When Georgia scheduled Clemson for a home-and-home series to open 2013 and 2014, coach Mark Richt was aware the impact the marquee game could have on the rest of the season .
After losing 38-35 at Clemson to open 2013, Georgia will be looking for revenge on Saturday when the two schools meet again between the hedges at Sanford Stadium.
"I am also looking forward to our fans wearing red and getting after it and creating enough noise that we can hopefully disrupt some of the things they are trying to do offensively," Richt said. "It is going to take everybody, and our fans are going to be a huge part of it."
But Georgia will need more than fan support to topple a big-time, ACC opponent. It will need a young, untested secondary to come under first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and keep Clemson's speedy fleet of receivers in check.
"We have guys who don't have a lot of experience who are going to be playing, and some who have no experience who are going to be playing," Richt said. "It'll be interesting. We are actually going to meet tonight on both sides of the ball and try to nail down whose going to be where to make sure our guys know where they stand and can be studying the right things."
Richt has confidence that Pruitt will improve a Georgia defense that allowed 29 points per game last season.
"He's a very demanding coach," Richt said. "He's definitely got a plan. I think he's a very good teacher and communicator. He's driven to have a great defense and over time he'll do a phenomenal job."
Offensively, Georgia comes into the game confident that fifth-year senior starting quarterback Hutson Mason can get the ball in the hands of his playmakers. Gurley will be aided by a strong running game. Junior tailback Todd Gurley is a Heisman Trophy candidate and junior tailback Keith Marshall is back healthy after tearning his ACL last season.
Seniors Michael Bennett and Chris Conley lead a talented group of wide receivers.
"I don't want to compare to other years. But I still think our offense has the potential to put up crazy numbers and put up a lot of points if we just execute," Bennett said. "We definitely have the talent. So if we just execute like the coaches want us to, I think we'll be all right."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Hutson Mason starts his redshirt senior season with a huge test at home against Clemson. Mason has already proven he can start and win a big game at Georgia, leading the Bulldogs to comeback win over rival Georgia Tech in one of his two starts last November after QB Aaron Murray went down with a season-ending injury. But this is the kind of game that can set the tone for the season and the Bulldogs will be counting on Mason's leadership and accuracy to carry Georgia to a win.
--RB Todd Gurley can take pressure of QB Hutson Mason with a strong performance. He's downplayed Heisman talk, but a big game on a big stage against Clemson could help jump-start his candidacy. It will be important for Gurley to show that ankle problems that hindered him off and on during the 2013 season are behind him.
--OLB Leonard Floyd appears capable of having a breakout year as a sophomore after finishing his freshman season with 6.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. "He's a very talented guy who loves football and practices and plays hard," Richt said. "He's got a very natural football I.Q. It all comes very natural to the guy. You don't have to give him rep after rep after rep for him to get it."
--CB Devin Bowman won the starting job in Georgia's secondary opposite senior Damian Swann with a strong camp. Bowman will face an immediate test covering Clemson's stable of speedy playmaking receivers.
SERIES HISTORY: Georgia leads series 41-18 (4 ties). Last meeting, 2013, Clemson won 38-35.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have something to prove. After losing last year's game, this is huge for us." -- Georgia defensive end Sterling Bailey, on avenging last season's 38-35 opening loss at Clemson.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: In juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, the Bulldogs have a one-two punch as effective as any tandem in the country. The key will be keeping both healthy. If not, sophomore RB Brendan Douglas proved he could step in, finishing his freshman season with with 345 yards on 4.1 yards per carry and 3 TD. "Gurley is the starter, Keith is the number two guy, and the (if) other guys are ready to play, my guess is that they'll play," Richt said.
Scouting the passing game With WRs Malcolm Mitchell (knee) and Justin Scott-Wesley (suspension) out, Georgia senior quarterback Hutson Mason still has plenty of targets to throw to. Senior WRs Michael Bennett and Chris Conley will start, while WRs Reggie Davis and Jonathon Rumph will add some depth. Jay Rome won the starting TE job in camp while converted FB turned TE Quayvon Hicks will provide depth at the position.
Scouting the run defense: Georgia should be strong up front, with 320-pound Chris Mayes and 290-pound Mike Thornton at nose tackle. Inside linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson are sure tacklers. Last season, Georgia allowed opponents to average just 3.7 yards per carry.
Scouting the pass defense: It's the biggest concern of Georgia heading into the 2014. But the Bulldogs could help their inexperienced secondary with a strong pass rush. Georgia is capable of bringing pressure from outside with OLBs Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. The Bulldogs had 33 sacks last season and could post even better numbers in new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's 3-4 scheme. Scouting the special teams: K Marshall Morgan is coming off an excellent sophomore season. Morgan made 22 of 24 field goals last season, with a long of 56 yards. Richt said he's carried over that form into camp this season. ""If he kicks in the games like he does at practice he's going to have a great year," Richt said. At P, meanwhile, Richt said he's still undecided between Collin Barber and walk-on Adam Erickson. Freshman WR Isaiah McKenzie has impressed with kick returns in practice and could be a weapon for the Bulldogs this season. Georgia's coverage teams have been prone to give up punt and kickoff returns in recent seasons and must be tight and sound against Clemson's speedy return threats.
DRAFT PROSPECTS (includes 2015 NFLDraftScout.com ratings as applicable):
--RB Todd Gurley (No. 1 running back, No. 18 overall) - Gurley proved his versatility last season by finishing the year 989 rushing yards, 441 receiving yards and a combined 15 TDs (10 TDs rushing, 5 TDs receiving). The 6-1, 226 running back should have more chances to display both his rushing and receiving in Georgia's offense this season.
--LB Jordan Jenkins (No. 7 outside linebacker 92nd overall) - Jenkins is a strong edge pass rusher coming off an up-and-down sophomore year that included 5 sacks and 8 tackles for loss. For his career, Jenkins has 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 2 forced fumbles
--LB Ramik Wilson (No. 4 inside linebacker, 115th overall) - Wilson suffered a concussion early in camp and has been slow to recover. He's currently listed second on Georgia's depth chart behind sophomore Tim Kimbrough, but still should see action in the Clemson game.
--WR Malcolm Mitchell will miss the Clemson game after undergoing knee surgery in July. Mitchell was sidelined the entire 2013 after suffering a torn ACL in last season's opener at Clemson.
--WR Justin Scott-Wesley was rules out for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. Presumably, Scott-Wesley is suspended for Georgia's first game due to an offseason marijuana arrest.
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