ATHENS -- Two days before playing in the nation’s most highly anticipated game of opening weekend, and the game that could dictate the course of its season, the Georgia football team spent valuable meeting time talking and posing for pictures with Jeff Gordon.
Hey, the NASCAR poster boy was in town anyway, so what’s a few minutes away from the grind?
A couple of days before that, the atmosphere was just as loose. Star linebacker Jordan Jenkins happily recalled his ability to leap five feet over a blocker during a scrimmage. Star quarterback Aaron Murray laughed his way through explaining why he just started wearing eye contacts but won’t in the game.
Even head coach Mark Richt, who was wound up enough to yell at media members at practice a couple of times earlier in the week, was calmer as the week went on. Before his final media session he was joking around, offering to switch places with reporters and ask reporters about place-kicker Marshall Morgan’s status.
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It can be hazardous to transpose a team’s mood into its ability to win a game. Two years ago, many of the same players were excited and wound up before their season opener against Boise State. Georgia got clobbered. Last year, the Bulldogs were more even-keel and focused heading into their showdown at South Carolina. They got clobbered again.
Still, it was impossible not to notice this week that this Georgia team was approaching its latest big game with a more relaxed air than its most recent national flameouts. It would seem to be the most lasting effect of last year’s SEC championship: Emotion is ceasing to be a factor.
Even in defeat, this program passed an emotional milestone against Alabama in December. Playing that well in that big of a game has left it immune to feeling the pressure of a top-10 matchup.
“I don’t think we’ve even talked about (the magnitude of this game) at all,” junior receiver Chris Conley said. “We’ve just talked about, ‘Hey, this is the opponent, it’s 11-on-11.’ I don’t think the fact it’s two top-10 teams has come up once. I haven’t heard it.”
That might seem like coach-speak. Trust me, it’s diametrically opposed to the quotes that were spewing out of Athens before those Boise State and South Carolina games. It’s more in line with what the team was saying before the final two games of last year.
Again, it doesn’t mean Georgia will win. It doesn’t even mean it will play well. But it is noteworthy.
On offense, there seems to be a sense of, “OK, we’ve been here before, big game, no huge deal, let’s just go play.” It’s very similar to how last year’s defense entered the season, which can be dangerous, as we saw. Then again, maybe a defense requires hunger (provided later in the season by Shawn Williams), while an offense needs a more serene sense about itself and a focus on simply executing.
On defense, it’s a little harder to tell this year. Everyone uses the term “hungry,” and that’s obvious, with so many young and unproven players eager to make a name. Some players speak of a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude. But I don’t know if it’s quite that. It seems more a defense with nothing really to lose. It’s already expected the defense is going to give up a lot of points at Clemson, and at this point any drive that it gets off the field will seem like a victory.
Georgia is favored by the Las Vegas book-makers, a 2.5-point favorite at last glance. Home-field advantage is usually good for about three points, so the oddsmakers are saying Georgia is a better team by slightly less than a touchdown. That sounds about right.
Both teams have great offenses. But Georgia has a better running game and has a better chance to control time of possession.
Both teams have big questions on defense. Georgia is more talented on that side of the ball but also much younger. That side is a toss-up.
The Bulldogs are also likely without Morgan, although Richt won’t confirm the suspension. If he is out, it could loom large.
The simplistic breakdown of this game -- which absolutely should be a shootout -- is Georgia’s offense should be able to score about 75 percent of the time and Clemson about 60 percent. If that holds up, turnover margin and red-zone percentage are the swing statistics.
Georgia should win the game if the offense picks up where it left off last year and if its defense can stop Clemson from establishing the run. If that happens, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be freed up to throw Jenkins and other blitzers at Tajh Boyd and try to mitigate the running game that way.
Clemson should win if Boyd proves unstoppable, especially with his legs and if it can frustrate Murray into a few turnovers.
Any of that could happen. What doesn’t seem will be a factor is Georgia being in awe of Death Valley or the occasion. The Bulldogs, simply put, should be past that.
“Ignore the noise,” Conley said. “Let’s play Georgia football. And if we play Georgia football the way we know how, we’re gonna win.”