It’s not uncommon for Power Five teams to ease into their schedule with an opponent or two they know they can physically overwhelm. And while that usually guarantees wins early on, beating inferior opponents by four or five touchdowns doesn’t exactly give the victors the most accurate assessment of where they are in terms of their strengths and weaknesses.
Clemson doesn’t have to worry about that this season.
“This could be a possible playoff matchup down the road,” Clemson guard Will Putnam said.
Clemson and Georgia both have those aspirations, and one of them will get an immediate boost to their College Football Playoff resume when they meet Saturday in the marquee matchup of college football’s opening weekend. With the Tigers having made six straight trips to the CFP and Georgia having made two CFP appearances under Kirby Smart, the matchup of preseason top-5 teams could pit the best collection of talent and athleticism that either team will see all season against each other off the rip.
“I think it’s no-nonsense,” fellow offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst said. “Let’s spot the ball and play. I don’t like having a false sense of security and then getting exposed. Let’s just spot the ball and play, and let’s see if we’re about it.”
Clemson’s offense is ushering in a new era with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, off to the NFL. Yet quarterback D.J. Uiagalalei is already generating buzz as a Heisman Trophy candidate after excelling in the two spot starts he made as a true freshman last season against Boston College and Notre Dame.
Meanwhile, J.T. Daniels is set to take over behind center at Georgia on a full-time basis for the first time after transferring from Southern Cal following the 2019 season. A former five-star recruit himself, Daniels was the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback for the last four games last season and threw for more than 400 yards in Georgia’s Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati.
But perhaps the biggest reason expectations are still high for both teams heading into the new season is the opposition that each offense goes up against in practice each day. Clemson, which has all but one regular starter back on defense, is led by one of the deepest, most experienced defensive lines in the country, which includes All-America candidate Bryan Bresee in the middle. Georgia also has a wealth of experience on defense headlined by an All-America candidate of its own at nose tackle, senior Jordan Davis.
Some of the matchups within the matchup? Clemson’s top-25 passing attack from a season ago against Georgia’s 88th-ranked pass defense. Clemson’s 15th-ranked run defense against the Bulldogs’ 56th-ranked rush offense (which has its top three running backs returning in Zamir White, James Cook and Kendall Milton). And Clemson’s 75th-ranked rush offense against a Georgia run defense that’s been the best in the country the last two seasons.
“This is a playoff-caliber game, 100%,” linebacker Baylon Spector said. “And I think that’s what makes it so exciting for the first game of the year.”
As for the playoff chances for the loser, recent history has shown they won’t completely evaporate. Just last season, Clemson lost to Notre Dame during the regular season before getting into the playoff as a one-loss ACC champion. Georgia was blown out at Auburn in 2017 but still won the SEC title that season and advanced to the CFP championship game.
The margin of error, though, would decrease dramatically, particularly if it’s the Tigers who come up on the short end. Unless one of Clemson’s ACC opponents — say an N.C. State, Pittsburgh or Boston College — cracks the top 25 by the time those games roll around, the Tigers won’t play another ranked team until a potential ACC championship game matchup.
Who knows? Maybe these teams will meet again in four months. Regardless of the outcome of this one, though, Clemson is guaranteed to have a pretty good gauge of what’s going well and where it needs to improve on its quest to get back to the CFP once again.
“Everything is going to be put to the test,” Putnam said. “This is a heavyweight matchup. Some people might be kind of timid and kind of looking at this like, man, we’re coming out of the gate against a really good team. But I do think I can speak for everyone else in that we’re genuinely very excited to play a great opponent coming out of the gate because we’ll know kind of what we’re made of.