Georgia football hit the midway point of the season where many thought the Bulldogs would be record-wise, but the No. 1 ranking might have caught some off guard.
Who expected Alabama to lose to Texas A&M? Or, Ohio State to lose at home against Oregon despite moving the kickoff up to an advantageous early noon window?
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Other than Clemson, which rolled into the season No. 3 before UGA scored the 10-3 win over the Tigers, Coach Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs haven’t been tested on the scoreboard.
Georgia’s biggest challenge, it seems, has been keeping players healthy.
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Far more players have been injured in practices and training than in games, particularly in the receiving corps and secondary where the Bulldogs are razor-thin entering the second half of the season.
The Bulldogs’ on-field dominance has much to do with the great talent Smart has assembled, but also, elite coaching and scheming from coordinators Dan Lanning and Todd Monken.
It seems the only time the offense or defense isn’t dominating is when Smart is putting the brakes on the units to run time off the clock or avoid running up the score.
Here’s a look at one perspective on the position groups, grading on a championship-level curve:
The offense hasn’t been pressed into a true comeback mode since JT Daniels directed a depleted Georgia offense on a game-winning drive with no timeouts and less than two minutes left in the Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati.
Monken’s Pro Style Spread scheme with Air Raid principles has a lot to do with Georgia ranking No. 5 in the nation in passing efficiency.
Stetson Bennett has been solid, but his third-down conversion passing numbers in SEC play are revealing. Bennett is 8-of-17 passing (43 yards) on third downs, but only 2 of 17 converting those throws into first downs. Daniels, in SEC Play, is 9-of-9 (118 yards) converting third-down passes into first downs.
Bennett is most effective in the play-action game, which puts a premium on a strong ground game with him under center.
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RUNNING BACKS (B)
Georgia has been solid but not spectacular in the backfield, and certainly not up to the high standards set by such greats as Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift.
Georgia’s rotation has been more effective in the roster retention department than efficiency, with none of the backs ever seeming to find rhythm. Kendall Milton has the longest run of the season, 35 yards.
James Cook has been the most consistent and effective all-around, averaging 6.3 yards per carry (Milton is second at 5.0), while Zamir White remains the workhorse for carries (83, Milton is second with 49), and Red Zone work (7 TDs, Cook is second with 2)
Kenny McIntosh comes off a hamstring injury leading the backs with 83 yards receiving (6 catches), while Cook has 11 catches for 56 yards.
The tight ends have brought the grade up here, particularly freshman Brock Bowers with his team-high 25 catches for 416 yards and 6 touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Ladd McConkey has emerged as an explosive and reliable target, second on the team with 17 catches for 295 yards.
Freshman receiver Adonai Mitchell, like McConkey, has emerged off the depth chart and is third on the team with 14 catches for 210 yards.
Sophomore Jermaine Burton, who many thought would be the go-to receiver after George Pickens suffered a torn ACL last spring, has dealt with nagging injuries and been limited to 13 catches for 224 yards.
Veteran Kearis Jackson had offseason knee surgery and has been a step off, currently with 7 catches for 67 yards. Track star Arian Smith has played in just two games and has 2 catches for 67 yards.
OFFENSIVE LINE (B)
It’s a unit that has gotten better seemingly each week, but it has not evolved as many expected. Highly touted sophomore Broderick Jones has yet to take charge at left tackle, which would enable senior captain Jamaree Salyer to move inside to guard.
Redshirt freshman Sedrick Van Pran has quickly become a strong, certain presence a center. Right tackle Warren McClendon has been stout but not always dominant. There’s room for improvement at guard. Veteran Justin Shaffer has had good performances offset by costly penalties. Warren Ericson is assignment sound but hasn’t shown the physicality in the run game many expected from injured Tate Ratledge. Xavier Truss remains in the mix.
DEFENSIVE LINE (A+)
The Georgia defensive line is historically good with several future NFL players forming the strongest unit on the team. Godzilla-like Jordan Davis gets most of the attention at 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds, a one-man run stuffer between the guards. But Jalen Carter and Devonte Wyatt are also elite, and Travon Walker ranks among the best defensive ends in the SEC. Nolan Smith is coming to fruition in the rush end role, and Smart has said he’s getting even better against the run.
Inside linebacker Nakobe Dean is an All-American, his sideline-to-sideline play and instincts continue to impress. Quay Walker has taken another step up and is awesome in the open field. Channing Tindall is the team tackles leader and shows great speed in pursuit. Adam Anderson is amazing, himself, leading the team with 4.5 tackles Anderson’s ability to play more than one position makes him truly special. Slight downgrade for a couple of penalties and not as many forced turnovers as this playmaking positon should create.
The unit has been largely protected by the dominant front, as quarterbacks don’t have time to find receivers downfield. Safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith are championship level players, and Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick has had an impressive first half of the season. Latavious Brini has been adequate at the “star” position as well, and he’ll need to hold that down with Tykee Smith out for the season with a knee injury. The corner position opposite Kendrick is where teams choose to attack, so freshman Kelee Ringo will need continued improvement and Ameer Speed will need a healthy return from the ankle injury that has kept him sidelined recently.
SPECIAL TEAMS (B)
Jake Camarda has been incredible, perhaps the best punter in college football and a certain future NFL player at the position. But the kicking game has been somewhat inconsistent with Jack Podlesny missing a big field goal against Clemson, and more recently, snapping a historic extra point kick streak. The return game hasn’t offered much with a hobbled Kearis Jackson deep for punts. Jackson has bobbled some punts and failed to get loose on returns on others. It’s a challenging position to play when healthy, and even more so when injured.
The offseason prep and construction of this football team was fantastic, to the point of the “next man up” at each position being ready each time the Bulldogs suffered an injury or setback. Will Muschamp’s ability to slide into an on-field role after Scott Cochran needed time away was clutch. Todd Monken’s play-calling and adjustments are such that he should be the highest-paid assistant on staff after this season if he doesn’t get hired away to the NFL. Dan Lanning is another incredible coaching mind and beyond that, a chemistry guy behind the scenes. Lanning is likely destined for a head coaching job after this season.
It has been an incredible first half of the season, but as Smart reminds his coaches, players and fans, the goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season. Smart must continue to manage his quarterback situation delicately, as it will be under the microscope from coast to coast with future QB prospects watching closely. The defense will most certainly face stiffer challenges, as Auburn’s No. 49 pass game has been the best UGA has seen. When that time comes, Smart will need to rely on his offense to become more explosive, something he had anticipated entering the season. Beyond the Xs and Os, the time Smart invested to make his team more connected has been a factor. Tracing it all the way back, identifying, landing and developing great recruits, like Jordan Davis, Jamaree Salyer, Nakobe Dean, Lewis Cine, Brock Bowers and JT Daniels, has been key. The 2022 Georgia recruiting class is ranked No. 1, currently, and has more of such future stars aiming to head to Athens.
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