CHARLOTTE -- Clemson hasn't looked this vulnerable in a decade. It's been so long since that time when Dabo Swinney was still looking over his shoulder as Tigers loyalists were wondering if they had the right guy to replace Tommy Bowden.
We mention this because history must be addressed before Clemson's woes. In being (almost) completely stuffed 10-3 Saturday night by No. 5 Georgia, the No. 3 Tigers scored their fewest points under Swinney, who took over the program in 2008.
There's different looking-over-the-shoulder concerns for Dabo this time.
Suddenly, Clemson has lost consecutive games for the first time in 10 years going back to last season's College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State. Suddenly, Clemson is staring at its lowest offensive output of the Swinney era. Not so suddenly, it happened because Georgia's defense under Kirby Smart was as dominant as ever.
Maybe better than ever.
The result Saturday was a game with a championship-level feel despite there still being 13 weeks to go before actual conference championship games.
If you're Georgia, it suddenly feels a lot better buckling up for that three-month slog. On Saturday, the Bulldogs learned that -- if everything goes right -- they can still win with defense. Even Smart hasn't been able to say that for the most part with the Dawgs watching offense-heavy LSU and Alabama sail past his program in recent years.
"We go into every game, our goal to shut them out," Smart said. "We have a goal to hold [opponents] under 13 points. Everybody thinks we're crazy. 'You're never going to hold them under 13 points in this day and age.' Why can't we?"
As long as that defense keeps showing up, anything is possible for Georgia. Once the Dawgs sniffed out that the Tigers couldn't run worth a damn, Dan Lanning's defense was fairly easy to dial up. The budding superstar coordinator dropped seven into coverage, rushed three down linemen and brought a fourth man late. Clemson had no answer.
Clemson rushed for a net of 2 yards. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, starting his first season in place of Trevor Lawrence, was sacked seven times. Georgia's defense produced a negative play an average of once every 6.5 snaps. That helps explain why there were no -- as in zero -- offensive touchdowns.
The difference in the game was Georgia safety Christopher Smith's 74-yard pick six in the second quarter. Smith saw a short route developing for Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross and jumped all over it.
"Big, big critical error," Swinney said.
"For the most part, I just have to make the throws," Uiagalelei said. "If I make the throws, it's a totally different ballgame. … It's on me. I don't think I played very good."
Even on opening night, there is no room for error. Both these programs are playing for the CFP and beyond. The last national champion to lose its first game was Miami … 38 years ago. No CFP participant has lost more than one game in a season.
There's a warning for Clemson, even though it does face an ACC it has won six consecutive times.
Most concerning for Clemson, in an age when the average team is scoring four touchdowns per game, is that the Tigers were unable to win a grinder. They got beat in a rock fight. The contest resembled the some Auburn-Georgia games from 15 years ago when Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges was matching wits with Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway.
Sometimes, as Borges used to say back then, you have to feel good scoring 10 points.
"Definitely had a throwback feel to it," Smith said.
Based on one significant opening night against Georgia, vulnerabilities could turn into the definition of Clemson's 2021 season. For now, the Tigers can't run, can't protect and can't score. That's one hell of a burden for a defense that held its heads high to the No. 5 team in the country.
The realization that something is amiss showed on Swinney's face even during a postgame Zoom call. We knew going in that Clemson had issues running the ball. It was 11th last season in that category in the ACC. But there always seemed to be All-American Travis Etienne back there to take a swing pass for 5 yards and get the tough yards on the ground.
On Saturday, the Tigers had no tough yards on the ground. More than that, a program built on explosive plays and explosive players looked impotent.
"It's very frustrating. We've got a lot of explosive guys. We've got to put it all together," Swinney said. "We could have played somebody lesser [in the opener] and had a bunch of plays and everybody is excited. It's just a tough matchup out of the gate."
It's also a matchup that Clemson actively sought. If you haven't caught on, these games will become more frequent as Power Five schools chase berths in an expanded playoff. That's for the future. For now, this game had a championship feel from the beginning. It was only the fifth time since 1998 (the beginning of the BCS era) that two top-five teams met in Week 1.
"It reminded of a playoff or a conference championship type atmosphere," Smart said. "It just felt that way, at the hotel, the drive in. To me, you could say it was a lot like an SEC game. But it wasn't like one last year. It wasn't quite like that."
Smart knows he has offensive issues, too. Starting QB JT Daniels, attempting to play the first full season of his career, threw his own crippling interception in the third quarter. To be fair, the Dawgs were missing several receivers; however, the running game they will have rely on produced only 121 yards.
"Way too many just-one-play-aways," Daniels said. "There were too many plays I make the wrong decision or we don't get the protection right. On third down against a team as good as Clemson, that's going to lead to punting over and over again."
That went for both sides. The teams combined for 13 punts. Only one of those teams can clearly see a championship horizon on Sunday morning.
For those wondering if Georgia's 40-year walk in the national championship desert is over, not quite. Millions of dollars have been spent on recruiting, salaries, facilities by both teams. A handful of national championships have been won lately -- none of them by the Dawgs.
"Whether we won or lost, we control our own destiny," Smart said. "The important thing is we have to get better."
That's another way of saying Clemson is still in the middle of a dynasty. Georgia is trying to create one.