Georgia-Clemson: Which has the most to lose?

Dwelling on the negative – hey, it’s a bleak and rainy day, so, let’s get a little Kafkaesque: Forget who’s going to win Sept. 4 in Charlotte. Rather who has the most to lose?

A wonderful 1980s vintage rivalry that was chewed up by the gears of change in college football has been spit out just in time to give us a matchup of top-five teams and an opener of exaggerated proportion. And it’s fairly certain that Clemson and Georgia will not be playing for participation trophies. One team must clearly end the night with its cleats planted upon the chest of the other. And one team must deal with a massively deflating defeat right from the jump.

Both teams share great, unmasked ambition for 2021. And here let’s note that no team that has won the CFP championship – this since 2014 – has lost its first game of the season. Some have struggled through the experience (Clemson edging unranked Auburn in 2016). Some have gutted their opponent in the process (in 2017, Alabama exposing a then third-ranked FSU, injuring its quarterback in the process and paving the way for a six-loss Seminoles season). Some have just made a snack of the usual just-here-for-the-check opening acts. But, bottom line, national championship teams win that first game.

Both sides have done all they can to minimize the effects of a potential loss. There has been the expected litany of disclaimers: It’s early; it’s just one game; nothing is decided Sept. 4; what, do you expect us to forfeit the rest of the schedule and go into witness protection if we lose?

Still, losing matters, or it wouldn’t hurt so darn much. A glimpse here at how much it could matter to the Bulldogs and Tigers.

What Clemson stands to lose: The only game on the schedule against an opponent with teeth.

The great and powerful Paul Finebaum floats the contention that the Tigers, because of their relatively unheralded ACC schedule, may not have the ability to rehab their reputation and prove themselves playoff worthy after a loss to Georgia. On one show or another that he does, Finebaum said, “If Clemson loses to Georgia in that opener, where do they go for another big win? They don’t have any other options. They could find themselves in trouble.”

Georgia is the only opponent on its schedule that appears in the preseason AP Top 25. Most have come to expect Clemson going on to win the ACC by acclamation. What does it mean if the Tigers only do the least that is expected of them?

On such a view hangs the notion that Clemson has the most to lose. And a team that has been to six consecutive College Football Playoffs had best be very concerned about its first impression of 2021. That should be enough to give Dabo Swinney his first worry line.

But I would disagree.

What Georgia stands to lose: the kind of game the Bulldogs need only as much as the heart needs blood, or a diva needs applause.

The narrative that the Bulldogs are somehow genetically incapable of winning such a championship-level game is the product of a weary and wary fan base. The tonic to such cynicism – a four-season-old Rose Bowl victory over No. 2 Oklahoma – is starting to lose its potency. A booster shot of belief is required.

Unlike Clemson, Georgia lacks the reams of recent experience – some of it even pleasant – with high-impact games. On a psychic level, beyond the practical knowledge that this is but one of 12 games on a schedule, the Bulldogs badly need to win this particular one. They stand to lose a lot here, above all else a thin and vulnerable veneer of confidence.

This is the kind of game where faith in a lightly tested quarterback is elevated or eroded, where Georgia rises above or succumbs to an injured center here and an absent wide receiver there.

Sure, Georgia could recover from a loss. Its own schedule is hardly a minefield, with the SEC East in retrograde, with only one other ranked team on the ledger (Florida). Beating Alabama in a conference championship game would salve all wounds. But deep down, in those places where all the one-game-at-a-time bromides don’t reach, can these Bulldogs really see themselves finally beating Bama if they can’t beat Clemson?

Because the Bulldogs have so much to win on the first Saturday in September – like a real sense of their championship selves – it figures on the flip side that they, too, have much to lose.

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