- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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These SEC openers are getting pretty routine for Clemson. The past two years, the Tigers started the season with wins against Auburn and Georgia. On Saturday, they face the Bulldogs again, this time in Athens, Georgia. Who has the edge? SEC reporter Edward Aschoff and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson debate.
Andrea Adelson: In the buildup to this game, nobody is giving Clemson a shot to win. I find that amusing, considering Georgia's reputation to underachieve. I know that Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins are gone, but the Tigers bring back several key players on defense -- including All-American Vic Beasley. Nobody wants to hear that since offenses generate all the headlines. And, well, Georgia has Heisman hopeful running back Todd Gurley coming back. But the Bulldogs have their own issues headed into this game. So tell me, Edward, why is Georgia such a clear-cut favorite?
Edward Aschoff: Clemson's defense got better last season, but Georgia's offense will be too much for the Tigers between the hedges. This is an offense that returns most of the pieces to an offense that notched 484.2 yards per game and 6.7 yards per play in 2013. Yes, record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray is gone, but fifth-year senior Hutson Mason knows the offense backward and forward. He might not have the resume Murray had, but he's run the offense in practice over and over and over for years. He has great chemistry with that stacked receiving corps, has a solid offensive line to protect him and is working with one of the deepest running games in the country.
Mason doesn't have to be perfect on Saturday, he just has to find his targets. Receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are dealing with injuries, but Chris Conley, who led the team with 45 receptions and 651 receiving yards last season, has the potential to be one of the SEC's best this fall. He's tough enough to make plays over the middle and is a deep-play threat. Michael Bennett is tough and catches everything thrown this way, and the Bulldogs won't hesitate to use Gurley and Keith Marshall more in the passing game.
Speaking of Marshall, he's cutting and sprinting like he did before last season's knee injury, so that doesn't bode well for Clemson's defense, either.
While the Bulldogs will be able to throw, run and score for days, I do have concerns about the defense, especially that secondary. But what should help make up for the shortcomings is the nation's best linebacker group. Watch out for Leonard Floyd. He should have a breakout year and could be the SEC's best pass-rusher.
The game is also in Athens, where Georgia has lost just two games since the start of the 2011 season.
AA: Georgia definitely has the edge on offense. Nobody is going to argue that. Clemson players have repeatedly praised Gurley, who had a monster game against the Tigers a year ago with 154 yards and two touchdowns. But the running game seems to be the only real certainty on the offense. If Mitchell and Scott-Wesley don't play, who becomes the home-run threat to stretch the field? That is one key aspect in this game that cannot be overlooked. Gurley and Marshall are fantastic. But if Clemson clogs the box and slows them down, does Mason have enough playmakers around him to keep the Tigers honest?
Let's not forget, Clemson made a living in the opposing team's backfield a season ago, leading the nation in tackles for loss (122). The D had four sacks and five tackles for loss a year ago against the Bulldogs. Players who accounted for 96.5 of those TFLs return in 2014. When you are the underdog, going on the road to open the season, surely you want to be able to rely on a strong defense to help set the tone -- especially at the outset. Clemson has the ability to do that in this matchup given the return of guys such as Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Stephone Anthony.
The secondary should be a concern for Georgia. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt is a senior with game experience (he owns the school record for single-game completion percentage) and years spent learning the Chad Morris offense. Freshman Deshaun Watson should throw a nice curve into the offensive mix as well, something not even new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can properly anticipate. Pruitt may have flustered the Clemson offense a year ago when he was at Florida State, but he has new personnel to coach and new personnel to plan for on the other side.
Now that we laid out our points, what is your prediction and why?
EA: I think this one will be tight until the end, with Georgia pulling away, 31-24. You might question Georgia's deep-play ability, but Conley will come up with the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth before Georgia's defense makes a last-minute stop. I'm going out on a limb to say Floyd will be a major part of that final defensive drive for the Bulldogs.
AA: I am going with the upset in this one. I think Clemson's defense will make a huge difference, forcing several turnovers. Stoudt, Watson and the Clemson receivers will make their names known against a patchwork secondary. Clemson wins, 28-27.