The tendency among college football observers and fans is to overstate the importance of an opening game, whether it’s a disappointing showing like Tennessee and several other prominent programs turned in this weekend, or a stirring come-from-behind win over a ranked opponent like Georgia staged against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.
UGA fans definitely come out of the 33-24 win over the Tar Heels heartened by several strong positives (chief among them the immediate return to form of the magnificent Nick Chubb), but also with a number of concerns and unresolved questions to ponder.
No, it’s not really surprising that, after a series of opening games in which the rest of the division looked decidedly meh, that an uneven but ultimately impressive showing by the Dawgs had some analysts with itchy trigger fingers anointing Georgia as the newly installed SEC East favorite over previous media darling Tennessee.
I wouldn’t go that far just yet.
At times in the No. 18 Bulldogs’ win over No. 22 UNC — UGA’s first win in school history over a nationally ranked team in an opening game played away from Athens — the Dawgs showed flashes of having the potential to return to the Georgia Dome in December. But, there were enough problems evident in a game that saw Georgia trailing Carolina halfway through the fourth quarter to encourage a more cautious brand of optimism among those of us who wear red and black.
Among the pros and cons Kirby Smart and his staff have to assess as they take a look at the tape:
On the plus side, the Georgia running game remains formidable. It wasn’t necessary to ease the Dawgs’ workhorse back into the rotation. Chubb’s 222 yards (a Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game record) on an astounding 32 carries, resulting in two touchdowns, showed he’s picking up right where he left off before getting hurt last season. And true freshman Brian Herrien, who replaced a fumbling Brendan Douglas, provided the surprise of the evening with a 19-yard run for a TD on his first carry. He finished with 59 yards on seven carries. Still to come is the return of Sony Michel, who dressed out and warmed up, but didn’t play.
On the other hand, the Georgia offense looked a bit one-dimensional early on, as starting quarterback Greyson Lambert, who was sacked three times, once again underwhelmed. The Tar Heels defense, obviously concluding Lambert wasn’t a passing threat, started jamming the box, making the Dawgs’ attack less effective.
That changed, fortunately, with the arrival in the game of true freshman QB Jacob Eason, who restored some balance to the UGA attack and led the Dawgs to a couple of scores. As UNC head coach Larry Fedora noted, “You saw them open it up a little more when Eason was in the game. It gave us some issues.”
Having to account for a passing game, instead of just being able to key on Chubb, loosened up the Carolina defense.
Not that Eason was perfect; he was off-target on some of his throws (though on a couple it’s possible the intended receiver ran the wrong route), and occasionally he had trouble getting the team out of the huddle and into the right play — the sort of miscues you’d expect from a true freshman in his first college game.
But he obviously provided the spark that Lambert couldn’t. And Eason’s third-down 51-yard completion to Isaiah McKenzie with 7:55 to go in the fourth quarter was the sort of big-time play Georgia fans have had visions of ever since the highly sought prospect indicated he’d play his college ball at UGA.
Defense also was a mixed bag for the Dawgs. The defensive front was inconsistent against the run (the Heels averaged 8.4 yards per rush) and had little success putting pressure on the UNC quarterback, but the secondary looked terrific, breaking up several passes. Overall, the defense held North Carolina’s normally high-powered offense in check for much of the evening.
Special teams play was more of an adventure and is the area where the Dawgs need the most improvement. Georgia gave up a 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return to open the second half, though coverage on other kickoffs was much better. There was also a missed field goal, a poor punt, a personal-foul call for hitting a returner on a called fair catch, and Georgia’s own return game didn’t produce much.
On the coaching front, Smart and his staff generally made a good debut, not being afraid to put the game in Eason’s hands when they needed to. But the play-calling got rather conservative during the portion of the game where the Dawgs weren’t doing much offensively, and Smart had a rookie error in burning a second-half timeout in a close game after failing to draw the Heels offside by feinting going for it on fourth-and-2.
Overall, though, it was an evening that left big smiles on the faces of the UGA fans who appeared to make up about 70 percent of the Georgia Dome crowd.
And those fans did their part, with the din during the drive that resulted in a Carolina safety practically raising the roof. Smart, who’s been in the venue quite a few times before with Alabama, said it was “the loudest I’ve ever heard it in here.” I’ll go a bit further: That series was the loudest I’ve ever heard any Georgia crowd anywhere, with the decibel level literally buzzing in my ears.
The ovation that greeted Chubb’s 55-yard touchdown run that closed out the scoring wasn’t far off that mark, either.
Looking ahead, Smart, still opting to play Saban Jr. at his post-game press conference, wouldn’t commit to who his starting quarterback will be this coming Saturday at the home-opener against Nicholls State, but it was quite apparent to all who watched the game that Eason is the one Georgia will want taking the snaps when a game is on the line.
Personally, I think starting the freshman in the next game, against a lesser opponent, and letting him get as many plays as possible in real-game conditions to improve his interaction with his receivers is the way to go. But, a continued rotation of some sort in the immediate future wouldn’t surprise me.
Meanwhile, we need to keep in mind this was just the first game with a new staff. You’ve got to figure that the eventual return of Michel will make the offense even more dangerous. And, hopefully, a maturing of the defensive front and a resolution of the special teams problems will perhaps make those best-in-the-East dreams a few steps closer to reality.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.