ATHENS — The Georgia football team will storm the field Saturday night in Nashville with visions of a championship season in the back of its collective mind.
Vanderbilt would appear to merely be the first speed bump of many, the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs favored by three touchdowns in the 7:30 p.m. ESPN showdown.
But there’s a reason the game gets played, and all one need do is reflect on history.
Georgia out-gained Vanderbilt 421 yards to 171 yards and didn’t turn the ball over over miss any field goals in a shocking 17-16 home loss to the Commodores in 2016.
Such losses are anomaly, for sure, but the history book reflects it as a loss just the same, and no one was taking any consolation in the Bulldogs’ statistical domination that afternoon.
It’s a safe bet Kirby Smart hasn’t forgotten, and that’s a good place to start with the five keys to Saturday’s game for Georgia:
1. Assume nothing
It’s a pretty safe bet that an angry and motivated Bulldogs’ team shows up in Nashville, considering Georgia lost its past two games including a lackluster showing in a 28-21 Sugar Bowl loss to Texas.
The Bulldogs are also aware the Commodores are showing up with confidence in their so-called “Big Three” playmakers, and will be wearing all-black jerseys for what they hope will be a special occasion.
It’s up to Kirby Smart and his coaches to create the right mindset going in.
2. Red Zone efficiency
The first step to avoid history repeating itself is not to repeat history.
In that 17-16 loss to Vanderbilt in 2016, the Bulldogs settled for three field goals instead of punching the ball in for touchdowns.
Jake Fromm has already said one of the areas the 2019 Georgia offensive plans to improve is in Red Zone efficiency.
3. Ball security
The surest way to a team getting upset is turnovers, particularly in a road night game in the SEC.
The Bulldogs are expected to have approximately 70 percent of the fans in the stadium, but the 30 percent of the Vandy fans who are there will make themselves heard at every opportunity.
Turnovers create and turn momentum, and the Commodores will be looking to make the most out of any break they get, recognizing the opportunity for a shock-the-world moment on ESPN.
4. Strike deep
Vanderbilt is going to crowd the line and do anything and everything it can to force Fromm to throw the ball downfield with hopes of creating a turnover.
Georgia’s pro-style offense is designed to take advantage of what the defense gives, and it will be up to Fromm and his receivers to connect often enough to make the Commodores pay for their aggressive, gambling defense.
Vandy kept last year’s game close early on by forcing UGA into three straight passes on its opening drive — two of them incomplete — on a three-and-out series.
On the next drive, Fromm connected with Terry Godwin on a 75-yard touchdown pass. By the end of the night, five different UGA receivers had receptions of 20 yards or more — four of those have moved on to the NFL.
Expect the same script from Georgia with new names plugged in.
5. Play AND coach aggressive
This is another of the more obvious keys, but it’s particularly important against the scrappy teams Derek Mason puts on the field.
Georgia is bigger, faster and stronger and needs to play like it, and Coach Kirby Smart needs to coach like it, too.
Coach Derek Mason claims to love Smart like a brother, but by the end of the game he might feel differently if Smart holds up to his words about aiming to score more points this season.
Too often last year, Georgia took its foot off the gas and ran out time in the fourth quarter of games rather than allowing the offense to prioritize putting the ball in the end zone.
Smart would later talk about how young the 2018 defense was, so he was likely looking to protect it by running clock, as much as anything. But it came at an expense, as Georgia’s offensive numbers were not on par with other College Football Playoff teams.
The guess here is that “Do more” starts with the coaching decisions on the sideline at Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt Game Week