Two teams with national championship hopes in 2013 collide in Death Valley to kick off the season, as the eighth-ranked Clemson Tigers play host to the fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
Mark Richt's Bulldogs came within minutes of playing for the national title last season, as they fell to Alabama, 32-28 in the SEC Championship Game. As a consolation prize, Georgia went on to the Capital One Bowl, defeating Nebraska, 45-31. Still, it marked a highly successful season for the Bulldogs, who captured 12 wins overall, against just two defeats. Richt has maintained a high level of success in Athens, as the team has made 16 straight bowl appearances, including all 12 of Richt's seasons at the helm.
Richt recognizes the significance of this game.
"This is actually the sixty-third time Georgia and Clemson are playing each other," said Richt. "A lot of the younger Georgia fans wouldn't realize what a rival game this is, but it certainly has a lot of rich history to it. We're looking forward to adding to it."
"They have really highly-skilled guys and very dynamic players that we have to find some answers for."
Dabo Swinney's Tigers are also coming off a highly successful 2012, as Clemson went 11-2, its best record since it run to the national title in 1981. Behind a record-setting performance by the Tiger offense, Clemson just missed out on the ACC Championship Game, losing a tie-breaker with Florida State, but did knock off SEC foe LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (25-24) to end the season.
This longstanding series dates all the way back to 1897, with Georgia dominating the head-to-head matchups for the most part, holding a 41-17-4 all- time advantage. The Bulldogs hold an 8-6-2 lead in games played in Memorial Stadium, just one of three schools with a winning record in Death Valley.
In addition, Georgia has claimed victory in five straight meetings, with the last coming a decade ago in 2003.
Aaron Murray is already the most decorated quarterback in program history with a school-record 95 career touchdown passes, and the 2012 campaign was more of the same (64.5 percent completion rate, for 3,893 yards, 36 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions).
Georgia provides some of the best offensive balance in the nation thanks to a dynamic duo in the backfield. As freshmen, Todd Gurley (1,385 yards, 17 TDs) and Keith Marshall (759 yards, eight TDs) were unstoppable, with both averaging better than six yards per carry, and more of the same is expected in 2013.
Although Tavarres King, Murray's go-to receiver last season is now in the NFL, the Bulldogs have plenty of talented playmakers in the passing game, including wideouts Malcolm Mitchell (572 yards, four TDs) and Michael Bennett (345 yards, four TDs), and tight end Arthur Lynch (431 yards, three TDs). Four returning starters on the offensive line will also help maintain Georgia's offensive potency in 2013.
Georgia's defense was also strong last season, holding opponents under 20 points per game. However, a turnover of talent is expected with the departures of standouts like Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo.
The cupboard isn't exactly bare in Athens though, especially at linebacker. Amarlo Herrera racked up 70 tackles playing the in shadow of Ogletree, and Jordan Jenkins (eight TFL, five sacks) has the potential to fill in for the All-American Jones as an pass rusher.
Cornerback Damian Swann (53 tackles, four INTs) and defensive end Garrison Smith (57 tackles) are expected to have big years as both landed on preseason All-SEC teams.
The ACC Player of the Year returns to Death Valley to lead the Tigers on one more run toward a national crown. Senior QB Tajh Boyd put it all together last season, earning First-Team All-ACC honors, as well as All-America accolades, completing 67.2 percent of his passes, for 3,896 yards and 36 touchdowns. Boyd has been a factor in the ground game as well over his career, including last season's 514 yards and 10 TDs rushing.
Boyd sees a strong future for Clemson football, even beyond his senior season.
"Clemson is on the rise, and I don't see it slowing down from here - I only see it picking up steam," he said. "It's like a locomotive. It's been a pleasure to be a part of this program as it's continued to grow ... I'm excited to see what the future holds in store."
The team will have to replace standout tailback Andre Ellington (1,081 yards, 8 TDs) and the hope is that senior Roderick McDowell (5-9, 195) can help with that.
The receiving corps is also minus a top playmaker with DeAndre Hopkins' departure to the NFL, but former All-American Sammy Watkins (708 yards, 3 TDs) should return to form as one of the nation's premier wideouts and become Boyd's favorite target once again.
Stability along the offensive line is another luxury that the Clemson offense will enjoy, with four starters returning up front. However, the one loss is All-American center Dalton Freeman. Sophomore Ryan Norton (6-3, 270) will take over at the pivot. Senior left tackle Brandon Thomas (6-3, 305) highlights the returning starters, earning All-ACC First-Team honors as a junior in 2012.
Despite having several high profile players over the last few years on the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers have always been a step or two behind the offense in terms of production. Last season was no different, as Clemson showed inconsistency at times, allowing almost 400 yards of total offense per game.
Only six starters return to the Clemson defense, with the hardest hit area being the secondary. Gone are All-ACC defensive backs Rashad Hall and Jonathan Meeks. However, sophomore free safety Travis Banks (6-1, 190) could be a budding star after posting 51 stops as a freshman last year.
The linebacking corps is a bit more stable with the return of senior Spencer Shuey (93 tackles) and junior Stephone Anthony (77 tackles).
The defensive line is strong inside with juniors Grady Jarrett (6-1, 290) and Josh Watson (6-4. 285). Fellow junior Vic Beasley (6-3, 225) showed flashes of brilliant play as an edge rusher last season, posting a team-high eight sacks among his 18 total tackles. Beasley should play a more prominent role for the Tigers in 2013 as a result. Highly touted recruit Shaq Lawson (6-4, 260) will find his way on the field as well as a freshman.