ATHENS — The best thing about what happened to Georgia last week on The Plains and what might happen Saturday against at Kentucky at Sanford Stadium is that the Bulldogs happen to play football with 18-to-22-year-olds.
“Kids are more resilient than the adults and the fan base, I can promise you,” explained coach Kirby Smart, talking about the 23-point loss to Auburn on 680 The Fan’s Bulldog Roundtable on Thursday. “They live in a generation of ‘onto the next thing.’ They want 60 seconds; they’re two or three lines on Twitter; they go on SnapChat. That’s all they think about. So for them, it’s onto the next one.”
There are some objectives for the Bulldogs beyond just winning the next game. Starting with that ill-fated trip to Auburn, this is the most challenging stretch of the season, and the SEC Championship game awaits, whether Georgia is ready for it or not.
It will be paramount that the Bulldogs shore up some things, mentally as well as physically.
“It’s important to gain some confidence in how they play, especially early in this game, so that they can get back to believing in themselves. At the end of the day, it’s the next opponent, a good opponent and an SEC opponent, so they’ve got to go out and perform and be ready for a four-quarter battle. I fully expect it to be that way with Kentucky.”
Whether it could help or hinder that objective remains to be seen, but the Bulldogs will be honoring a huge group of seniors. They’re led the high-profile foursome of Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but there are numerous others who have distinguished themselves with their service in games or in practices. A whopping 31 players will be honored during Senior Day ceremonies, which will start promptly at 3 p.m.
That group has logged a 37-12 record over the last four years. With a couple more wins, they have a chance to finish among the Top 10 most successful classes of all time in the 125-year history of Georgia football.
“These seniors have been a tremendous asset for our staff,” Smart said. “They’re a lot of high-character kids who care a lot about the University of Georgia. We can give back to them and their families by honoring what they’ve done for the university.
Here’s what has to happen to send them out the right way:
Back to Bulldog Basics
The Bulldogs have to find a way to get back to what had made it successful before Auburn humiliated them 40-17. Primarily, that is establish the run and stop the run.
Georgia was overwhelmed in both of those respects against the Tigers, recording season lows in rushing on offense and defense. When Nick Chubb leads the Bulldogs with 27 yards rushing, you know it’s a bad day.
There is nothing automatic about being able to do that against the Wildcats. They’re actually similar to Auburn statistically when it comes to stopping the run. They’re fourth in the SEC at 121.9 yards, or 3.5 yards more a game than the Tigers’ vaunted defense. So Georgia has to address its newly-exposed issues on the offensive line. The Bulldogs were experimenting in practice this week with big Ben Cleveland (6-6, 340) getting some looks at left guard.
On the flipside, Kentucky already has called out Georgia to some degree. Sophomore Benny Snell promised the Bulldogs that he was going to be “bringing it” against them on Saturday. And he has more than a little something to bring. Snell (5-11, 233) is the SEC’s third-leading rusher (101.3 yards per game) and is coming off his third consecutive game in which he has scored three touchdowns. Snell had 114 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia last year when the Bulldogs eked out a 27-24 victory.
Throw the ball downfield
As much as the Bulldogs need to establish the run, they also have to prove they can throw the football. They’ve done that with some success this season, but not consistently and certainly not in the fashion that makes a defense respect it and change what they’re doing.
Georgia’s freshman quarterback Jake Fromm not only has been extremely good at completing third-down throws and occasionally hitting defenses with big plays in the passing game. His yards per attempt continues to be one of the best in the country.
But where the Bulldogs are lacking is in a consistent downfield attack that utilizes the middle of the field and give the safeties something else to think about. To date, most of Fromm’s attempts and completions have come on 50-50 plays against one-on-one coverage in the short to intermediate flat and up and down the sideline. That limits the risk of a turnover within the chaos that is the middle of field.
If there’s a team Georgia might be able to exploit in this regard, it’s Kentucky. The Wildcats struggle in pass coverage. In fact, they’re last in the SEC against the pass, allowing 282.3 yards per game and giving up 18 touchdowns through the air.It may be time for Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to show more trust in the freshman Jake Fromm and let him try to exploit the middle of the defense. This, in turn, could get the Bulldogs’ impressive group of tight ends more involved in the passing game.
Tighten up special teams
It could be argued that Georgia has won the special teams matchup in every game it played this season. Well, up until last week’s game at Auburn.
Actually, the Bulldogs remained dominant when came to the act of kicking and returning kicks. But they were flagged for two devastating personal-foul penalties on special teams plays, committed a turnover and missed a field goal. That undid all the good work displayed by return specialist Mecole Hardman, who had 183 yards in returns but muffed a punt that led to an early second-half touchdown by the Tigers.
Kentucky is decidedly average on special teams, and is especially vulnerable on kickoff returns. This area of Saturday’s matchup is a clear advantage for the Bulldogs, and one of which they need to take full advantage.