Mailbag: Big questions about a big game

semerson@macon.comAugust 28, 2013 

It's Big Game Week, and no one was off topic. It's all about Georgia-Clemson, and what to think of Georgia overall. Nobody had any time for "Breaking Bad" questions. So let's get to it:

Can you compare Clemson's atmosphere/crowd to an SEC team? Is it really impressive as everyone says, or is it simply amazing compared to other ACC stadiums?
- Nate Liao

It’s both. Memorial Stadium has a capacity of just over 80,000, and would rank eighth in the ACC (that’s more than Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri and Vanderbilt.) It’s almost the exact capacity as South Carolina and just a few thousand less than Texas A&M and its vaunted 12th man.

I spoke to several Georgia players who attended games at Clemson during the recruiting process, and they agreed Death Valley has a very similar atmosphere to SEC games. There’s a reason that in all the realignment rumors people mentioned Clemson (and Florida State and Virginia Tech) as schools that might be a better fit in the SEC or Big 12. They’re serious about their college football in Clemson. I’ve covered a couple games there too, and it can get pretty loud.

We will obviously be heading into one of the most hostile environs in college football when we travel to Death Valley on Saturday. The 8:00 kickoff should have the atmosphere even more charged. Much is often made of crowd noise playing a large factor in unit communication but usually you hear it impacting an offense (tougher to check out of a play at the line, tougher to hear snap counts, etc). However, given our relative experience on that side of the ball, could the crowd noise actually be an aid for us Saturday? Clemson’s D will have the misfortune of having 90K fans screaming while they are trying to get defensively aligned- while our young and extremely raw secondary will have relative calm out of deference to Tahj Boyd and company. What say you?
- Bradley Smith

I don’t think it’ll be an advantage for Georgia, the question is whether the Bulldogs will be at a huge disadvantage. That remains to be seen. I’m sure the offense will be helped by being so experienced around each other, and will be very prepared. They can probably line up by osmosis at this point.

Georgia’s defense, on the other hand, could have some challenges. But Todd Grantham was asked about this and tried to downplay it, in fact answering “none” when asked how much crowd noise would be on his inexperienced defense: “I mean the field size is the same. Playing at home, it’s not like the crowd noise would be an issue if we were at home, it’d be a bit louder. Hey, I mean the field’s the same wherever you play. They’re a good team. We’ve got guys that have a chance to showcase what they can do. It’s an opportunity to go play and we plan on doing it.”

Part of that is just Grantham being Grantham. You do have to wonder if some of these freshmen will be a bit thunderstruck, at least when the game starts. But there are some veterans on the defense who have been through some pretty tough environments.

To me, what might loom as the big factor is how Georgia players respond as the game starts, and the first few times Clemson has some big plays. I remember back to the South Carolina game last year, and how it just seemed the confidence melted right away on the Georgia sideline. It’s no accident that people like Mike Bobo have been preaching incessantly that there will be “adversity” and players have to respond to it.

Can you breakdown the Clemson defense for us? What are their perceived strengths and weaknesses entering the season?
- Hawk, Decatur, GA

I’ll defer to my beat colleague Aaron Brenner of the Charleston Post and Courier, who will answer questions for this week’s “ask a beat writer.” But the short version is Clemson ranked 48th nationally last year in scoring defense (third in the ACC), and 63rd in total defense (and seventh in the ACC). The Tigers have had their own issues with injuries in the secondary this spring, but they do have experience at linebacker. But they don’t have a ton of size up front, so Georgia should be able to run the ball pretty well.

What is your honest to God assessment of how the Bulldogs will do this year (record)?
- P.R. Troop, @General_Fratton (via Twitter)

My honest-to-God feeling is that if you go game by game, Georgia is either better than every team on its schedule, or at least should be better that day given home-field advantage. (I’m thinking of South Carolina and LSU here.)

That said, am I convinced this Georgia team has what it takes to go 12-0? Not quite yet. So my sense is 10-2, give or take a win or loss.

The formula for this team going 12-0 is a prolific offense and a defense that’s better than expected – in pretty much every game. You just get the sense there might be a game or two this year where the offense has a few critical turnovers, and the defense doesn’t respond in kind with a huge performance.

But we know very well that a season hardly ever turns out the way you expect. Who knew the defense would drop off last year and the offense would be so explosive? So when projecting like this, one can only give his projection, and hope that few remember it when it all goes to pieces.

It seems in past years, UGA players and coaches have publicly stated the team's goals as winning the SEC East and SEC Championship, in that order, but after being so close last year to playing for it all, that many of the players have stated Pasadena is the team's goal. Have you noticed this talking to the players that they personally are aiming higher this year than maybe in year's past? Does this worry you that we may be looking too far in the future and putting the cart in front of the horse?
-Brad, Atlanta

Over the past few years, it kind of depends on which player you’re talking to. A lot talk about the national title every year. Sometimes it’s just lip service.

I know Mark Richt is saying the same thing he’s been saying since I’ve been here: That the goal is to get to Atlanta and win the SEC championship, and that normally leads to a national title berth. (Although it wouldn’t have in 2011 for Georgia.) In any case, I think the veterans who have been through this the past few years are saying it’s national title-or-bust, with the understanding that the first two games are a huge part of that.

I’ve said this before (I think), but what should help this team is what it’s been through the past few years. Two years ago they were probably just happy and honored to be in the SEC championship. Last year they were there again and nearly won it. This year, well, if you’re a Georgia fan you certain hope they’ve been working their way up to something big.

What is the state of Xzavier Ward? First string right tackle coming out of spring, he has been virtually out of the o-line discussion all summer.
- Wilk

I never quite bought that he was the first-stringer over John Theus. Whether that was meant as motivation for Theus, or a reward to Ward, who knows, but obviously he’s not a factor now. Will Friend has mentioned Ward still not quite being at 100 percent injury-wise. He’s a pretty tall guy, so it may be that he’s just never put on enough weight to be as sturdy as he needs to be in every practice.

The other possibility is that the coaches just wanted a good foil to Theus, and Kolton Houston replaced Ward as that foil. There’s been no indication that Theus isn’t a hard worker or anything. My best guess is they’re just really trying to get the full potential out of a guy who has a chance to be a first-round type of talent. (And he wasn’t as a freshman, obviously.)

For all we've heard about this game being a shootout, I've heard very little about turnovers. Georgia's biggest games last year had huge defensive/ST turnovers (Jarvis vs. Mizzou and Florida, Tree and Commings vs. Alabama) that gave bigtime momentum. Our new D may be able to "hold up" against Clemson with minimal big plays, but can they create the turnovers?

On the flip side, Murray has previously been good for 1-2 picks during the big games (3 against Florida in the first half, right?)... plus a few big turnovers can really ruin a game (SC last year). To get to the point... what do you see the turnover margin looking like come Sunday morning?
- Kyle Dix

I happened to write about this very thing in today’s papers. (And online too!) I can’t predict with too much accuracy the turnovers, but I’ve broken the game down like this: All things being equal, Georgia’s offense should score about 75 percent of the time, and Clemson about 60 percent of the time. But that’s close enough where turnovers – and red zone percentage – loom large. If Georgia commits one turnover or less, a lot of things will have to go right for Clemson to win.

The goal for the Dawgs over the summer was to be in "midseason form by Game 1." In your opinion and from what you have seen in practices and scrimmages, are we there? If so, why or why not?
- Ray Bailey

It’s just so hard to tell for sure based on practice and scrimmage stats. (Since we don’t get to see them ourselves.) I do think it’s going to be hard to expect the secondary to hit the ground running, even with most everybody back there, because of the missed time in the preseason. Cohesion will probably be an issue, so they’re rely more on individual talent and playmaking ability. The good news for Georgia is there’s no reason not to expect the offense to pick up where it left off last year. That’s why everyone, including me, is predicting a high-scoring affair on Saturday.

1) Will there a philosophical approach to slow the game down early in the season by running the ball more to keep the defense off the field and allow them time to get their house in order. Georgia will be facing three very good offenses early but more importantly the amount of time the UGA defense is on the field needs to shrink.

2) Will this be the year that Mike Bobo takes the next step as an offensive coordinator and calls the game to protect his defense. Nothing against him as a play caller but sometimes I don’t think he protects the defense with his play calling.
- Cleveland Williams, III, Stone Mountain, GA

1) They’re not going to come out and divulge their strategy, lest Clemson be prepared more to stop the run. But Bobo has always stated his preference for balance, and Georgia is equipped to do that. Several offensive players did tell me that they know they help the defense by holding on to the ball. So it’ll just depend on situations and how the game plays out.

2) Frankly I’m not sure I agree with that. Bobo was criticized for years for not being creative enough, and now that he’s put that to rest, the concern is he doesn’t protect the defense? Keep in mind, last year was the first time since 2009 that Georgia had a reliable running game. And over the past two years with all that talent on defense, there wasn’t any feeling that the defense needed protection.

Now, opponents did have a better average time of possession last year: Georgia possessed it 28:07 of the time. And some of that is the offense scoring pretty quickly. But I’m not sure Grantham had any complaints about that or ever told Bobo to hold it up. What’s more, a lot of that was Georgia’s run defense being a sieve: It allowed Buffalo (not the Bills) to rush for 199 yards, and the result was Georgia only having it for 27:53 that game. Georgia was dominated in time of possession by most other opponents, with the worst being Alabama (37:35), but again, you can lay the blame for that and not stopping the Crimson Tide from running the ball.

Final stat: Georgia ran the ball 493 times last year, while passing it 399 times. Opponents ran the ball 591 times and passed it 351 times. In other words, Georgia was a lot more balanced than its opponents, though some of that can be attributed to Georgia being ahead and running out clock and opponents having to try to catch up. (A note to stat geeks checking my math: Technically Georgia rushed the ball 525 times last year, but I subtracted the sacks from the total.)

1) So, I hear our 4th year starting quarterback, potential record-setting Heisman contender, was stabbed in the eye and is now blind. Sad to hear for Murray as he always seemed like a good kid but, hey, at least Mason redshirted last year! Who is going to be the new #2?

2) I understand that Clemson runs a lot of plays (as do we) but from a match-up standpoint, I see UGA having better match-ups than Clemson. I’m not trying to bash Clemson because they can be dangerous but, to a man, we should match up with them pretty well. Also, the whole “up-tempo” has a large minus to it. As Auburn exposed in the national championship game, defensive line penetration kills the angles needed to run that type of offense and the faster you run plays and don’t get yards, the faster your offense is off the field and the defense is back on the field. Unlike UGA, Clemson is strictly tethered to the “up-tempo” offense. UGA, on the other hand, can line up in the “I” and just run clock and pound it – Clemson does not have the defensive depth to withstand it or the proper personnel on offense to attempt it. Is the concern over Clemson legitimate, or is it over-hyped because: (1) it’s the first game and (2) it’s Clemson?
- James Colvin, Tulsa, OK

1) Yes, Aaron Murray is now blind, as we reported on Tuesday, and at last check Clemson was not going to let him use a seeing-eye dog to get around the pocket. Unfortunately, Hutson Mason is also quite busy with his new job choreographing Miley Cyrus’ next show, and the other quarterbacks are too green, so Georgia will just be direct-snapping to Gurley and Marshall all day.

2) There was an entire offseason to focus on Clemson and its dangers, and I don’t think they’re without merit. That said, a lot of the hype you mention is fueled by quotes from Georgia coaches and players, who obviously aren’t going to say anything to devalue the upcoming opponent. They’re going to do just the opposite, actually.

There’s probably some truth in what you’re saying, but I don’t think Clemson’s offense is gimmicky or anything. It’s what a lot of offenses are doing these days, including a lot of the prolific Big 12 teams. Now when they run into stout defenses, there are mixed results. So is Georgia a stout defense? Probably not right away. It would have been more interesting to see how this Clemson offense matched up with last year’s Georgia defense, or the Bulldogs defense by the second half of this year, when I think it might be pretty good.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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