This is getting put up hastily, about 17 hours before kickoff, but we sat down with MaconDawg of our sister blog Dawg Sports for some answers in advance of Saturday’s game with the Bulldogs.
1. Jacob Eason was as hyped as quarterbacks come, but he's completed barely 50 percent of his passes with an average of 5.2 yards per attempt so far. Are there real concerns about his ability as a passer, or are these just freshman jitters?
More than anything, those numbers are a lesson in the dangers of small sample size, and the seductiveness of nuance. Eason struggled to a 5 of 17 effort Sunday through the winds on the backside of Hurricane Matthew. He also endured a 16 of 36 effort against Ole Miss's elite pass rush in the Bulldogs' 45-14 loss to the Rebels. Remove those and he's putting up extremely solid numbers for a true freshman. For example, he went 17 of 28 (60.7%) for 211 yards against a pretty good Tennessee defense.
Eason's 1020 yards passing and 111.20 passer rating are actually toward the middle of the SEC pack (and ahead of Vandy's Kyle Shurmur), and he's on track to obliterate Georgia's freshman passing records. But, as freshmen are wont to do, he's been pretty inconsistent. If the Commodores can get pressure on him, he will likely get a case of happy feet. Most painful of all, Eason's thrown five interceptions, and three of them have come in the red zone. That's a lot of points coming off the board in the most excruciating manner possible.
That's going to have to change if he's to live up to his billing, and I think it likely will. Eason's flashed the big arm everyone knew he had, and has shown a knack for making plays when they're needed most. He dropped a beautiful 51 yard pass to Isaiah McKenzie in the opener that paved the way for Georgia's go-ahead score against North Carolina. He then threw a game-winner to McKenzie on 4th and 10 in the final minute against Missouri. And finally, he hit fellow freshman Riley Ridley with 10 seconds on the clock to retake the lead against Tennessee (though the 'Dawgs managed to give that one back, as all SportsCenter viewers know).
2. Six games in to the Kirby Smart era, and the Bulldogs are 4-2 but haven't looked terribly impressive. What are your early opinions on the new coach?
I think if you asked most Bulldog fans whether they'd be happy with being 4-2 at this point with a new head coach, new coordinators, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel coming off injuries, and copious personnel losses on defense, they'd take it in a heartbeat. My sense is that Smart is still growing into the job. He's had some run-ins with media members who are far more used to Mark Richt's genial style (though that seems to be dissipating). He's also had a couple of clock management gaffes that could have been far more costly than they ultimately were. And there have been some indications that he's still kind of taking the temperature of this team and figuring out how to manage their energy level.
But (and I fully intend this pun), it's a process. Kirby Smart is hard worker and a known perfectionist. I expect that he'll come into his own as this season progresses, a process which we've already started seeing. I'm also heartened by the fact that he's already recruiting at a high level, and just recruiting harder than Mark Richt did those last few years in Athens. That will pay dividends down the road.
3. Aside from the obvious (Nick Chubb), what other offensive players can hurt Vanderbilt?
Jacob Eason's favorite target so far has been slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie, who is incredibly dangerous in the open field. He's also been used by Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney on speed sweeps around the end and, as a result, successfully as a decoy. Tailback Sony Michel has also been effective both as a receiver out of the backfield and running the ball. The Bulldogs also have a solid group of tight ends, led by junior Jeb Blazevich and freshman Isaac Nauta. However, they have been forced to spend a lot more time max-protect blocking for Eason than catching passes.
4. Georgia currently ranks 73rd in Defensive Passing S&P+. Vanderbilt currently ranks 119th in Passing S&P+. Are Georgia's struggles at defending the pass real, or is Vanderbilt better off running the damn ball?
The struggle is real, my friend.
As is so often the case, however, the problem with the Bulldog pass defense is less about the pass defense itself and more about what it's being asked to do. While the Red and Black have a veteran secondary unit, the loss of veteran defenders Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, Sterling Bailey, Tim Kimbrough, Jake Ganus, James Deloach, and Chris Mayes has really thrown the pass rush for a loop. Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, expected to be the Dawgs' top pass rusher this season, didn't have a single sack until two weeks ago against Tennessee (he did add another against South Carolina). And he's tied for the team lead with defensive tackle Trenton Thompson. Until Georgia (currently tied for 8th in the SEC in sacks with only 11 on the year) finds a consistent pass rush, those numbers aren't going to look much better.
5. Finally, what's your pick for this game?
I wouldn't give up on this one so easily. Georgia is coming off a grinding stretch of games culminating in a short week necessitated by the odd, historic Sunday afternoon contest with the Gamecocks in Columbia. Combine that with a noon kickoff and you have a recipe for the Bulldogs to sleepwalk. I only hope that they wake up before it's too late. UGA 24, Vandy 20.