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Top 25 preview: Georgia at Clemson

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KICKOFF: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET

GAMEDATE: 8/31/13

SITE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.

TV: ABC

SERIES: Georgia leads 41-17-4.

RANKINGS: Georgia No. 5, Clemson No. 8

GAME SNAPSHOT

Clemson ended the 2012 season with a landmark victory against SEC power LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl; now the 8th-ranked Tigers hope to start the 2013 season taking down another SEC heavyweight when they play host to No. 5 Georgia in their season opener on Saturday.

There will be no shortage of hype for just the second match-up of Top 10 teams in the history of Clemson's Memorial Stadium - ESPN's College GameDay will be on hand to pump up a sold-out crowd of 80,000-plus and a national television (ABC) audience.

Georgia came up five yards short of a chance for playing for a national title last year with a 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game.

If Georgia's 2013 football season is about redemption, it picked a challenging way to get things started.

Georgia will open season at Clemson, where a hostile crowd in one of the craziest college football environments awaits. Not many teams make it out of "Death Valley" with a win. But led by experienced quarterback Aaron Murray, Georgia players and coaches think they have enough talent to make a run at a national title.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Opening the season with a loss makes the road to the BCS national title more stressful and challenging. Coach Dabo Swinney said keeping his team's eyes on this week, and not January, is a must.

"Openers are always tough, regardless of the opponent, because of the unknown," Swinney said. "But they're even tougher when you open up with a team like Georgia."

It will be the first meeting between the teams since 2003, marking at least a two-year resurrection of a popular series that has produced many close and memorable games, particularly in the 11-game span from 1977 to 1988. Each team won five times and there was one tie during that stretch, with the games decided by an average of one point.

Saturday night's game shapes up as a potential shootout, what with two proven, high-scoring offenses directed by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks facing defenses rife with question marks.

Whatever unfolds, plenty of excitement should be in the offing.

"Turn it up, have fun, just bring it," Clemson running back Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell said. "The environment is going to be unbelievable and I know we'll feed off of it. This is what you play for, really. Both of us are ranked, so this is the best way to start your season off."

Georgia is regularly looped into contender's talk, and the way last season ended isn't lost on the Bulldogs who are returning.

"When you get close to something, it certainly makes guys feel like, 'Wow. Why not? Why not Georgia?'" Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

A victory could immediately boost Clemson into national title talk, but Swinney also made it clear that a defeat wouldn't bring a premature end to the Tigers' season.

"It'd be great to win the game, but we're really just going to check off the first goal, which is to win the opener," Swinney said. "We've got 12 games on our schedule and this happens to be first. It's not a win-all, end-all type deal. The winner of this game has a good starting spot. The loser may drop back a little bit, but is not out of the race. It's a long race."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Tigers

--WR Sammy Watkins hopes to flash the form that made him an All-American as a freshman two years ago. Watkins missed the first two games of last season due to suspension, then a couple more games with illness before culminating his season by being injured on the second play of the Chick-fil-A Bowl and missing that game, too. But Watkins says he's healthy, happy and in the best shape of his life - mentally and physically. Watkins is a big-play receiver, with capabilities that could really test a youthful Georgia secondary that will be breaking in three new starters.

--RB Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell has spent the past few seasons toiling behind backs such as C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. Now it's his time to shine. McDowell flashed his potential in relief of Ellington on several occasions last season, accumulating 450 yards and five touchdowns, but Saturday's game will mark the first start of his career. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is convinced that "Hot Rod" will shift into overdrive. "He's one of those guys who's been waiting for the moment," Boyd said. "I feel like he's going to take it by the horns and run with it. I feel like he's most explosive player in this offense."

--DT Grady Jarrett has emerged as the stalwart of an ever-improving defensive front. "He's disruptive," defensive coordinator Brent Venables says. Jarrett will have to be disruptive if Clemson is to be effective at slowing Georgia's vaunted running attack. "It's obvious that we're a lot better this year," the 6-foot-1, 295-pound junior said. "It has been easier this year because I'm used to the process. I feel more physical, bigger and stronger."

Bulldogs

--QB Aaron Murray is entering his fourth and final season at Georgia as the most accomplished passer in school history. That's no small feat, considering Georgia has produced a lineage of successful QBs ranging from Fran Tarkenton to Matthew Stafford. The senior from Tampa will look to build on his 95 career TD passes and 10,091 career yards while trying to shed the label of a QB unable to win big games.

--RB Todd Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards and scored 18 TDs as a freshman. So what do you do for an encore? Gurley and fellow sophomore RB Keith Marshall should provide an effective 1-2 punch in the running game all season for the Bulldogs.

--LB Jordan Jenkins is being counted on to provide pressure from the edge in Georgia's 3-4 scheme now that Jarvis Jones has departed for the NFL draft. In limited snaps last season, Jenkins finished with five sacks and eight tackles for loss. The 6-3 246-pound sophomore should have even more this season.

--CB Damian Swann is a returning starter in Georgia's thin secondary who will be counted on the back end of the defense until other players develop. Swann will get a tough test in week one, covering star Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.

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