ATHENS – The 2018 Georgia football schedule was released this week. Well, officially released. Somebody accidentally posted it to Twitter a week ago from the official UGA account, then deleted it a short time later. Premature tweet, as it turns out.
In any case, you may remember when the Bulldogs’ 2017 schedule officially came out. Almost immediately came an outcry from Bulldog Nation and UGA’s season-ticket holders, especially. “What a weak home schedule,” they complained. “Only Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky from the SEC? That’s deplorable.”
I suspect you won’t hear quite as much complaining now that the Bulldogs’ SEC opener has finally arrived. Mississippi State comes between the hedges Saturday, and suddenly it looks like the game of the year. The No. 17 Maroon Bulldogs (3-0) are now considered the Western Division’s second-best team and are the third-highest-ranked SEC team behind No. 1 Alabama and No. 11 UGA. And just like that, ESPN finds itself with one of the best matchups in the nation this weekend (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET).
For Georgia, it’s a particularly meaningful matchup. Never mind the local storylines of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald coming home to play and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham returning to Sanford Stadium for the first time since blowing town for more dough at Louisville. It’s more important than that.
The Bulldogs were the consensus pick to win the SEC East this season, their second under coach Kirby Smart. If UGA is to fulfill that goal, or any of the others the Bulldogs have enumerated for themselves, it starts with protecting the home turf and winning all the games between the hedges.
That actually hasn’t happened in a while. You have to go back five years to the 2012 season to find the last time Georgia ran the table at home. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs played for the SEC Championship that year.
Everybody’s picking UGA to be back in Atlanta in the conference title game in 2017. To do that, they’ll have to get by this maroon-colored pack of Dogs. And suddenly, after Mississippi State’s 37-7 dismantling of LSU last Saturday, everybody now realizes that’s not going to be an easy task.
Here’s what has to happen for Georgia to take care of that business:
Contain Nick Fitzgerald
Some might want to point fingers and say that UGA let another great one get away in Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State’s fantastic quarterback. But Fitzgerald actually played only his senior season at Richmond Hill at quarterback, and then he was piloting a triple-option offense that attempted only 76 passes. But Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen saw something in Fitzgerald that no other Power 5 team did. And Fitzgerald has made good on that belief.
The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior enters the Saturday game with 55 career TDs — 31 passing and 24 rushing. He has run for at least one TD in each of the Bulldogs’ last six games and has totaled 13 scores in that span. He leads the SEC in TD responsibility with 12 in games against Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech and LSU.
Fitzgerald is the consummate dual-threat quarterback, but the difference is that his size makes him much harder to bring down than the average quarterback. But he wants to throw the ball first and foremost and runs Mississippi State’s run-pass option offense to perfection. The Bulldogs have an excellent running back in Aeris Williams, who is averaging 112 yards a game. But make no mistake about it, Fitzgerald is the reason his team leads the SEC in scoring at 47.7 points a game.
Locate Jeffery Simmons
Mississippi State has an equally difficult force to control on the defensive side of the ball, and his name is Jeffery Simmons. Simmons is a 6-foot-4, 301-pound nose guard, but the Bulldogs actually move him all around the line of scrimmage. He’s very quick and agile for his size and powerful to boot. Georgia coach Kirby Smart described him as “extremely disruptive.”
Simmons leads the nation with 2 blocked kicks, and both of them came with him just blowing through the middle of the line of scrimmage. Likewise, he became the first defensive player at Mississippi State since 2010 to record 2 defensive touchdowns.
Simmons’ presence creates a serious matchup problem for Georgia’s interior offensive line. The hometown Bulldogs are undersized at center with Lamont Gaillard and have started four different players at the two guard positions in an attempt to shore up the inside blocking. UGA will have to remain extremely vigilant to know where Simmons is at all times and make sure he is accounted for.
The Todd Grantham Factor
Georgia fans can say what they want about Todd Grantham, who was defensive coordinator in Athens to varying degrees of success from 2010-13. But Grantham definitely knows what he’s doing, and they absolutely love him in Starkville, Miss., where he just arrived after three seasons at Louisville.
The Maroon Dogs have shown vast improvement in Grantham’s short time in charge. That was on vivid display last Saturday when they held LSU and its vaunted rushing attack to just 133 yards on the ground — and 270 yards and 13 first downs overall. They did that by absolutely selling out to stuff the run and daring the Tigers to throw the ball over them. LSU’s Danny Etling, a senior, couldn’t answer the challenge. Sixteen of LSU’s 29 passes fell incomplete.
Georgia and its freshman quarterback Jake Fromm will need to find a way to do better. The Bulldogs, who rank last in the 14-team SEC in passing, must find a way to throw the football. That won’t be an easy task, considering Mississippi State’s defensive front and a veteran defensive backfield is made up entirely of juniors and seniors, including former Georgia player Johnathan Abram. So Georgia may have to get creative.
To date, the deep and impressive tight end group for UGA hasn’t gotten very involved in the passing game. This may or may not be the time to unleash that. It’s conceivable the tight ends will be preoccupied with providing protection and running room. So quick stuffs to backs and flankers have to suffice. But Georgia will have to put the ball in the air.
Win special teams
The area in which Georgia has shown the most improvement is on special teams, and it’s not even close. But it goes well beyond the kicking specialists, though the Bulldogs are getting all-conference-level performances so far from kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and punter Cameron Nizialek.
Nizialek, a graduate transfer from Columbia University, is averaging 44.3 yards per punt, but, more than that, he is recording some other-worldly hang times and has not had a ball roll into the end zone for a touchback. Opponents have returned just 4 of his 15 punts for a total of minus-4 yards.
Conversely, Blankenship’s touchbacks on kickoffs are way up, which you want in that discipline. All 7 of his kickoffs against Samford were touchbacks, and 3 of them went out of the end zone. He hasn’t been asked to kick many field goals this season but is 3 for 4 on the season, with one 44-yard miss at Notre Dame.
Georgia appears particularly effective in both kick coverage and returns, and it will need to be as Mississippi State is, too. The other Bulldogs have an SEC-best 19 touchbacks on kickoffs, are almost dead even with UGA in net punting and have a punt-return touchdown to their credit — though it was from Simmons.
Winning Saturday could come down to the team that executes best in this area.