CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson University ended the 2012 season with a landmark victory against Southeastern Conference power LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl; now the No. 8-ranked Tigers hope to start the 2013 season taking down another SEC heavyweight when they play host to No. 5 Georgia in the season opener for both teams on Saturday.
There will be no shortage of hype for just the second matchup of Top 10 teams in the history of Clemson’s Memorial Stadium — ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be on hand to pump up a sold-out crowd of 80,000-plus and a national television audience.
“Openers are always tough, regardless of the opponent, because of the unknown,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But they’re even tougher when you open up with a team like Georgia.”
It will be the first meeting between the teams since 2003, marking at least a two-year resurrection of a popular series that has produced many close and memorable games, particularly in the 11-game span from 1977 to 1988. Each team won five times and there was one tie during that stretch, with the games decided by an average of one point.
Saturday night’s game shapes up as a potential shootout with two proven, high-scoring offenses directed by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks facing defenses rife with question marks.
Whatever unfolds, plenty of excitement should be in the offing.
“Turn it up, have fun, just bring it,” Clemson running back Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell said. “The environment is going to be unbelievable and I know we’ll feed off of it. This is what you play for, really. Both of us are ranked, so this is the best way to start your season off.”
A victory could immediately boost Clemson into national title talk, but Swinney also made it clear that a defeat wouldn’t bring a premature end to the Tigers’ season.
“It’d be great to win the game, but we’re really just going to check off the first goal, which is to win the opener,” Swinney said. “We’ve got 12 games on our schedule and this happens to be first. It’s not a win-all, end-all type deal. The winner of this game has a good starting spot. The loser may drop back a little bit, but is not out of the race. It’s a long race.”
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH VS. GEORGIA
• WR Sammy Watkins hopes to flash the form that made him an All-American as a freshman two years ago. Watkins missed the first two games of last season due to suspension, then a couple more games with illness before culminating his season by being injured on the second play of the Chick-fil-A Bowl and missing that game, too.
Watkins says he’s healthy, happy and in the best shape of his life - mentally and physically - entering this season. He is a big-play receiver, with capabilities that could really test a youthful Georgia secondary that will be breaking in three new starters.
• RB Roderick “Hot Rod” McDowell has spent the past few seasons toiling behind backs such as C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. Now it’s his time to shine. McDowell flashed his potential in relief of Ellington on several occasions last season, accumulating 450 yards and five touchdowns, but Saturday’s game will mark the first start of his career.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd is convinced that “Hot Rod” will shift into overdrive.
“He’s one of those guys who’s been waiting for the moment,” Boyd said. “I feel like he’s going to take it by the horns and run with it. I feel like he’s most explosive player in this offense.”
• DT Grady Jarrett has emerged as the stalwart of an ever-improving defensive front.
“He’s disruptive,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Jarrett will have to be disruptive if Clemson is to be effective at slowing Georgia’s vaunted running attack.
“It’s obvious that we’re a lot better this year,” the 6-foot-1, 295-pound junior said. “It has been easier this year because I’m used to the process. I feel more physical, bigger and stronger.”
Notes: QB Chad Kelly, who suffered a torn ACL in Clemson’s spring game in April, will be dressed and available for the Georgia game. “He’s been relentless in his rehab,” Swinney said. … RB Tyshon Dye will miss the game with back pain. A freshman who was impressive in the early portion of fall camp, Dye may be redshirted unless he exhibits rapid improvement over the next couple of weeks. … DB Mackensie Alexander will miss the Georgia game with a groin injury, and fellow freshman DB Jayron Kearse is listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. … TE Sam Cooper, who tore an ACL in the spring game, will remain out for the Georgia game, but could return in September. Backup TE Jordan Legget is listed as questionable with a knee injury.