SEC: Brent Venables
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.
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.
It's Kiehl Frazier's time on the Plains.
The sophomore quarterback arrived at Auburn with a load of hype attached to his shoulder pads, but never looked ready to lead the Tigers. Now, he has that chance, as he'll walk onto the Georgia Dome turf in Atlanta on Saturday as Auburn's starting quarterback against No. 14 Clemson in the second game of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.
The fans have been waiting. His coaches have been waiting. And he has been waiting. Now is his chance -- on a national stage, no less.
It wasn't easy for Frazier to get here. He was used more as a runner as a freshman, throwing the ball just 12 times with five completions and two interceptions. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Frazier hasn't completed a pass that traveled past the line of scrimmage in seven attempts -- unless you count his interceptions. It's no wonder Auburn's staff was so set on running him last year, as he carried the ball 76 times for 327 yards and three touchdowns.
But new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler arrived with his pro-style offense and pledged to turn Frazier into more of a passer. And it appears he has, as Frazier beat out junior Clint Moseley and freshman Jonathan Wallace during fall camp.
Frazier has all of the tools to be sucessful in this league, and now he'll really get to show if he's ready to guide the Tigers. Coach Gene Chizik seems to think so.
“We expect Kiehl to be a leader for this team and to continue to work hard every day," Chizik said. "I am confident in his ability and leadership skills and look forward to watching him progress in both areas.”
And what a stage to do it on. Not only is Auburn playing on national television, but it's against the defending ACC champs. You know, the same champs who are still giving up points to West Virginia. Those Tigers might have a new defensive coordinator in Brent Venables, but questions still remain for a unit that surrendered 70 points to the Mountaineers in last year's Orange Bowl, and ranked 71st nationally in total defense and 81st in scoring defense.
Frazier's job now is to control Auburn's offense. We know how athletic he is. If the pocket breaks down, he knows how to use his feet to get out of trouble. It's time for him to use his arm more and create receiving targets for himself. He'll get plenty of help from Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen, but he'll need to get others involved, such as Trovon Reed, Quan Bray or Travante Stallworth.
He'll have the chances to do that and we'll see a new and improved Frazier Saturday. We saw a one-deminsional Frazier in 2011. He'll be more of a threat to run and throw this fall and that maturation begins Saturday inside the Georgia Dome.
On Thursday, Loganville, Ga./Grayson defensive end Robert Nkemdiche threw a wrench in a handful of SEC schools' recruiting plans when he verbally committed to Clemson.
Nkemdiche, who tops this year's ESPN 150 list and has been this year's most coveted recruiting prize, spurned Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss for Clemson after developing a solid relationship with new Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and the rest of the Tigers' staff.
Under the watch of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers' staff has made it a habit of frustrating SEC schools in recruiting with recent gets like wide receiver Sammy Watkins, running back Mike Bellamy and linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. No one should be shocked by Clemson's ability to gain a pledge from the nation's top recruit. It surely surprised most Thursday, but Swinney and his staff have showed that they can hang with the big SEC dogs when it comes to recruiting.
But that doesn't mean this one is over. In fact, it's probably far from it. Nkemdiche the top player in the recruiting world and SEC schools still want him pretty badly. SEC coaches have a hard time backing off in recruiting.
LSU received some interest from Nkemdiche, and he went as far as to leave his Atlanta comfort zone to visit those other Tigers down in Baton Rouge. David Helman of ESPN.com's GeauxTigerNation writes that LSU will likely now turn specifically to ends Tim Williams (Baton Rouge, La./LSU Laboratory) and Kendell Beckwith (Jackson, La./East Feliciana), but don't expect Les Miles and his crew to totally back off when it comes to Nkemdiche.
Alabama was certainly in the running and some thought Nick Saban was going to grab the nation's top two prospects with Auburn, Ala., linebacker Reuben Foster already in hand. But the Tide staff will have to turn elsewhere for the moment. Keep an eye on Hope Mills, N.C., ESPN 150 defensive lineman Greg Gilmore, who is expected to visit Alabama on Saturday and plans to compete in the Tide’s OL/DL camp. But as Greg Ostendorf of ESPN.com's TideNation writes, Alabama won't stop pursuing Nkemdiche.
Georgia let this year's top recruiting prize leave its own backyard, but Kipp Adams of ESPN.com's DawgNation writes that this might actually be a good thing for the Bulldogs' staff. Georgia can now focus on other top defensive ends and also doesn't have to worry (for now) about playing in the regular season against Nkemdiche, who is coming off of back-to-back 18-sack seasons, Adams wrote.
Then there's Ole Miss. Despite Ole Miss' glaring struggles the past two years, the Rebels' staff had felt pretty good about its chances with the nation's top recruit. Nkemdiche's brother, Denzel, is a redshirt freshman linebacker at Ole Miss and new coach Hugh Freeze had worked tirelessly in his recruitment of Nkemdiche. Ole Miss is the obvious underdog, but you can't count the Rebels out in this race.
Defensive line coach Chris Kiffin tweeted as much just before Nkemdiche's announcement went public.
"It's a marathon not a sprint! A long way to go till signing day! #wintheday," Kiffin tweeted.
Clemson and its supporters should feel ecstatic about Nkemdiche's commitment, but they should also expect some drama out of this one with SEC schools still lurking.