In my opinion, this is No. 1 vs. No. 2.

Coming into 2021, I ranked Clemson and Georgia as the best 2 teams in the country. Stick them on the field with anyone tomorrow, and I’d pick them to win.

So while Saturday night’s showdown in Charlotte won’t get the same kind of “G.O.A.T. opener” billing as a top-3 matchup that Florida State-Alabama got in 2017, I’d argue it’s every bit as good, if not better.

(Hopefully for the sake of both teams, neither watches their season crumble like FSU’s did once Deondre Francois went down in the opener against Alabama.)

It’s Kirby Smart vs. Dabo Swinney. It’s ACC vs. SEC. It’s powerhouse vs. powerhouse.

It’s the game we’ve been talking about all offseason. Playoff stakes? Absolutely.

You don’t need me to sell you on this one. What you do need is for me to break down some keys and thoughts about this headliner matchup on steroids:

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1. This is an incredibly unique but excellent QB matchup (beyond their recruiting rankings)

You know. In case you haven’t heard.

Both JT Daniels and DJ Uiagalelei are among the preseason top 4 in the Heisman Trophy odds, despite the fact that they started a combined 6 games for their respective teams. That’s easy to forget. Usually, when we’re talking about an elite quarterback matchup, it’s with multi-year starters or at least with a guy who had an entire year as a starter under his belt. I suppose Daniels got that as a true freshman at USC in 2018, but that was a football lifetime ago.

Daniels and Uiagalelei are both 5-star, California kids who gave their respective fan bases a little tease last year of what life could look like with them as the starter. For Uiagalelei, that perspective is a bit different from Daniels because Clemson’s standard was raised by Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence. Daniels, on the other hand, is trying to become the new standard at Georgia.

It’s strange to call this a “legacy game” for either signal-caller because of how little we’ve seen from them at their respective schools. But in many ways, it is. It’s the type of game that’ll be used to evaluate them as NFL Draft prospects, and in primetime, it’ll carry a ton of weight for how each program is viewed nationally as a Playoff contender.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the winner of this game not only added the ultimate Playoff résumé booster, but also became the betting favorite to win the Heisman. That’s a whole lot on the line for a pair of signal-callers in a season opener.

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2. How good is Clemson’s defensive line? 2018 good

Remember when it didn’t seem fair that Clemson had Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins? Like, how no team should be allowed to have 3 defensive linemen who were future top-20 picks in the NFL Draft?

Well, don’t be surprised when it feels like 2018 all over again with that defensive front.

Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and Tyler Davis were preseason All-ACC selections — 6 of the 11 spots on the defensive team went to Tigers — after they all were forces in 2020. Murphy was Pro Football Focus’ top-graded edge defender against the run, and he can rush the passer at a high level.

Bresee was No. 5 among Power 5 interior linemen as a pass rusher and Davis had 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks in just 196 snaps in 2020 after he had 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks as a freshman in 2019.

(There are rumors that Davis could miss Saturday’s contest. That would be a major win for Georgia, but the depth is still there on that Clemson front.)

There’s also former No. 3 overall recruit Xavier Thomas, who had a lost year in 2020 but has been getting rave reviews all camp that he could return to his underclassman ways when he racked up 16.5 tackles for loss in his first 2 seasons.

Those Clemson defensive linemen are versatile, they’re explosive and most of all, they can get home without sending extra help. That’s the biggest thing that can push Georgia. If Brent Venables doesn’t need to send 5 or 6, how does that change the Bulldogs’ offense?

Last year, PFF had Daniels with the best quarterback rating against the blitz of anyone in FBS. If you don’t have to blitz, well, one would think Daniels is going to be seeing smaller throwing windows that’ll really test his processing and accuracy skills in Todd Monken’s offense.

3. The 2020 Clemson ground game wasn’t exactly all-world with Travis Etienne

People forget that Clemson really struggled running the ball consistently for most of last year. The Tigers, even with a future first-round pick in Etienne, were No. 7 in the ACC in yards per rush and No. 11 in the ACC in rushing yards per game in 2020. Now, Etienne is gone. As in, the ACC’s all-time leading rusher is no longer in the backfield.

What does that mean? Even with 4 starters back on the offensive line, the Tigers are going to be figuring out their new ground game identity. Against Georgia. As in, the nation’s No. 1 run defense who has Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt back on the interior.

Georgia native Lyn-J Dixon is finally going to get a legitimate crack at the bulk of the backfield workload. In 3 seasons, he averaged 6.6 yards per carry on 208 rushing attempts. Not too shabby.

But he’s certainly not what Etienne was as a pass-catcher, and he only had 1 carry go for 20-plus yards in 2020.

There’s more buzz about 5-star true freshman Will Shipley. One would assume he’ll get a chance to have a series to himself in the first half. Imagine trying to bust through a defensive line with Davis and Wyatt in your first career college game. On top of that Swinney said that Clemson might rotate centers on Saturday. Yikes.

If there’s a place where Clemson can be had, it’s making them 1-dimensional on offense.

4. How close to 100% will Georgia’s available pass-catchers be?

That’s the million-dollar question. The good news is that it sounds like Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson will be ready to go after their lower-body injuries early in fall camp. Without George Pickens already, those are the 2 guys who have the strongest rapport with Daniels.

The other good news is that Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint should be at full go, as well. If you recall, Rosemy-Jacksaint had a season-ending ankle injury as he was emerging in last year’s Florida game, so he didn’t get those game reps with Daniels. But now he’s back and healthy. Georgia needs somebody like him to break out, especially with Darnell Washington also sidelined.

Fortunately, John FitzPatrick is good to go for Saturday and freshman tight end Brock Bowers got a lot of praise by the Georgia coaching staff. As for Arik Gilbert, no, I don’t think it’s fair to expect anything from him for the foreseeable future considering he’s still not with the team.

The other bad news is that it doesn’t sound like Dominick Blaylock will be able to go after he’s suffered multiple season-ending knee injuries. Smart said he’s “close” to returning for games. And who knows how healthy Arian Smith will be. The track star battled turf toe injuries in fall camp after missing some summer workouts.

It’s fair to question how Georgia’s pass-catchers are going to look. One would think that given all those injuries from fall camp, tailback James Cook will be heavily involved in the passing game. Whatever the case, Georgia is going to need guys who can get separation against an experienced, loaded Clemson defense.

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5. A storyline nobody is talking about with Brent Venables, but could be if Georgia wins big

When you’re the highest-paid assistant in the sport, it’s true that you’re held to a higher standard than the rest. Any team in America would love to have Venables running their defense.

But if Georgia puts up 40-plus in a win — something that’s by no means a given — I think you’d see the decorated defensive coordinator face some backlash.

It would be the third consecutive year in which Venables’ defense got embarrassed on a national stage when it had extra time to prepare. That’s referencing the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship against LSU (42 points allowed) and the 2020 semifinal matchup against Ohio State (49 points allowed), wherein a dude with a rib injury torched Clemson all second half.

If you want to include allowing 47 points to Notre Dame in South Bend last year, fine, though it’s worth remembering only 33 of those points were scored in regulation (the Irish still had 518 yards of offense).

Yes, it’s true that we’re no longer in 2011 when a national championship could have 21 total points. That’s not happening with the way the current rules are constructed, and it’s unrealistic to expect Venables’ defense to hold these explosive offenses under 20 points.

But man, after the way that Justin Fields torched that defense last year, it’d be awfully deflating if Clemson’s defense came out and took one on the chin again. That group doesn’t have any excuses with 9 starters back and an entire offseason to ponder the breakdowns in the second half against the Buckeyes. One would think that’ll provide all the motivation in this one.

Wait, did I say nobody is talking about that storyline? My guy Chris “Bear” Fallica knows what’s up:

5A. Dabo’s 2 sons are Clemson’s 1st and 2nd string holders

Just thought you should know that. They have merch, too.

6. There’s a difference between having massive Playoff stakes and being a Playoff elimination game

Don’t get those things confused. This game doesn’t eliminate either team from the Playoff hunt.

That’s worth remembering because if Clemson loses, everyone will look ahead and discuss if the Tigers have a path without Notre Dame, Miami or UNC on the regular season schedule this year. Yeah, it’s bad. Real bad. But does that mean a 12-1 Clemson team with an ACC title would absolutely get left out of the field? Of course not. It means that they can’t run into a situation where there are multiple unbeaten Power 5 champs and then a team like 1-loss Georgia.

For Georgia, a loss in this game would be far from a Playoff eliminator. In fact, Georgia might still have another loss to give. For example, what if Georgia were to lose in the regular season to Florida, but then still get to Atlanta and take down an unbeaten Alabama team in the SEC Championship? Do you really think the Dawgs would get left out?

That’s why you can’t really call in an elimination game. It’s monumental, though. Whoever wins this game could very likely get the benefit of the doubt against any other potential 1-loss team in the Playoff hunt.

Clemson needs it because of how far superior Georgia will be as a win compared to the rest of the schedule, and Georgia needs it because it hasn’t beat a top-5 team since the 2017 Rose Bowl. The Dawgs have a ton to prove, and not just because they want to quiet the 1980 jokes.

And a prediction … Clemson 35, Georgia 27

For what it’s worth, I picked Clemson long before Georgia’s pass-catchers had fall camp injuries galore. That certainly didn’t help the matter.

So how do I see this playing out? Clemson gets out to an early lead with the passing game. Uiagalelei delivers some Lawrence-like dimes while Daniels looks overwhelmed by the pressure of the Clemson front. The Tigers go into the half with a 21-10 lead, and all of Twitter is throwing shade at Daniels and the UGA offense. That crowd quiets down a bit once Daniels and the Dawgs get rolling in the second half.

But the problem with the early deficit is that Georgia gets into a few too many obvious passing situations. Instead of establishing the balance that Monken was hoping for, it turns into Daniels throwing 40-plus times. That results in an untimely turnover late to halt Georgia’s comeback effort.

Georgia’s offense shows fight, but a motivated Clemson defense gets the stop it needs to move past a brutal end to 2020.

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