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Handling pressure could determine winner in season opener

When Clemson and Georgia squared off last season, each team boasted a top 20 ranking and a Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback. This season, each team is ranked in the top 20 once again, but the quarterback matchup features a pair of new faces as the two teams open their season at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium today at 5:30 p.m.

Senior Cole Stoudt takes over for the 16th-ranked Tigers (2013: 11-2) while the host Bulldogs (2013: 8-5), ranked No. 12, will turn to senior Hutson Mason under center.

In last year’s showdown, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd accounted for five touchdowns to outduel fellow senior Aaron Murray en route to a 38-35 victory. Murray tore his ACL late in the season, giving Mason a couple of games of experience heading into this year. Stoudt saw limited action last season but impressed when given the opportunity, completing 47-of-59 passes which was good enough for the highest completion percentage among any quarterback with at least 50 attempts.

The Tigers won’t have as much team speed on offense without Boyd and electrifying wideout Sammy Watkins, currently with the Buffalo Bills, so they plan to use every weapon in their arsenal. “We’re going to run our quarterback,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That’s the nature of what we do. We feel like it gives us an advantage when the quarterback is part of the run game, and that part won’t change. Cole is definitely undervalued as a runner, and I think he’s going to be way better than people think.” The strength of the Tigers’ defense will be a line that returns all four starters, including Vic Beasley (13 sacks in 2013).

Senior running back D.J. Howard expects to get the start for Clemson, but redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman is “going to be an exciting player to watch,” according to Swinney.

Mason threw for a career-high 320 yards in a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Gator Bowl, but the focus of the Bulldogs’ offense will likely be junior running back Todd Gurley, who had a season-high 154 yards on the ground in last year’s matchup with Clemson. Gurley is one of six returning starters on offense to go with nine returners on defense, highlighted by senior linebacker Ramik Wilson and his team-high 133 tackles a season ago. “We’ve got to play fundamentally sound,” cautioned offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. “This is going to be a big challenge, but that’s why you come to Georgia, for games like this.”

The Bulldogs return two starters at wideout in seniors Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, who combined for 1,189 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.

Georgia leads the all-time series 41-18-4 and had won five straight matchups prior to 2013. The game can be seen on ESPN.

PREDICTION: Clemson 23, Georgia 21