The loser of Saturday’s Duke’s Mayo Classic won’t be eliminated from national championship contention.
That said, the margin for error this season will be thinner for the college football team on the wrong side of the hyped matchup, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., between Clemson (No. 2 in Coaches Poll, No. 3 in AP Poll) and Georgia (No. 5 in both polls). The Tigers began the week as 3 1/2-point favorites.
“It’s just so exciting,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on the ACC Network. “You can just kind of feel it in the air. And then you throw in the fact that you’re playing a team that’s good enough to win the national championship — and we think we’re a pretty good team — it’s just even more so.”
ESPN College GameDay will be on site for a matchup that figures to shape the national championship race at some point.
“Our fans crave these kind of games,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “We as coaches crave these kind of games … For us, it gives us an opportunity to grow in our SEC schedule regardless of the outcome of the game.”
The matchup is the first since 2014 between the neighboring schools, who face off much more frequently in off-the-field battles on the recruiting front. Clemson’s recent success — national titles in 2016 and 2018, title game losses in 2015 and 2019 — has been fueled heavily by Georgia talent, most notably with star quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence from Cartersville and Deshaun Watson from Gainesville.
Clemson currently has 26 Georgians on the roster, and a number of key contributors from the Peach State. Veteran linebacker James Skalski, in his sixth college season, played at Northgate, and defensive lineman Myles Murphy, a freshman All-American last season, played at Hillgrove. The Tigers’ top two returning running backs are both Georgians, Lyn-J Dixon (Taylor County and Kobe Pace (Cedartown), as is standout cornerback Andrew Booth (Archer).
Murphy is joined on the Clemson front by another returning freshman All-American, Bryan Bresee.
“Their front four, a couple of them are from our state. We recruited each and every one of them,” Smart said. “They’re really talented. Every kid across that front we had on our campus at some time. Lost probably on all of them in terms of trying to get them. They’re talented. They’re quick.”
Clemson has nine of 11 starters back on what figures to be one of college football’s best defenses, directed by longtime coordinator Brent Venables.
“It’s probably one of the best defenses I’ve ever seen returning in terms of number of starts, number of games played,” Smart said. “Their volume of experience is unmatched.”
Georgia counters with an experienced offense with most of its top receivers back, led by Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton, and with a deep running back group headlined by Zamir White and James Cook. But the biggest reason for optimism is a proven quarterback, which the Bulldogs didn’t have entering the 2020 season.
J.T. Daniels averaged more than 300 passing yards per game late last season when he stepped into the lineup after recovering from a knee injury. The Southern California transfer is being hyped as a Heisman Trophy contender and a potential first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
“(Clemson’s) an all-around good, really elite defense,” Daniels said. “I respect the way they play, up front especially. They really get after it. They really play hard. They’re not a talent team that gets by on talent. They work hard.”
Georgia returns a stacked defense as well outside of a revamped secondary. Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and the defensive line is deep, while the linebacking corps expects to be one of the nation’s best groups with stars like Nolan Smith, Adam Anderson, Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker.
The defense will be tested by another star quarterback at Clemson, D.J. Uiagalelei, who excelled in two starts last season when Lawrence was out with COVID issues. He threw for 439 yards against Notre Dame.
“One of the biggest arms I’ve ever seen,” Smart said of Uiagalelei.
The new quarterback already had a talented group of receivers, and that got stronger with the return of 6-foot-4 Justyn Ross, who missed last season after surgery.
The nation will be watching to see how the matchups play out, and which team gets a leg up in the national championship hunt.
“It will be a national measuring stick for everybody to say Georgia’s either here or Georgia’ s gone,” Smart said. “I acknowledge that. It’s not going to change how we prepare for this game, how we’re going to prepare for the next game.”