ATHENS — This is not how the story was supposed to go. This was supposed to be the triumphant return of Nick Chubb. This was supposed to be a clash of unbeatens. This was supposed to be for ultimate control of the SEC’s Eastern Division.
But we’ll just have to accept Georgia now for what it is, which has become increasingly clear with each passing week of the season. That is, the 25th-ranked Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1 SEC) are a rebuilding team with a balky roster and flaws aplenty. And No. 11 Tennessee (4-0, 1-0), Saturday’s opponent at Sanford Stadium, has all the markings of being the heir apparent to the Eastern throne. Brick-by-brick, as their coach likes to say, the Vols have built themselves back into the program of national renown that Phillip Fulmer once fielded with regularity.
Of course, the mortar is not set quite yet, and that’s why 93,000 people and ESPN will show up to see how things turn out between the hedges on Saturday. A touchdown underdog, Georgia will have to play by far its best game of the season to have any chance to pull off the upset. Conversely, Tennessee will have to play one of its worst.
But there remains the possibility that the Vols could still be nursing a hangover from their momentous 38-28, come-from-behind win over Florida. That snapped what had been an 11-game losing streak to the Gators, and a dam holding back Big Orange pride for a decade was broken wide open. Georgia can only hope they’re still awash in it.
Ultimately, it’ll come down to blocking and tackling. Here are some other things to watch for in that regard:
If we had only the memory of Chubb’s grotesquely-bent knee as he careened out of bounds in Knoxville last October, had we not seen what we’ve already seen from his season, then there would be no cause for alarm that the Bulldogs’ star tailback might not be able to play in Saturday’s game. But we had seen him start and play in all four of Georgia’s games and rush for 422 yards and three touchdowns, despite very little help from his offensive line. So his being questionable to play against Tennessee is cause for concern, not to mention a rotten spoiler to a nice story line.
Chubb suffered what appeared to be a minor ankle sprain shortly before halftime against Ole Miss last Saturday, and did not return. He rehabbed and run during practice all week, and there appears to be a decent chance that Chubb will be able to go.
If so, that would complete what has already been a remarkable comeback story, not to mention enhance Georgia’s ability to win the game. If not, the Bulldogs will turn to their other capable backs: Sony Michel, Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield and Brendan Douglas.
THROWING AND CATCHING
Much has been made about Georgia’s inability to run the ball effectively, or at least to the degree of dominance its fan base is used to. And rightly so as the Bulldogs haven’t produced a 100-yard rusher in three games now.
But truly the best way to open the running game may be through passing the football. Georgia has proven before it can advance the ball through that medium. Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns in the 28-27 come-from-behind win over Missouri in Week 3.
And while Eason was off in the early-going against Ole Miss, he was not helped by a receiving corps that totaled six drops in that contest. A couple of them were potential touchdowns and all of them thwarted their progress.
If Eason and his wideouts and tight ends can all get on the same page and connect on some medium to deep throws early on, that could finally open up the a run game that has seemingly been running into a brick wall the last few weeks.
There are indications Tennessee could be somewhat vulnerable in the secondary. The Vols lost All-SEC cornerback (and kick returner) Cam Sutton two weeks ago. Last Saturday, Florida hit them for 296 yards passing and three touchdowns.
RPOs. That’s an acronym that has been used a lot this week around the Bulldogs’ camp. It stands for run-pass option, and it alludes to the latest offensive craze in college football.
It’s a type of play that is now allowed in the game in which the offensive line can fire off the line of scrimmage on a pass play as long as the linemen don’t venture farther than three yards past the line of scrimmage. Thus, it disguises whether a play is a run or a pass, and gives mobile quarterbacks the option to either run with the ball, hand it to another back or pass it without the defense ever being sure whether they’re facing a run or pass play.
In the last four games, the Bulldogs have faced four teams that utilize this offensive concept to great effect. And Saturday, they will face a fifth.
The trouble with Tennessee and this particular strategy is their quarterback — senior Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta — represents the best the Bulldogs have faced at the run option in this equation. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Dobbs is the Vols’ second-leading rusher with 241 yards. He has run for four touchdowns in addition to passing for 10 others.
Finding a way to solve Tennessee’s RPO riddle will be paramount as Dobbs is surrounded by top-notch skilled players. They include a receiver corps that averages 6-foot-3 in height and a starting tailback in Jalen Hurd who goes 6-4, 240. This is a very difficult assignment.
MAKE A KICK
Georgia ranks last in the SEC in field goals having missed five of its eight attempts so far. And its not like the Bulldogs have been trying to set distance records. The three makes (as well as one miss) are all from under 30 yards.
The Bulldogs have only walkons to which to turn, and Rodrigo Blankenship replaced William Ham for last week’s game. Blankenship then missed his only attempt from 36 yards.
One of the two of them is likely to handle placement kicks again on Saturday. But the more important question is whether the Bulldogs will bother to utilize any kicker beyond point-after attempts. Between the lack of kicking success and the importance the game itself, Georgia might be inclined to go for it on fourth down on anything on the plus-side of the field.