ATHENS – Sony Michel loves playing on the road. Says in some ways he prefers it to home, and he believes a lot of the Georgia Bulldogs feel the same way.
The senior running back said there are less distractions and it “kind of feels like a business trip.”
If that’s the case, then Michel and the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) should be in their element when they travel to Nashville Saturday to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores.
A business-like approach may be a good mindset for this year’s jaunt to the Music City. Other than the Bulldogs’ own goals and objectives, there’s not a whole lot of juice here about which to get excited. Georgia can certainly draw motivation from last year’s embarrassing Homecoming Day loss to the Commodores in Athens, but that’s really not what it’s about anymore.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt hasn’t turned out to be the team that many predicted it would be in 2017. The Commodores (3-2, 0-2) started out well enough, winning their first three games, including a 14-7 win over Kansas State in Week 3 that got everybody’s attention. But after a “your next” proclamation before Alabama in week 4, Vandy has lost to the Crimson Tide and Florida by an aggregate score of 97-24.
Now here comes Georgia, riding high after a 41-0 demolition of Tennessee in Knoxville last week and suddenly in the middle of the national conversation on the College Football Playoff. The Commodores certainly would love to pull off the upset and turn around their season, but there’s a lot to overcome in this one. The matchups dramatically favor the Bulldogs, so they’ll need some good bounces and a little luck to make it happen.
Of course, to a lesser degree that was the case last year in Athens and Vanderbilt was able to bring home a stunning 17-16 victory. And it has not been uncommon for the Commodores to give Georgia fits in Nashville. Twelve of their victories and two of their ties have come at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Bulldogs lost there in a whacky game that included injuries and a controversial targeting in 2013.
So now Vandy has won two of the last four in this series, which has been thoroughly dominated by Georgia for the long haul. Indications are the Bulldogs should be back on track for this year’s tilt.
Here’s what has to happen for that to come to pass:
Run it down their throats
Georgia hasn’t really been fantastic on offense this season, but it has been pretty consistent running the football and obviously has a wealth of depth and talent at the tailback position. This will be a good time to utilize that strength to the fullest.
The Commodores have been a good defensive team ever since Derek Mason took over as head coach and particularly when he resumed control of the defense in his second season. But Vanderbilt has been somewhat deficient against the run season. It comes in ranked 12th in the SEC, giving up an average of 204.6 yards per game for the season, and 357 in SEC play. Alabama had a hand in downgrading that statistic, piling up 496 yards on the ground in its 59-0 win two weeks ago.
Georgia is averaging a little more 237 a game, led by senior Nick Chubb’s 96 yards a game. The offensive line appears to have improved since last season. And with linebacker Zach Cunningham now plying his trade in the NFL, the Bulldogs should find the going a little better up the middle.
Hit some deep shots
Vandy knows it’s vulnerable up front on defense, so you can be sure it will be selling out to stop the run just like it did last season when it held the Bulldogs to 2.1 yards per carry and just 75 yards overall. Georgia first needs to be able to run the ball with authority anyway, and then it needs to make the Commodores pay dearly for stacking the box.
Georgia’s freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has shown some improvement with regard to the vertical passing game but he needs to make more. He has thrown TD passes of 51 and 59 yards this season, the latter coming from Terry Godwin against Mississippi State. But his longest throw against Tennessee was just 24 yards despite the Vols being in one-on-one coverage much of the night.
The Bulldogs can expect more of the same against the Commodores, who are actually one of the better pass-defending teams in the league. They’re giving up just 143 yards passing a game and have allowed only three passing TDs all season. Only Georgia (2) has given up fewer.
Vandy is also getting back to full strength in the secondary this week. Starting corner Tre Herndon missed the Florida game with an undisclosed injury, but will be back for Georgia. So will back up corner Bryce Lewis. Meanwhile, 6-foot-3 sophomore JoeJuan Williams is considered one of the league’s best lock-down corners and could have signed with virtually any team in the country. So the Commodores are well defended in the back end of the defense.
Don’t let Shurmur get going
Vanderbilt hasn’t been able to get Ralph Webb and its running game going this season and the Bulldogs can’t afford to let them get going in this game. If the Commodores do, that’s going to make quarterback Kyle Shurmur even more effective than he’s been.
A 6-foot-4, 227-pound sophomore, Shurmur is the son of Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and is considered one of the SEC’s best pocket passers. Shurmur passed for 264 yards and had five throws of more than 20 yards against Florida and its vaunted secondary last week.
Meanwhile, though the Commodores have struggled to run the ball, they’ve actually been fairly proficient at pass protection. Opponents have recorded only three sacks in five games against Vanderbilt. Even Alabama failed to record a sack against the Commodores. So it’s going to be paramount that the Bulldogs get pressure on Shurmur, even if they’re unable to bring him down.
Georgia remains middle of the pack in the SEC at getting to the quarterback. Despite great play from outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy this season as well as inside linebacker Roquan Smith, the Bulldogs are averaging just one sack a game so far. They’ll need to do a better job against the Commodores.
Dominate kicking game — again
Statistically at least, Georgia looks like it should dominate the Commodores in the all-important area of special teams. Vandy’s last in the SEC in kick returns, 13th in kickoff coverage, 13th in punting and 12th in field goals.
The Bulldogs are among the league leaders in every category except for punt return average (10th, 6.8). Georgia needs to demonstrate its superiority in this area on Saturday.