Welcome back to football season. Bringing back one of our regular weekly features, today we asked MaconDawg of our sister blog Dawg Sports some questions about his Georgia Bulldogs. Our questions are in bold below.
1. It’s only been three years since Vanderbilt last beat Georgia, yet it feels like this matchup is 180 degrees different from where it was in Kirby Smart’s first season. What’s changed in the meantime? Is Georgia on Alabama’s level yet? If not, what else needs to be done?
A few things. Recruiting for one. I remember standing behind the endzone in Sanford Stadium in October 2015 watching the Alabama defensive line warm up before a game in which Georgia was, improbably and stupidly, favored. It was obvious Georgia was going to lose that game, though it wasn’t clear how badly. Kirby Smart has upgraded the Bulldog roster to a ludicrous degree, bringing in 11 five star recruits over the past two recruiting cycles. The rest of the SEC has signed 2. That’s led to better depth, but it’s also created a margin of error, so that Georgia doesn’t need every big time recruit to develop into an All-American to be really good across the roster.
Another overlooked differentiator? Strength and conditioning and nutrition. Georgia has expanded the staffing and facilities for these areas significantly in the past three years. When you look at offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson when he arrived in Athens versus now, you see where that money went.
Is Georgia on Alabama’s level yet? I’d say no, because Georgia still hasn’t avenged that 2015 loss, the one that essentially got Mark Richt fired. If the 2017 national title game and the 2018 SEC Championship Game are any indication, they’re very, very close. But in order to be the boss you have to beat the boss. Georgia needs to beat Alabama head-to-head in a game that matters to establish at least parity.
2. Georgia lost both of its coordinators in the offseason: offensive coordinator Jim Chaney made a lateral move to Tennessee, while defensive coordinator Mel Tucker took the head coaching job at Colorado (ironically beating out Derek Mason for that position.) Will anything change with the new coordinators?
Not a lot should change. Much like Vandy’s elevation of Gerry Gdowski both of these were internal hires. Losing Tucker is a little concerning in part because he was an effective teacher for the Bulldog defensive backs. But the brain trust constructing the UGA defensive game plan (Smart, inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann, and outside linebackers coach/ new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning) is otherwise unchanged.
Offensively Bulldog fans are weirdly thrilled about Chaney’s defection. I say weirdly because the guy’s offenses did perform very well in most situations over the past two seasons, and he helped Jake Fromm go from a freshman thrown into the fire unexpectedly to an SEC Championship QB and probably at worst the league’s third best passer. But his conservative goal line play calling and failure to acknowledge that Georgia actually had tight ends on the roster drove fans nuts.
How much will things change under new OC James Coley? I think less than some fans would like. Kirby Smart still wants to run the football, and he still has an offensive line built to clear the road for a platoon of talented tailbacks. So while Coley’s said they’ll open things up, and his past as offensive coordinator at FSU and Miami may lead one to believe the promises, I think we’re talking more shades of shades, not wholesale changes.
3. Jake Fromm is back for another year under center, but it looks like he’s lost a bunch of his favorite targets from last season. Who are the new receivers that Vanderbilt should be looking out for?
Everybody is new. No, really. Georgia’s leading returning receiver is tailback D’Andre Swift (to be fair he did have 297 receiving yards, a solid number for an SEC tailback). Georgia lost its top five receivers from 2018 including NFL entrants Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman, and Riley Ridley. That being said, the cupboard’s not exactly bare. Georgia returns senior receiver Tyler Simmons, who’s extremely fast and solidly built. He’s also become a better route runner during his time in Athens, and I believe this will be a break out year for him. Also keep an eye on redshirt sophomore Matt Landers and Miami graduate transfer Lawrence Cager, a pair of 6’5, 200 pound-plus targets who’ll be used in the red zone. In the slot Cal transfer Demetris Robertson returns for his second season in Athens. He was a PAC-12 All-Freshman selection in 2017, but struggled to get into the deep UGA receiver rotation of 2018.
The wild cards this season may be a pair of freshmen, Marietta native Dominick Blaylock and Hoover, Alabama standout George Pickens. Blaylock is an incredible route runner and has excellent hands. Pickens, a late addition to the UGA signing class, has drawn rave reviews for his athleticism and been compared by teammates to A.J. Green for catches like this one:
Here’s the GIF in case it’s pulled. pic.twitter.com/qgNE3fsiL9— Parrish Walton (@ParrishWalton) August 11, 2019
In short, Georgia has weapons, they’re just unproven ones at this point. I think this group will be fine once the coaches establish who can perform in live action.
4. Who are Georgia’s key players on the defensive side of the ball? Are there any weak spots that Vanderbilt might be able to exploit?
This Georgia defense returns a metric ton of experience at every level. The only area that’s a bit of a question mark may be the secondary. Gone is Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Deandre Baker, to be replaced by some combination of redshirt sophomore Eric Stokes, true sophomore Tyson Campbell, or junior D.J. Daniel. Stokes and Campbell started parts of 2018 but Daniel has really created a positive buzz in fall camp. The good news for the Red and Black is that they return a lot in the front seven to create pressure and take some of the onus off that secondary. Keep an eye out for the outside linebackers, a deep group that combines both returning experience and some talented recruits who’ll be impossible to keep off the field. Freshman outside linebacker Nolan Smith is a star in the making. And redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari and sophomore Jermaine Johnson both should see action at OLB along with returning performers Robert Beal, Walter Grant, and Adam Anderson. Defensive line coach Tray Scott returns a whopping eleven players with at least four games of experience in 2018, including five senior defensive tackles with at least some starting experience. Georgia will rotate at least ten and as many as twelve players on the defensive front, and that depth should make them a menace in the fourth quarter.
5. Finally, prediction time: make a prediction for the outcome of the game.
I went on record almost a month ago predicting that this one won’t be particularly close, and I’m sticking to my guns. I think it’s a closer game than my final score perhaps indicates. I would see Vanderbilt being forced to throw a little at the end with poor results and Georgia, still looking to work through its wide receiver issues, not just taking a knee but instead keeping the ball in the air and scoring a late touchdown. My pick: Georgia 41, Vanderbilt 17.