ATHENS, Ga. — When crunch time arrived Saturday night, Clemson got crunched.

It’s not like the Tigers weren’t competitive for the majority of Saturday’s season-opening 45-21 loss in Sanford Stadium, and they even stayed within striking distance into the fourth quarter. But the Bulldogs ran all over the visitors in the second half and mainly the decisive fourth quarter, with star tailback Todd Gurley leading multiple teammates on a ground assault against a Clemson defensive front being touted as one of the program’s best in recent memory.

“There’s nothing worse than letting somebody run the ball on you, that’s my opinion as a defensive coordinator, and the toss sweep left and right is the foundation of who you are,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “And for a good majority of the game they’re going to make some plays, but that last eight minutes or whatever was pretty disgusting.”

Todd Gurley

David Goldman/AP Georgia’s Todd Gurley runs past the reach of Clemson’s Tony Steward on Saturday in Athens, Ga. Gurley rushed for 198 yards and three touchdowns and also took a kickoff 100 yards for a score during the Bulldogs’ 45-21 victory.

The fourth quarter numbers were downright astonishing, with Georgia outgaining Clemson 211 yards to negative-19 with all of it coming on 15 rushes and no passes. The Bulldogs led by only three with just over 10 minutes remaining until speedy freshman Sony Michel scooted right for 17 yards before Gurley followed with an 18-yard touchdown run up the gut for a 31-21 lead.

Clemson still appeared alive at that point, but not for long. The Tigers went three-and-out on all four fourth-quarter possessions and were sacked four times over that span.

“Defensively in the second half we took a little pressure off our corners by not playing as much man coverage,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We challenged our men inside to keep them from running the football and we got a lot of good stuff. (Leonard) Floyd and (Jordan) Jenkins on the edge are formidable guys and our inside linebackers played well for the most part.”

As for the dominant ground game that was more than just the exploits of Gurley, who ran for a career-high 198 yards on an economical 15 carries, Richt said, “We knew we had fine backs and we knew at some point in the game that we’d have fresh legs in there and tired people trying to tackle them, and that’s what happened in the second half.”

The Bulldogs rushed only 12 times for 45 yards in the first half, but Nick Chubb (like Michel, just a freshman) finished with 70 yards on four carries while Michel ran six times for an effective 33 yards. The change of pace with the power of Chubb, the speed of Michel and the ultimate combination from Gurley was too much to handle over the long haul on a sweltering night.

“We just didn’t tackle,” Clemson defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “The aim of the defense is to get the guy on the ground. It’s fixable, but we knew what we were getting when we came into this game. They have great running backs and to be successful we had to tackle them and make the plays. We did a good job of that for three quarters, but then it got away from us, so we’ve got to learn and get better.”

Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt had an impressive beginning to his starting debut in leading Clemson to a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that ended with D.J. Howard’s 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal on the game’s opening possession. Georgia went up 14-7 before Dorman product Charone Peake caught his lone pass of the game, a 30-yard touchdown on a perfect throw into double-coverage by freshman Deshaun Watson on his first-career series.

The Tigers went up 21-14 before Gurley returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards with 7:15 left en route to a 21-21 halftime tie.

“Both teams were flying around,” Richt said. “It was a game of momentum and I think by far the biggest play was the kickoff return for a touchdown. It just got us back in it. We put our very best players on special teams and it paid off.”

Stoudt finished 15 of 28 passing for 130 yards and zero touchdowns, while Watson played three series and was 2 of 4 for 59 yards and a touchdown.

“It’s tough and there’s some frustration there,” Stoudt said. “We went out there and struggled a little bit, but it’s something we will have to get better on and build as a team.”

Clemson was hamstrung all night by the inability to start with decent field position, with the Tigers starting drives at an average of their 19-yard line. Georgia, meanwhile, began with an average of its 43. Remarkably, it was just the second time in 17 years that Clemson averaged starting inside its own 20 in a game.

“We just could not get the field position flipped,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s the difference in the game. Eventually that is going to catch up with you. They did a great job of getting us behind the chains and we got into some long-yardage situations where we couldn’t convert. We were playing uphill the entire second half.”

GoUpstate.com

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Here’s a look at the big matchups and top storylines from around the nation as we near kickoff on the first Saturday of college football:

The Big Buzz: Rematch between the hedges

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, 5:30 p.m. ET

For those thinking that this evening’s tilt between Clemson and Georgia doesn’t have the juice of last August’s season-opening clash, think again. Sure, Tajh Boyd and Aaron Murray won’t be calling the signals between the hedges tonight and neither team has a single-digit number next to their name in the rankings. But for the first time ever the college football season will end in a playoff, and there is no game today that will draw the eyes of the selection committee like this one.

A year ago it was Boyd and the Tigers who prevailed in Death Valley, cutting Georgia’s all-time advantage in this underrated rivalry to a still-dominant 41-18-4. Despite that impressive track record, it’s surprising that the Dawgs are more than a touchdown favorite against Clemson, which returns an awful lot of talent to a defense that led the nation with 122 tackles for loss a year ago.

But should we really be surprised? After all, Georgia has been the darling of the preseason poll in recent years. The Bulldogs have started every season since 2008 ranked in the AP Top 25, yet have only finished there three times. Only once in that six-year span did Georgia finish with a higher ranking than with which it started. Perhaps the most incriminating statistic is that the Bulldogs are 7-15 against ranked opponents over the past five years.

Dabo SwinneyClemson head coach Dabo Swinney discusses the Tigers’ NCAA college football 2014 season at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Clemson opens the season at Georgia on Aug. 30. (AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail, Mark Crammer)

So why should we believe in the Bulldogs? The answer is an easy one: running back Todd Gurley. Georgia’s preseason Heisman Trophy candidate was electric in a losing effort against Clemson last year, racking up 154 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries and giving Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney recurring nightmares in the process. Clemson safety Robert Smith likened bringing down Gurley to tackling a tree trunk, though he says the Tigers unit remains confident: (via ESPN.com)

“You can’t let what he did last year affect you this year, but you know what he can do. He’s a tremendous running back. We saw up close and personal. We don’t forget. But we also can’t let that hinder what we’re going to do this season.”

As far as Clemson is concerned, Georgia can have all the preseason accolades. The Tigers have their eyes on something bigger. Football-crazed Clemson has been a factor in college football’s national landscape for decades now, but the program has never quite earned the moniker of powerhouse. Under Swinney, who took over in 2008, the Tigers have steadily been building towards exactly that.

Swinney’s bunch has suddenly racked up three consecutive seasons of double-digit victories. They’ve won 11 games two seasons in a row for the first time in school history and are coming off an impressive Orange Bowl triumph over Ohio State. Saturday night will go a long way to determine if they’re here to stay as a juggernaut, but what’s certain is they’ve come a long way from the days when “Clemsoning” was used as a synonym for disappointment, as Swinney himself details: (via SI.com)

“I don’t think Clemson was together. Clemson was fragmented for whatever reason. Clemson was good. Clemson was OK. But they weren’t nationally relevant. My goal when I got this job was to create an attitude of belief, to change Clemson from the inside. If I could do that, eventually we’d blossom on the outside. That was the message from day one.”

The Tigers have their demons in Florida State and South Carolina, the only teams that have beaten them in the past two years. But they also have won four straight games over the non-South Carolinas of the SEC, including last season’s win over Georgia and the 2012 season-opener against Auburn. They may no longer have offensive weapons the caliber of UGA’s Gurley, but Georgia should count them out at their own risk.

http://www.sportsfanlive.com/web/article?action=viewArticle&articleId=15780825&team=ncaaf-georgia_bulldogs&tid=msp

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The Georgia Way

The Georgia Way from Georgia Football on Vimeo.

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THE PLAYOFF – WHO’S OUT?

 YAHOO SPORTS writer,  Pat Forde

   (Edited excerpts from YAHOO SPORTS)

Despite the relentless push by the power-five conferences to rig every aspect of the sport in their favor, there is one base the big boys failed to cover in implementing the College Football Playoff: there are four spots for five leagues. Which means (at least) one conference will walk away from this season feeling demonstrably inferior.

The Dash’s prediction for which league gets left out this season: the Big 12 (5). The best teams are just vulnerable enough, and some of the road trips just tricky enough (see Big 12 predictions below), that everyone will take at least one loss. While that’s also likely to happen in other leagues, the best teams in the Big 12 might not have the strength-of-schedule clout to win a beauty contest against the other top playoff aspirants.

Playing nine league games helps, but not playing a conference championship game can be a drawback. And the Big 12’s most likely champions face what looks like soft non-conference competition. Oklahoma plays Tulsa and Louisiana Tech (a combined 7-17 last year in a weak Conference USA) and a Tennessee team that may not be among the 10 best in the SEC. Baylor plays SMU, FCS Northwestern State and Buffalo – a slate that’s impossible to spin.

The Dash’s other top contenders for playoff position all play at least one better non-conference game than anything the Sooners or Bears have scheduled: Oregon and Michigan State play each other in a top-10 matchup; UCLA plays a de facto road game against Texas (plus a second road game against a power-five opponent); Florida State plays Florida (plus a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State); Auburn visits Kansas State. Champions of the Pac-12 and SEC figure to have demonstrably stronger schedule strength, especially after a high-level title game. The projected champions of the two leagues that appear weaker than the Big 12 – the Big Ten and ACC – both have major non-league challenges. Michigan State is at Oregon on Sept. 6, and we’ve discussed who Florida State faces.

Of course, the games will be played and there will be major plot twists along the way. But for now, the Big 12 is the most likely league to be left out of the Final Four.

WHO’S IN?

The four schools that should start making New Year’s Eve plans for either Pasadena or New Orleans:

UCLA (6). The Bruins not only will get into the playoff, they’re going to win it. In fact, getting in might be the hardest part against a schedule that includes Texas, Oregon, Stanford and USC – but the latter three are home games. In addition to a star quarterback and a capable running game, UCLA has star-caliber players all over its defense – from Myles Jack to Eric Kendricks to Eddie Vanderdoes to several members of the secondary. Jim Mora is pulling a Pete Carroll, going from pro reject to college coaching star in a hurry. .

After accounting for 36 TDs in 2013, UCLA's Brett Hundley is a popular pick to win the Heisman. (AP)

After accounting for 36 TDs in 2013, UCLA’s Brett Hundley is a popular pick to win the Heisman. (AP)

Florida State (7). Despite losing a bunch of quality players, the defending national champions are still the most talented team in the country. There are no weak units. And the Seminoles are in a relatively weak conference. They could well stay No. 1 all year in the polls, but may not be able to afford a loss and still make the final four.

Auburn (8). This should actually say SEC Team To Be Named Later. No real idea who wins that league, but the suspicion is that Alabama is going to dip this year while LSU is too young at the skill positions and the East is still inferior to the West. The Tigers seemingly exhausted a lifetime’s supply of luck last year, but the guess here is that they somehow keep the roll going again in 2014.

Michigan State (9). Spartans have a blossoming star quarterback, a 1,400-yard rusher, a solid corps of receivers, about four stone-cold studs on defense and a user-friendly league schedule. If the line coalesces and some new guys step up defensively, they could be every bit as good as last year’s 13-1 team. Possibly better.

IF STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE REALLY MATTERS …

The playoff will be fun. Lots of fun. And lots better than the BCS it replaces. But…. Read the rest of this entry

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