CLEMSON, S.C. — Georgia and Clemson are evenly matched in several areas. Both have starting quarterbacks who are Heisman Trophy contenders and defenses that are works in progress.
But where the fifth-ranked Bulldogs clearly outshine the No. 8 Tigers heading into Saturday night’s game at Death Valley is in the backfield with sophomore running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
“We can come out in that first game rolling, score about 30, 40 points,” Gurley said. “We’ll see.”
In a matchup of top 10 teams any edge can be pivotal. And one of the marquee games of college football’s opening weekend, the “Gurshall” tandem could be the difference in the game.
Gurley and Marshall shared the spotlight as freshmen and became one of the SEC’s most dynamic duos as they combined for 25 touchdowns.
Gurley rushed for 1,385 yards, becoming Georgia’s first 1,000-yard rusher in four seasons. Marshall ran for nearly 7 yards a carry and had three games with 100 yards or more.
Meanwhile, Clemson is searching for a running game after Andre Ellington finished up his eligibility last fall. Ellington twice went over 1,000 yards and gave the Tigers breakaway speed.
Fifth-year senior Rod McDowell will get first crack at Ellington’s spot with backups D.J. Howard and Zac Brooks likely to see time, too.
Still, there are other impact players – including two talented quarterbacks.
Georgia’s Aaron Murray was selected the top quarterback in the Southeastern Conference in a preseason vote by league coaches. His Clemson counterpart, Tajh, Boyd is the reigning ACC Player of the Year.
Skill players on both sides like Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell and Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, also a receiver, also are capable of making big plays.
On the defensive side of the ball, both squads are loaded with uncertainties and newcomers.
McDowell has waited his turn behind several NFL backs at Clemson, including C.J. Spiller, Jamie Harper and Ellington. The Tigers believe the tailback is more than capable for the job.
“I think he’s the most explosive player on our offense,” Boyd said of the tailback called “Hot Rod.”
The Clemson backs will likely have a long way to go to catch up with Georgia’s duo.
Gurley is the every down back who at 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds has the strength to break tackles and let defenders know they got run over. Marshall, smaller at 5-11 and 219 pounds, has the speed to turn short gains into back-breaking moments for opponents.
Georgia coach Mark Richt believes with his team’s defensive struggles that ground control may be the best way to slow down Clemson’s fast-paced offense.
“We have the ability to play at whatever tempo we want, and I think the fact that we have a lot of confidence in our running game helps because that’s the part of the game that can chew up a lot of the clock,” Richt said. “If you can run the ball well and use all of your 40-second play clock, you’re going to chew up time.”
That’s what happened at Death Valley last November when South Carolina outgained Clemson by more than 100 yards and held the ball for nearly double the time of the Tigers in a 27-17 rivalry victory.
Georgia’s Murray believes he’s got the most weapons he’s had in his four seasons as a starter.
He said this is “the most dynamic our offense has ever been. A lot of receivers, tight ends, and running backs.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he nearly had Gurley and Marshall in Tiger orange. Swinney recruited Gurley and Marshall heavily and believed both were ready to commit to Clemson.
“When Marshall broke our heart <0x2014> because I think when he went to bed that night, maybe he was coming to Clemson, had a bad dream or something, woke up and went to Georgia <0x2014> I just knew we were going to get Gurley, just knew it,” Swinney recalled.
The next day, Swinney had a message to call Richt, right near the time Marshall was scheduled to make his choice.
“I knew right then that we weren’t getting him. I remember handing up the phone and saying ‘we’re not getting Gurley,’” Swinney said. “ I was like, ‘How in the world did they get those two great backs?’”
Now the question for Swinney is how to slow them down.