CLEMSON - A rough offseason for a pair of regional foes finally comes to an end today. Clemson and No. 9 Georgia tee it up at Death Valley and begin looking ahead, not backward.
True, it's more the fans who seem stuck in 2002. The coaches and players have long since moved on, trying to apply lessons learned a year ago into new schemes, formations and team chemistry this fall.
Yet much of what has happened in the recent past will play at least some role in today's meeting in Clemson (Noon, ABC).
The Bulldogs, the defending SEC champions, will be without several starters and key backups because of both injury and suspension. Clemson takes the field with some lingering questions yet to be answered about the team's improvement and head coach Tommy Bowden's job security.
The 2002 matchup in Athens, a tough three-point Georgia victory, proved to be a springboard for teams headed in markedly different directions.
Whether today's game is a glance into the future remains to be seen.
"We play 12 games this season, and this is number one. It's a long season, hopefully 13 games," Bowden said. "A lot of things said last year were that the two teams took opposite directions after that game. They went on to have more success than we did, obviously. Whether or not it was because of the outcome of that game, I don't know.
"I don't put a whole lot of stock in the first game being a huge factor in the remaining 11 games. There's too much more football to be played."
Still, what happens today inside Memorial Stadium will be of great interest to those who follow each team.
Georgia hopes to prove last year's 13-1 season, capped by a romp over Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, wasn't a fluke. Though the 'Dogs suffered key losses at several positions - including all of their starting offensive linemen and linebackers - the level of talent recruited to Athens each year usually has more-than-capable replacements ready to step in.
The most serious question mark now appears to be the secondary, where injury and suspension have conspired to rob the Bulldogs of four players for today's matchup. Given
Clemson's talent at the wide receiver spots, one can figure Bowden to attack the Georgia secondary even from the I-formation.
But only if the offensive line can control All-American defensive tackle David Pollack.
"You have to be careful in accounting for him," Bowden said. "If you do too much, like giving your lineman help with a running back, you create some weaknesses in other areas. (But) there's no doubt we're going to be aware of where he is. He's probably the best defensive lineman in the country."
Meanwhile, those watching Clemson closely will be looking for vast improvement in several areas - special teams, offensive and defensive lines and linebackers, among them.
Bowden has kept his special teams plans close to the vest this fall, saying only that kickoff duties would be handled by true freshman Jad Dean. Beyond that, the fifth-year Clemson coach has kept special teams plans - as well as other plans, such as how much time his team will spend in the I-formation - to himself.
All he knows, Bowden said, is that come noon today the Tigers will be prepared as well as possible.
"We've been relatively healthy. Rain caught us early and we lost a little bit of preparation time early. But since then, it hasn't rained," Bowden said. "But I don't know if a coach ever really knows his team is ready. From a preparation standpoint, we couldn't have done