ATHENS — Georgia remains one of the youngest teams in the nation this year, and it continues to play like it.
That’s good news, not bad. Broken down, the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs’ roster consists of 68.2 percent freshmen and sophomores. That has to be encouraging for Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who otherwise left Georgia’s 26-point win over Tennessee on Saturday with a laundry list of complaints.
“We’ve got to protect the passer,” Smart said following the 38-12 victory. “We got to be able to throw the ball down the field. We got to be able to run the ball more consistently. We got to be able to execute on defense, I don’t think we’re getting the pressure we need to get. Got to improve on special teams.”
Based on those comments, one would never know that Georgia (5-0, 3-0 SEC) remains an undefeated team getting ready to face Vanderbilt for homecoming (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). But like all fans of the Bulldogs, Smart knows their toughest tests remain down the road.
Looming particularly large at this point is an Oct. 13 date against LSU in Baton Rouge. The No. 5-ranked Tigers also improved to 5-0 (2-0 SEC) after a 45-16 win over Ole Miss late Saturday night.
A performance such as the one Georgia turned in this Saturday won’t get it done at Tiger Stadium in two weeks. But the Bulldogs are not a finished product, and that’s a very encouraging thing.
“You’re not born sprinting,” Smart said. “You have the evolution of you crawl, you walk, you jog, you run. … They’re growing. … We’re still growing as a team and trying to get better.”
With that in mind, here’s some grades for the Bulldogs’ work on Saturday:
Smart’s comments would have you believe Georgia is using a seat-of-its-pants approach to deploy its two quarterbacks. Both Jake Fromm and Justin Fields played extensively against the Vols, exchanging snaps not only throughout the game, but within possessions. On the Bulldogs’ game-defining, 12-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter, the quarterbacks alternated six times.
At the end of it, Georgia ended up with 441 yards on 251 rushing and 190 passing and scored five touchdowns. But there were flaws throughout. Playing without starting right guard Ben Cleveland, the Bulldogs allowed three quarterback sacks. And they continue to be one of the country’s most fortuitous teams. They fumbled the ball four times Saturday, losing none of them and even turning one into a 40-yard touchdown.
Georgia’s receiving corps wasn’t its usual sharp self. Terry Godwin let a ball pass right through his hands on a wide-open hot read and Riley Ridley and Jeremiah Holloman each gave up on deep balls that appeared catchable with sustained effort. D’Andre Swift dropped the ball on a perfectly called and timed screen pass that would’ve resulted in a third-down conversion if not a long score.
Still, the Bulldogs averaged 6.0 yards per play-call and possessed the ball for 15 minutes more than their visitors. At 216 points overall and an average of 43.2 per game, Georgia is scoring at a rate beyond even the high-scoring team of 2014.
Smart and his charges continue to bemoan playing to an undefined standard that they have yet to achieve. That was evident on Saturday as they gave up two explosive-play touchdowns to the Vols.
Wideout Josh Palmer scored on a 37-yard pass from Jarrett Guarantano in which beat linebacker Juwan Taylor and safety J.R. Reed deep. And running back Ty Chandler sliced through the Georgia defense on the way to a 35-yard touchdown on a simple flare pass out of the backfield. Those two second-half plays gave Tennessee life in what had previously been 24-0 blowout.
But the Bulldogs contributed significantly to allowing the first scoring drive. The busted coverage was preceded by two 15-yard penalties on a personal foul and an interference call. The second was the result of three plays of more than 10 yards.
Still, Georgia checked the most important boxes of the day. It limited the run-first Vols to 66 yards on the ground, or 2.6 yards per rush. Meanwhile, Tennessee never once reached the red zone. And D’Andre Walker continues to play at an All-SEC level. The senior outside linebacker had five tackles, a sack and forced another fumble. Reed led the Bulldogs with six stops and Tyler Clark and Julian Rochester combined to give Georgia five sacks on the season.
Special teams: B
The legend of Rodrigo Blankenship continues to grow as the junior place-kicker continues to come through for the Bulldogs. Saturday he was good for another field goal, booting a 43-yarder in the first half to give Georgia a 10-0 lead. He also remains nearly perfect on kickoffs. Blankenship was 7-for-7 on touchbacks, making him 37-of-39 for the season.
Most impressively, Blankenship managed to somehow scoot over the cross bar a bad-snap/hold extra point in which he had to stop his motion mid-swing until the ball was set for contact. That allowed Blankenship to keep alive a PAT streak that has reached 116 in a row. Georgia’s record of 119 by Blair Walsh has stood since 2010.
Freshman punter Jake Camarda has a huge leg but continues to struggle with consistency. He averaged 41 yards on the day but had another shank and continues to battle keeping the ball in play. Another touchback have him five on the season. The Bulldogs had only five all last season.
Georgia was unable to display its high-octane return game as it was able to muster neither a kickoff or punt return.
Kirby Smart, the coach who has a plan for everything, insists he has no plan for the quarterbacks. This is a blatant untruth. As it is plain to see, the Bulldogs plan to incorporate the freshman Fields more and more into the offense going forward.
The ploy appears to be working swimmingly so far as Fields is showing steady progress and Fromm, who started his 19th game in a row Saturday, has no cause for complaint. Continuing to manage both players’ dispositions and progress will remain a challenge going forward, but well done so far.
Georgia added six more penalties to a season ledger that now stands at 28. That actually remains in the top third of the SEC, but the nature and timing of Saturday’s fouls were particularly costly, such as the personal foul and interference on Tennessee’s first scoring drive.
Based on last year’s run and this year’s expectations, the “standard” for Georgia remains excellence. That’s something that the Bulldogs haven’t yet achieved. But that’s also good news as Georgia remains undefeated and ranked No. 2 having not come close to reaching that standard.
In an ideal world, Georgia will start to reach that lofty subjective peak in the coming weeks. That would be well-timed, with LSU, Florida and Kentucky looming just around the corner.