Georgia-Clemson: Battle for Trench Supremacy

There is no question that in the college football played today and of yesteryear it has all started up front in the trenches. Weak pass protection and a struggling run game breeds disaster.
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Monday marks 111 days from the opening of the 2021 football season, where potentially the game of the year will kick off in Charlotte, N.C., between the Clemson Tigers and the Georgia Bulldogs. It will undoubtedly provide a College Football Playoff-like atmosphere inside Bank of America Stadium. 

Two potentially top-five programs going head-to-head in the season opener is rare these days. Most major Power-5 teams like to schedule the "bigger" games of the season right before the opening of conference play, somewhere between Weeks 3 and 4, so they can shake off the rust in the first two weeks of the new season. 

In 2021, Georgia will not have that advantage of a generally non-competitive season-opening game like in years past. Instead, battling Clemson means a win or loss will go a long way in determining the season. 

AP Poll rankings and recruiting rankings aside, one of the most intriguing aspects of the clash of these top teams will be the battle in the trenches. 

The Dawgs and Tigers both match up perfectly on each side of the ball up front. In addition, both sides will arrive in Charlotte with potential first-round draft picks on each side of the ball. 

Senior Clemson edge rusher Xavier Thomas and Georgia nose tackle Jordan Davis will lead the way into Charlotte as two projected first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft heading into the 2021 season. We will also see younger, less experienced names along the defensive fronts like Bryan Breese, KJ Henry, Adam Anderson, and Travon Walker do battle. 

While the Tigers return some notable names along their defensive line, the same cannot be said offensively. Clemson will have to replace starting left tackle Jackson Carman and center Cade Stewart. Carman is now a member of the Cincinnati Bengals after being selected in the second round of the NFL Draft. 

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Replacing a keystone left tackle like Carman was for Clemson is never easy. In fact, Georgia could join Clemson in the boat of starting a new left tackle in Week 1, as Matt Luke will have to decide where Jamaree Salyer fits best in Georgia's starting five. 

The relatively young and new Tigers front will face one of the most talented front sevens in college football. Georgia brings back the likes of star nose tackle Jordan Davis, and starting defensive tackle, and Davis's "partner in crime" Devonte Wyatt. Those two massive interior linemen have proved to be a formidable duo to block. That's not even mentioning rising sophomore Jalen Carter, who is expected to play a bigger role in 2021. 

Georgia's interior defensive linemen may be considered the strongest position for Georgia heading into the season based on talent alone. Edge rushers may be able to close that gap once the season begins. The loss of sack leader Azeez Ojulari is perhaps cushioned by the return of the second-place sack leader in Adam Anderson.

Anderson is the expected starter at SAM linebacker for Georgia, where he's been the last two seasons, but he will likely see the field much more this fall. A tremendous leap forward in 2020 saw him rank second in sacks with 6.5. The hype surrounding the speed rushing Rome, Ga., product is high. 

Then there are rising juniors Travon Walker and Nolan Smith. Both saw inconsistent play-time a season ago when compared to their freshman season between the hedges. The future is bright in Athens along the defensive front.

As mentioned above, the Georgia offensive line has a huge question on their hands when it comes to who will be the starting left tackle. Salyer started nine games at left tackle a year ago before shifting back inside to his natural position of guard for the Peach Bowl. 

Most notably, the Peach Bowl was one of the worst performances we'd seen from the Georgia offensive line in 2020. The Georgia ground game was brought to a halt by a stingy Cincinnati defense. To make matters even worse quarterback JT Daniels was inconsistently protected. Despite a come-from-behind victory, it was not a championship-level performance.

Does Georgia want to walk into Charlotte with an inexperienced left tackle? Whoever they choose, unless it's Salyer, will be at a disadvantage in terms of experience going head-to-head with projected first-round edge rusher Xavier Thomas. 

The key to the Georgia-Clemson game is simple: Control the line of scrimmage and win the game. But if that doesn't happen, it will be a rough afternoon. 

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