Pregame Pep Talk: X-Factors, Saturday selections, and my Georgia-Clemson pick

Grady Jarrett

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@postandcourier.com
@Aaron_Brenner

CLEMSON – This is my favorite weekly blog item I write, and I hope you come to enjoy it in time.

It’s an all-inclusive preview of the coming weekend. About half the content will involve your Clemson Tigers, and the other half will go around the ACC and around the nation.

I’ll list four (or so) important players when Clemson has the ball, and four (or so) important players when its opponent has the ball. It’s not necessarily the biggest names; just the guys whose performance will most impact the end result. In addition, I’ll point out 3-5 notable players in other games who will play a pivotal role in big matchups.

Then, I’ll break down the five marquee games of the weekend, with short analysis and a prediction, plus a rundown of other scoring predictions. I like picking things.

Let’s make some magic.

Names to Know: Four X-Factors when the Bulldogs have the ball

#88 Arthur Lynch, 6-5, 254, sr., TE, Georgia. You can see his size, now learn his skill. He finished well in big games, combining for six catches, 87 yards and a touchdown against Alabama and Nebraska to close 2012. He’s a preseason pick for all-SEC and All-America honors, but more importantly on this night, he’s a behemoth when stacked up next to most of Clemson’s defenders. It’s not real clear who’ll be responsible to watch Lynch, but that’s a major threat for the Bulldogs’ offense against an undersized defense. If the Tigers are forced to devote too much attention to the running backs and tight ends, look out downfield.

#82 Michael Bennett, 6-3, 205, jr., WR, Georgia. A split end who missed much of 2012 recovering from ACL reconstructive surgery, we’ll see how explosive he is. He’d add a rich complement to Malcolm Mitchell on the outside.

#3 Vic Beasley, 6-2, 235, jr., DE, Clemson. Pretty simple, really: Aaron Murray’s jersey needs to take some grass stains if the Tigers want to keep the Bulldogs under last year’s 37.8 points per game average.

#50 Grady Jarrett, 6-1, 295, jr., DT, Clemson. Same principle, as it applies to running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Head coach Dabo Swinney’s extremely concerned with all of Georgia’s balance. Jarrett needs to have a monstrous night disrupting that rhythm.

Names to Know: Four X-Factors when the Tigers have the ball

#24 Zac Brooks, 6-1, 190, so., RB, Clemson. I don’t mean to insinuate Roderick McDowell doesn’t have a huge role in the outcome, because chances are he will. Allow me to sit in my rocking chair and tell a story from yesteryear: Back in my dad, a senior running back expected to carry the load ultimately took a back seat to an upstart sophomore who demanded the ball more and more as the season carried on. I’m referring to 2012, when I covered Auburn, and sophomore Tre Mason became a star while senior Onterio McCalebb faded into relative obscurity. Now, Clemson’s offense won’t be that abysmal, but you get the point. Young legs may be primed for a surprise year.

#58 Ryan Norton, 6-3, 280, so., C, Clemson. Norton sets the cadence, so if he’s awestruck by the big moment, that’s not good for the Tigers’ offense. Coaches are crossing their fingers he’s ready.

#5 Damian Swann, 5-11, 178, jr., CB, Georgia. Hey, you tell me who’s supposed to handle a ticked-off Sammy Watkins (6-2, 205.)

#28 Tray Matthews, 6-0, 196, fr., FS, Georgia. He’ll be able to play through shoulder and hamstring injuries, which adds some talent and ferocity to the Bulldogs’ secondary.

Names to Know: Three players you should watch since I can’t be at every game

#7 Kenny Hill, 6-1, 215, fr., QB, Texas A&M. If you dare watch the circus to unfold in College Station. Hill plays the first 30 minutes, a Heisman winner takes the second 30 minutes.

#9 Amari Cooper, 6-1, 202, so., WR, Alabama. He keeps averaging about 600 yards per catch in Alabama’s scrimmages. Let’s see if he’ll actually be as dominant as he was on a real field his rookie year.

#8 Zach Mettenberger, 6-5, 235, sr., QB, LSU. Because … I dunno, week one games are kinda dull. You’re probably not watching TCU-LSU anyway. Let’s just move on.

Saturday’s showdowns

Mississippi State at No. 13 Oklahoma State ~ 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2

No more Todd Monken engineering the Cowboys’ high-fliers. But no more uber-talented secondary from Mississippi State. OK State will start just fine.

Brenner picks: Cowboys 38, Bulldogs 20

No. 1 Alabama vs. Virginia Tech (Chick-Fil-A Kickoff, Atlanta) ~ 5:30 p.m., ESPN

The most intriguing storyline here: exactly how for-realsies is Va Tech quarterback Logan Thomas? Has his game matured? Will he thrive in Scot Loeffler’s square-peg-round-hole system? Will it even matter against a bona fide dynasty?

Brenner picks: Crimson Tide 47, Hokies 10

No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU (Cowboys Classic, Dallas) ~ 9 p.m., ESPN

LSU will never lack for defensive toughness or overall talent. It’s going to take some time for the defense to gel after losing so, so, so many underclassmen to the NFL, and the offense remains inconsistent. TCU has proven its mettle, and even though we still think of it as a mid-major, remember Boise State beat Georgia around a few years back in Atlanta.

Brenner picks: Horned Frogs 24, Tigers 17

No. 22 Northwestern at California ~ 10:30 p.m., ESPN2

For the late-night owls. Pat Fitzgerald’s done an incredible job turning around the Wildcats, but this is a solid west-coast test for a program hoping to shock some people in the Big Ten down the road.

Brenner picks: Golden Bears 35, Wildcats 34

The Rundown

NC State 41, Louisiana Tech 31. Pointz ‘n Pointz ‘n Pointz ‘n Lotsa Lotsa Pointz!

No. 7 Texas A&M 49, Rice 14. But just 14-0 at halftime.

Penn State 38, Syracuse 20. Go ahead and treat your quarterback situations like they’re a matter of national security, Bill O’Brien and Scott Shafer. Won’t much matter.

No. 16 Oklahoma 45, Louisiana-Monroe 35. If the Sooners overlook Kolton Browning, that’d be a massive error in judgment. Arkansas and Auburn say hi.

Western Kentucky 28, Kentucky 27. Either you get to mock Bobby Petrino or mock the SEC. You can’t lose!

No. 19 Boise State 27, Washington 24 (OT). First primetime game on Fox Sports 1. Law of Gus. You know this is going to overtime.

                                                             GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson ~ 8 p.m., ABC

I keep thinking about this undiscussed question … and it’s been ignored rightfully, because it’s a complete hypothetical and carries no bearing on tomorrow night’s affair.

What if this game, with these players and these storylines, was played in Athens?

The Vegas line opened as Tigers by -2. It has drastically shifted to Bulldogs by -1.5, which has really raised some eyebrows by many who believe Clemson will let the home-field advantage carry the Tigers to victory.

What if this game was played in Athens? Would you really be surprised if it was Bulldogs by 8 points or so?

Now would you be surprised to learn Mark Richt, who has coached Georgia since Tajh Boyd was that undersized tot on a Pop Warner national championship team, is 10-10 at Samford Stadium against ranked teams, but 12-6 on the road against ranked teams?

Look, I don’t know how many Clemson fans watched the SEC Championship Game. Wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. Tigers fans no doubt are rolling with anticipation because of what Clemson accomplished to close down December in the Georgia Dome, standing up to LSU and edging out a program-boasting win.

But do not make the mistake of forgetting how the Georgia Dome opened December. Georgia did not beat the Crimson Tide that night. But the Bulldogs (hang on, let me slow down my speech for effect) … took … it … to … Alabama. They stood up. They were unafraid. They were thiiiiiiiiiiis close. I watched through the second half on tape the other night just to confirm it, in case I’d remembered incorrectly. Yup. Verified.

Clemson changed its culture for the better in victory Dec. 31; but Georgia changed its culture for the better on Dec. 1 in defeat.

Again, 12-6 on the road against ranked teams. You really think Georgia’s gonna be scared of any road environment, Death Valley or otherwise?

What Clemson should be super-concerned about has already been written ad nauseum. Aaron Murray is a methodical surgeon, a capable passer whose skills are amplified when he’s got two phenomenal young tailbacks to keep the pressure off himself. You just worry about the Bulldogs sustaining these 9-play, 78-yard type drives that keep Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and the crew fuming on the sidelines, waiting their turn.

I definitely see Boyd and the boys screaming down the field for three touchdown drives at a frenetic pace. Problem is, they’ll need five. And Georgia’s defense, inexperienced or not, will be effective enough to let Richt make it 13-6.

Brenner picks: Georgia 35, Clemson 27

That’s it for the Pep Talk. Really, really can’t wait to see Death Valley, to quote Dabo Swinney, “at its best Saturday night.”

-AB

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