ATHENS — Here the Georgia Bulldogs are, right where everyone expected them to be. Three-and-oh and headed to Oxford for a showdown with Ole Miss.
It’s the how-they-got-here that’s a little different than expected.
The undefeated and 12th-ranked Bulldogs (3-0) have won their three games by a grand total of 12 points. That includes, of course, three points of great escapes against Missouri and Nicholls State. Georgia needed a touchdown pass from freshman Jacob Eason with 1:29 to play pull off a 28-27 victory over Missouri last week. The previous week, they had to hang on for dear life to secure a 26-24 win over Nicholls State, a lowly FCS visitor from Louisiana.
In fact, the Bulldogs have fallen behind in all three of their games this season, and by double figures twice. Nevertheless, they arrive at this place in this schedule with all their preseason goals intact and all things still possible.
Not so for Ole Miss, Georgia’s opponent Saturday. In a ridiculously difficult front-loaded schedule, the No. 23-ranked Rebels (1-2) already have faced a pair of top 5 opponents in No. 1-ranked Alabama and No. 4 Florida State. But after leading both teams by 21 points, they waned and fell behind in the second half. Ole Miss rallied from an 18-point deficit Saturday before losing to the Crimson Tide 48-43.
So it’s a somewhat desperate opponent that Georgia will face Saturday afternoon in Oxford. Another conference loss will effectively end any hopes Ole Miss has of winning its first SEC championship since 1963. And the Rebels will be anything but fearful, having traveled the road they have to date.
“They have two losses to two really good football teams,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We’ve got a great challenge in front of us. … I’m very familiar with their program, and they’ve been very successful since coach (Hugh) Freeze arrived. They have arguably one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football (Chad Kelly). I’ve got a lot of respect for this guy.”
Smart was defensive coordinator for Alabama when they suffered back-to-back defeats to the Rebels the past two seasons. He does not want to lose to them a third consecutive time.
Here’s the plan to prevent that.
Control Chad Kelly
If you’re going to beat Ole Miss, then you have to find a way to stop Chad Kelly — or at least contain him. The senior quarterback can be a one-man wrecking machine for the Rebels. He comes into Saturday’s game with 10 touchdown passes, which leads the SEC. But he’s just as dangerous with his legs. He loves to pull down the ball and run with it on passing plays. And at 6-foot-2, 224 pounds, he can run over defenders if needed.
For that reason, you can’t just charge after Kelly with the blitz. But if you sit back and just let Kelly throw the ball, he’ll pick you apart. He has lots of targets to choose from. Senior tight end Evan Ingram enters the game with 1,696 yards and 9 TDs on 117 career receptions. He leads the Rebels with 20 catches so far this season. Wideouts Van Jefferson and Damore’ea Stringfellow also have 12 receptions apiece and are among 12 receivers who have caught passes from Kelly this season.
But if Kelly has an Achilles heel, it’s his penchant to turn the ball over. He often tries to do too much with the football, and that has resulted in some devastating turnovers. The Rebels come into Saturday’s game with a turnover margin of minus-5. Georgia, by contrast, is plus-3.
Find some room to run
Like two of the opponents Georgia has already faced, the Rebels utilize a quick-tempo, spread offense. One of the best ways to combat such an offense by keeping it on the sideline.
The Bulldogs can do that by re-establishing their vaunted running game. But that has been an issue of late. Tailback Nick Chubb, who came into the season averaging 7.4 yards per carry for his career, has averaged less than half that (3.6) in the past two games. For the second consecutive week, he was held to under 100 yards rushing with 63 against Missouri. Before that, he had 14 consecutive games of more than 100 yards as Georgia’s starter.
The issue has been poor play by the Bulldogs’ offensive line. Chubb and fellow tailback Sony Michel have been getting hit in the backfield on the majority of their called runs. Georgia has resorted to running wideouts Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin on jet sweeps to generate some ground game. But for Georgia’s pro-style, play-action offense to work effectively, it has to establish a straight-ahead ground attack between the tackles.
The good news is stopping the run is not Mississippi’s strong suit. The Rebels are 13th in the 14-team SEC in rush defense with 242.7 yards per game allowed. Georgia needs to get well against them.
No more rotation at quarterback
For the first time this season there is no controversy at quarterback. Freshman Jacob Eason took care of that against Missouri on Saturday as he made his second consecutive start.
The game plan going in was to play senior Greyson Lambert if needed. But the Bulldogs never needed him as Eason led the Bulldogs on a 10-play, 80-yard game-winning drive. Eason finished with 308 yards on 29-of-55 passing and three touchdowns. He did throw one costly interception early in the third quarter.
But Eason showed the moxie for which he became famous as a 5-star prospect in high school when he hit Isaiah McKenzie with a game-winning, 20-yard TD pass with 1:29 to play. Eason and McKenzie hooked up 10 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns in the game. McKenzie also had a rushing touchdown.
Now it’s important that Eason diversify his target list as the Rebels and all of Georgia’s opponents are going to continue to focus more attention on McKenzie.
Fix kicking game
Georgia’s place-kicking has been horrific so far. Walk-on William Ham is 3-for-7 on field-goal attempts and missed chip-shot attempts of 23 and 38 yards against Missouri.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have also struggled on kickoffs, has been flagged with some sort of punt-catch interference call in all three of their games and twice have fumbled on kick returns. So Georgia will be looking to tighten up all aspects of its special teams play against Ole Miss.