One of the most highly anticipated nonconference matchups of the year lived up to the hype. As was the case when these two teams met in Clemson, S.C., in 2013, Georgia and Clemson played an exciting, competitive game that whet our appetites for the rest of the college football season. Georgia rode a strong performance from running back Todd Gurley and pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 45-21 win. Here are three quick thoughts on the game:
1. Georgia's Todd Gurley was incredible
Georgia’s running backs against Clemson’s defensive line: A prototypical strength-on-strength matchup. How would the Bulldogs’ deep stable of rushers contend with the Tigers’ loaded front? It seemed a fair question to ask … until Gurley reminded us that he possesses superhuman qualities. If there was any lingering doubt about Gurley’s status as one of the nation’s top players -- and maybe its best rusher -- he dispelled them on Saturday night with a scintillating performance. Gurley bulldozed would-be tacklers. He burst through holes. He easily outran defensive backs. He consistently rendered Clemson’s defensive adjustments ineffective.
Simply put, he dominated.
Gurley finished with a career-high 198 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. And that was only on offense. Tabbed as a kick returner, Gurley caught the ball a few yards deep in his end zone and ran 100 yards untouched for a score midway through the second quarter.
Of course, some of the credit for Gurley’s mastery belongs to Georgia’s offensive line (and his blockers on special teams). Gurley wouldn’t have been able to break off so many big gains had the Bulldogs’ boys up front not been able to open up holes along the line of scrimmage. Their work is especially impressive considering the quality and depth of Clemson’s defensive line. Still, this night belonged to Gurley. Watching him on Saturday, it was hard not to start considering his place in the Heisman Trophy race. Gurley may well be a worthy challenger for the award. In the meantime, fans should all sit back and enjoy.
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2. What does this win mean for Georgia?
A sound preseason analysis of Georgia’s schedule could have reasonably led to the following distinction: The Bulldogs face two tough games to open the season, followed by a stretch of seemingly manageable matchups. The Bulldogs overcame the first challenge with relative ease, and the second hurdle, at South Carolina in two weeks, looks a bit more manageable after the Gamecocks were routed in their season opener against Texas A&M earlier this week. Beating South Carolina on the road is no small task -- even if that’s the impression one got from the Aggies’ blowout win there. But if Georgia pulls it off, the Bulldogs need to be taken seriously as a contender for the College Football Playoff.
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It wouldn’t have been ridiculous to think of them this way before the season. Now that Georgia took care of Clemson and is heading into a matchup against a South Carolina team that might be a little weaker than originally suspected, the notion seems very realistic. Yes, it’s probably way too early to be thinking about the postseason. Any number of things could happen to derail the Bulldogs’ playoff bid, including the same the injury issues that so thinned the depth of Mark Richt’s team in 2013. Yet if Saturday night’s performance is any indication, Georgia is as good, if not better, than advertised. With Gurley, a seemingly improved defense under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and a favorable schedule, could this be the year the Bulldogs make a breakthrough?
3. Deshaun Watson looked good; does Clemson have a QB controversy?
We knew Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s highly touted true freshman quarterback, would get playing time on Saturday. We didn’t know how much, or how he would fare in a hostile environment against one of the top teams in the nation’s premier conference. Watson entered the game late in the first quarter and instantly sparked the Tigers’ offense, leading a six-play, 78-yard scoring drive to tie the game at 14. His 30-yard touchdown dart to Charone Peake offered a glimpse of Watson’s arm. Yet one drive isn’t a large enough sample size from which to render a fair, realistic assessment of where he stands in Clemson’s quarterback pecking order.
Watson finished the game with just two completions on four attempts for 54 yards (14.8 yards per attempt) and that one touchdown. His talent is undeniable. Watson’s main competition at quarterback, senior Cole Stoudt, underwhelmed. He completed fewer than half of his passes and didn’t throw a touchdown. But at least some of the blame for Clemson’s lack of success through the air falls on the offensive line, which failed to provide consistent protection. All in all, it was a promising debut for Watson, but it's still too early to say where he fits in the Tigers’ larger offensive plans.