Earlier this week I exchanged emails with MaconDawg, Manager at the venerable Dawg Sports community. We both tried to work our brains around our two squads, and how we think Saturday’s contest will play out. I’d like to thank him for graciously taking the time to provide thoughtful responses.
Without further ado...
1. Georgia is sporting a record of 4-4 which includes an opening week win over 18th ranked North Carolina, and a last second Hail Mary loss to Tennessee. What were the preseason expectations for Kirby Smart's first year in Athens, and how has the season fit into them so far?
No one in Bulldog Nation was expecting to be 4-4 at this point. This much is for sure. I think Bulldog fans were spoiled a little by the utter predictability of the Mark Richt era, which produced only one season with fewer than eight victories. Many of them, especially younger fans, didn't fully understand the "switching costs" that come with overhauling a football program. I think the median expectation was likely somewhere around nine wins. That expectation, in hindsight and for reasons I'll set out below, was not reasonable.
The funny thing is that the team is achingly close to having a better record. Of course there was the ridiculously improbable loss to Tennessee. And the close loss to Vanderbilt in which Georgia dominated in yardage, time of possession, and every other stat except the one that matters: points. If those games had gone the other way and Georgia were 6-2 Georgia fans would probably feel like this project was ahead of schedule. Alas, a play here, a bounce of the ball there, and you're struggling for bowl eligibility. That's life in the SEC.
2. I've read several different theories in the last week or two on why Georgia's offense has struggled this season despite an amazing backfield. Everything from subpar offensive line play, Jim Chaney, no real outside threats, and starting a freshman quarterback. Of those factors, which would you say have played the biggest role or would you say it's something else entirely?
All have played some role. But by and large it's the offensive line. I hate to blame offensive linemen. They never get any corresponding credit when things go well. But Georgia's simply been beaten at the point of attack by every team its faced this season. Yes, that includes Nicholls State and Vanderbilt. The lone exception would be North Carolina in that opener, and I don't think that was because the Heels are not as good up front as the 'Dawgs, I think the weakness of the UGA offensive line just hadn't been fully exposed yet.
3. Georgia's rush defense has actually played very well this year allowing only 3.24 yard per carry on average which is an improvement over last season. What factors and individuals have played the biggest role in this development?
Georgia actually lost five starters on its front seven, and many worried that the group would be a liability. But the Bulldogs have gotten a real boost up front from sophomore defensive tackles Trent Thompson and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle. Freshmen Tyler Clark, David Marshall, Julian Rochester, and Michail Carter have also stepped into the DT/DE rotation immediately. In fact Georgia will likely have its entire three deep on the defensive line back in 2017, and perhaps even 2018. That's been a comfort for Georgia fans watching the offense take its licks this season.
Georgia has also gotten a spark from sophomore inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick, who are 1-2 on the team in tackles and have both excelled against the running game.
4. Kentucky is prone to turning the ball over this season. The Wildcats have 20 turnovers, eight of which are interceptions. Georgia's secondary allows 216 yards passing per game which is middle of the pack in the SEC, but it has forced nine interceptions. Which secondary players should UK fans be on a lookout for this Saturday?
Assuming he's well from a sprained ankle suffered against Florida safety Dominick Sanders is clearly the most dangerous player in the Bulldog secondary. Sophomore cornerback DeAndre Baker has also emerged as a more steady contributor at a position that has been victimized often. Finally, Alabama graduate transfer Mo Smith has been a fairly steady performer in the nickel, bringing both solid coverage skills and a physical presence.
5. Who has been the MVP on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball for Georgia so far this season?
Defensively it's hard to say because so many of the guys listed above have made solid contributions. Offensively, probably slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who leads the team in receiving and had the game-winning touchdown catch from Eason against Missouri. Inexplicably he had zero touches against Florida, which was probably the one thing all Georgia fans can agree Jim Chaney has done wrong.
6. What's your prediction of Saturday's outcome, and what are one or two contributing factors?
I'm not inclined to pick in favor of this Bulldog team until it demonstrates to me that it is out of its funk. I suspect that we're seeing some young contributors starting to hit the wall. There are also some veteran players who, to be perfectly honest, may be playing out the string until they either graduate or transfer. I want to believe that this is the game that a beat up Bulldog team takes a stand and plays aggressive, smart football. But again, I'm not ready to predict that.
UK 27, UGA 24.