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Showdown in Charlotte: Clemson vs. Georgia preview

Caleb Browder, Photo Editor

Dabo Swinney leads the team in the Walk of Champions before the Boston College game in 2019

246 days. That is how long it will be this Saturday since Clemson lost to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl last season. Since that night, Clemson Tiger fans have eagerly awaited to, once again, prove the doubters wrong. That wait will soon be over, as the No. 3 Clemson Tigers will face off against the No. 5 Georgia Bulldogs in the Duke’s Mayo Classic at 7:30 on Saturday, which should be a showdown for the ages.  

In this premier week one matchup, there are plenty of storylines to follow, but perhaps the most intriguing is the quarterback battle between Clemson’s sophomore DJ Uiagalelei and Georgia’s junior JT Daniels. 

Neither Uiagalelei nor Daniels is a seasoned college football veteran, although Daniels has 516 career pass attempts compared to Uiagalelei’s 117. However, both head coaches acknowledge the quarterbacks’ talent and that their defenses face a challenge going up against them. 

“I’m very impressed with their quarterback. He got some great experience and some great confidence last year,” said Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney in his Tuesday media session. “Really impressed with his moxie. You can tell he’s a good leader. He’s got great arm talent.” 

As for going up against Uiagalelei, Georgia Head Coach Kirby Smart said, “Obviously, their quarterback got some experience last year when Trevor was down. Got one of the biggest arms I’ve ever seen. Very talented, very hard to defend.” 

Both quarterbacks have the talent to put up points on the board, but the defenses may be the determining factor in who wins on Saturday night. Clemson returns 9 of 11 defensive starters, making the Tigers’ defense one of the most experienced defenses in college football.   

“Probably one of the best defenses I’ve seen returning, in terms of number of starts, and number of games played. The volume of experience is unmatched,” said Smart on Monday.  

Meanwhile, Swinney had high praise for Georgia’s interior defense on Tuesday, saying, “They’re built to stop the run. They’ve led the country two years in a row in rush defense and yards per carry.”  

According to Mike Griffith of DawgNation, Georgia cornerback Tykee Smith is doubtful to play on Saturday. The transfer defensive back had a great 2020 campaign for West Virginia, putting up 61 tackles, five pass breakups, two interceptions and eight tackles for loss. Expected to be a star on defense for the Bulldogs, it will be a huge loss if Smith does not suit up on Saturday.  

Also not suiting up on Saturday night will be former Clemson wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell, who were drafted to the NFL in April. Without those two, Uiagalelei will likely have a wide receiver group comprised of inexperienced youth, such as sophomore E.J. Williams, along with injury bugged talents, such as juniors Justyn Ross, Frank Ladson Jr., and Joseph Ngata. 

Ross, who is coming back from spinal surgery last spring, had a phenomenal first two seasons and has the talent to make a monumental impact on the game. “Being able to have Justyn Ross back is huge man. I feel like he is the best receiver in college football,” said Uiagalelei on Monday. 

While the receiving group has the potential to be rusty out of the gate, from either inexperience or coming back from injury, the overall talent is undeniable. “I know I have so much talent and so much depth in the receiving room that it just makes my job easier,” said Uiagalelei. 

For Georgia, they will have many of their weapons returning from last year but will be without their second-leading receiver from last season, George Pickens. Pickens, who tore his ACL in the spring, ended last season on a promising run, putting up a combined 261 yards and three touchdowns in his final two games. 

Another name to watch for the Bulldogs is tight end Darnell Washington, who is doubtful to play on Saturday, according to Griffith. Despite not having a tremendous statistical freshman season last year, Washington was a key part of Georgia’s offense. Look for his likely replacement, John Fitzpatrick, to carry the load. 

It may be week one of the college football season, but this game will set the tone for the season for both the Tigers and the Bulldogs. Especially with this being the first game with a full stadium since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, expect an electric atmosphere in Charlotte on Saturday night. 

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