Position Battles: #3 Clemson vs #5 Georgia

The college football season has kicked off and nobody will argue which game is the weekend’s marquee matchup, as the Tigers and Bulldogs will do battle in Saturday’s primetime matchup. With talent like this all over the field its almost fitting that these teams will square off on an NFL field, as there are players all over these rosters destined to play on Sundays. Lets go position by position and breakdown which team has the edge.

Quarterback

Last year these two team’s QB situations were polar opposites. Clemson had one of the best draft prospects in recent memory with eventual #1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, while Georgia floundered after Jamie Newman opted out, getting up and down performances by D’Wan Mathis and Stetson Bennett before USC transfer JT Daniels was electric in four starts.

This year there’s no doubt about who will be under center to start the season for either team. Daniels has a firm grasp on the starting job, and Clemson turns to heir apparent DJ Uiagaleilei, a top 10 recruit who was one of the two best QBs in the 2020 class. Replacing Lawrence won’t be easy, but Uiageleilei showed flashes of greatness in his two starts when Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19. In his two starts DJ threw for 781 yards 4 TDs while tacking on 2 rushing TDs. Despite his good numbers, Clemson wasn’t quite the same beast with him out there, as they played their two closest games of the year, a near upset vs Boston College and a heart breaking 2 OT loss in South Bend, where he lit up the Irish for the best passing performance they allowed all season. A full offseason is a much different preparation period than one week, and Clemson should be much more adjusted to their new QB this time around.

JT Daniels struggled with his decision making at USC throwing for a 15-11 TD to INT ratio in one season plus one game as he tore his ACL in his second year there before transferring. When he returned he was a change of pace from what the Bulldogs were used to, throwing for 400 yards and 4 TDs in his debut, and another 392 in the Peach Bowl vs Cincinnati. He finished with 1,231 yards and a 10-2 ratio on 67% passing in his four games.

Advantage: Even. This is a cop out, I know. But these are two of the best QBs in the country and could end up high in the Heisman rankings if they play their cards right. Gun to my head I take the experience of Daniels, but I think the QB play in this game will be very even.

Running Back

Much like the QB position, Georgia brings back their leader from last season while Clemson is trying to replace a Jacksonville Jaguars first round draft choice.

Not only does Kirby Smart bring back his leading rusher, but all five players who accumulated over 100 rushing yards across last season are back. Zamir White will lead the way after going for 779 yards and 11 TDs in 10 games, but you’ll also see a healthy dose of James Cook (Dalvin’s brother) as the number two back, who is dangerous after averaging 6.7 YPC last year.

After do-it-all back Travis Etienne was drafted, Clemson will go with a running back by committee to start the season. Lyn-J Dixon and Kobe Pace are listed as “ORs” on the depth chart, meaning it is a 1a-1b scenario. But combined they only rushed for 265 yards last year and both averaged less than 5 YPC. True freshman RB Will Shipley is listed as the third option on the depth chart, but may be the most talented in the RB room. The five star was in for the spring and should see some action in his first career game.

Advantage: Georgia. A lot of your RB play goes hand in hand with your OLine, but when looking at the RBs on their own, Georgia has the clear leverage in this matchup.

Wide Receiver

Stop me if you’re sensing a theme in this list… but Clemson has to replace talent at Wide Receiver. Amari Rodgers (1020 yards, 7 TDs) and Cornell Powell (882 yards, 7 TDs) were both selected in the NFL Draft. However, instead of losing a weapon, Clemson actually gets one back. Justyn Ross missed 2020 with and injury, but returns after posting 1,865 yards in 29 games across his first two seasons. Its a super deep group, and despite losing their top two guy 6 of 8 leading receivers from last year are back to join Ross, and the unit is loaded with former highly touted recruits.

Georgia on the other hand brings back everyone from last year, continuing our theme. However, there have been a few injuries that will certainly affect who ends up on the field. 2020 leading receiver Kearis Jackson suffered a fall injury and is now listed as probable for the game. Second leading receiver George Pickens suffered a torn ACL in spring ball and will miss some time if not the whole year. Premier transfer TE Arik Gilbert (LSU) has yet to join the team due to personal issues, and both returning TEs Darnell Washington and John Fitzpatrick are questionable and probable for the opener. Luckily for JT Daniels, the passing attack was very balanced last year. With Pickens and Jackson as the only receivers who eclipsed 500 yards.

Advantage: Clemson. The Tigers were more talented before the injuries, with certain statuses up in the air its a clear advantage for them on the outside.

Offensive Line

These two units are deep. Both return three starters from last years group, but have highly touted guys who can step up and replace those who are lost. Both sides believe they have 10 guys who can play if they need to. Georgia may have more talent, but Clemson practices against the best Defensive Line in the nation on a day to day bases. I’m not an OLine analyst or guru, and can’t make a call here.

Advantage: Even

Defensive Line

I just said it in the offensive line section, Clemson has the best defensive line in the country. Much like this game being the marquee matchup of the weekend, there’s not much debate to this. They return all four starters from last season and have top ranked players everywhere. Bryan Breese and Myles Murphy were the top two DLs in their class and showed it as freshman All Americans last season. They have 14!!! very highly touted players in the position group and should overpower teams up front all year yet again.

Okay, so Clemson is the best DLine in the nation, understandable but who is #2. Well ladies and gentlemen, it is none other than the Georgia Bulldogs. They bring back 5 of their top 6 from last year, and while they don’t necessarily get to the QB the way Clemson does, Azeez Ojulari is in the NFL after taking the QB down 8.5 times last year, but boy do they stuff the run. Last year’s group allowed only 72 rushing yards per game last season, on only 2.4 YPC. 1st Team SEC nose tackle Jordan Davis and co should look to eat up Clemson’s inexperienced RBs any time they are handed the ball.

Advantage: Clemson. Both units are great, and its no knock on Georgia that they don’t take this as an even split, Clemson is just head and shoulders above everyone else in the nation and that holds true here.

Linebackers

Linebackers and defensive linemen go hand in hand, there’s a reason they are grouped together as a “front 7” and both these teams extend their greatness to the mid level of the defense. Clemson brings back their leading tackler in Baylon Specter (72 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 6 TFL), and the QB of their defense with James Skalski returning in the middle. Trenton Simpson was another highly touted recruit and steps into the lineup as a starter after playing well in spirts and making 3 starts last season.

Georgia loses three of their starters from last season, but the one they bring back, Nakobe Dean, was their leading tackler last season with 71. Former #1 overall recruit Nolan Smith finally steps into the starting lineup, and the two others are former highly ranked recruits with playing experience.

Advantage: Even. This one is much closer than the DLine and thats why this one is a split. There’s talent across the two deep and both sides have experienced leaders calling the signals.

Secondary

Both of these teams are much stronger on defense the closer they are to the ball. Both defensive lines are outstanding, the linebackers are great, and then the secondary takes a bit of a step back. They are still top 25 secondaries in the nation, but they aren’t quite up to par with those units.

Clemson brings back three starters from last year, including ballhawk free safety Nolan Turner who was First Team All ACC last year. Andrew Booth was highly touted out of high school and had 2 interceptions in only 4 starts last year, he’ll step in to be the new starting corner. The group allowed only 214 pass yards per game, and are very good tacklers should they get beat or an RB break through the front seven.

Georgia returns two corners, both at safety. That means they’ll be forced to introduce new corners. One of which may flare up some tensions in this battle, as Derion Kendrick transferred from Clemson during the offseason and will be stepping into the lineup making his first start facing his old teammates. Ameer Speed is also stepping in and has a lot of experience playing off the bench.

Advantage: Clemson. Much like every other position is this game, there’s a TON of talent here. However the secondary is all about communication and knowing where to be. I don’t think you can value how important the familiarity the Tigers DBs have with one another and that makes the difference between two groups with different talent levels.

The Game

When you get two teams like this facing off in the beginning of the season, it’s either a close game or a complete blowout, no in between. Both of these teams are hyper talented and pretty experience given how these programs function, constantly losing people to the NFL, and I think this game is gonna be a close one. I expect the first half to be very slow, as the new offensive lineman are being thrown straight into the fire against the best defensive lines in the country. This is also the biggest test each QB has faced not only in talent level, you can argue Uiagaleilei playing at Notre Dame was tougher, but when you factor in a full crowd that neither experienced last year both QBs will be tested. Eventually everyone will settle in and we should have a real battle down the stretch. Expect some outstanding defense with flashes of big plays at times.

Ben’s Pick: Clemson 28, Georgia 27

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