BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the first of many visits with beat writers of the opposition, we go to a trusted source in Seth Emerson of the Macon Telegraph, who’s perfected the art of blending pertinent team news with well-timed sass. You’ll see what I mean when you follow him @SethEmerson.
You’ve got questions? Seth’s got answers.
Oh, and we did the same over on the Telegraph web site, from a Clemson perspective. Please, partake.
Tiger Tracks: Is it safe to say that even in defeat, Georgia shed its reputation of shrinking from big games in the 2012 SEC Championship Game? And do you think that will help the Bulldogs to not be intimidated by Death Valley?
Seth Emerson: People around the Georgia program always scoffed at the whole “big game” story, pointing out they owned a two-game win streak over Florida. But I do think most realized they did have that reputation, and their performance in the Alabama game went a long way towards ending that. Even in defeat, they earned respect on a national scale.
More importantly, to me that showed Georgia really had learned how to step up to the occasion, because I saw a level of precision on offense and overall composure that I didn’t see at South Carolina earlier in the season, for instance. I think they took what they did against Florida last year and carried it into the SEC championship, and then cemented it with a solid win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
So given all that, you’d think they enter this next “big game” without much of a sense of awe. Now, the question is whether all those young kids on defense will be a bit affected by Death Valley and the big moment. The hope for Georgia is that those young defenders a) feed off their offense, and b) there is enough veteran leadership on defense to overcome that.
Tracks: Aaron Murray was the SEC coaches’ first-team all-league QB over a Heisman winner (granted, an embattled one) and a 2-time national champion. Why?
Emerson: I was as surprised as anybody. I haven’t seen any SEC head coaches quizzed on their votes, and it was no use asking Mark Richt about his vote because he couldn’t vote for Murray. When I voted as SEC media days, my ballot went 1) Johnny Manziel, 2) Aaron Murray, 3) AJ McCarron. The media vote finished 1) Manziel, 2) McCarron, 3) Murray.
In my mind, Manziel has to be the first-teamer, off-field warts and all. But I feel strongly that if you put Murray on Alabama, the Tide would still have won the past two national championships, and might have been just a tick better on offense. Alabama and Georgia have very similar playbooks, but Alabama’s offensive line is WAY better, and McCarron has been helped by that. Murray has done a good job overcoming that for the most part, but in some situations (i.e. every South Carolina game) it’s been too much.
There have been some isolated times that Murray makes too many mistakes of his own, including the first half of the Missouri and Florida games last year. But he’s often recovered and won both those games, and was pretty good against an Alabama defense loaded with future pros.
Tracks: Six different players caught at least 20 balls from Murray last year, and none more than 42. See more of the same in 2013?
Emerson: Yup. The difference will probably be an uptick for Malcolm Mitchell, who is the team’s top playmaking receiver, perhaps top playmaker overall on offense, but was on defense the first four games last year. So if he stays healthy all year, this could be the year he truly breaks out and becomes a first-team all-SEC guy.
Murray has a lot of options. Michael Bennett, another starting receiver, is back this year after tearing his ACL prior to the South Carolina game last year. His return might cancel out the loss of Tavarres King, the lone starter on offense who is gone. Chris Conley, a junior, is another very good possession receiver, like Bennett, but both can also make downfield catches. And I’m sure Clemson coaches are wary of Justin Scott-Wesley, a speedster who is dangerous downfield.
Meanwhile, tight end Arthur Lynch was a preseason first-team all-SEC selection. His backup, Jay Rome, was a five-star recruit three years ago – and by the way, Rome’s father, Stan, was a standout at Clemson. Jay says that doesn’t make this game a big deal, but my gut tells me Georgia’s going to find a way to put the ball in his hands to make a big play on the field his Dad starred at.
Tracks: Which defensive playmakers does the Clemson offense need to be aware of on this opening night?
Emerson: Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last year as a freshman, and with Jarvis Jones gone he becomes the team’s top threat to pressure the quarterback. They’re going to move Jenkins around in an effort to get him to make plays, similarly to the way they used Jones. Jenkins is a bit of an athletic freak: During a preseason scrimmage he literally leaped a poor tailback who was trying to block him.
Leonard Floyd, another outside linebacker, may not even start, but expect him to get a lot of snaps and be a factor. Floyd is a 20-year-old freshman (he was at prep school last year) who was raved about this preseason for the plays he made in scrimmages and practices.
Free safety Tray Matthews is another freshman who may be a factor, as long as he’s healthy enough. Matthews missed about half of the preseason with a shoulder and then a hamstring injury. But he’s been practicing all week. The question is whether the time off and the injury will prevent him from being the hard-hitting and aggressive safety this team expected him to be after a strong spring.
I’d also keep an eye on the cornerbacks. Junior Damian Swann is the lone returning starter in the secondary. Freshmen Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins will get a lot of snaps, and Langley is currently listed as the starter. Those two made a lot of interceptions in preseason scrimmages and practices, and that’s why they’re going to play: My theory is Georgia’s defensive coaches know they’re going to give up yards (especially to Clemson), and they’re banking on Langley, Wiggins, Swann and company being able to make up for it by forcing turnovers.
Tracks: You’ve covered the Bulldogs awhile. Is this the most sound, prepared Georgia team you’ve seen in its quest for a national championship?
Emerson: Definitely on offense. I didn’t cover the 2008 team that boasted Matt Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green, but ultimately you may say Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and Malcolm Mitchell (and assorted supporting cast) rivals that. When the offensive coordinator’s biggest concern is players coasting off the previous year’s accomplishments, that’s a good thing.
But you keep getting back to the defense. There’s so much four- and five-star talent out there that I think it will be a pretty good unit by the end of the year. But right at the start? It’s going to be a huge challenge.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think Georgia will win the national championship. Barring injuries, this very well could be the best team in the country in November. But the schedule requires being one of the best teams in September. That should be the key to whether the Bulldogs can finally join the parade of SEC teams winning it all.