It was only three years ago that Georgia seemed primed to win its first national championship since 1968. The Bulldogs led Alabama by 13 points at halftime. A coronation in Atlanta seemed inevitable.
Then Tua Tagovailoa happened. The Crimson Tide made a killer interception of Jake Fromm. And Georgia hasn’t been the same since.
Saturday night in Charlotte, N.C., the Bulldogs can begin to climb their way back to elite status. Beat the No. 3 Tigers and the fifth-ranked Bulldogs will make an early statement they are a true title contenders, with USC transfer JT Daniels under center.
The focus in this anticipated showdown will center on the two quarterbacks. Daniels finished well last year for Georgia following major knee surgery, throwing 10 touchdown passes and completing 67.2 percent of his passes for 1,231 yards in four wins. Now he has to back it up, and do so without his top receiver, George Pickens, who had surgery on is right knee after tearing his ACL in March.
For Clemson, life begins after Trevor Lawrence, the top pick in the NFL draft. Sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei, a top prospect who was impressive in two starts in place of Lawrence as a freshman, now takes center stage.
The two teams last met in the 2014 opener, a 45-21 Georgia rout in which Todd Gurley ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns. Much has changed for Clemson since then. The Tigers have become a national powerhouse with two national titles and six straight berths in the College Football Playoff.
Georgia, meanwhile, has remained a strong — but not premier — program except aside from reaching the national title game in 2018. The Bulldogs have dropped their last four games against top-five opponents. They are looking to get back to that level this season and feel they have the quarterback to get them there. A win Saturday night would be a big step toward that goal.
Below is a look at the other notable games of the weekend:
No. 19 Penn State at No. 12 Wisconsin, Noon
There’s no easing into the season for these rivals. Penn State and Wisconsin jump right in with an early test that will say a lot about the winner. After their worst season in 16 years (4-5, third place in the Big Ten East), the Nittany Lions will look to atone, and the offense may need to carry them early with so many new pieces on the other side of the ball. That won’t be an easy task against Wisconsin’s defense, which allowed the fifth-fewest yards per game (299.9) in the country last year and returns eight starters.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 14 Miami (in Atlanta), 3:30 p.m.
Alabama has made a habit out of emasculating major non-SEC opponents in these openers. From 2012-19, the Crimson Tide started with fellow Power Five schools, and won by an average of 27.3 points per game. Even if mega-talented sophomore quarterback Bryce Young struggles somewhat in his first career start, expect more of the same. Alabama’s defense is improved and, though Miami quarterback D’Eriq King will put up numbers, he will commit a few turnovers, too.
No. 17 Indiana at No. 18 Iowa, 3:30 p.m.
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. made Indiana part of the national conversation last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He’s back, healthy and ready to build on last year, when he tossed 14 touchdown passes and averaged 274.2 yards through the air in six games. He gets an early test here from Iowa, which features one of the best secondaries in the country.
No. 23 Louisiana at No. 21 Texas. 4:30 p.m.
Our favorite game of this jam-packed weekend. Louisiana upset Iowa State a year ago, nearly stunned Mississippi State the year before and returns third-year starting quarterback Levi Lewis. The Cyclones are live underdogs here in Steve Sarkisian’s debut as Texas head coach. Explosive Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson may not face a tougher defensive front in conference play than the one led by Zi’Yon Hill and Tayland Humphrey.
No. 16 LSU at UCLA, 8:30 p.m.
Is UCLA that good or is Hawaii that bad? It’s likely somewhere in the middle after the Bruins’ 44-10 rout last week. This week will be much more of a litmus test for Chip Kelly’s program. LSU will be extra motivated coming off last year’s dismal 5-5 campaign that led to significant changes on Coach Ed Orgeron’s staff. Prediction: The Bruins won’t run for 244 yards against LSU, as they did in Week 1.
No. 9 Notre Dame at Florida State, 7:30 p.m.
This opener should give Florida State fans an early indication whether the Seminoles are ready to return to turn a corner after three straight losing seasons. Notre Dame may be ranked too high, at No. 9, after losing a number of key players, from quarterback Ian Book to offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg to linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but the Fighting Irish remain formidable and feature two game-changers: dynamic running back Kyren Williams and All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.