Why we can already call Georgia-Clemson the most hyped game of 2021
In August 2017, I had a conversation with Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl President and CEO Gary Stokan about how his upcoming season-opening matchup came together. When Stokan talked about it being “the best opening weekend game in college football history,” I didn’t blink. It was Alabama vs. Florida State. It was Nick Saban vs. Jimbo Fisher. It was No. 1 vs. No. 3. It was even being played in brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Of course, nobody could’ve predicted that in addition to Alabama winning by 17, Florida State went on to win 6 regular-season games in what turned out to be Fisher’s last season in Tallahassee. That didn’t matter to Stokan, though. What did matter was that his game got 8 months worth of buildup, and tickets sold out 2 months before kickoff.
We don’t know how the 2021 season will play out, either. What do we know? Like “the best opening weekend game in college football history,” Georgia-Clemson will be the most hyped game of the year.
That’ll be true even if it isn’t No. 1 vs. No. 3, though I wouldn’t necessarily bet against that.
I can say that on a Tuesday morning about 200 days from watching Georgia-Clemson face off in Charlotte — not that I’m counting — that no game on the 2021 slate will have a bigger buildup.
In case you haven’t heard, there’s just a little bit of buzz in Athens this offseason. Much of that was sparked by the returns of draft-eligible standouts like JT Daniels, Jordan Davis, James Cook and Zamir White. For every one of those “unfinished business” posts on social media, the hype train picked up a little more speed. By the time Sept. 4 rolls around, there’s no telling how fast that train will be moving.
After all, Kirby Smart’s defense doesn’t have any games to play from now until Sept. 4, which means it won’t have to watch an elite passing offense put up 40 points with ease.
I know, Georgia fans. I shouldn’t make that joke because now, the Dawgs actually have an offense that can keep pace in that type of game. Hence, the hype!
Speaking of that Georgia offense, that’s really half of why this matchup will get so much attention. We got a sneak peek at Daniels, which is why the former 5-star recruit already has preseason Heisman Trophy buzz. Perhaps equally important, though much less documented, was the fact that Georgia retained offensive coordinator Todd Monken. His system, as we saw down the stretch, worked. Now, George Pickens, Jermaine Burton, Kearis Jackson and Darnell Washington will have an entire (somewhat) normal offseason to get on the same page with Daniels, who was a summer addition last year. That projects well.
You’ll notice that I said the Georgia offense is only half of why this matchup will get so much buildup. Eh, who are we kidding. It’s 2021. That’s probably closer to 60-70% of the reason this matchup will have so much buildup.
The other big reason? On Monday, we found out that Clemson safety Nolan Turner is taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility and is returning for 2021. Why is that significant, you ask? All of Clemson’s defensive starters are back.
With Nolan Turner returning, the ENTIRE Clemson starting defense will be back in 2021.
Clemson had the #1 defense in 2020 (EPA per play against) pic.twitter.com/shsfQUvkC7
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 18, 2021
Yes, the Tigers are probably still licking their wounds after Justin Fields torched them in the Sugar Bowl. There’d probably be even more buzz surrounding Clemson had it at least kept it close in the semifinal showdown.
But Brent Venables returning all of his starters all but guarantees that Clemson will have a top-3 spot to start the season. That’s with the loss of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, who proved to be one of the most prolific 1-2 punches in college football history.
Notice how we’re 600 words into this, and I have yet to mention former 5-star recruit and 2020 backup D.J. Uiagalelei, who figures to have similar preseason Heisman buzz as Daniels. Barring injury, that means we’ll get a matchup of former 5-star quarterbacks who flashed major potential in limited work in 2020. There’s not any sort of media fatigue surrounding either guy yet. There could be by the time their college careers are over, but for now, we’re still in the hype phase.
Let’s talk hype for a second. As in, which other 2021 games will have it.
I tend to think after a season in which we didn’t get nonconference play among Power 5 teams during the regular season, those games will have a different type of buzz in 2021.
That’s not to say conference games will be lacking. Lord knows there are plenty of great conference games set like the Cocktail Party, Alabama-Texas A&M, Iowa State at Oklahoma, etc.. But nonconference play in 2021 will be welcomed back like your parents when you haven’t seen them in over a year because of a pandemic. Too real? OK, it’ll be like the return of the McRib.
With that in mind, I already picked the best nonconference games. Here’s how I’d rank the 5 best in terms of intrigue and national significance:
- Georgia vs. Clemson in Charlotte
- Oregon vs. Ohio State
- Cincinnati vs. Notre Dame
- Alabama vs. Miami (FL) in Atlanta
- Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame in Chicago
And if D’Eriq King can’t play in the opener against Alabama coming off his torn ACL, take that out and put in Cincinnati vs. Indiana. That’s not a joke.
Oregon-Ohio State would be different if the Ducks were starting inside the top 10 and if Justin Fields were returning, though neither is happening. Even as a true home-and-home series, that won’t be more buzz-worthy than Georgia-Clemson.
Plus, Georgia-Clemson is sort of in that sweet spot in terms of a nonconference rivalry. They have history as teams that met annually for a quarter century during the Vince Dooley era, yet they haven’t played each other since the 2014 opener. Neither program was loaded with 5-star talent like it is today. Rivalries renewed tap into the old school fans and the new school fans.
Given how high of a floor that both teams had in the last 4 years — neither program finished worse than No. 7 in the AP Top 25 — it’d be stunning to see the significance of this game fade like the 2017 Alabama-Florida State opener. By season’s end, the Crimson Tide’s résumé was a hot topic of discussion in large part because FSU became bowl eligible in the rescheduled regular-season finale.
If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know what will happen in 2021. What seems unlikely is that Clemson or Georgia will torpedo like Florida State in 2017. And even if one does, it won’t change 8 months worth of hype.
“The best opening weekend game in college football history” might have some worthy competition.