It’s building in Athens because, well, it always builds in Athens after a win. Jacob Eason makes a big throw to win an SEC game on the road and suddenly the overwhelming thought among Georgia fans is, “If he can do that at Missouri, he can do it at Ole Miss. And he can do it against Tennessee. And Florida! And New England!”
The door is open on North Ave but there’s a little more caution among that fan base because, well, duh. But Georgia Tech is 3-0 and the offense was impressive against Vanderbilt, and even though Vanderbilt isn’t nearly Clemson, even if half of the Clemson players had their arms and legs duct-taped together, the Paul Johnson-Dabo Swinney history tilts in Tech’s favor and there’s just enough there to make you think, “Hmmm.”
This week won’t define the season for either Georgia or Georgia Tech. But it will tell us a lot about the potential of each program this season in their respective conference races.
And, yes, it’s debatable which program is sitting in a better position today (as Bulldogs fans read that sentence and spontaneously combust).
This isn’t about talent because Georgia always has more talent, and it’s certainly not about rankings because they don’t mean anything in September, or October, or really at all until conference championship week. This is about Georgia in the SEC race and Tech in the ACC race and there are arguments to be made for or against each school.
Georgia’s upside: Eason is a freshman but he has shown an ability to make throws in high-pressure moments, something we couldn’t be certain of until the final minutes of the comeback win over Missouri. Combine that potential at quarterback with one of the nation’s best running backs in Nick Chubb and that gives the Bulldogs a chance to win any game.
Georgia Tech’s upside: The Jackets go as their running game goes, and it’s going. They have rushed for 653 yards in the past two games. Freshman Dedrick Mills has four touchdowns in two games. Quarterback Justin Thomas has yet to commit a turnover in three weeks. Tech’s offensive line has been much stronger than a year ago and the team has depth at running back. The offense also has six pass plays of 20-plus yards (yes, passing).
Georgia’s downside: Georgia coaches still haven’t found an offensive line group they’re comfortable with. (Kirby Smart: “We’ve looked at every combination.”) If protection and run-blocking problems persist, it won’t matter how good Eason and Chubb are. Similarly, the Bulldogs have talent on defense but they’re still learning a new system and hiccups were evident last week: Missouri totaled 471 yards in offense, including 376 passing and three touchdown passes. The kicking game: a major issue.
Georgia Tech’s downside: Defense tends to be the Jackets’ Achilles. They’ve allowed only 31 points in three games but nobody should confuse the offenses of Boston College, Mercer and Vanderbilt as great defensive challenges. Clemson and Deshaun Watson will be like leaping from paint-by-numbers to a 30-page term paper. Tech also has a challenging schedule ahead, with Miami and Pittsburgh following the Clemson game and road games against North Carolina and Virginia Tech in November.
Georgia’s potential swing factors: It’s reasonable to think the Dogs will improve as the season goes on, particularly on defense, as players continue to adjust to new schemes and new coaches, and Smart works on improving his team’s mental toughness. Almost losing to a pedestrian team like Missouri was not a good sign, but showing the resilience to come back and win was. Georgia’s defensive front also could get better if and when Jonathan Ledbetter returns from a suspension. As for the schedule, if the Dogs can win consecutive road games, it would be positive foreshadowing for their two toughest remaining SEC opponents: Tennessee at home and Florida in Jacksonville.
Georgia Tech’s potential swing factors: Johnson’s teams tend to play better when nobody expects them to do anything. There were low expectations for Tech coming off last year’s 3-9 season, the opposite of the season before when they were coming off an 11-3 record. The Jackets are 3-0 at home against Clemson and 5-4 overall during Johnson’s tenure. Even if they don’t pull the upset, just playing the Tigers close would bode well for their chances in the ACC Coastal. Running back depth can allow Tech to control the pace of games, wear down defenses and keep their own defense off the field.
Conclusions: Having players like Chubb and Eason who can win a game at any moment gives Georgia the greater upside. But get back to me next week.