ATHENS, Ga. — In an effort to avoid making too broad a judgment on Georgia’s 45-21 season-opening victory against Clemson, let’s just say a whole lot of narratives emerged that will become very familiar to both fan bases in the coming months.
First and foremost, let’s address the elephant on the field. Because that’s what it must have felt like for Clemson defenders trying to tackle Todd Gurley.
The junior tailback was planted himself firmly as the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in almost a part-time role on a smoldering August evening between the hedges. There will be season-long highlight reels of other candidates that won’t look as impressive as Gurley’s 17 touches on Saturday night.
Gurley had 15 rushes for 198 yards and three touchdowns – each one more impressive than the one before it. He went 23 yards untouched around the left corner in the first quarter. He cut back and stuttered 19 yards up the middle in the fourth quarter. He broke away 51 yards up the right side later in the fourth quarter.
Oh yeah, he also went straight up the middle like a bullet train from 5 yards deep in his own end zone for a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the second quarter after Clemson had gone up 21-14.
Even his non-scoring plays were memorable, like the 19-yarder when he ran right over Clemson star lineman Vic Beasley.
His 293 all-purpose yards were, incidentally, a Bulldogs record.
“That was probably one of the best games I’ve ever been a part of,” Gurley said.
By the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs were showing up their absurd depth at tailback with newcomers Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but there is no doubt that the Bulldogs are a different team any time Gurley is on the field. His presence opens everything up on the offense.
Sometimes his big plays were too good, long runs that require a brief rest that before he can get back on the field the offense is in third and long and a promising drive would bog down.
But by the fourth quarter, the relentless pounding of Gurley and other fresh backs proved too much for the Tigers. Georgia kept speeding up the offense and catching the tired defense in misalignments that produced big play after big play as a 3-point lead entering the fourth exploded into a what could have been a 32-point blowout.
Lost behind the performance of Gurley and his stable of immpressive backups were two storylines that are most notable in their change of tone.
First is a special teams performance that was as critical to Georgia’s success on Saturday as anything else. Special teams were a massive issue a year ago in a negative way, but on Saturday that were a huge strength.
“We’ve got a bunch of new talent and the repetitive work this offseason really paid off,” said placekicker Marshall Morgan.
Freshman Sony Michel made two huge coverage plays in the first quarter on a punt and kickoff that set the field-position tone. Both punter Collin Barber and Adam Erickson pinned Clemson inside the 10 in the second half. Kicker Marshall Morgan made his 18th and 19th consecutive field goals. Reggie Davis and Isaiah McKenzie made clean catches and showed some pop in punt returns.
And of course Gurley broke the big one in a surprise role as the deep man on kickoffs.
“I think that might have the best thing,” Gurley said. “Special teams were awesome, might have been better than the defense and offense. Without special teams we definitely wouldn’t have won this game as big as we did.”
Then there’s defense, which a season ago was largely irredeemable under former coordinator Todd Grantham. Despite making their fair share of mistakes on Saturday, you could see new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s unit molding into shape as the game wore on. With blitz calls at the right moments, sound tackling and more pass breakups, in-game adjustments and three-and-outs in one game than you could remember seeing all last season, there was enough positive to make the Erk Russell proud.
“This being my senior year I’ve played with a lot of great guys,” said corner Damian Swann. “I’ve played on a good defense here so I know that feeling when we can go out and stone some people. To get back to that tonight was an unbelievable feeling because that’s what we’re used to here. ... I think once Pruitt stepped his foot on this campus, we knew we were going to be good. We knew we’d have the opportunity to be dominant.”
Gurley, who even showed his leadership a couple of times in the defensive huddle, was raving about the defense.
“It was incredible, we wouldn’t have done it without them,” Gurley said. “They had stopped them a couple of times and we didn’t execute like we were supposed to. Luckily they kept stopping them and stopping and we finally scored and put them away.”
On the Clemson side, the narratives that were bubbling up will be more of a personnel matter . The biggest that will grow bigger is at quarterback.
The way the veteran Cole Stoudt vs. freshman Deshaun Watson dynamic plays out could have a disruptive effect on a Tiger offense trying to retool after losing so many big weapons.
Watson entered for a series in the second quarter after three consecutive three-and-outs and promptly threw two perfect deep passes that ate up 59 yards and an equalizing touchdown at 14-14. He didn’t return until late in the third quarter, when whatever momentum he might have had after his first possession had long worn off.
Stoudt isn’t a bad quarterback, but Watson has the potential to be special. He’s the kind of talent Clemson fans will be eager to see more of after his initial glimpse. How Dabo Swinney handles the QB conundrum will have a major impact on the season.
He also might want to reconsider his tailback rotation with C.J. Davidson clearly showing more burst than senior starter D.J. Howard.
Of course, the big takeaway of the night will remain Gurley and his Heisman campaign that erupted on social media with every touch he had.
Gurley was dismissive, as he clearly had a larger narrative on his mind in the new playoff era.
“It’s only week 1,” he said. “We’ve got like 15 more weeks to go.”