Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs looked like the national championship contender they’re supposed to be Saturday night at Vanderbilt — for a quarter and a half.
Whether the Dawgs go on to become a College Football Playoff-worthy team will depend largely on how quickly they resolve the problems that plagued them the remaining two and a half quarters of a 30-6 win over the Commodores, in which they mixed flashes of brilliance with maddening inconsistency.
James Coley’s debut as offensive coordinator got off to a nearly flawless start on Georgia’s first three drives. The play-calling was run-heavy, as usual, but with some deftly called passes mixed in effectively.
Led by D’Andre Swift, who wound up with 16 carries for 149 yards in the game (averaging 9.3 yards per carry), the Dawgs gobbled up yardage as they shuttled tailbacks in and out, and Georgia’s speedy receivers made the end-around an effective weapon.
The highly touted offensive line was living up to its billing early on, opening huge holes for Swift, Brian Herrien (who actually was the starting tailback) and James Cook.
With the young receiving corps also looking surprisingly dangerous, especially Demetris Robertson, and the defense pretty much shutting down Vandy’s three offensive stars (tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney), it looked like a butt-kicking in the making.
Instead, what we got was a relatively drama-free game where the outcome never was in doubt, but with better team looking sloppy and unfocused much of the rest of the evening, as a fairly stout Vandy defense made successful adjustments, and Georgia hurt itself with three holding calls on offense and three costly personal foul flags on defense.
As Smart said after the game, “We need to stay off people’s face masks, because we basically gave them 45 yards and two field goals on undisciplined penalties.”
In the box score, Georgia’s offense came out of the game looking pretty good, with 479 total yards, 323 of it on the ground. Still, an offense that goes 1 for 7 on third down, fails on its only fourth-down conversion attempt, and has to settle for field goals in the second half against one of its conference’s lower-echelon programs, obviously has room for improvement.
That’s especially true in the red zone and short-yardage game, areas in which Georgia struggled at times last season. As good as Coley’s play-calling was in the first quarter, it was too conservative in the second half, particularly on third down. The 2-minute offense late in the first half also was lacking dynamic play calls and suffered from lack of execution.
Smart, however, tried to keep his team’s short-yardage failures in perspective, noting that with “325 yards rushing, I’m not going to get overly concerned about the 2 we didn’t get or the 1 we didn’t get.”
Yeah, I imagine he might have somewhat stronger thoughts on that subject in the team meeting room.
Of more concern, possibly, was that the Dawgs’ offensive line, touted in the preseason as possibly the nation’s best, looked merely average after the first three drives, allowing Vandy to stuff some short-yardage runs and allowing the Dores to put a lot of pressure on Fromm, resulting in hurried incompletions in the passing game as he threw off his back foot.
With 10 penalties for 117 yards, many of them costly (including a holding call wiping out a 53-yard catch by Robertson), and personal fouls keeping Vandy drives alive, it looked like the Bulldogs’ focus wavered after they got up 21-0. You’ve got to figure the coaching staff will concentrate on eliminating those mental errors in the next two cupcake games, leading up to Notre Dame.
On special teams, Rodrigo Blankenship was his usual reliable self, but Georgia’s return game needs work. One nice return was negated by Tyler Simmons touching his knee to the ground as he caught the ball, and others were wiped out by flagged blocks in the back. Also, the Dawgs fell victim to a fake punt.
On the plus side, Georgia’s defense kept Vanderbilt out of the end zone and put a lot of pressure on Vandy’s quarterbacks, even though they only got two sacks. The Dawgs’ receivers generally looked good (though Simmons let one third-down pass go through his hands).
Jake Fromm, who played the whole game, did a good job of putting Georgia into the right play most of the time. But, again, he was better in the first half, completing 8-of-12 for 103 yards and 1 TD before halftime, but finishing a modest 15 of 23 for 156 yards. Georgia didn’t throw to its backs as much as expected, and Fromm still isn’t much of a downfield threat.
Late in the game, Zamir “Zeus” White thrilled the Georgia fan contingent that filled three-quarters of Vandy’s stadium when he got into the game and showed off his tough running style, bulling through would-be tacklers, though he needs to work on ball security, fumbling out of bounds on his longest run.
Overall, I’d give the Dawgs a B-minus grade for the game: good, but in need of improvement. My highest grade would go to the secondary (an A), and I’d give the defense an overall B-plus. The running game rated an A-minus (that short-yardage thing again), with the offensive line earning a C-plus. Overall, the offense was average (a C), special teams would get a B-plus and coaching merited a C grade.
At his post-game press conference, Smart did a good job of summing up the game: “We’ve still got a long way to go. We had a lot of undisciplined penalties and didn’t play efficiently in the second half offensively, but I’m proud of our guys.”
Looking ahead, Smart rightly observed: “This team has to decide if they want to get better — that’s all I’m asking them — ‘Do you want to get better, or are you just OK being good?’
“Good is not going to be good enough.”