Baylon Spector downplayed his answer. As much as he could, at least.
Like any team, Clemson’s senior linebacker acknowledged the fact that winning the opener is one of the Tigers’ goals every season. Clemson wants to prepare for every opponent the same, he said.
“But we’re excited for sure,” Spector said.
Truth is, the Tigers’ titanic clash with Georgia on Sept. 4 isn’t just any opener, which is why some players believe it’s helped Clemson keep its collective focus high amid the dog days of fall camp. The number of weeks left before arguably the Tigers’ most important game of the season is quickly dwindling as Clemson approaches the midway point of its final week of camp.
Sure, there’s a certain level of focus and excitement for players at the start of every season regardless of the opponent, but senior Nolan Turner said playing a fellow Power Five team of Georgia’s caliber takes all of that to another level.
“A team and a program like Georgia definitely brings a different mindset and a different focus,” the Tigers’ sixth-year safety said. “It’s something to kind of motivate you through the summer and seeing that picture of what it’s going to look like.”
Not since a 19-13 win at Auburn in 2016 has Clemson started a season against a Power Five opponent, and that Auburn team wasn’t ranked. With Clemson sitting at No. 2 and No. 3 in the preseason coaches and AP polls, respectively, and Georgia ranked no lower than fifth, the Tigers and Bulldogs have a consensus top-5 matchup awaiting them at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
And when it comes to trying to get back to the College Football Playoff, one could easily argue there’s more at stake for Clemson.
Georgia figures to get multiple shots at ranked teams this season, including their annual Jacksonville meeting with Florida, a preseason top-15 team. Meanwhile, only two other ACC teams, Miami and North Carolina, appeared in the preseason polls, and Clemson wouldn’t play either one until a potential matchup in the ACC championship game.
Maybe it changes depending on the kind of seasons teams like N.C. State (14 votes in the preseason AP poll) and Boston College (five votes) end up having. But, for now, Georgia is the only ranked team on Clemson’s schedule.
Beat Georgia, and Clemson has a marquee win right off the bat that it can keep in its back pocket. Lose, and the Tigers likely have no margin for error the rest of the way when it comes to trying to reach the CFP for the seventh straight year.
Whether it’s producing a sharper focus, more excitement or a combination of the two, the Tigers know the start that’s looming is different.
“I think, for the most part, we’re just all excited just to be able to play our first game,” quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “Then knowing we have a quality opponent in Georgia, a high-caliber team, I think that just makes it that much more fun going through fall camp.”