In the NFL, it's an established truth among the smart set that the success of a team's running game has a lot more to do with its success on the scoreboard than vice versa – winning results in running, not the other way around. In the college game, though, the relationship is not nearly so one-sided. And if there is any clear, potentially decisive advantage on either side tonight when Georgia visits Clemson, it's the Bulldogs' edge on the ground. After the proven quarterbacks and unproven defenses cancel one another out, UGA is still left with a pair of sophomore tailbacks, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who combined for 2,144 yards and 25 touchdowns last year on 6.3 yards per carry, running behind the same five offensive linemen who paved the way. Georgia finished 11th nationally in Offensive Rushing S&P+ and easily projects into the top ten in 2013.
Whereas with Clemson, frankly, we have no good idea exactly what to expect. The Tigers lost their leading rusher in 2012, All-ACC workhorse Andre Ellington, and the projected starter tonight, senior Roderick McDowell, is at the top of the depth chart for the first time after four years off the bench. The offensive line, while nearly intact, lost its veteran anchor (All-ACC center Dalton Freeman) and is not nearly as long in the tooth as Georgia's. It's never been a road-grading unit, anyway: In seven games last year against teams that finished with a winning record, Clemson averaged a paltry 3.8 yards per carry; that was up from 3.5 in 2011. In advanced terms, they fared even worse: On standard downs, the line was worth just 2.9 yards per carry in Adjusted Line Yards, good for 73rd in the nation. Georgia's front ranked nineteenth. The fact that Clemson managed to lead the ACC and finish in the top ten nationally in both yards and points per game, anyway, is a testament to the unflagging success of Tajh Boyd and his outrageous efficiency as a passer. But it also tends to overshadow just how much the offense relies on establishing the run: In Chad Morris' system, a huge portion of the attack hinges on play-action, and he expends a proportional amount of energy making the defense account for a possible run on nearly every snap with an endless array of motion and play fakes. The Tigers actually did run last year a little more than 45 times per game, more than any other team in the ACC except Georgia Tech. When they did throw, it was usually off of some kind of running action. And when opponents don't respect the run (as LSU's defense clearly did not in December's Chick-Fil-A Bowl), Boyd stands to come in for one hell of a beating.
So whether McDowell or junior D.J. Howard or anyone else in the tailback stable is able to make hay between the tackles or not – and the middle of Georgia's revamped defense is an open mystery in its own right – Clemson has to find ways to make the ground game go. It has several keys to ensure that it does.
Get Sammy Watkins Involved. The expectations may have been a tad unrealistic after his blistering debut in 2011, but the cliché that hounded Watkins throughout his sophomore season was accurate: Aside from a random, midseason outburst at Wake Forest, he never looked like the same player. That's not just another way of saying his production declined (although it did, steeply) or that he didn't figure as prominently in the offense. Between an early suspension and an untimely illness, Watkins only played in eight games (not counting the bowl game, in which he was injured on the second snap), but still touched the ball 70 times in those eight games as a rusher or receiver. That comes out to 7.7 offensive touches per game, only one behind his average (8.7) as a freshman; in the passing game, the number of times he was targeted as a receiver went from 9.7 per game in 2011 to 9.5 per game. When he was at their disposal, coaches did everything they could to keep Watkins involved at the same rate that had made him an instant All-American. He just didn't look like that guy.
None of which, of course, has dissuaded preseason All-America teams or mock draftniks from projecting a return to form as a junior, which says a lot about just how strong an impression that guy made. His versatility played a big part in that. Clemson saw Watkins' speed as an asset in the running game right away, and made a point of giving him multiple carries in each of his first four games. In his breakout game in that span, a 38-24 ambush over Auburn, he carried seven times for 44 yards, all of them coming on a either a buck sweep with Watkins lined up in the backfield or a speed sweep off of motion – emphasis on speed – the latter of which produced his biggest gain:
At that point Clemson trailed the defending BCS champs by two touchdowns; from that point on, it would score touchdowns on four of its next five possessions en route to an eye-opening victory. Later in the season, the buck sweep paid off big in a 33-yard gain at Maryland:
His touches as a runner somewhat diminished after that, in part due to a nagging ankle injury, although he did break free for 20-plus-yard gains against Wake Forest and Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game. In his first game back from suspension last year, he broke a 58-yard run against Furman for his first rushing touchdown. So far, it's still his only one. The following week, Watkins was a major element of the game plan at Florida State, earning five carries in the first half alone – when the Seminoles managed to snuff out the speed sweep, Morris even threw them a curve ball by letting Watkins follow one of his guards right up the gut, to pretty good effect on an eventual touchdown drive:
But there were never any fireworks. After the FSU game, Watkins came down with a virus, missed a trip to Boston College, and went nowhere as a rusher in wins over Georgia Tech (two carries for four yards) and Virginia Tech (three for nine). The carries dried up over the second half of the season, replaced by screen passes. Coaches occasionally made an effort to get the ball in his hands in some new, creative way, such as on this botched reverse against Virginia Tech, or a bizarre, ill-fated option play against N.C. State. Against LSU, they tried to get Watkins involved in the backfield right away, only to watch him get a face full of Barkevious Mingo on his first and only touch.
All indications from Clemson this summer are not only that Watkins is healthy coming into his junior season, but that he's regained his old form:
"There's no comparison in Sammy from last year to this year. He's a lot more explosive, a lot more lean. Very determined, very focused," said Morris. "He's probably had as good a camp as anybody we’ve had."
Georgia can expect the full gamut, and Morris can be expected to give it to them.
Keep the Chains Moving. As capable as he's proven to be in all phases, Boyd probably shouldered too much of the running game last year with 12 carries per game – not including sacks, which added between two and three more carries per game to the official tally – prompting colleague Bill Connelly to label him a "permanent injury risk." So far, that hasn't been true (although he suffered a major knee injury as a high school senior, Boyd hasn't missed a game the last two years, or any significant portion of one), which may only mean the clock is ticking. Against LSU, with Watkins out of commission, Boyd carried 24 times on called runs and scrambles for 50 yards, barely two yards per carry; in addition to that load, he was also sacked five times and hit after most of the 50 passes he was able to get off. He's not a darting, elusive runner like Johnny Manziel or Taylor Martinez, nor is he long-striding breakaway threat like Cam Newton. On designed runs, he's a straight-ahead workhorse who takes a lot of direct hits in the read-option game for not a lot of gain, and even less relative to his value as a passer.
But Boyd's fullback build does make him valuable in a short-yardage role. While hardly Newtonian between the tackles, he is more than willing to plunge into the line off the jet sweep action, behind a pulling guard, a look the Tigers turned to again and again last year against the best teams on the schedule…
…and so on, etc. You get the idea. For the year, Boyd finished with 23 carries on third down and 1–3 yards to go – accounting for half of Clemson's total carries in that situation, and almost a third of its total plays – converting 15 of them for first downs. His long gain on those carries? Five yards.
Touchdowns, Not Field Goals. Along the same lines, the Tigers were effective at finishing off drives in the red zone, scoring on 94.9 percent of their trips inside opponents' 20-yards lines (best in the nation) and scoring touchdowns on 72.9 percent of those trips (13th). Of their 26 rushing touchdowns for the season, 23 were red-zone scores, including nine of ten TD runs by the quarterback.
Again, this is an area where Morris loves to get Watkins involved, even if only to keep the defense guessing, and frequently did last year by motioning Watkins into the backfield to serve as the tailback/pitch man on a triple-option look. Although he didn't touch the ball in that scenario, his presence alone drew enough attention to open a running lane for Boyd to bull his way to the goal line, as seen against Virginia Tech (Boyd would punch it in for a touchdown on the next play) and South Carolina:
Even with Watkins on ice, Boyd had a nose for the end zone, charging in off of speed-sweep action for Clemson's first touchdown against LSU:
…which played a role in setting up Clemson's last touchdown against LSU, a play-action dart to the dearly departed De'Andre Hopkins from the same spot on the field in the fourth quarter. Even with two future pros playing pitch-and-catch, against a defense loaded with NFL talent, it all comes back to creating that moment of indecision they need to get an extra step.
Counterpunch. Georgia allowed more rushing yards in 2012 than any other SEC defense, and finished near the bottom in yards per game, although that was heavily skewed by a pair of triple-option attacks (Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech) that went over 300 yards apiece on the ground without doing any real damage in a pair of lopsided UGA wins. As far as Clemson is concerned, it's also skewed by the Bulldogs' SEC Championship loss to Alabama, where the Crimson Tide laid them flat in the second half to the tune of 350 yards on 6.9 per carry for the game – none of it the result of the option, the Wildcat, speed sweeps or multiple misdirection fakes. Still, they fared much better in advanced terms, finishing 22nd nationally against the run according to the S&P+ system and 23rd on "standard downs," i.e. more likely run downs. And neither Clemson's scheme nor its offensive line reminds anyone of Alabama's.
But Georgia had its issues against competent, balanced spread attacks, too, to say the least: South Carolina ripped the Bulldogs for 6.4 yards per play en route to a 35–7 romp in October, and Nebraska racked up 443 yards and 31 points in the bowl game, a neck-and-neck shootout through the first three quarters. The lion's share of production in both of those games came via run. Even in the win, there were times against the Cornhuskers that they looked clueless against the run and play-action alike, and that was a lineup made up overwhelmingly of veterans who were drafted by the NFL within a few months.
The guys replacing them are as athletic as ever, but also extremely green; the pregame depth chart features eight true freshman on the defensive two deep, including projected starters at safety (Tray Matthews) and cornerback (Brendan Langley). Matthews, who won the free safety job in the spring, has struggled with injuries throughout the preseason; if he can't play, he's backed up by another true freshman, Quincy Mauger. The other starting safety, touted sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, won't play due to a suspension. Aside from end Garrison Smith and linebacker Amarlo Herrera, the front seven is almost entirely new, too. As prolific as the offense expects to be against a reliably flammable secondary on the other side, if the front seven can't keep Boyd in predictable, must-pass situations on second and third down by shutting down the run on first, the young secondary's collective head will be spinning and Aaron Murray and Co. will have no margin for error.