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Georgia football: Vanderbilt could be a land mine again in 2017

Cy Brown

Welcome to your one-stop shop for Georgia football news and takes every Monday through Friday. Vanderbilt will be a dangerous opponent for Georgia once again in 2017.

Track: Neon Moon | Artist: Futurebirds

2017 Opponent Preview: Vanderbilt

Georgia’s loss to Vanderbilt last season was one of those games that just made you shake your head and ask, “What the hell did I just watch?” Georgia outgained the ‘Dores by 250 yards, had 14 first downs and committed no turnovers. But a confluence of terrible special teams play and some too-smart-for-its-own-good play-calling on a late fourth-and-1 resulted in the nadir of Kirby Smart’s first season in charge. It also resulted in a lot of questions about Smart’s ability to lead the program, as well as OC Jim Chaney’s ability to run an offense.

However, some of the introspection from Georgia fans following the game ignored Vanderbilt’s agency in the game. Yeah, Georgia really screwed up, but Vanderbilt positioned itself to capitalize on Georgia’s shortcomings on special teams and on that final drive, and did just that. And that’s what Vanderbilt did a lot last season.

The Commodores finished 6-7, tied for fifth in the East, and received a bid to the Independence Bowl, where they were trounced by North Carolina State. Vanderbilt also nailed Georgia’s and Tennessee’s hides to the wall during the season, a prize as good as any bowl trophy to many Vandy fans. Last year was a big step forward for the team under Derek Mason, who has improved his record each season since arriving to Nashville. Another season of improvement, or at least another season without decline, should be attainable by the Dores in 2017.

Because of its talent in comparison to the rest of the division, Vanderbilt has a lower ceiling in the East than most of its rivals. But since Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee are fairly close to their floors, and the rest of the East isn’t looking so hot either, we’re in the middle of a sort of window of opportunity for Vanderbilt. A window that could be closing fast if Georgia has anything to say about it. Until that happens, though, you’ve got to consider Vandy a long shot to win the East but with a puncher’s chance to beat Georgia in back-to-back seasons. And a long shot is heaps better than the no shot Vandy’s been for most of its history.

Their offense

Two words: Ralph Webb. The senior tailback has improved every year as a rusher, topping out with 1,283 yards as a junior, fourth-best in the SEC. He has the kind of explosiveness that will make a defense pay for any blown assignment or missed tackle. He’s the best player on the team and will be relied on now more than ever to be the focal point of its attack. Vanderbilt also has Kyle Shurmur returning at quarterback. As a sophomore, he was able to put up 2,400 yards passing, including 416 in the win against Tennessee. Those two have the potential to lead a vastly improved unit in 2017.

Their defense

Two more words: Zach Cunningham. The ‘Dores’ best player and leading tackler last season was drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans. Now, they’ll have to find a way to replace his 125 tackles and game-changing ability he put on display with that crucial fourth-down tackle against Georgia. Oren Burks is his heir apparent. The senior had 59 tackles in a backup role last season and should see his production take a bump with more snaps. Safety LaDarius Wiley is a head smasher and should be Vandy’s biggest threat in the secondary.

Last season, Vanderbilt’s biggest weakness was the pass rush. While still a really good unit, the defense suffered from only producing 15 sacks. If the pass rush improves enough, we could see improvement from the defense as a whole over last season, even without Cunningham.

What to expect vs. Georgia

Like Tennessee, Georgia will have revenge on its mind in this game. More importantly, the Bulldogs should have the shortcomings from their 2016 loss on their minds as well. That includes Chaney. It would not surprise me if Smart and his team work extra hard to ensure that the sloppiness from that game doesn’t repeat itself, if nothing more than a symbolic move. Georgia is more talented and could – and should — put up better numbers again, but you can’t count out Vanderbilt next season in Nashville.

FPI Projection — Georgia has a 74.5 percent chance to beat Vanderbilt.

Previous opponent previewAppalachian State | Notre Dame | Samford | Mississippi State | Tennessee

[Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly identified Zach Cunningham as a fourth round draft pick. He was drafted in the second round.]

Trent Thompson set to return

The SEC held a teleconference of its head coaches, and Kirby Smart provided some good news on the Trent Thompson front, telling reporters that “he’ll be back in summer school.” From Seth Emerson of DawgNation:

“Trenton’s done a great job of rehabbing. His shoulder is much better,” Smart said. “He’s been able to move a lot better than he was before. Medically, he’s done real well.”

For his part, Thompson seems pumped about coming back, and I’d wager every Georgia fan is joining him in that excitement.

Jarren Williams recommits to UK

Any hopes you had of UGA flipping Central Gwinnett QB Jarren Williams have pretty much dissipated. The Class of 2018 signal caller recommitted to the Kentucky Wildcats after rescinding his original commitment to the program less than a month ago. Georgia got in on the tail end of Williams’ recruitment, so it’s no surprise the Bulldogs couldn’t close the gap on the sizable lead held by UK.

Georgia has struggled mightily in trying to secure a pledge from a Class of 2018 quarterback. Smart and his staff missed on a trio of highly rated Peach State QBs early in this recruiting cycle and now the mid-tier QB prospects are flying off the shelf. Smart touched on his QB recruiting efforts during the SEC coaches teleconference on Monday. From Seth Emerson of DawgNation:

“Any program is earmarked by how they recruit quarterbacks and what quarterbacks they have on campus,” Smart said during the SEC teleconference on Monday. “Obviously, we only have two scholarship quarterbacks on campus this fall, so we have a great need there. It’s a great situation to come into. When these guys arrive, Jacob [Eason] will be entering his junior year, and I think anytime you’ve got a situation like that, when they’re going to come in and compete for playing time, it’s a great sell.

“So, we’re casting the net far and wide; we’re combing the country for the best guys. Because I honestly think that’s the success and fall of many programs is based on quarterbacks.”

According to 247Sports, Georgia has offered 19 quarterbacks in the Class of 2018, 10 of whom remain uncommitted.

Another Dawg reportedly joins ESPN’s College GameDay

Maria Taylor is reportedly set to move from hosting duties on the SEC Network’s SEC Nation to a gig as features reporter for College GameDay on ESPN, a role previously held by Samantha Ponder, according to The Big Lead. Taylor played volleyball for Georgia from 2005 to 2009 before moving into broadcasting, beginning her career at the Worldwide Leader as a sideline reporter on ESPN2.

Taylor will become the second UGA alum on GameDay, joining Georgia football great David Pollack. Along with Ernie Johnson on Inside the NBA, the Bulldogs are taking over some of the most popular studio shows in sports media. If nothing else, it’ll hard to charge GameDay with an anti-Georgia bias.

ICYMI

Good dog

That’s what I call SEC speed.