ATHENS, Georgia — Clemson cruised through the first half like it didn't even miss its departed stars, record-setting quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins.
The Tigers sure could have used them in the second half — along with someone to tackle Todd Gurley.
Georgia's dynamic junior running back scored four touchdowns, one on a 100-yard kickoff return, and set a school record with 293 all-purpose yards to lead the No. 12 Bulldogs to a 45-21 victory over the 16th-ranked Tigers on Saturday night.
The game was tied 21-all at the half, but Clemson couldn't get anything going over the final two quarters.
With Cole Stoudt now at quarterback, the Tigers were held to one first down and 15 yards.
Georgia pulled away with a three-touchdown outburst in the fourth.
"It's never as bad as it may seem," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "For us, the season starts tomorrow."
A year ago, Georgia opened with a 38-35 loss to the Tigers. Boyd threw three touchdown passes, including a 77-yarder to Watkins, and ran for two more scores.
The Tigers presented no such threat in the rematch.
"With those guys being gone, do I think it made a difference?" Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. "Absolutely."
Gurley turned in a performance that will surely cast him as an early favorite for the Heisman Trophy. The junior ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns. He scored another on the kickoff return. He made the most of his limited touches on a sweltering night between the hedges, averaging 17.2 yards every time he got his hands on the ball and breaking Rodney Hampton's mark of 290 all-purpose yards, set in 1987.
"I think he's the best player in America," Georgia coach Mark Richt said, "or at least one of them."
Hutson Mason, a fifth-year senior, turned in a nondescript performance in the first game of his only full season as Georgia's starting quarterback. It didn't really matter. Gurley pretty much finished off Clemson by himself.
He got rolling with a 23-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Then he electrified the crowd of more than 92,000 by taking a kickoff at the goal line, bursting through a gap straight up the middle of the field, and leaving everyone in his wake with a stunning display of speed.
Mindful of Gurley's injuries last season and not wanting to tire him out in the humid conditions, Georgia limited him to four carries, one pass reception (for a 5-yard loss) and that kickoff return in the first half.
The strategy paid off over the final two quarters.
Gurley just kept right on running like he wasn't even tired, while Clemson found it increasingly difficult to bring him down. In the final period, he pushed Georgia to a 31-21 lead with an 18-yard touchdown run, breaking a tackle at the line and cutting to his left to reach the end zone without being touched again.
Then, picking his way through a hole with a hand on the back of a lineman, Gurley suddenly broke free down the right sideline on his 15th, and final, carry of the night for 51-yard touchdown that turned a game that was close most of the way into a blowout.
"Gurley was obviously as good as it gets," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Gurley, and all their backs, were special tonight."
Grubb also scored in the fourth quarter on a 47-yard run that looked downright Gurley-esque, breaking tackles and pulling away from the secondary with a burst down the sidelines. He had 70 yards on four carries. Michel turned in 33 yards on six carries as the Bulldogs piled up 328 rushing yards on a defense that was supposed to be the Tigers' strength, returning most of its front seven from last season.
"We've got to work on our tackling," said Vic Beasley, Clemson's star defensive end. "That played a big part in our loss."
The offense needs some work as well.
Stoudt was just 15 of 28 for 130 yards with an interception, which will surely lead to calls for the Tigers to give more playing time to touted freshman Deshaun Watson. In limited snaps, he guided the Tigers to a touchdown with a 30-yard pass to Charone Peake.
"We've got to prepare harder and get better," Stoudt said. "I've got to keep improving myself and get better."
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963