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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: Georgia

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I am sure their fans will not still be mad about last year’s cancellation.

Syndication: Online Athens Joshua L. Jones via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Opponent: Georgia Bulldogs

Date: September 25, 2021

All-time series record: Georgia leads, 57-17-2

Last meeting: LOL

Last year: 8-2, 5th in SP+, 6th in Sagarin

Head coach: Kirby Smart (sixth year, 52-14)

Shall we try this again?

The 2020 season marked the first time since 1967, and only the fourth time since 1952, that Vanderbilt did not play Georgia on the gridiron. That wasn’t by design: scheduled as the final game of the regular season, Vanderbilt had to postpone the December 5 trip to Athens due to low numbers, then ended up cancelling the rescheduled game on December 19 altogether. Considering that in between the two dates, Vanderbilt managed to play its Senior Day home game against Tennessee (albeit opting to play in spite of being under the SEC’s roster minimum), the cancellation did not sit well with Georgia fans, many of whom are still mad about it.

Ahem.

As we do every year, we enter 2021 asking whether this is finally Georgia’s year. Georgia will likely start the season with a top-five ranking (they were 5th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ projections back in February) for the fourth consecutive season, but the Bulldogs are still sitting on a 40-year national title drought ever since Herschel Walker ran roughshod over the college football world as a true freshman in 1980. The Bulldogs lost the national title game in overtime in 2017; in 2018 and 2019, they entered the SEC Championship game assured of a playoff spot with a win, but lost a close one to Alabama in 2018, and a not-close one to LSU in 2019. In 2020, early-season issues at quarterback effectively ended the Bulldogs’ national title hopes before they started; a 41-24 loss at Alabama on October 17 put the Bulldogs behind the 8-ball, and a 44-28 loss to Florida on November 7 ended it.

That, however, should not be an issue in 2021, and it’s why Georgia is on the short list of national title contenders and the odds-on favorite to win the SEC East, if not the SEC writ large.

Offense

With talented USC transfer J.T. Daniels injured to begin the 2020 season, Georgia struggled to find consistent quarterback play early on. D’Wan Mathis got the start for the season opener at Arkansas, but after the Bulldogs actually trailed the Razorbacks 7-5 at halftime, former walk-on Stetson Bennett came on in the second half to salvage a win. Bennett delivered passable quarterback play for a few games, but after Daniels finally got healthy for the Mississippi State game in late November, he very rapidly established himself as the starter for 2021 (80-for-119, 1231 yards, 10 TD, 2 INT in four games.)

That’s one reason for optimism. Another reason for optimism: in addition to Daniels, the Bulldogs return starters from last season at eight other spots on offense. Starting RB Zamir White (144-779-11) returns — as do his top two backups, Kenny McIntosh (47-251-1) and James Cook (45-303-3.) So, too, do the team’s top two receivers, Kearis Jackson (36-514-3) and George Pickens (36-514-6) — though Pickens might miss the season due to injury. At tight end, John FitzPatrick (10-95-1) split time with Darnell Washington (7-166-0) in 2020; in 2021, both will have to hold off LSU transfer Arik Gilbert (35-368-2), who was the nation’s #1 tight end prospect in the Class of 2020 (though interestingly, he’s listed as a wide receiver on the roster in spite of being 6’5” and 248 pounds.)

So: J.T. Daniels has no shortage of offensive weapons. The offensive line is the one place where there’s anything resembling a question mark, with the graduation of starting center Trey Hill and starting right guard Ben Cleveland. But the other three starters (LT Jamaree Salyer, LG Justin Shaffer, and RT Warren McClendon) all return, and whoever ends up filling the remaining two spots are likely to be very talented: Georgia can count four offensive linemen who were rated as five-star recruits by either Rivals or 247 Sports who aren’t returning starters.

The question is whether Georgia can turn all this talent into a high-powered offense. While even Alabama has joined the modern world of college football, Georgia’s offense has seemed stuck in the past at times. In spite of all that offensive talent, Georgia averaged 32.3 ppg in 2020 — which sounds like a lot, but ranked 38th nationally. One other thing to add: if Daniels is hurt again, Georgia added the #1 pro-style quarterback in the Class of 2021 (Brock Vandagriff) to the mix.

Defense

This is where the question marks come in — though like on the offensive side, the answers are likely to be extremely talented. That’s certainly the case in the linebacking corps, where Georgia must replace Azeez Ojulari and his 9.5 sacks, along with Jermaine Johnson (5 sacks) and third-round draft pick Monty Rice — but the likely replacements, Adam Anderson (13 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Nolan Smith (21 tackles, 2.5 sacks), are themselves former five-star recruits; so, too, is Nakobe Dean, the team’s leading tackler in 2020, and senior Channing Tindall is plenty experienced as well, and there’s no shortage of highly talented recruits waiting in the wings.

The defensive line got a significant boost when 6’3”, 315-pound Devonte Wyatt, who started all ten games in 2020, elected to return for a fifth year. 6’6”, 340-pound nose guard Jordan Davis is also back, leaving Georgia only to replace Malik Herring in the three-man front — but 6’3”, 310-pound sophomore Jalen Carter, another former five-star recruit, could be ready to step in after starting two games and notching three tackles for loss in 2020.

Georgia had four players out of its secondary drafted, but the Bulldogs do return starting safety Lewis Cine, who finished second on the team with 52 total tackles in 2020. Senior Christopher Smith performed credibly as a replacement for Richard LeCounte at the other safety spot. The cornerback spots are an open question with the departures of first-round pick Eric Stokes and second-round pick Tyson Campbell. True freshman Kelee Ringo, the nation’s #1 cornerback prospect per 247 Sports, seems like an obvious choice, but it’s not clear who will start opposite him.

Special Teams

Senior punter Jake Camarda is one of the nation’s best; his 46.6 average ranked 5th in the country, and 18 of his 36 punts last season landed inside the 20-yard line. Junior placekicker Jack Podlesny is no Rodrigo Blankenship, but he performed credibly in 2020, making 13-of-16 field goals with three from beyond 50 yards, including a career-long 53-yarder to beat Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. Return man Kearis Jackson was merely adequate in 2020, with a couple of long returns but overall pedestrian numbers (5.8 yards on punts, 27.1 on kickoffs.)

Schedule

  • 9/4 vs. Clemson (Charlotte, NC) 6:30 PM/ABC
  • 9/11 UAB 2:30 PM/ESPN2
  • 9/18 South Carolina 6:00 PM/ESPN
  • 9/25 at Vanderbilt
  • 10/2 Arkansas
  • 10/9 at Auburn
  • 10/16 Kentucky
  • 10/30 vs. Florida (Jacksonville, FL)
  • 11/6 Missouri
  • 11/13 at Tennessee
  • 11/20 Charleston Southern
  • 11/27 at Georgia Tech

This is about as good as a schedule gets for a national title contender. The neutral-site season opener against Clemson will not hurt the Bulldogs’ playoff chances, win or lose, but it does add a bit of heft to an SEC schedule that seems a bit lacking in tough tests. Georgia’s three road games in SEC play are all against teams with first-year head coaches, and they should be heavy favorites in all four of the home games. Georgia Tech still isn’t at the point where they’re even remotely a threat to beat the Bulldogs, even at home.

Vegas sets the over/under at 10.5 wins and I’d probably take the over because while a loss to Clemson is a very real possibility, taking the under is basically a straight-up bet on Georgia to lose both that game and the WLOCP in Jacksonville — because honestly, where else is the second loss coming from?

Recent history vs. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt famously ruined Georgia’s homecoming in Kirby Smart’s first year with a 17-16 win in Athens, capped by Zach Cunningham making a fourth-down stop to preserve the victory. Since then, Georgia has won the three subsequent meetings by 31, 28, and 24 points — an indication that Vanderbilt probably won’t see a chance to beat the Bulldogs for a while.

Outlook

No, Vanderbilt isn’t going to beat Georgia — the Bulldogs, as they’ve been over the last four years under Kirby Smart, just feel like a program that’s inevitably going to break through and claim a national title at some point in the near future. (Then again, it felt that way for a few years under Mark Richt, and, well...) But this matchup is interesting for other reasons, not least of which the fact that it’s Clark Lea’s first SEC game. A promising performance could give Vanderbilt something to build on with the more-realistically-winnable SEC games ahead on the schedule; on the other hand, a team off to a not-totally-unrealistic 3-0 start might come crashing down to earth here.

As far as Georgia goes, this might end up being their best shot at a title so far under Kirby Smart. With nine starters back on offense, including virtually all of their skill players, the only thing standing in the way of Georgia fielding an elite offense is themselves; and while the Bulldogs have some holes to fill in the defensive back seven, (a) those holes are mostly going to be filled with highly-touted recruits and (b) I have fewer questions about Kirby Smart’s ability to craft an elite defense. What’s more, Georgia faces few real threats on the SEC schedule, with Florida breaking in a new quarterback, Auburn breaking in a new head coach, and Arkansas being the rotating opponent from the West; and while of course Alabama is probably looming in the SEC Championship, the Tide might be taking a baby step back in 2021.

Which of course means that Georgia will probably fart away a title shot in Knoxville in November, because that’s just been the story of Georgia football since 1980.