5 things to know about Georgia-Clemson matchup

Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) lines up against Tennessee Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Credit: UGA Athletics

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Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) lines up against Tennessee Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. (Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Credit: UGA Athletics

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – There’s nothing like a top-5 matchup to get your team and your fan base motivated for the football season. In fact, they’re extremely rare as openers.

When No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Georgia face off in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on Saturday night in Charlotte (7:30 p.m., Channel 2 Action News), it will be just the fourth time since 2000 a pair of top-5 teams have met in a season opener in college football. It will also be the highest-ranked meeting ever between the Bulldogs and Tigers, who have played 64 times since their first game in 1897. Previously, the 2013 game in which No. 8 Clemson defeated No. 5 Georgia 38-35 pitted the two highest ranked teams.

“We are excited to open up with a big-time game, a top-5 opponent and just excited to go to Charlotte,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday. “We have a lot of Georgia alums that live in Charlotte and it is a place that we have not gotten to travel to very often. And Clemson is a traditional rivalry.”

ExploreGeorgia-Clemson: TV, online, radio information

Here are five things to consider as the two teams and their massive fan bases make their way Charlotte this weekend:

Old familiar foes

It’s the first time since 1916, when they met in Anderson, S.C., that Georgia and Clemson have played on neutral ground. From 1907-14 they played in Augusta. The other 55 games all have been played on the schools’ respective campuses, located 75 miles apart.

To play in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium — which is 195 miles from Athens and 137 from Clemson, S.C. — the Charlotte Sports Foundation guaranteed the schools $4 million each or 45% of the net revenue, whichever is greater. The Bulldogs’ profits already have been diminished. They dropped a scheduled game against San Jose State and paid the $1.8 million buyout to play in this one.

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Georgia and Clemson have played each other 64 times in football, but only four times since 1995. The SEC and ACC powerhouses will renew their rivalry in Atlanta in 2024. Georgia leads the series 42-18-4. One of the series' signature moments was Kevin Butler's record-setting field goal to give Georgia the win in 1984. In their last meeting in 2014, Todd Gurley led the Bulldogs in the series' highest scoring game ... ... a 45-21 season-opening win at Sanford Stadium.

Georgia and Clemson will play five more times over the next 12 years, starting with a date in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in Atlanta on Aug. 31, 2024. They’ll play home-and-home again 2029-30 and 2032-33.

COVID cautions

Georgia’s football program was rocked this week by the news that longtime director of sports medicine Ron Courson tested positive for COVID-19. Courson, who is vaccinated, developed a fever Tuesday, underwent testing Wednesday and went home for bed rest. He is not expected to accompany the team to Charlotte.

As of Thursday, no other COVID cases had been reported in the Bulldogs’ football program. Smart said 90 percent of the team is vaccinated. Per the SEC’s new policy, vaccinated individuals that remain asymptomatic who may have had extended contact with Courson will not be subjected to quarantine. Unvaccinated individuals who were within six feet of him for 15 minutes or more still will have to be quarantined for at least seven days.

Clemson has been dealing with some COVID-19 cases as well. In mid-August, star wideout Justyn Ross had to be quarantined for a week shortly after he was cleared from a neck injury because of a positive test. He returned to action and is expected to play Saturday.

On Wednesday, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was asked to address reports that starting defensive tackle Tyler Davis might miss Saturday’s game because of a positive test.

“We are not going to confirm anything,” Swinney said. “... We’ll let everyone know who is available and who’s not on Saturday. Unless we have a long-term injury, we’ll roll with the same policy as last year.”

In Charlotte, local governments enacted legislation last month requiring masks be worn indoors at all times. That includes Bank of America Stadium, at least until attendees reach their seats.

Secondary concerns

Football-wise, Georgia’s biggest concern is how its secondary will match up with the Tigers’ tall and talented receiving corps. The Bulldogs lost six defensive backs to the NFL or transfer after last season, including starting cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell.

A key replacement was Derion Kendrick, who was an All-ACC cornerback at Clemson last year. The senior from Rock Hill, S.C., was dismissed from Clemson in late February and arrested in his hometown in March, had misdemeanor gun and marijuana charges expunged in May and enrolled at UGA in June.

Kendrick is expected to start alongside fifth-year senior Ameer Speed at cornerback. Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith return to start at the safeties, and senior Latavious Brini will take over the Star position. West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith will not play because of a foot injury suffered in camp.

“I can’t think of a year ever coaching in my experience that we’ve had that many departures in the same unit,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “So, it’ll look very different. A lot of those guys are as talented as the guys we’ve had in the past, but very rarely have we had such a lack of experience. The only way to grow up is to go play.”

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart comments on quarterback JT Daniels and his preparation for starting against Clemson in Top 5 matchup.

JT vs. DJ

The starting quarterbacks for Saturday’s game could not have come from much farther away for their opportunities. Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei hails from Bellflower, Calif. Georgia’s JT Daniels is from 28 miles away in Irvine.

In fact, the two quarterbacks actually went head-to-head in high school. Then a junior, Daniels’ Mater Dei High team defeated Uiagalelei’s St. John Bosco team in what was the freshman Uiagalelei’s first start.

ExploreBulldogs will go as far as JT Daniels can take them

Daniels transferred to Georgia last summer after two seasons as the starting quarterback at USC. Still recovering from a knee injury that wiped out his sophomore season for the Trojans, Daniels did not emerge as the Bulldogs’ starting quarterback until the seventh game of last season. Georgia went 4-0 in the games he started, and the offense averaged eight more points and 100 more yards a game.

Uiagaleilei started two games for Clemson last season while star quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19. Those included an overtime loss to Notre Dame and a come-from-behind win over Boston College. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 914 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in 235 snaps over 10 games. He also had four rushing TDs and 60 yards on 28 carries.

O-line vs. D-line

Clemson and Georgia both return their entire defensive lines, which are considered among the best in college football this year. The Bulldogs, led by senior nose guard and Charlotte resident Jordan Davis, have led the nation in run defense each of the past two seasons. The Tigers, led by sophomores Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy, led the nation in sacks per game last season.

Those fronts will be countered by offensive lines that are each undergoing rebuilds. Both will be starting new centers, with the Tigers moving senior guard Matt Bockhorst into that spot and the Bulldogs starting freshman Sedrick Van Pran because of a hand injury to junior Warren Ericson.

“They’re a lot like us. This is a tough matchup, and there’s a lot to learn about your team because you really haven’t tackled in a year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Now you’ve got to go out and tackle on an incredibly high level to be successful.”

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