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Bulldogs face daunting test in opener

Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray (11) works out with teammates during practice at the University of Georgia on Aug. 1. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Georgia Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray (11) works out with teammates during practice at the University of Georgia on Aug. 1. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

If Georgia’s 2013 football season is about redemption, it picked a challenging way to get things started.

Georgia will open its season 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 playing 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,” redshirt sophomore wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley said. “(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.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH

—QB Aaron Murray is entering his fourth and final season at Georgia as the most accomplished passer in school history. That’s no small feat, considering Georgia has produced a lineage of successful QBs ranging from Fran Tarkenton to Matthew Stafford. The senior from Tampa will look to build on his 95 career TD passes and 10,091 career yards while trying to shed the label of a QB unable to win big games.

—RB Todd Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards and scored 18 TDs as a freshman. So what do you do for an encore? Gurley and fellow sophomore RB Keith Marshall should provide an effective 1-2 punch in the running game all season for the Bulldogs.

—LB Jordan Jenkins is being counted on to provide pressure from the edge in Georgia’s 3-4 scheme now that Jarvis Jones has departed for the NFL draft. In limited snaps last season, Jenkins finished with five sacks and eight tackles for loss. The 6-3 246-pound sophomore should have even more this season.

—CB Damian Swann is a returning starter in Georgia’s thin secondary who will be counted on the back end of the defense until other players develop. Swann will get a tough test in week one, covering star Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins.

SERIES HISTORY: Georgia leads 41-17, 4 ties.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It’s going to be a great ride. We’re trying to get to (the BCS title game in) Pasadena. That’s what our mind is focused on. We don’t want to limit ourselves and just stop at the SEC championship. The ultimate goal is to win it all.” — Georgia cornerback Sheldon Dawson, on lofty goals for the Bulldogs this season.

GAME BREAKDOWN

Scouting the running game: Georgia was strong running the football last season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while rushing for 32 touchdowns. Georgia’s offensive line came together quicker than expected last season and opened up holes up front. Sophomore LT John Theus has lived up to his five-star billing and the return of RT Kolton Houston should bolster the offensive line again in 2013.

Scouting the passing game: Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will have plenty of weapons to throw to 2013. The Malcolm Mitchell experiment on defense is over, he’s back to being a full-time WR and a very good one (572 yards, 4 TDs last season). Possession WR Michael Bennett is back healthy from a torn ACL and Chris Conley is back at WR for his junior season. Justin Scott-Wesley has had a good camp and has a chance to emerge as another playmaking WR. At TE, Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome are both capable pass catchers who can score in the red zone.

Scouting the run defense: Even with the loss of LB Alec Ogletree and NT John Jenkins, Georgia has some players in its front seven capable of stopping the run. LB Amarlo Herrera had 70 tackles in nine starts last season at inside linebacker and LB Ramik Wilson also will provide some depth inside. Junior Mike Thornton (302 pounds) is a smaller nose tackle, but still capable of occupying blockers inside.

Scouting the pass defense: This could be an area of concern, considering the questionable status of S Tray Matthews and the suspension of S Josh Harvey-Clemons heading into the Clemson. The key for the Bulldogs will be to generate a consistent pass rush until the back end of the defense develops. Damian Swann is a capable cornerback in man coverage and will be counted on to lead the secondary.

Scouting the special teams: If PK Marshall Morgan (possible suspension) doesn’t dress against Clemson, Georgia will turn to sophomore Patrick Beless for place-kicking duties. Sophomore Collin Barber is back start at P after averaging 41.5 yards as a freshman and having 19 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Georgia’s kick coverage teams must be sharp against Clemson junior Sammy Watkins, who is as dangerous returning kicks as he is as a WR. Watkins has one career kickoff return for a TD and is averaging 23.5 yards per return.