Bulldogs Beat

Beat writer Q&A: Breaking down Clemson

The season is officially upon us when this feature returns: A beat writer for Georgia's opponent answers questions about the game. And so yes, the season is officially here.

Aaron Brenner covers Clemson for the Charleston Post and Courier. You may remember him as a recent guest on the podcast, and now we pick his brain in written form.

I also answered Aaron's questions about Georgia and the game. You can read my answers here.

Here's how Aaron breaks down Clemson and Saturday's matchup:

1. Chad Morris, one of the most respected offensive coordinators in college football, is still calling the plays. But otherwise how different (and less potent?) is the offense led by Cole Stoudt instead of Tajh Boyd, a tailback-by-committee, and not many back from the group that put 38 points on Georgia?

Brenner: Put it this way: if Kirby Smart was the head coach today at, say, Louisville, Alabama's probably still ranked No. 2 in the country. Maybe the Tide drops a spot or two, but that's it. If Morris was in Louisville? Clemson is outside the top 25. In a weird, bizarro hypothetical, it's almost more valuable to the 2014 Tigers that out of Morris and Sammy Watkins, the coordinator is the one who returns instead of the dominant wide receiver. That's what Morris' tempo and playbook means to Clemson. So while the director gets the benefit of the doubt, we are left to question the cast of characters.

I think - and you're hearing from the Cole Stoudt Will Be Fine Club President - Stoudt will be hard-pressed to replace even 70 percent of Boyd's stats from last year, though maybe a few less mistakes will be made. To be fair, nobody figured Roderick McDowell was going to be so dependable until the Georgia opener last year; now the hope is D.J. Howard, C.J. Davidson or Wayne Gallman steps up similarly. And breaking in seven new starters who have never started a game of this ilk ... well, that's why Georgia's a touchdown favorite.

2. Clemson is missing two projected starters on the offensive line for this game. So with what's left, how does it match up with a Georgia front seven that is expected to be be stout against the run, and has a number of good edge rushers?

Brenner: For those who don't know, right tackle Shaq Anthony chose to transfer last week and offensive guard David Beasley is suspended for a violation of team rules, meaning 18 combined starts are on the shelf. Guard Kalon Davis told us this week it was definitely complicated, how the Bulldogs' ends will stand up straight and drop into coverage, letting linebackers blitz from all angles, because if Clemson's barricade isn't perfect in rotation, Stoudt could be running for his life in the blink of an eye. Yes, it's a massive concern for the Tigers; probably the largest mismatch in Georgia's favor.

3. Let's turn to the defense. Senior DE Vic Beasley (13 sacks last year) is clearly a star, and he's surrounded by plenty of other players (Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and more). The linebackers include Stephone Anthony, another All-American candidate, manning the middle. But Clemson is stronger rushing the passer than it is stopping the run, correct?

Brenner: As Sam L. barked in Pulp Fiction: Correctamundo. The Tigers' returning defenders alone had 98.5 tackles for loss last year, which would outdo all but 12 entire rosters nationally. Anthony and Jarrett are studs. Corey Crawford is suspended for this one, which gives more reps to Tavaris Barnes and Shaq Lawson, who each get after the passer in their own right. However, Todd Gurley racked up 154 yards on just 12 carries last year, and while Clemson had its moments later down the road (containing Andre Williams and Mike Davis), the Tigers still scuffled with the likes of Syracuse's Jerome Smith, Georgia Tech's Robert Godhigh and Ohio State's Carlos Hyde. Gurley's better than them all, and y'all know his sidekicks can get it done too. Very underrated subplot this week.

4. In the secondary, Clemson has experience at safety (senior Robert Smith and sophomore Jayron Kearse) but is more inexperienced at cornerback. How do the Tigers match up against a Georgia passing attack that has two senior receivers (Chris Conley and Michael Bennett), a potential difference-maker at tight end (Jay Rome), and a senior quarterback (Hutson Mason)?

Brenner: Mackensie Alexander will have to earn that No. 4 overall rating via ESPN's Class of 2013 rankings in his first career game. He will likely draw the No. 1 assignment (either Conley or Bennett), opposite senior Martin Jenkins, who's a good player but is constantly injured. With Clemson's quick pass-rushers, the idea is the corners just can't get flat burned, but that's easier said than done against a talented bunch like the Bulldogs.

5. Georgia has been favored by more than a touchdown, despite Clemson having won this game last year, and returning such a strong defense. Have you detected any resentment about that on the team, or do they understand why they're underdogs?

Brenner: Great question. And a definitive answer: not really. For one, we know players don't typically read too much into betting lines and that sort; particularly at Clemson, even the ones who do are muzzled by the coaching staff who seeks to control the message positively. With that in mind, give the Tigers truth serum and you'd have to think they at least understand they're not "supposed' to win Saturday.

52 weeks ago, Tajh Boyd played what was at the time the best game of his life ... Gurley was injured for about 11 minutes of game action in the first half ... Georgia had a 1st-and-goal on the Clemson 5 late in the third quarter, and ended up muffing a field-goal hold ... Sammy Watkins had a Tiger Paw on his helmet ... the game was in Death Valley ... and yet, Clemson won by a mere three points. Anyone who picks Clemson to win the rematch isn't necessarily nuts, but they're going out on a limb, period.

6. Finally, what are the two or three keys that you think will decide this game?

Brenner: From Clemson's perspective: it's all about containing the pass-rushers and ground-guzzlers. If Georgia's having its way at the line of scrimmage, either/or by Gurley running wild or the Georgia 'backers applying heat, Clemson's in for a long night. From Georgia's perspective, it's about winning the big plays battle. The Bulldogs need to make some plays through the air in Mason's third career start, and conversely an unproven secondary can't let the likes of Adam Humphries, Charone Peake, Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett embrace their inner Sammy. From both teams' perspectives, just like last year: it's about which team has prepared the best through the heat of fall camp, because there's no cupcake tune-up or dress rehearsals. This is as big a stage as it gets in August.

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