Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. Today’s edition of By the Numbers looks at what to expect from Georgia vs. Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Georgia is a 17-point favorite vs. Georgia Tech, but it would be surprising if the game’s even that close.
The Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets are programs that exist in completely different universes at the moment. UGA is defined by the upward mobility of attempting to return to the College Football Playoff, and Georgia Tech is defined by the sideways energy of once again debating the merits of the triple-option offense after another sevenish-win season.
What happens Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium should serve to further emphasize that point, but college football has a nasty habit of being unpredictable. With that in mind, here are a few possible ways the Yellow Jackets could make “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” closer than the experts think it’ll be.
First of all, it should probably be pointed out that what seems like the most-likely scenarios for Georgia Tech aren’t actually the best reasons for optimism for the Yellow Jackets.
For instance, it seems like conventional wisdom to assume UGA could get itself in trouble against Georgia Tech by looking ahead to next Saturday’s SEC Championship Game vs. Alabama. History says that shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Saturday will be the seventh time UGA has played Georgia Tech the week before playing in the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs haven’t lost any of those previous meetings — winning each of those games by an average of 24 points. In other words, don’t expect Georgia to be too distracted.
Something else that probably shouldn’t be expected is an explosive day from Georgia Tech’s offense. The Yelllow Jackets have had a good season offensively. They’re 12th in Football Outsiders’ FEI offensive rankings, but haven’t been as explosive as probably would be expected during the recent four-game winning streak.
Georgia Tech certainly put up big numbers against Virginia Tech and North Carolina, but only averaged 5.08 yards per play for a 31.7-percent success rate vs. Virginia last week, and only averaged 5.33 yards per play for a 37-percent success rate the week before vs. Miami.
Envisioning Yellow Jackets wins typically assume lots of rushing yards and lots of points scored, but in their last two games that hasn’t been the case.
So if UGA isn’t too distracted and if Georgia Tech isn’t offensively explosive, how could the rivalry game end up being close?
The answers are kind of surprising.
Georgia Tech is objectively a bad defense. This has been true almost every season since Paul Johnson became coach in 2008. The Yellow Jackets have cycled through defensive coordinators like a Kardashian goes through NBA players, but the results essentially remain unchanged. Georgia Tech is 88th in ESPN’s FPI defensive ratings.
However, there is one area where Georgia Tech’s defense has been better than average. According to stats guru Bill Connelly, the Yellow Jackets have gotten stops on nearly 35 percent of the third-and-short plays they’ve defended (30th-best in the country), and Georgia Tech has gotten stops on nearly 40 percent of the goal line plays its defended (54th-best).
UGA’s short-yardage offensive issues have been well-documented by this point. That could possibly prove to be a problem vs. the Yellow Jackets.
Another potential issue for UGA also involves Georgia Tech’s defense. The Yellow Jackets have benefited from a lot of turnovers.
Georgia Tech is third in the ACC in turnover margin. The Yellow Jackets have recovered 12 fumbles (most in the ACC) and intercepted 12 passes (fifth-most). Turnovers aren’t generally a predictive stat — meaning it’s difficult to replicate takeaways from week to week — but if the Bulldogs cough up the football, they could end up playing a closer game than they want.
The final way Georgia Tech could have success against UGA is perhaps the most surprising: Georgia should be careful if — or when — the Yellow Jackets decide to pass.
Georgia Tech obviously doesn’t look to throw much. The Yellow Jackets are 127th in the country in passing attempts and yards per game. However, Georgia Tech used timely passing well in its recent win vs. Miami.
Yellow Jackets quarterback TaQuon Marshall completed three of his four attempts against the Hurricanes for 73 yards. That maybe doesn’t sound like much, but the first of those completions went for 20 yards on third and five on Georgia Tech’s first possession — keeping the drive alive for what would eventually become a touchdown. The second of those throws was a 31-yard touchdown pass to Brad Stewart that gave the Yellow Jackets a 27-14 lead, and the final pass of the night went for 22 yards to convert on third and six with Georgia Tech leading by six and attempting to run clock on what turned out to be the game’s final possession.
Marshall won’t throw it much, but if UGA’s pass defense falls asleep, he could possibly find a way to exploit it — especially in key moments. After all, this is the same defense that its share of issues a week ago defending the pass vs. UMass.
Of course, even if some of these scenarios unfold, Georgia will still likely come away with a win. The talent disparity is probably just too great for the Yellow Jackets to overcome. Yet UGA hasn’t been a perfect team this season. If its short-yardage offensive issues and defensive breakdowns show up again on Saturday, the game could stay close for longer than DawgNation would prefer.