CLEMSON – The attention turned to Saturday’s showdown with No. 5 Georgia not long after Chandler Catanzaro’s gamewinning kick sailed through the uprights in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Still, it’s hard to believe the game is finally here for the No. 8 Tigers, and especially for a senior class that’s already made their mark in school history.
“It’s just moved so fast. That’s the thing,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “I just remember counting down the days in the weight room – first it was 200 days and then it was 100 and then it was 80 and now it’s (game week).”
Getting his first shot as the go-to tailback, grad student “Hot Rod” McDowell says – despite coaches downplaying it as just the opener – this game can really affect the course of the Tigers’ 2013 campaign.
Boyd glad that gameday has finally arrived
“The first game is a momentum game for us. It dictates the season is how I feel,” he said. “If you look back two years ago at Auburn, if we won that game that right there that would have dictated our season. This game is what you play for really.
“It’s a top team in Georgia and going out and competing and both of us (are) ranked – that’s the best way to start your season off.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables disagrees on that front, but you would too after what seeing he’s had to break down in the film room from Georgia’s offense.
“It’s a very explosive offense – very experienced,” said Venables, whose unit forced eight three-and-outs last time out against LSU. “They have playmakers everywhere. On the offensive line they have a lot of starts returning and continuity and chemistry…They are very precise in what they’re doing. They bloody your nose and beat you to death in the run game.
“From a time standpoint, (they have) speed and ability to catch the ball and attack with the deep ball to take the top off the defense as good as anybody as the country.”
By now, the major players in the Dawgs offense are well-known in senior quarterback Aaron Murray and sophomore running back one-two punch Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Murray joins Boyd as a sure-fire Heisman contender going into his 41st career start. He is the FBS active leader in touchdown passes (95) with over 10,000 career passing yards (10,091).
“He’s one of the best that we’ve faced,” senior Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey says. “He’s made some unbelievable throws and has been able to create some plays with his feet that’s hard to find from a quarterback.”
Whether spread-out in the shotgun or less disguised in I-form, the heart and soul of the Georgia scheme is using its talented backs to run around and often through defenders – setting up playaction bombs as well.
Built a menacing 6-1 232 with track-star speed, Gurley topped 100 rushing yards in four of his first five games last season and was one of only two players to rush for over 100 yards against No. 1 run ‘D’ Alabama (122).
Higher-rated out of high school, Marshall was no slouch either – leading the SEC running backs in yards per carry (6.5) and runs of 40-plus yards (4).
Clemson’s key word defensively? Discipline.
“It’s going to definitely take all 11 of us on defense,” Shuey said. “I believe we have a good scheme going into it and as long as everybody has great gap control, everybody does their job and doesn’t try to do everybody else’s job – we should contain them.”
Underrated but sure to be a problem for Clemson’s linebackers and a mixed-bag secondary are the Bulldog tight ends. Standing 6-5 254, preseason first-team All-SEC selection Arthur Lynch averaged 18 yards per catch last season with six catches for 87 yards and a score in the final two contests.
Venables sees pressure on Murray as the deciding factor pointing to a top-10 matchup recently where they had it (LSU – six sacks) and one they didn’t (South Carolina – 310 passing yards given up).
“It’s everything,” he said. “It’s everything every week though. That’s the name of the game. Get him uncomfortable. Stone the run game.
“Our guys need to play well upfront. So do theirs. Who wins the line of scrimmage is going to win this game.”
On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s o-line has four returners with 61 starts between them going up against Georgia’s three-lineman scheme replacing two starters.
“Experience definitely helps,” senior guard Tyler Shatley said. “It’s a lot different once you’ve been out there and seen everything live. It helps just knowing what to expect. The first game you have jitters, but if you’ve done it before, it’s not as bad.”
Shatley says the Bulldogs’ 3-4 scheme is a change of pace but not a major worry.
“It will be different from what we’re used to seeing,” Shatley said. “At the same time, if we follow our rules and do what we’re supposed to do it all works out the same. They have a standup guy on the end. It’s basically four-down (lineman) but a different alignment.”
Game will be won in the trenches
Clemson’s strength in the skill positions is a given with the senior quarterback Boyd, junior receiver Sammy Watkins stepping into DeAndre Hopkins’ go-to role and more.
What’s unknown is pretty much the whole Georgia defense outside of junior cornerback Damian Swann and senior lineman Garrison Smith.
Boyd isn’t taking anything for granted though.
“You have to go look and see what you can expect in certain situations,” he said. “You have to try to prepare for every situation possible. Especially when you’re a veteran guy, you have to know that anything can be thrown at you, especially in this type of game.
“They do have some young guys and guys that haven’t played in a lot of games, but they’ve got great players out there and great coaches so I expect them to go out and play well.”
As a complete two-deep, Swinney, who enters his fifth full season with the Tigers, is confident in a largely veteran group.
“Most of our young guys are just depth guys for us,” said Swinney. “We've got some pretty experienced guys that have been in some big games...For the most part, we have some guys with big game experience and this is our third SEC game in a row and our third top-10 game in a row so it's not like these guys haven't been to the dance before.”
Clemson can be the first team ever to win consecutive games over top-10 Southeastern Conference opponents. Over the last three seasons, the Tigers actually have more wins over top-25 SEC teams than Georgia (3 to 2).
They will certainly have a charged crowd behind them in Memorial Stadium aiming for that goal.
“I’m just ready to be out there and run down The Hill,” McDowell said. “The one thing I’m very excited about is the environment. The atmosphere that is going around, I feel like we’re peaking right now and this game right here is where people are like: ‘Clemson has arrived.’”