University of Georgia

Georgia, Clemson’s strength and weakness collide

ATHENS -- Georgia senior receiver Chris Conley was riffing recently on the excitement engendered by the new College Football Playoff and the confidence he has his team could be among that final four.

“This team has all the pieces, you can see it,” Conley said. “You can see it out at practice. You can see that talent. You can see the coaching.”

Conley was free to look at his offense and see “all the pieces.” But that defense, especially the secondary?

Coaches and players have been saying a version of the same thing at Clemson, where one unit is expected to carry the team, while the other is the big question.

So when the teams meet Saturday at Sanford Stadium, the most curious eyes and deep breaths will occur when Georgia’s defense and Clemson’s offense take the field against each other. They are mysteries to each other, to the outside world, and perhaps even to themselves. It’s a recipe for a matchup that will in a way cancel out in the end, without one unit dominating the other.

Clemson’s confidence rests in its offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, and the hope that one of the respected playcallers in college football does not need a slew of returning veterans. Last year, Morris’ offense was dominant, except for one game, when his unit was bested by Florida State’s defense, coached by the same man who now heads Georgia’s defense.

Jeremy Pruitt has focused mostly on the secondary, Georgia’s main weakness last year and Pruitt’s position group. But his changes will not be limited to there.

Keep an eye on whether Leonard Floyd, normally an edge-rusher, ends up playing some at inside linebacker, drawing snaps away from Ramik Wilson, last year’s All-SEC first-teamer. Lorenzo Carter, a highly touted freshman, could then get snaps at outside linebacker.

This has been hinted at late in the preseason, with inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler saying the coaching staff “moved some guys around” and head coach Mark Richt saying Floyd “got a little taste of it in there,” meaning inside linebacker.

There will be other packages employed.

“He’s got some stuff where we’ve got one D-lineman in, two D-linemen in, all outside backers in,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “It’s crazy what he’s got in store for us.”

Georgia’s aim is to have its front seven dominate Clemson’s offensive line and for the outside linebackers to rattle new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt. The hope will be to mitigate problems in Georgia’s secondary and maybe force some turnovers.

The target area for Georgia is to keep Clemson around 20 points. That also assumes, the Bulldogs hope, an end to the special teams gifts they gave opponents last year.

If the Bulldogs can do that, then the key becomes the matchup of the two vaunted units. So in the end, this game could be decided by the matchup of strengths: Georgia’s prolific and veteran offense against Clemson’s stout and veteran defense.

Here are the keys:

Georgia’s offensive line versus Clemson’s front seven. There are two critical matchups to watch here.

Georgia left tackle John Theus, is making his first career start at left tackle, against Clemson senior end Vic Beasley. As Richt said, “The guy’s one of the best players in America and a guy we’re definitely gonna have to deal with.”

And Georgia’s interior line goes up against Clemson defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, another All-America candidate. The Bulldogs have a senior center in David Andrews, but guards Brandon Kublanow and Greg Pyke are sophomores making their first start.

The Bulldogs need to control the line as much as possible, and give Hutson Mason time to find his receivers. Mason had trouble in the pocket in his two starts at the end of last year, and while he and the coaches say he has worked on that during the offseason, the more time he has the less it’s an issue.

Mason and his receivers vs. Clemson’s young secondary. Mason will not have his best two deep threats, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, but he does have proven seniors Conley and Michael Bennett, tight end Jay Rome, and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

“I think that’s one of the things that people forgot,” Conley said. “Even though Aaron (Murray) is a great quarterback, as well, Aaron had a lot of great talent around him, a lot of guys that would pick up for him when he was down. And I think Hutson has the same group of people.”

Gurley’s effectiveness. Last year, the star tailback missed the second quarter and chunks of the second half with a quad injury but still racked up 154 yards, against much of the same talent he will face Saturday.

Clemson’s front seven is more questionable against the run. So if Gurley (and Marshall) can control the ground, Georgia’s offense has a chance to put up a lot of points. If not, it will be a long day for the Bulldogs.

“Time to just play,” Richt said.

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