Georgia (-7.5) (-110) over Clemson
After suffering through an injury-riddled 2013 campaign where Georgia finished 8-5, the Bulldogs take the field in 2014 with one of the best teams in college football. The loss of star quarterback Aaron Murray, who offensive coordinator Mike Bobo called the best quarterback in the program’s history, is certainly a significant loss to Georgia’s offense. Indeed, Murray broke nearly every career SEC passing record and became just the fourth quarterback in NCAA history to compile four seasons with at least 3,000 passing yards.
However, backup quarterback Hutson Mason returns after throwing for 968 yards with a 60.9% completion rate last season. Mason’s numbers were strong across the board as he averaged an efficient 7.7 yards per pass play against teams that would combine to allow just 6.0 yards per pass play to a mediocre quarterback. Mason’s maturation was best evidenced against Georgia Tech against whom he led Georgia to a 20-point come-from-behind victory. Reports from Athens also suggest that Mason has earned the respect of his teammates. Speaking of Mason, wide receiver Michael Bennett said, “It’s not a freshman coming in. It’s not even a sophomore. It’s a guy who’s been here for so long. He knows the offense in and out. He’s going to make the right decisions.”
The strength of Georgia’s offense is in its backfield with one of the most prolific running back combinations in college football. Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley were the most productive freshman duo in school history and combined for 25 touchdowns in 2012. After an injury-plagued 2013-2014 campaign, both Marshall and Gurley are once again healthy and make up one of the nation’s best running back units. It should be noted that Gurley averaged 6.1 yards per rush attempt in his first two seasons in Athens. Georgia also returns its top two receivers from last season – Michael Bennett and Chris Conley – both of whom missed a lot of action last year due to injuries. With both Bennett and Conley healthy, the Bulldogs’ boast the SEC’s best wide receiving units.
New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt coached the last three National Championship teams (Alabama & Florida State) and welcomes back eight starters to one of the most improved defenses in college football. The defensive line returns five of its top six players from last season, including Ray Drew, while the linebacking corp. is the best in the country behind Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson.
Georgia’s secondary is also vastly improved as nine different defensive backs started last season, including four true freshman. Six of those nine players return in 2014, including Damian Swann and Corey Moore. Finally, Georgia’s entire special teams unit returns, including 1st Team All-Conference kicker Marshall Morgan (22-of-24), and I would not be surprised to see this unit finish in the Top 20 nationally.
Clemson’s offense, which was 1.3 yards per play better than average last season, enters the season without quarterback Tajih Boyd, 1,000-yard rusher Roderick McDowell and its two best wide receivers in Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Watkins finished with 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, while Bryant presented a legitimate deep threat by averaging 19.7 yards per reception. Clemson quarterback Cole Stoudt will be making his first collegiate road start on Saturday, and Sanford Stadium with 93,000 screaming Bulldog fans will not be an easy task. Georgia possesses a significant advantage defensively over the Tigers’ attack.
The Tigers once again possess a very good defense led by an elite front seven and a strong secondary. My numbers give Georgia a nominal advantage offensively over Clemson’s stop unit, although Mason could have success exploiting the two new starters in Clemson’s secondary.
Since 1990, college football teams coming off an upset loss in their bowl game as favorites of seven or more points are 34-19 ATS (64%) in the opening game of the year. Better yet, when these ‘play on’ teams are matched up against an opponent that won ten or more games the prior year, they improve to a perfect 7-0 SU and ATS. Georgia is 5-1 ATS with non-conference revenge , whereas Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is 0-4 SU and 1-3 ATS on the road versus non-conference opponents, with an average loss of 14 points per game. Let’s also note that Georgia is a perfect 16-0 SU in its last sixteen home openers, while the Tigers are an alarming 6-47 ATS in their last 57 losses to avenging foes. Take Georgia and invest with confidence.