The subplot has grown larger than the plot.

The plot is straight and simple: Clemson versus Georgia in Athens, Ga., nationally televised (WJLA-TV-7) opener, 9 o'clock tonight.

But the subplot is contorted and curious: Herschel Walker's right thumb is broken; he hasn't been in contact drills for 15 days. Will he play?

Herein lies the Debate of Dixie.

"If I'm in uniform Monday night," Walker maintains, "I'll be in the game sometime."

"I told him, the odds are good he could displace his fracture if he plays," Dr. William Mulherin, the Georgia team physician, said yesterday. "We X-rayed the thumb Friday and it showed no healing. The bone was in a proper alignment and the swelling had gone down, which were good signs."

The cast recently was removed and a cumbersome fiberglas splint was placed on Walker's thumb. He has taken handoffs, but not hits, during Georgia's closed team practices. Team officials say it is difficult for him to carry the ball, let alone catch a pass, with his right hand.

"The bone is not ready for contact," Mulherin said. "He should not play against Clemson. Playing (next Saturday) against Brigham Young would be more realistic. That would give him the necessary three weeks' recovery time."

Georgia Coach Vince Dooley said, "I just go by what the doctor says."

While Georgia paints the picture of Walker in street clothes, standing quietly to the side, Clemson paints a picture of Walker hopping over the Sanford Stadium hedge and providing about 150 yards worth of Bulldog inspiration.

Last Tuesday, Danny Ford, coach of defending national champion Clemson, stood before a coaches' room blackboard that listed the name of each expected starting offensive player for Georgia. Listed at running back: No. 34, Herschel Walker.

"Last year when we played North Carolina, Kelvin Bryant was hurt and they said he wouldn't play. But he did," Ford said. "We expect Herschel to play. What we don't need is to see him come running onto the field, strip off his No. 34 and see his Superman outfit on underneath. That's what he is: Superman."

"We want Herschel to play," said senior Terry Kinard, Clemson's all-America safety. "We don't want them to have any excuses."

In 1981, the Tigers defeated Georgia, 13-3, at Clemson, ending the Bulldogs' 15-game winning streak (longest in the nation at the time) and their No. 1 national ranking. Georgia, which finished 10-2, had nine turnovers in a game offensive coordinator George Haffner calls, "The worst game we ever played."

"A whole lot of sour memories," is how defensive tackle Jimmy Payne remembers it.

Georgia has injury problems beyond Walker. Tight end Norris Brown (hairline fracture of fibula) and defensive end Freddie Gilbert (quadricep pull) are listed as questionable.

Tailback Carnie Norris, the man scheduled to replace Walker, missed three days of practice this week because of practice-induced bruises. But he will play.

Clemson, coming off its national championship 12-0 season, has no injuries. Yet, with a touch of preseason pessimism, Ford insists, "This football team is more of a mystery than any before. I can't get a read on them."

Dating to 1897, Clemson's record at Georgia is 3-21-1. Not exactly a statistic of storied success.

Simply put, the game's outcome will write the lyrics of this year's sideline Song of the South.

"This game is bigger than a bowl to us," said defensive tackle Dan Benish of Clemson.

"Bragging rights and all that stuff," said Georgia's Payne. "It means a lot."