Ask a Beat Writer: The Clemson perspective

semerson@macon.comAugust 29, 2013 

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2012, file photo, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (10) avoids the tackle of South Carolina's Aldrick Fordham (57) during an NCAA college football game in Clemson, S.C. Georgia travels to Clemson on Aug. 31. Both teams are likely to be ranked in the top 10 or so. Georgia's Aaron Murray and Clemson’s Boyd, two of the best quarterbacks in the country, will get a chance for a quick start in the Heisman Trophy chase.

RICHARD SHIRO — AP

There's no better way to get an unvarnished view of the opponent, other than bugging the coaches' meetings, than by picking the brain of one of its beat writers. As we begin a new season, it's time to renew this tradition.

The beat writer thing, I mean.

Aaron Brenner covers Clemson for the Charleston Post and Courier. He does a great job up there, and I recommend following him on Twitter at @Aaron_Brenner, and checking out his stuff at http://www.postandcourier.com/section/clemson.

I also answered Aaron's questions about Georgia and this game, and here is that exchange.. Meanwhile, here are his very in-depth and objective thoughts:

1. How big a game is this for Clemson and Dabo Swinney? Obviously he’s on very secure ground, but in terms of getting a breakthrough win and some respect for the program, is this a big game?

Brenner: First, I’ll forgive you for opening your first question with ‘how big is.’ Ha! Well, it’s huge. Let’s get that “Good try, good effort” kid to serenade Swinney this week for completely downplaying this game’s significance. OK, yes, technically, it’s true, if Clemson goes out and smokes Georgia – but then trips up against mighty SC State (hah!) or at NC State on Thursday night (eminently more realistic) – then it erases the accomplishments of week one. We get it.

But c’mon. There aren’t 22 NFL scouts and oodles of starry recruits showing up when Wake Forest comes to town. Swinney’s refreshing in that he spends more time than most coaches acknowledging exactly what his team must do to earn national prominence, and these days, that means beating the SEC. Clemson wanted a piece of Georgia, they got it.

And strictly in terms of the 2013 season: in case anybody was unclear, Georgia could lose this game and still recover to make a national title run. Clemson cannot. There’s no room for error – a one-loss ACC team, regardless of the one loss, ain’t creeping their way to Pasadena.

Other than all that, no pressure.

2. Let’s talk Clemson’s offense. Tajh Boyd is a dual-threat weapon, and Sammy Watkins is a big weapon. But tell us about what else the Tigers can bring on offense, particularly in the running game. Do they have the potential to keep Georgia’s defense off-balance?

Brenner: Well, there’s no C.J. Spiller or Andre Ellington back there … at least that we know of. Roderick McDowell has been a three-year backup, and he’s a wise, humble leader who doesn’t view himself as the starter. On Tuesday, Boyd did call McDowell “the most explosive player we have on offense, especially in the open field,” which would’ve been totally awkward if Watkins was in the room. Behind McDowell is a sophomore named Zac Brooks who coaches have drooled over throughout camp, and he got a few carries in 2012. Then there’s a former track start named C.J. Davidson, who was just put on scholarship, and the two freshmen who coaches say they’d love to redshirt, and … well, for a position that’s been an exclamation point the last couple years, it’s a question mark, for sure.

As for the receivers, yeah, if the Bulldogs shade over too much to Watkins, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant have the capability to make them pay. Tight ends aren’t ready to make an impact like Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome. So Tajh Boyd’s got some challenges in terms of feeling out his playmakers in the very first game.

3. Now let’s talk Clemson’s defense. If you look at weights, Clemson is smaller in its front seven. Its secondary has been hit by injuries too. That would seem to bode well for Georgia being able to put up a lot of points. Is that a fair assessment?

Brenner: It’s an extremely fair assessment. I saw in Seth’s mailbag a Georgia fan suggested that Clemson’s defense could actually suffer from the crowd noise because it’s got to make calls as well … I think there’s a slight amount of truth to that. Aaron Murray should enter this game having every intention of carving up a secondary that’s simply not on par, talent-wise, from the SEC units Georgia sees week after week.

The supposed strength of this Clemson is up front, the front four, which does have some good experience returning (Corey Crawford on the edge, Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson inside, and breakout candidate Vic Beasley.) But the last practice open to the media, those defensive linemen got ransacked by second-string offensive lineman to the point of popping a vein in Swinney’s forehead as he chewed them out. The Tigers’ linebackers are built for speed, not power, which Lynch and Rome should exploit.

4. Is there an X-factor – either a player, a unit or anything – that could be telling for Clemson? (And that could mean either good or bad for Clemson.)

Brenner: I think it’s all about the front four. Georgia’s got a great offensive line, and Murray’s been around long enough to know how to read blitzes and examine coverages at a faster rate than even the young studs like Manziel, Mariota and Jameis Winston. Those guys named Gurley and Marshall will have their say, too. I could totally see the Bulldogs’ line taking over the game, letting Georgia methodically move the chains and keep Boyd on the sideline, frustrating Clemson’s offense and the crowd. But if the Tigers’ defensive line is as good as their teammates say they’ve gotten, then, well, it could be a different story.

5. Ultimately, what do you think are the two to three keys to this game for Clemson getting the win?

Brenner: Tajh Boyd. The front four, as just discussed. Creating at least two turnovers. And Tajh Boyd, again. The quick rundown: Tajh Boyd no longer has Andre Ellington running the ball or DeAndre Hopkins catching it. That hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention this preseason.

See item four for the defensive line’s importance.

It would help if the Bulldogs coughed up a fumble, or if Murray missed a throw and a defensive back made a play bringing it back for a bunch of yards or a pick-six. Come to think of it, if Watkins breaks free for a long punt or kick return, that’d also do the trick.

And, one more time, Tajh Boyd. This is his time. This is his moment. He’ll need help, sure, but his legacy rests on three games in 2013, and this is the first of them. Regardless of what Swinney tells you about South Carolina State.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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