The nation’s eyes will be on Georgia and senior quarterback Aaron Murray, who were five yards away from playing for a national title last season, and are considered one of the favorites to win a championship this season. (Reuters News Service)
ATHENS — If Georgia’s 2013 football season is about redemption, it picked a challenging way to get things started.
Georgia will open its season tonight at Clemson, where a hostile crowd in one of the craziest college football environments awaits. Not many teams make it out of Clemson’s Memorial Stadium (a.k.a. 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.
Georgia came up five yards short of a chance to play for a national title last year with a 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game.
“When you get close to something, it certainly makes guys feel like, ‘Wow. Why not? Why not Georgia?’ ” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
The Bulldogs return Murray, the talented tailback duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receiver Malcolm Mitchell. But Georgia also will be breaking in eight new starters on defense.
That defense will be tested by Clemson returning quarterback Tajh Boyd and star playmaking receiver Sammy Watkins.
“There’s a lot of guys who have been kind of waiting for their moment,” Richt said. “Maybe they haven’t been a starter before, and all of the sudden they’re feeling like, ‘I’m in a responsible position for the first time since I’ve been at Georgia.’ There is going to be a lot of that running through some guys’ minds.”
Georgia also must keep its composure in one of the loudest stadiums in college football.
“We know it’s going to be crazy,” said redshirt sophomore wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, a former Herald Player of the Year in track & field and Camilla native. “(You hear) so many stories from so many people about how crazy it’s going to be so I anticipate it to be a great hostile atmosphere. I expect it to be a good game.”
Said Richt: “I think you got to educate them that it’s a 60-minute game. There’s a lot of snaps, a lot of battles. If you don’t win some battles early on you can’t go in the tank. You just gotta keep fighting, keep believing. You’ll make your share of plays but you know (defensive coordinator Todd) Grantham says it a lot on defense, you gotta play the next play. You gotta be ready to play the next play, good or bad, you gotta play the next play. You gotta get your focus on what’s next, and I think it’s easier said than done.”
Richt has reminded his Bulldogs all spring and summer that Georgia cannot rewind to win the December 2012 conference championship over Alabama, a loss that showed the Bulldogs could go toe-to-toe with the eventual national champions.
“People still want to talk about last year and last year’s SEC Championship Game,” Richt said. “The players know and the coaches know that it’s a new year and it’s a new team. I think they are looking forward to their own identity. They understand they have to have a new identity. We’re not really sure what it’s going to be.”
With Gurley and Murray back, that identity should include plenty of offense. The Bulldogs averaged 37.8 points per game with excellent offensive balance. Of Georgia’s 69 touchdowns last season, 32 came rushing and 37 came through the air. Georgia averaged 285.1 passing yards and 182.6 yards rushing per game.