 779 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns last season.

It should make for an intriguing season opener between two age-old rivals separated by only 75 miles.

“It ramps it up,” Smart said. “When you’re playing a team like Clemson, a program like Clemson, all your guys come fired up, ready to play.”

–Field Level Media

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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