ACC: Aaron Murray

Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today’s matchup is between Florida State’s wide receivers and Auburn’s secondary.

Florida State’s wide receivers: It’s not a deep group, but there may not be a more dynamic set of receivers in the country than what Jameis Winston has at his disposal at Florida State.

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Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFSU WR Kelvin Benjamin is a physical presence who can also break free and make big plays.
Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin and Kenny Shaw are all within striking distance of 1,000 yards. Greene is one of the nation’s most consistent threats, and while he’s not imposing physically, he runs precise routes and rarely drops a pass. Shaw is the lone senior in the group, and he’s averaging 18 yards a catch and has topped 89 yards receiving seven times. But it’s Benjamin who should keep Auburn defenders awake at night.

At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Benjamin is as physical a receiving threat as there is in college football. He excels at jump balls, is physical at the line of scrimmage, and loves blocking downfield. His career has been marked by inconsistency, but he was red hot to end the regular season, with 17 catches for 458 yards and eight TDs in his last four games.

Even if Auburn manages to corral all of Florida State’s deep threats, tight end Nick O’Leary is a wild card. O’Leary has 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns this season and is one of Winston’s favorite targets. As the big three receivers draw attention downfield, O’Leary provides a dangerous weapon underneath and is capable of picking up big chunks of yards after the catch.

And, of course, the key to all of it is Winston, the Heisman winner and one of the country’s most aggressive quarterbacks. Winston completes 55.8 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more (second only to Baylor’s Bryce Petty among AQ QBs) and has 19 TDs without an INT in the red zone this season.

Auburn’s secondary: In the last three games, Auburn has had a difficult time defending the pass. Aaron Murray threw for 415 yards and two touchdowns. AJ McCarron threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns. And in the SEC championship game, James Franklin threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. Now, the Tigers are about to face the Heisman Trophy winner and the nation’s leader in opponent-adjusted QBR (90.8).

It’s a group that remains confident in their ability, but they know they have a steep challenge ahead of them.

The most notable name is cornerback Chris Davis, but that’s more because of his field-goal return to beat Alabama than his pass coverage. Still, he’s the No. 1 cornerback and the team’s best chance of shutting down an opposing wide receiver. It’s the cornerback opposite Davis, Jonathon Mincy, who teams have been able to pick on this season.

Mincy was defending Amari Cooper when the Alabama wide receiver hauled in a 99-yard touchdown pass in the Iron Bowl. He also had no answer for Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who finished with six catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn. If he draws the assignment of defending Benjamin, which is what he wants, it could be a long day for the Tigers.

The X-factor could be Robenson Therezie who plays the Star position in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense. He leads the team in interceptions (four) and is fourth in tackles (55). He’ll primarily focus on covering the slot receiver, but he might also be asked to cover O’Leary at times or even blitz from time to time. Auburn isn’t going to stop Winston, but Therezie could make life a little more difficult for the Florida State quarterback.

Hale: Big edge Florida State

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

ACC Week 14: Did you know?

November, 29, 2013
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As always, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info and sports information departments everywhere for these tidbits.

MIAMI: Against Virginia, Miami had 45 points with only 11 first downs. The last time that happened at the FBS level was Sept. 13, 1997, when Minnesota (with 11 first downs) beat Iowa State 53-29.

PITTSBURGH: Tyler Boyd is having one of the most productive seasons by a freshman receiver in school history. With one regular-season game left, Boyd has 68 catches, the most of any freshman in the country and one catch shy of Larry Fitzgerald’s Pitt rookie record of 69.

FLORIDA STATE: Alabama and Florida State are 1-2 in the Championship Drive Ratings, while the only other undefeated team, Ohio State, was three spots back at No. 5. FSU has a Championship Drive Rating of 94.3, OSU has a 93.3. While both teams are 11-0, Florida State has controlled in-game win probability (84.6 percent to 81.2) more and has played a slightly tougher schedule (81st to 86th).

DUKE: At 9-2, Duke has already tied its most wins in season (most recently done in 1941) and will be going for its first 10-win season. Duke is looking for its first conference championship since 1989 (co-champion in ACC). The Blue Devils have won seven straight games for the first time since 1994 and are looking for their first eight-game winning streak since 1941 (won nine in a row).

NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels are 21-2 against Duke in their last 23 meetings, but they dropped last year's contest in Durham, N.C. They have not lost consecutive contests to the Blue Devils since dropping three in a row from 1987-89.

WAKE FOREST: The Demon Deacons will play their final game Saturday at Vanderbilt, but they have a few records worth aiming for. Jim Grobe remains tied with "Peahead" Walker for the most wins as a head coach in school history with 77. And quarterback Tanner Price (64 total TDs -- 52 passing, 11 rushing, one receiving) remains one off the school record of 65 career touchdowns held by Riley Skinner (60 passing, four rushing, one receiving).

MARYLAND: Following Alex Amidon’s 74-yard touchdown reception for BC, linebacker Marcus Whitfield blocked the ensuing point-after attempt. Defensive back Anthony Nixon grabbed the ball and went 98 yards for the defensive extra point. It marked the first time in program history that the Terrapins have scored a defensive extra point and it is the first defensive extra point scored by an ACC team since Duke’s Kyler Brown intercepted a two-point attempt against FIU on Sept. 1, 2012. Whitfield is the first Terp to block a PAT since A.J. Francis did it against Georgia Tech on Nov. 3, 2012.

NC STATE: With the exception of one game (vs. No. 2 Florida State), Wolfpack conference games have been relatively competitive. In the Wolfpack's other ACC contests, the average difference in the score after the third quarter has been just 7.1 points. In only one game (vs. then-No. 3 Clemson) did the Pack trail by more than a touchdown, and that was only by 13 points following the third quarter.

GEORGIA TECH: Senior A-back Robert Godhigh is one of the nation’s most explosive all-around players. The 5-foot-7 former walk-on has 961 yards from scrimmage (623 rush, 338 catch), and his average of 13 yards per play leads all FBS running backs. 55 percent of his offensive touches result in rst downs or touchdowns. Godhigh has 13 plays from scrimmage of 30-plus yards, which is the fth-most among all FBS players. Of Godhigh’s 961 yards, 389 yards (40.5 percent) have come after contact.

BOSTON COLLEGE: Andre Williams has gained 958 of his FBS-leading 2,073 yards after contact, 254 more such yards than any other AQ running back. Only 35 FBS players have more total rushing yards than Williams has after contact. Williams has broken 28 tackles this season, seven more than any other AQ running back.

SYRACUSE: The Orange have played BC 46 times, the fifth-most frequent opponent in school history. Syracuse owns the series record, 28-18, including an 18-6 mark at home. The old Big East rivals have not met since 2010, when the Eagles won 16-7. A win Saturday would make Syracuse bowl-eligible for the third time in four years. Syracuse is one of three teams (Ohio State and Wisconsin) to not allow a 100-yard rusher this season, though it will certainly get a test from Williams.

VIRGINIA TECH: Florida's nation-best streak of 22 straight bowl appearances will be snapped, meaning the Hokies will be the new leaders, as they will go to their 21st straight bowl this postseason. Opponents have failed to gain a first down on 49 percent of their drives against the Hokies, the highest percentage in the nation. Virginia Tech is also fourth nationally in fewest yards allowed before contact per game on designed runs, giving up just 52.5 ypg.

VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers' eight-game losing streak is their longest in a single season since 1975. They actually outgained Miami by a margin of 483-304, but they were hurt by the Hurricanes' two defensive touchdowns. They are 37-52-5 all-time against Virginia Tech, but the important number to keep an eye on is 32, as Virginia has scored at least that much in each of its last seven Commonwealth Cup wins dating back to 1989.

CLEMSON: Tajh Boyd's five touchdown passes in a 52-6 Senior Day win over The Citadel gave him 102 for his career. The only other active quarterbacks in the FBS with 100 career touchdown passes are Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Old Dominion’s Taylor Heinicke. But the biggest challenge for Boyd comes Saturday at South Carolina, which is 4-0 against the Tigers during Boyd's career, with Clemson failing to score more than 17 points in any of the contests.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 14

November, 27, 2013
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It seems like just yesterday we were wondering if Florida State could manage with a freshman quarterback, if Syracuse and Pittsburgh would adjust to their new conference, if Miami was ready to rejoin the national conversation, and if Clemson could hang with the big boys in the SEC. With 13 weeks of football now in the rearview mirror, some of those questions have been answered (this just in: Jameis Winston is good) and a few others remain. Here’s what to watch for as the ACC wraps up its regular season.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Jeremy McKnight/Icon SMIQuarterback Anthony Boone and the Blue Devils have won seven games in a row.
1. ACC vs. SEC: After years toiling in the spotlight of the big, bad SEC, the ACC finally has a chance to deliver a punishing blow to their neighboring conference. Florida State has a huge edge over reeling Florida, after the Gators just lost to an FCS foe. Georgia Tech won’t have as clear a path to victory against Georgia, but after QB Aaron Murray became the latest Bulldogs star to be lost to injury, the Yellow Jackets certainly enter the game much healthier. Wake Forest can salvage some enthusiasm for the season by upending Vanderbilt, though that might be a tall order if Michael Campanaro can’t play. Then there’s the swing vote in the trio of inter-conference matchups: Clemson and South Carolina. Both teams are ranked in the top 10, and a win by the Tigers could be the single most significant nonconference victory of the year for the ACC.

2. Coastal showdown: For Duke, a win secures history. It would be the Blue Devils’ first trip to the ACC title game as well as their first 10-win season. Standing in Duke’s way, however, is red-shot North Carolina, which has won five games in a row after a 1-5 start to the season. Should the Tar Heels win -- and they’re actually favored -- the Coastal Division becomes a complete mess, with as many as five teams staking a claim to a share of the division title.

3. FSU’s defense vs. Florida’s offense: It really can’t get much worse offensively for the Gators, who haven’t topped 20 points in their past six games. Meanwhile, Florida State’s defense has been making plenty of teams look bad this year. The Seminoles are allowing just 4 yards per play this season, and in its past six games have racked up 18 takeaways, including six touchdowns.

4. Boyd’s curtain call: Few quarterbacks in ACC history have accomplished more on the field than Tajh Boyd, who now owns the conference record for touchdown passes and has thrown for more than 11,000 yards in his Clemson career. And aside from a disappointing loss to Florida State, 2013 has been a banner year for Boyd, who has 29 touchdown passes and is averaging a career-high 9.4 yards per attempt. But it’s hard to shrug off that loss to FSU or the fact that Clemson won’t play for an ACC title for the second straight season. Add to that, Boyd has never beaten South Carolina as the Tigers’ starting quarterback, and there’s a large part of his legacy on the line as he prepares to take the field against the Gamecocks for the final time.

5. Hokies stay hungry: Virginia Tech opened the season 6-1, the lone loss to No. 1 Alabama. It looked like the start of a banner season in Blacksburg, but it fell apart quickly. The Hokies have lost three of four now, and much of the early season goodwill has evaporated. But here’s the thing: If Tech can beat Virginia for the 14th time in 15 seasons this week, and Duke falls to UNC on the road, it will be the Hokies heading to Charlotte for the ACC championship game.

6. Terps say goodbye: Injuries certainly unraveled Maryland’s season, but coach Randy Edsall’s crew can wrap up its final year in the ACC with a winning record by beating reeling NC State on Saturday. When the season is over, Maryland moves on to the Big Ten, replaced by Louisville in 2014. But a winning season amid so much off-field chaos would be a solid finale for Edsall and the Terps, who have already locked up bowl eligibility.

7. Donald vs. Morris: For Miami, the season has gone into a tailspin since losing star tailback Duke Johnson, leaving QB Stephen Morris as the best vestige of hope on offense. He’ll try to carry the Canes to a second straight win this week against Pitt, but the task won’t be easy. Panthers defensive tackle Aaron Donald is making a push for ACC defensive player of the year honors after nearly single-handedly delivering a win over Syracuse last week. For the season, Donald leads the nation with 26.5 tackles for loss, six more than his closest competitor.

8. Williams keeps climbing: With his fifth 200-yard rushing game of the season last week, Boston College’s Andre Williams crossed the 2,000-yard mark for the season. He now leads the country with 2,073 yards, nearly 500 yards more than his closest competition. In the past decade, just two FBS players have run for more -- UCF’s Kevin Smith (2,567) and Tulane’s Matt Forte (2,127), both in 2007 -- and Williams still has two more games to pad his totals.

9. Can Cuse make it 11? North Carolina and Pittsburgh became the ninth and 10th ACC teams to clinch bowl eligibility last week, and Syracuse can make it 11 with a win over Boston College on Saturday. A one-point loss kept the Orange from clinching No. 6 last week. Syracuse made it to a bowl game in two of the past three seasons.

10. Pack, Hoos face ignominy: The last time an ACC team other than Duke finished its conference slate without a win was 1995. On Saturday, that dismal fate could befall two teams: NC State and Virginia. The Wolfpack have lost seven straight games, but will try to salvage one ACC win against Maryland. Virginia is in even worse shape. It hosts rival Virginia Tech having lost 14 of its past 16 conference games and nine straight against the Hokies.

ACC has chance to sweep SEC rivals

November, 25, 2013
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The ACC has a great chance this week to make history, to do something it hasn’t done in over a decade -- sweep its big three SEC rivals.

Georgia is down. Florida is out. And South Carolina is beatable.

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Don Juan Moore/Getty ImagesQB Jameis Winston and the Seminoles are a win over Florida away from heading to the ACC title game.
Not since 2000 has the ACC gone 3-0 in those games, and the conference hasn’t had a winning record against the SEC since 2003, when it finished 5-4. The ACC started the season with gusto, as Clemson beat Georgia in a matchup of two top-10 teams, and Miami beat Florida, giving coach Al Golden his first true marquee win with the Canes. The perception of those wins -- and those opponents -- has since been tarnished, thanks to the decline of both SEC teams this fall, but the value of wins over those programs still far outweighs the negativity that would surround the ACC should it lose those games this week.

Every season, pressure is on the ACC -- and every other BCS conference -- to close the gap with the SEC. The difference between the ACC and the rest of the college football world, though, is that the SEC’s shadow overlaps with ACC country like no other, and nobody lines up against the nation’s best conference more than the ACC. The comparisons are inevitable not only because of the close proximity and the shared recruiting turf, but also because of the built-in rivalries that highlight every November.

The difference this year is that not only can the ACC win these games, but it should be expected to.

Georgia, which dropped out of the rankings in Week 9, has lost starting quarterback Aaron Murray for the rest of the season with a torn ACL -- a devastating blow to a team already riddled with injuries. The senior injured his left knee in Saturday’s 59-17 win against Kentucky. For the first time since 2009, the Bulldogs will line up with a different quarterback under center. Hutson Mason, who redshirted last year, will face a much-improved Georgia Tech defense. The Jackets have won four of their past five games, the lone loss coming to Clemson. The bigger issue in Atlanta, though, has been the lopsided results in the series. Last season's 42-10 drubbing in Athens was the 11th time in 12 years that Georgia had won. The exception was in 2008, Paul Johnson’s first season, when Georgia Tech pulled off a stunning 45-42 upset of No. 11-ranked Georgia.

This season, it wouldn’t be so stunning. And it wouldn’t exactly be an upset. In fact, of the ranked teams playing this week, the ACC has the upper hand.

For both No. 6 Clemson and No. 2 Florida State, BCS bowls are at stake, though many would agree that Clemson could actually afford to lose to South Carolina and still be a top pick for the Discover Orange Bowl. Those within the program, though, would obviously prefer not to lose to the Gamecocks for a fifth straight time. That losing streak, coupled with the fact that it is senior quarterback Tajh Boyd’s final shot at beating his rival, are distinct motivating factors. For the Seminoles, a win against the Gators would get them one step closer to playing for the national title.

Florida, though, is a mere formality.

The Gators were just embarrassed royally at home in a 26-20 loss to Georgia Southern, Florida’s first loss to an FCS program. It was the worst loss in school history, and a new low for coach Will Muschamp, whose job security is hanging by a thread. Florida, which is in the midst of its first losing season since 1979, will face a Florida State team that has outscored its past three opponents 198-20.

The tables have turned for those rivals.

They could turn for the entire ACC this weekend, too.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The enthusiasm eventually overwhelms even the most strident purveyors of moderation, which is why it was hard for even Jimbo Fisher to quash a smile after Saturday's 63-0 win against Maryland in which his quarterback somehow managed to astonish a fan base that has come to expect almost anything from him.

There were the five touchdown passes, a career high.

There were the 393 yards, also a career best.

And there was the escape act, as Jameis Winston slipped through the arms of a would-be tackler, rolled out of the pocket and added more salt in an already gaping wound for the overwhelmed Terrapins.

"It was a tremendous play," Fisher said. "It really was."

Don't expect much more exuberance than that from Fisher, who has worked as hard as anyone to downplay the excitement surrounding Winston since the buzz first began to build this spring, but the seemingly endless series of highlights the redshirt freshman has provided speaks for itself.

In ESPN's latest adjusted QBR rankings, Winston ranks sixth, behind a handful of top Heisman contenders, and a closer examination only underscores how good he's been. In games when FSU has trailed, Winston's QBR is 94.5, second best in the nation behind Georgia's Aaron Murray. On third down, Winston's QBR is 99.1, behind Bryce Petty, Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota. On passing plays this year, Winston's 97.3 QBR trails only Petty.

Winston has compiled those numbers with remarkable consistency, too. In each of his first five starts, Winston has finished with a QBR of at least 75 (on a scale to 100). From 2008 to 2012, only three other quarterbacks did that in their first five games of a season, according to ESPN Stats and Info, and all three -- Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson -- are starting in the NFL.

And then, of course, there's the comparison fans have wanted to make since Winston starred in Florida State's spring game. If a Heisman is in Winston's future, it's largely because Manziel blazed that path as a freshman just a year ago.

So how does Winston stack up to Manziel's first five games from 2012?


(* Manziel had 495 rushing yards in his first five games. Winston has just 135.)

The numbers are close enough that even Fisher can't deny that the Heisman talk isn't so far-fetched -- and that's a statement unto itself.

"When we keep winning games," Fisher said of an appropriate time to discuss Winston's Heisman chances. "The Heisman is the team that wins the most games and the best player on that team. We have to keep having success."

Still, that's a big step from Fisher's stance on the award just a year ago.

After Florida State upended Clemson at home behind a stellar performance from EJ Manuel, the FSU QB vaulted to the top of the Heisman predictions. Fisher was quick to downplay the buzz. He compared Manuel to a hunting dog, and he said the Heisman was for show dogs.

In that win over Clemson, Manuel threw for 380 and two touchdowns. Winston has topped 300 yards and thrown at least four touchdowns in all three of the ACC games he's played so far.

Of course, Manuel's numbers -- and FSU's record -- didn't keep him in contention the rest of last season, and Manziel's strong start proved to be just the beginning. Manziel's final eight games of 2012 were staggering: 67 percent completions, 15 passing TDs and 14 more on the ground, 915 rushing yards, and six games with an adjusted QBR better than 90.

The question now, with No. 3 Clemson looming and expectations rising with every dazzling performance, is how Winston will finish.

Matching Manziel won't be easy, but it's also possible Winston is only getting better.

"With the team I have, it's always been easy," Winston said of his strong start. "It's probably slowing down a little bit more, but those guys around me -- I have so many weapons, I think it's always been looking like that out there."

What we learned in the ACC: Week 1

September, 1, 2013
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With a bunch of big games for the conference, there figured to be some major implications from Week 1. Here's what we learned:

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd accounted for five touchdowns against Georgia in a statement win for Clemson.
Clemson is a legitimate national title contender. This game shouldn't have been a referendum on the Tigers' legitimacy, but the win nevertheless cements them as real contenders to win it all. The game lived up to its advanced billing, and both teams had their runs. In the end, Clemson proved it was just a little better, and that's due in large part to senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who was exceptional. He accounted for five TDs, while Georgia's Aaron Murray once again struggled against a highly ranked opponent. There's still a lot of football to be played, but for now, Boyd is in line for a Heisman, and Clemson has a clear path to a championship.

The ACC's profile still hasn't changed much. This weekend was supposed to tell us a lot about the ACC, but after five games against teams from other AQ conferences, there's still plenty of room for debate. Yes, Clemson is in the national championship hunt, but that's not a huge surprise. Virginia was on the ropes against BYU, but a late turnover and lateral helped the Cavs eke out a win. Virginia Tech lost handily, but the Hokies did manage to expose some weaknesses in Alabama. And OK, Syracuse and North Carolina didn't do a lot to change hearts and minds. In the end, Clemson offered the big win, Virginia helped the cause, and at the end of the day, there probably weren't a lot of fans who changed their minds about the ACC one way or the other.

The Hokies' D is good. The offense and special teams need some work. The scoreboard showed a blowout, 35-10, but Virginia Tech actually outgained Alabama 212 yards to 206. So how'd things get so ugly? Alabama racked up two long touchdowns on special teams and returned an interception -- thrown by Logan Thomas -- 77 yards for a score. The special-teams breakdowns are galling for a program once known for success in that area, but Thomas' struggles might be an even bigger concern. The senior was a woeful 5-of-26 passing for 59 yards.

Maryland is better with its No. 1 QB than its No. 5 QB. No offense to Shawn Petty, who did a serviceable job in emergency duty down the stretch last year, but Randy Edsall has to be doing cartwheels that he has C.J. Brown back and healthy. After Brown missed all of the 2012 season, he returned to action Saturday and demolished FIU. Brown was 20-of-23 passing for 281 yards and rushed 11 times for 105 yards, and he tallied five touchdowns in the first half alone. It had been a decade since any Maryland quarterback accounted for five touchdowns in the same game. For the game, Maryland racked up 576 yards of total offense.

Some new QBs had a rough Saturday. NC State certainly looked like it had an answer at quarterback as Brandon Mitchell started strong, but a foot injury in the first quarter now means he'll miss the next 4-6 weeks. Meanwhile, Syracuse didn't get the emphatic performance it wanted from new quarterback Drew Allen, who completed just 16 of 37 passes for 189 yards and two interceptions. Virginia got slightly better results from its new quarterback, but David Watford still wasn't overly impressive, completing just 50 percent of his passes for 118 yards, a TD and an INT. The weather in Charlottesville did Watford no favors, but the Cavaliers certainly will expect more moving forward. Of course, the whole group can take solace that they were better than Virginia Tech's Thomas.

Boyd plays 'Superman' against UGA

September, 1, 2013
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- About two hours before kickoff on Saturday evening, hordes of Clemson fans lined Centennial Boulevard, shoulder-to-shoulder in the blazing heat, to watch the players and coaches make their celebratory “Tiger Walk” from the busses into Memorial Stadium.

“I can’t wait to see him,” whispered Tyler Englehart, an awestruck freshman, to nobody in particular.

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Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd stood tall against Georgia, accounting for all five of Clemson's touchdowns.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, wearing a dark suit and a purple bowtie, was one of the last players to stroll down the line, and the crowd seemed to grow louder with every step he took. Boyd called the atmosphere “surreal,” but it paled in comparison to the show he put on in the historic 38-35 win over No. 5 Georgia. Boyd was on, even when his receivers were off. He ran with the strength of a fullback and took hit after hit. He was responsible for all five of his team’s touchdowns -- three passing and two rushing.

“Tajh is our Superman,” running back Roderick McDowell said.

“Tajh is the best football player on this team, in this conference, in the nation,” added defensive end Corey Crawford.

Perhaps the most awestruck fans of Boyd are the ones who practice with him every day.

Clemson’s win over Georgia legitimized the Tigers as a national title contender, and further boosted Boyd’s résumé as a Heisman hopeful. He finished with 312 yards of total offense, a school record for a season opener, and now has 22 wins as a starter -- tied for fourth most in school history. For just the third time in his career, Boyd finished with multiple rushing touchdowns. He also helped deliver one of the biggest wins in school history on the biggest stage.

“His leadership and how he brought us together at the end of the game, we thrived off him,” wide receiver Sammy Watkins said. “With him getting first downs, and him getting the ball out of his hands on the edge, and us blocking, he made us good tonight.”

That’s exactly why Boyd came back, instead of leaving early for the NFL.

He came back to run down The Hill before what was the largest, most raucous home crowd he had ever seen.

He came back to experience the “surreal” moment of walking through a horde of fans in the team’s pregame “Tiger Walk.”

He came back to compete for a national title.

“He’s a baller,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “There’s no question about what Tajh Boyd means to this program, to this university and to college football. To go against the opponents he’s gone against the last two games and two control the games in a manner in which he did, it says a lot about him.”

Neither team’s defense played particularly well early in the game, and Clemson was outgained in total yardage, but Boyd made more clutch plays and was able to stay on his feet while Georgia’s Aaron Murray was sacked four times. This game was billed as featuring two of the best quarterbacks in the country. It did, but Murray had a fumble and an interception, both in the second quarter. His critics will likely continue to point to his 3-11 record against teams that have finished in the Associated Press Top 25.

Meanwhile, Boyd has now led Clemson to back-to-back wins against SEC teams.

“He played like a veteran quarterback is supposed to play,” Morris said. “We had a couple of drops tonight, and they very well could have led to some more scores. He never rattled, he never shoot, and his ability to run the football tonight made us successful.”

Boyd’s 4-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave Clemson the early 7-0 lead, and his 77-yard pass later in the quarter to Watkins put the Tigers up 14-7. Boyd always seemed to find an answer in what was a thrilling, electric, back-and-forth game that lived up to every bit of the hype. In the third quarter, he found Zac Brooks for a 31-yard touchdown pass, and threw the game winner to Stanton Seckinger in the fourth quarter.

“I think it turned a lot of heads in the college football world,” Boyd said of the win. “It was a very monumental win for the university and program and conference in general. All that good stuff is great, but we have to keep working to keep and keep our eyes on the prize. This is only the opener. We have 11 games left. We have to continue to keep working.”

Clemson fans had to wait to see Boyd in the Tiger Walk, but he didn’t waste any time making his statement against Georgia.

Instant analysis: Clemson 38, Georgia 35

September, 1, 2013
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- No. 8 Clemson made a statement in its season-opening 38-35 win against No. 5 Georgia, beating a historic rival in a game with clear BCS championship implications. Let's take a closer look at how the Tigers got it done:

It was over when: Facing third-and-goal from Georgia’s 9-yard line, Stanton Seckinger caught a touchdown pass to put Clemson up 38-28 with 7:40 to play. The Tigers drove 87 yards in 12 plays -- none bigger than a highlight-reel 36-yard run by Roderick McDowell to Georgia’s 6 -- on the game-clinching drive.

Game ball goes to: Clemson’s defensive front. Although Georgia gained 545 yards, Clemson’s front made huge plays after the Bulldogs built early momentum. In particular, Stephone Anthony forced an Aaron Murray fumble at Georgia’s 20, leading to a touchdown, and Corey Crawford halted Georgia’s next drive with an interception at Clemson’s 17.

Stat of the game: 1,012. Clemson-Georgia was billed as a meeting of explosive offenses and they didn’t disappoint. They combined for 73 points and 1,012 yards (467 by Clemson and 545 by Georgia).

Best call: Georgia was in jeopardy of letting Clemson run away with the game in the third quarter when the Bulldogs faked a punt on fourth-and-1 from their own 34. Collin Barber's 5-yard run kept the drive alive and Todd Gurley later tied it at 28 with a tackle-breaking 12-yard touchdown run.

What it means for Clemson: Clemson keeps its BCS championship hopes alive with a résumé-building win against one of the nation’s top programs of 2012.

What it means for Georgia: The Bulldogs don’t have long to regroup. Georgia will host South Carolina -- which hammed the Bulldogs 35-7 last year -- next Saturday.

Five things: Georgia-Clemson

August, 30, 2013
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No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.

Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:

Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.

Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.

Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).

Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).

Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.

Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.

Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.

Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.

Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.

Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.

Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.

Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite big-name offensive talent, Georgia-Clemson could come down to young defenders like Tray Matthews.
Georgia’s quarterback caught plenty of guff over shortcomings against ranked opponents well into last season. He’s 3-11 in his UGA career against teams that ended the season ranked in the AP Top 25 with 23 touchdowns versus 16 touchdowns against those teams. He’s 25-2 with 72 touchdowns and 16 interceptions against teams that finished unranked.

The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.

Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.

After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.

But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.

It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
Aaron Murray and Tajh BoydGetty ImagesAaron Murray and Tajh Boyd have had their big-game struggles, but both had huge performances to end the 2012 season.


The game between Clemson and Georgia has so many intriguing storylines to follow. One of the most intriguing, of course, is the quarterback matchup between Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray.

The two players are longtime friends and have already talked some friendly smack to each other in the offseason. But with Boyd on Twitter lockdown, the good natured back-and-forth between them has stopped.

That, however, will not stop ACC blogger Andrea Adelson and SEC blogger Edward Aschoff from debating which quarterback has the upper hand headed into the game.

AA: With all due respect, Edward, I am trying to figure out what there is to debate here. Murray has not exactly done well in the big games he has played in throughout his career. Georgia coach Mark Richt was asked as much after the SEC championship game loss to Alabama a year ago, growing angry and defensive at the mere implication that Murray comes up small on the big stage. Well, there's a reason Richt was asked. Murray is 3-11 against teams that ended the season ranked in the Top 25; his best win would be against No. 2 Florida last year. But he did nothing to win that game. Murray threw for 150 yards and had three passes intercepted; the Gators gave that one away with six turnovers. Boyd, on the other hand, has won a conference championship, was an AFCA first-team All-American last year and has been selected as the 2013 preseason player of the year in his league. That's a trifecta Murray can't match.

EA: Yes, Murray has had his issues against ranked teams. I'm not going to turn my head and act as if he hasn't struggled when the big boys line up against him. But I'm pretty sure we are talking about taking a quarterback right now, today. And who wouldn't take Murray? He's not as mobile or as physically imposing, but he throws a much more catchable ball than Boyd. He has better technique, and he has put up far better numbers. I know people like to harp on his first-half performance against Florida, but why not talk about what he did after that half? If you won't, I will. After the first half of the Florida game, Murray finished the season throwing 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions. During that time, he threw for 300-plus yards in three games, including his 427-yard, five-touchdown outing against Nebraska in Georgia's 45-31 Outback Bowl win. He was playing his best ball at the end of the season and enters the 2013 season with the SEC passing yards record and touchdown record in sight. As for Boyd, he hasn't been great against ranked teams, either. He went 1-2 against ranked opponents last year and went 2-4 to end 2011, throwing nine interceptions.

AA: Wait, you mean to tell me you would pick Murray over Boyd because he had a few 300-yard games to close the season? None of them came against a defense ranked in the top 30. He had a nice game against Nebraska in the bowl game? Nebraska, which gave up 70 points to Wisconsin in the biggest, most embarrassing conference championship game beatdown last season? I think I could have lined up and thrown for 300 yards against that team. But since you brought up bowl performances, this is why anybody who wants to win picks Boyd. The way he willed Clemson to victory over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl is the biggest reason the Tigers go into the year with as much hype as they do, and the biggest reason Boyd has played himself into early Heisman consideration.

You were at the game, Edward.

You must remember how Boyd and the Tigers' offense took possession at their own 20 with 1:39 left in the game, down two. You must remember his incredible 26-yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins on fourth-and-16 to help get Clemson into field goal range. You must remember the way Boyd was battered and bruised in that game, but he kept getting up, refusing to lose. Boyd threw for 346 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions and set career highs for attempts and completions against a defense that finished the season ranked No. 8 in the nation. Yes, Boyd has struggled against South Carolina the way Murray has. Both are 0-for-the Gamecocks, a sore point without a doubt. But overall, Boyd does have a winning record against Top 25 teams. He is more mobile and has a higher QBR than Murray, too. Boyd over Murray is an easy choice.

EA: You're right, I was there to watch Clemson's comeback, upset win over LSU. But I distinctly remember LSU handing the other Tigers that victory late. Now, I'm not taking anything away from Boyd. He played a heck of a game, but if LSU didn't get away from running the ball (what in the world were the coaches thinking?) in the fourth quarter, we wouldn’t be talking about Boyd. It's just another SEC win over an ACC team. Murray gets hammered for his past play against ranked teams, but the game that really stands out to me is last year's SEC championship game.

Murray might have played his best game in a Dawgs uniform, but all anyone will remember is Chris Conley's catch to end the game that handed Alabama the win. All they'll remember is the mind-boggling decision by Georgia's coaching staff not to clock the ball on that final drive. There was no excuse for such a mental lapse. But look at what Murray did in the biggest game of his career, against the best team in the country, in what most people around these parts consider to be the real national championship. He threw for 265 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but completed five of his seven pass attempts in that last drive, including his final four, for 76 yards. Remember, this was against Alabama.

This wasn't against Maryland, NC State, UNC or Virginia Tech. This was against the best defense in the country. Murray did everything in his power to win, and there's absolutely no way you blame that loss on him. Look to the sideline for help there. The bottom line is that Murray was hitting his stride at the end of the season, and that will carry over to the fall. He's incredibly efficient and is about to break every major career-passing record in the nation's toughest conference, where he faces the sport's top defenses each week. Both are great, but if I'm taking a quarterback today, I'm taking this version of Aaron Murray.

Most to prove in the ACC

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Heading into the season, everyone has something to prove -- some more than others, of course. Here’s a look at which coaches, players and position groups have the most to prove in the ACC heading into Week 1:

[+] EnlargeLogan Thomas
Rob Foldy/USA TODAY SportsQB Logan Thomas and the Virginia Tech offense will face a stiff test from Alabama in Week 1.
1. Virginia Tech’s offense. Hands down, no other group in the conference is facing more doubt, especially going up against Alabama’s defense in the season opener. The Hokies were No. 81 in the country in scoring offense last year at 25.08 points per game. Quarterback Logan Thomas returns and has made strides under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler, but questions remain with a young supporting cast.

2. Clemson’s secondary. This is one group that has remained a concern for coach Dabo Swinney through the summer, and rightfully so, especially with Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray coming to town on Saturday. Only Duke (29) and Maryland (24) gave up more passing touchdowns in the league last season than Clemson (23).

3. Miami defensive coordinator Mark D'Onofrio. The Canes’ defense was one of the worst in the country in 2012, ranking No. 116 in total defense and No. 82 in scoring defense. And ranking No. 113 in the country in sacks was well below Miami’s standards. With all four starters returning on the defensive line and such high hopes for the Canes this fall, the pressure to show major improvement is on.

4. Florida State’s staff: Despite the loss of 11 players to the NFL draft, Florida State still abounds with talent, but there are six new assistants on staff tasked with developing it. All of these hires will eventually be a reflection on coach Jimbo Fisher. The Noles will start 2013 with a new defensive coordinator in Jeremy Pruitt, new running backs coach, new quarterbacks coach, new tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, new defensive ends coach and a new linebackers coach.

5. UNC’s offensive line: Two redshirt freshmen will be in the lineup when the Tar Heels open on Thursday night against South Carolina, which will have arguably the best defensive line in the SEC. While James Hurst has received plenty of preseason hype, he’s going to need some help, especially with so much inexperience around him. How UNC fares without Jonathan Cooper will help determine how it will do without Giovani Bernard, too.

6. Wake Forest running back Josh Harris: He has been plagued by injuries his whole career, and his durability has become a question both inside the program and out. Harris also struggled academically but received a waiver from the NCAA so he is eligible to play. The Deacs could use a big season from Harris to get their running game going.

7. Pitt’s running backs: It went downhill when Rushel Shell decided to transfer. Now, the lead candidate to replace him, Isaac Bennett, has spent most of the summer with an injured knee. Pitt is missing its top two rushers from last fall -- and now the next two in line are question marks heading into the season. The situation is in limbo as the Panthers get set to make their ACC debut against Florida State on Monday, as freshman James Conner was also injured. Malcolm Crockett, who had 12 carries last year, could be the solution.

8. Duke’s defense: This has been the Blue Devils’ Achilles' heel, and it has to improve if Duke is to make back-to-back bowl appearances. It’s a veteran group, and last year was the second season in the 4-2-5 scheme. Still, Duke ranked No. 107 in the country in scoring defense in 2012, No. 105 in total defense and No. 101 in rushing defense. The only way to go is up.

9. Virginia coach Mike London: One year after being named the ACC’s Coach of the Year and taking the team to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, London led the Cavaliers to a 4-8 finish last fall. London made sweeping changes to his staff, including the hires of new coordinators. There have been some critics who have questioned whether the program is still heading in the right direction, but those within the program insist it is. Now is the time to prove it.

10. Maryland coach Randy Edsall: He’s won a total of six games in the past two seasons, and this fall, he has healthy quarterbacks to work with and more playmakers on offense, including one of the best in the country in receiver Stefon Diggs. Maryland also has a favorable schedule -- much more forgiving than the one it'll face next season as members of the Big Ten. There’s no reason Maryland fans shouldn't expect at least six wins.

Clemson atmosphere a hurdle for UGA

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Never mind that No. 5 Georgia must play its first game in nine months against No. 8 Clemson -- marking the first time in program history that the Bulldogs and their opening opponent have both been ranked in the top 10.

The Bulldogs must face that caliber of opponent at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, home of one of the noisiest and most electric atmospheres in college football, before a national primetime TV audience.

[+] EnlargeClemson fans
Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswirePlaying No. 8 Clemson in the opening game is tough enough for Georgia without factoring in the Tigers' rowdy fans.
After the Tigers rub Howard’s Rock and run down the hill into Death Valley -- which ABC announcer Brent Musburger dubbed “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football” -- the Bulldogs will have to contend with a fired-up, historic rival that is playing its biggest home game in years.

Blocking out all that is occurring on the periphery is an essential element in performing adequately on the field, Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

“[You] focus on your job and not get caught up in the surroundings and the hype of [being] on the road or the big game or big environment. It’s tough,” Bobo said. “The beginning of the season is always exciting no matter who you play, and then you add an opponent that has the same talent you do and is capable of beating you any Saturday. You have to do the little things and execute -- and that’s what it comes down to is executing, no matter how excited and how fired up you are.”

Making matters more difficult is that these are completely different teams from the ones that last took the field to complete the 2012 season -- Georgia against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl and Clemson against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Sure, watching film of those games is valuable in learning about personnel and tendencies, but the teams’ respective coaching staffs have had an entire offseason to tinker and adjust to new personnel.

“We know what talent they have and what they have coming back. But how are they going to use that talent?” Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch said. “Everyone switches things up.”

That’s where the Bulldogs hope their experience in key spots -- particularly with fifth-year quarterback Aaron Murray -- will come in handy. By now, the eldest Bulldogs have been in nearly every situation imaginable, which should help them adapt even to their potentially intimidating surroundings on Saturday night.

“On defense, you play with a little more emotion and play fast and play hard. On offense, you’ve got to be able to execute and handle those situations and sometimes experience is the only thing that can help you do that,” said Bobo, whose team is 10-2 in season openers since he joined the staff. “In years past, I think we’ve had some experience. I think we’ve had some good quarterback play that’s helped calm the situation, and this year we’ve got that and we’ve got an experienced quarterback, too, that I expect to play well.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Scour the locker rooms at Georgia and Clemson and it might be difficult to find a player who knows much about their historic rivalry.

“You know me, I don’t know much about Georgia’s history from before I got here,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray chuckled in one such response about the longtime rivalry between schools separated by only about 70 miles.

Murray is far from alone in that regard. The 22-year-old Floridian was 13 the last time Georgia and Clemson met, in 2003, and was not even alive when the annual 1980s meetings between the Bulldogs and Tigers often carried national-title implications.

Fans of a certain age might harken back to those days on Saturday, however, when the rivalry resumes -- ending the longest gap between games since the series started in 1897 -- and No. 5 Georgia visits No. 8 Clemson in Death Valley.

[+] EnlargeClemson, Danny Ford
AP Photo/Kathy WillensCoach Danny Ford and Clemson beat Georgia 13-3 in 1981 and went on to win the national championship.
“Georgia was really good every year, so it meant that doggone it, somebody was going to get a lot of publicity and a lot of press, whoever won that football game,” said former Tigers coach Danny Ford, who will be enshrined in Clemson’s Ring of Honor on Saturday. “You could still be a good football team if you lost that game, but it just put a cramp in everything and it was so early in the year -- the first or second game or third game every year -- and you kind of knew what kind of football team [you had].

“It was kind of like a Wednesday where the kids in school call it Hump Day, you know? You’re in the middle of the week, get your classes over with and you’re about halfway to the weekend. That was the same kind of a hump game, where if you get off and win that football game, you’ve got a great chance to have a good year.”

Back then, your season could be more than good if you slipped away with a win. Thanks to a 67-yard punt return touchdown by Scott Woerner and a 98-yard Woerner interception return that set up another score, Georgia edged Clemson 20-16 in 1980 despite failing to register a single first down in the opening half.

“At the end, they’re back down there and Jeff Hipp makes an interception on about the 1-yard line right at the end of the game,” recalled former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who posted a 15-6-1 record against Clemson in his 25 seasons as the Bulldogs’ coach. “But statistic-wise, they just knocked us all over the place.”

The 10th-ranked Bulldogs went on to win the national title that season after barely surviving the Tigers’ upset bid. And Clemson returned the favor the following year, generating nine turnovers to beat Herschel Walker and No. 4 Georgia 13-3 en route to a national title of its own.

Clemson’s 1981 win marked the only time that Georgia lost in the regular season during Walker’s three seasons on campus.

“They’re the only team that he played more than once in his college career and didn’t score a touchdown against,” said UGA grad Kyle King, whose new book detailing the Georgia-Clemson series history, “Fighting Like Cats and Dogs,” was published, oddly enough, by the Clemson University Digital Press. “So they really were the ones who -- to the extent anyone had Herschel’s number -- they’re the ones who had his number.”

[+] EnlargeVince Dooley
Dale Zanine/US Presswire for ESPN.comIn 25 years as coach at Georgia , Vince Dooley posted a 15-6-1 record against Clemson.
Just how close were the two teams in their respective pursuits of the national title? Georgia scored exactly 316 points during the 1980 regular season before beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to claim its first national title since 1942. The following year, Clemson matched that scoring total to the number, notching the very same 316 points in the regular season before beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to claim the school’s first national championship.

The series continued to produce memorable outcomes on an annual basis throughout the 1980s. Take 1982, for example, when No. 7 Georgia hosted No. 11 Clemson in the first night game in decades at Sanford Stadium. Much like Saturday’s game at Clemson, the 1982 game aired before a prime-time national TV audience on ABC -- that year on Labor Day evening.

Bulldogs defenders picked off four passes by Clemson quarterback and Athens native Homer Jordan en route to a 13-7 win and another undefeated regular season. Once again, the Georgia-Clemson winner played in the game that would determine the national champion, although the Bulldogs lost this time, 27-23 to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.

Nonetheless, those first three games set the standard for one of the nastiest rivalries of the 1980s -- one where defense, big special-teams plays and general hard-nosed aggression became trademarks.

“I remember it was always a tough game for Georgia. It was a tough game, period,” said Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon, who appeared in the series’ last two games, in 2002 and 2003, and whose father Willie preceded him as a Georgia player and coach. “It was always one of the biggest games out there in the country and it’s a lot like this year, to be honest with you. You never knew who was going to come out on top. Both teams always had high expectations going into each year, let alone that game. It was always a hard-fought war out there on the field.”

There was the 1984 game where Georgia beat No. 2 Clemson 26-23 on a 60-yard Kevin Butler field goal -- a play that produced what King called Bulldogs announcer Larry Munson’s most memorable call from a home game, when he estimated that Butler would “try to kick one 100,000 miles” and then proclaimed that “the stadium is worse than bonkers” once the kick cleared the uprights.

Clemson enjoyed its own kicking-game heroics in 1986 and 1987, when David Treadwell booted game-winning field goals at the end of the Tigers’ respective 31-28 and 21-20 victories.

“We were so evenly matched, and so many came down to a field goal or a touchdown, and we were so evenly matched that all of them kind of run together in my thoughts,” Ford recalled. “They’d win one and we’d win one.”

That proved true throughout Ford’s 11-year tenure at Clemson. A rivalry that Georgia once dominated -- the Bulldogs are 41-17-4 all-time against the Tigers and went 11-1-1 against Frank Howard, the winningest coach in Clemson history -- was extremely even in the 1980s.

Ford went 4-4-1 against Georgia while at Clemson. The scoring differential during that period? Georgia 153, Clemson 152.

“It was more about respectability for us because Georgia had the upper hand for so long back when Coach Howard [was here],” Ford said. “I tell the story all the time that Coach Howard would have to play Georgia and Georgia Tech, who was in the SEC back then, Alabama and Auburn and lose four games to have enough money to make his budget and then win the ACC conference. But back then he had to do that and he couldn’t hardly ever get them to come play at our place. It was just a thing of respectability I think, more so for us in the '80s."

Respectability is no longer a problem for either of the programs who will renew their longtime rivalry on Saturday in Death Valley. Georgia’s Mark Richt led his team within an eyelash of playing for the BCS title last year, and the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game with their highest preseason ranking since opening the 2008 campaign in the No. 1 spot. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to a 21-6 record over the last two seasons and, blessed with a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd, should boast one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

The programs no longer resemble the Ford- and Dooley-era squads that relied on defense and the kicking game to win low-scoring games, but considering the standing the Georgia-Clemson game once held in the national championship race, it seems fitting that Saturday’s reunion occupies a marquee spot in college football’s opening weekend.

“I grew up with this game being played pretty much every year, and it was at a time that Georgia beat Florida every year, and Georgia beat Georgia Tech every year, so Clemson and Auburn were really the two games that you went into the year thinking, ‘Boy, I hope we can get out of that one with a W,’ ” King said. “I didn’t want to lose that, and that was really what ultimately inspired me to go back and write this book.

“We’re going into a season where it looks like you have two top-10 teams, two frontrunners in their conferences, two top-drawer quarterbacks going up against one another,” he added. “I think it’s important to remind fans that this isn’t a new thing. We butted heads with these guys in big games before, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to keep doing it in the future.”
ESPN's "College GameDay" will open the college football season in Death Valley for the Clemson-Georgia game on Aug. 31. The game will later broadcast live at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

"GameDay" last visited Clemson on Oct. 21, 2006. It was the first and only time the Tigers hosted the show.

One new addition to ESPN's broadcast is that "GameDay" will expand to four hours for the opening weekend. The show will begin airing on ESPN at 9 a.m. ET and will run until 1 p.m. ET. The college football pregame show also plans to air for three hours (9 a.m. -- noon ET) each Saturday after Week 1.

This game will display two of the country's top offenses. Clemson finished the 2012 season ranked ninth nationally in total offense (512.7 yards per game), while the Bulldogs finished 22nd (467.7). Record-breaking quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray return for a year in which both are considered early Heisman Trophy candidates.
When Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd got his draft evaluation back late last year, he was told he would be a mid-round pick. In a relatively weak class, no less.

Boyd said thanks but no thanks, and decided to return to school.

As we sit here today, Boyd stands to rake in millions upon millions more.

His draft stock has shot up the charts -- this despite being a part of a much stronger quarterback class in 2014. A guy who was told he is too short, has to work on his footwork and make better decisions all of a sudden looks like a can't-miss draft prospect. Funny what a gritty performance over highly regarded LSU will do for a guy.

ESPN Insider Brock Huard has Boyd as the No. 2 quarterback Insider available for the 2014 draft, right behind Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville. Huard writes, in part:
Boyd became the face of Clemson's program in 2012 and has first-round upside heading into 2013. The LSU finale and the punishment Boyd endured while delivering in the clutch time and again turned heads. Plus, his third-down tape is better than any prospect in the 2013 class.

Clemson's opening game against Georgia will pit Boyd against the next top prospect on our list, Aaron Murray, and could serve as a platform to greatly boost one or both of their draft stocks.

Huard is not alone. Way too early mock drafts from CBSSports.com and SI.com list Boyd as the No. 3 player off the board, behind Bridgewater and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

The disclaimer, of course, is that these mock drafts and projections mean absolutely diddly squat in May. And they will mean diddly squat next February, and next March, too. Draft stocks slide up and down. There is an entire season to play. Nobody knows how Boyd will play this year. Look at what happened to Matt Barkley a year ago. He went from surefire first-round pick to fourth-round selection in the span of a few months.

But these mocks clearly show a level of respect Boyd has only recently earned. He is now on the national radar as an elite quarterback. That was not the case a year ago. Boyd wants all eyes on him. He wants to be the best quarterback in the country, and he certainly wants to be rated higher than his good friend, Murray. During my spring trip to Clemson last month, Boyd told me, "I want to be able to outperform him. I don’t want question marks about my game after the season."

He is off to a good start without having played a down.

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