CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Clemson sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei finally has the national spotlight to himself. The Georgia Bulldogs would love nothing more than to steal it from him and set themselves up for a run at a national championship.
The highly regarded Uiagalelei takes over for Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft. He will look to continue Clemson’s impressive run of success under coach Dabo Swinney. Uiagalelei and the No. 3 Tigers meet the fifth-ranked Bulldogs Saturday night in the Duke’s Mayo Classic, a neutral site game in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Uiagalelei has shown he has the skills to fill Lawrence’s shoes, completing 66.6% of his passes for 914 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions in two fill-in starts last season.
But now its his team.
“Just making the right decision every single play, putting the offense in the right position, making sure I’m doing my job,” Uiagalelei said of his focus.
He’ll need to be at the top of his game against a loaded Georgia defense that is stout up front with tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt and ends Jalen Carter and Travon Walker.
Clemson, a 3 1/2-point favorite, has won six straight Atlantic Coast Conference titles and has been to the CFP six straight times.
But a loss in Saturday night’s season opener would leave the Tigers with a potentially thin margin for error the rest of the season given how difficult it is to make the four-team playoff with two losses.
“Coach Swinney’s talked about it. Yeah, we might be able to see these guys later down the road,” Uiagalelei said. “But for me, every single game, whatever the next game is, it’s the biggest game. It really doesn’t matter who we’re playing.”
This isn’t the first time the two teams have met in a season opener.
Clemson’s last loss in a season opener came in 2014 when they were toppled by the Bulldogs 45-21 in Athens, Georgia. Georgia hasn’t lost its opening game since 2013 when the Bulldogs were upended 38-35 at Clemson.
It’s the most anticipated game of the young college football season, and clearly the anticipation of this Week 1 clash is reaching a crescendo.
“I’m ready to play a game, our kids are ready to play a game. We need to play a game,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We need to play a game to get better. I don’t know that we are going to get better continuing to practice against each other, the walkthroughs, to teach. There’s no more time for that.”
Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels guided the Bulldogs to four straight wins last season, including throwing for 401 yards and four TDs in his debut against Mississippi State. He later rallied the Bulldogs to a last-second win in the Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, drawing the attention of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
“When J.T. took over, obviously, things were a lot of more fluid in both the running and the passing game,” Venables said. “Attack you short, attack you deep, added a lot to an offense that they do really, really well.”
BULLDOGS GROUND GAME
As is normally the case, Georgia has a backfield loaded with talented runners including Zamir White, James Cook, Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh, and they plan to test Clemson’s front seven.
“I think it’s a blessing to have a lot of running-backs,” McIntosh said. “It’s a lot of talent on the field on one team. It takes a lot of wear and tear off of each of our bodies, so all of us are getting opportunities to go out there and perform, and we love it.”
Clemson enters this season with nine returning starters, including sixth-year players in linebacker James Skalski and safety Nolan Turner. Up front, the Tigers have eight defensive lineman who have starting experience, a comfort for Venables who can rotate players to combat the tempo offenses Clemson is likely see against Georgia.
Ex-Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick, who was projected as a potential NFL first-rounder in several mock drafts, transferred to Georgia after his dismissal from Clemson. He is set to play a big role for the Bulldogs against players he worked against in practice throughout his career. Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said the team has not discussed any inside information Kendrick might have about the Tigers attack.
Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium has been a home away from home for the Tigers in recent years. Clemson has won the past six ACC championship games, including five played at the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. The Tigers also won the 2011 ACC title game there, along with a regular-season game over Temple in 2006. The team’s lone loss there came in 2010 at the Meineke Car Care Bowl, 31-26, to South Florida.