PLANNING FOR THE OPPONENT
ATHENS — For Georgia, Vanderbilt represents a chance to get better, a chance to get well, a chance to advance toward its goal. For the Commodores, the Bulldogs represent an almost desperate opportunity for success.
Vandy has not won an SEC road game under third-year coach Derek Mason despite coming enticingly close to doing so. The ‘Dores enter Saturday’s game against UGA at Sanford Stadium 0-9 on the SEC road. They’ll be the Bulldogs’ Homecoming opponent — yet again.
Of course, at 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the league this year — including 0-1 on the road — any victory of any sort would be salve for the desperate Commodores.
“They play really hard and they do a great job there,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart warned this week. “I think Coach (Derek) Mason is one of the best defensive minds in all of college football and he has done a really good job with their defense. The challenges are definitely in front of us.”
Vanderbilt hasn’t won much lately, but it has scared the pigskin out of a lot of opponents. Last year the Commodores suffered narrow losses on the road against Florida (9-7), South Carolina (19-10) and Ole Miss (27-16). Their three SEC losses this year have come by an average of 4.3 points to South Carolina (13-10), Florida (13-6) and on the road at Kentucky last week (20-13).
“Vanderbilt’s always been a good team,” Georgia senior wideout Reggie Davis said. “They play very hard. The first couple of games they played everyone close. … So they’re definitely a good team and you don’t want to underestimate anybody in the SEC.”
The Bulldogs, somewhat desperate themselves at 4-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC, definitely won’t do that. Here’s what they’re thinking about heading in:
BETTER PLAY AT QUARTERBACK
Everybody is giving Jacob Eason a pass because he’s a true freshman, but the fact of the matter is the Bulldogs simply need to get better play out of the quarterback position. Eason is completing barely half of his passes (51.2 percent) and that’s with him getting credit for numerous backfield forward laterals to Isaiah McKenzie on jet sweeps. He has thrown for 1,020 yards with 8 TDs and 5 interceptions.
This past week Georgia, was able to get by with substandard quarterback play because Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Brian Herrien combined to rush for 326 yards in a 28-14 win over South Carolina. But Eason managed just 29 yards on 5-of-17 passing and threw an interception, and that won’t hack it against the SEC’s better defensive teams.
Vanderbilt is one of the SEC’s better defensive teams. The Commodores are seventh in the SEC in scoring defense (23 ppg) and total defense (392.2 ypg) and are fifth against the pass (215.3). So the going is going to be a little tougher this week.
CONTAINING RALPH WEBB
Ralph Webb is the best running back in the SEC most people don’t know about and one of the best period. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound junior leads the league in all-purpose yardage with 132.5 per game, is second in rushing at 113.7 and has scored five touchdowns. He needs 403 yards over the last six games to break Zac Stacy’s record and become Vanderbilt’s all-time rushing leader.
The good news is Georgia has been one of the SEC’s better teams against the run. The Bulldogs are allowing only 119.3 rushing yards per game. That’s fourth in the league. South Carolina had only 30 yards rushing this past weekend and average a paltry 1.2 yards per carry.
SHORT WEEK’S WORK
Georgia will have had one less day to prepare for the Commodores because it played the South Carolina game a day late this past Sunday due to Hurricane Matthew. The narrative is that will put the Bulldogs at a disadvantage against Vanderbilt, which will be coming to Athens off a regular weekend of work.
But as Georgia’s Davis said, “it’s only an issue if we make it one.” And there ways in which it may actually benefit the Bulldogs.
For instance, Georgia endures one of the toughest and most physically demanding practice regimens from week-to-week. The Bulldogs typically go out in full pads Monday through Wednesday, with full-contact workouts on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Indications were they were going to pull back on that a little this week. Conceivably, that could allow Georgia players to actually get their legs under them a little bit heading into their seventh consecutive game. The off week awaits on the other side of Saturday.
TAKING CARE OF THE FOOTBALL
The best way for the Bulldogs to screw up and become an upset victim on Saturday is to not take care of the football. Turnovers will undo a team quicker than anything else in football, and Vanderbilt knows full well how to take advantage.
Georgia comes into Saturday’s game with the SEC’s second-best turnover margin of plus-5. Only Texas A&M’s plus-6 is better. But Vandy is not far behind with a plus-4. And while the Bulldogs have done a great job of producing takeaways (15), they’ve been a little fast-and-loose on the offensive side with five fumbles and five interceptions. Only A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee have had more turnovers.
The Bulldogs have one wildcard in their favor this week — the return of defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter. The sophomore from Tucker is coming back from a six-game suspension due to violations of UGA’s drug and alcohol policy for student-athletes.
Ledbetter has been getting treatment away from football since his midsummer arrest for DUI. In the meantime, he has continued to practice and workout with the team on a daily basis since the season started.
And the 6-4, 251-pound Ledbetter means more than just added depth for the Bulldogs’ defensive line. He was slated as Georgia’s starting defensive end coming into the season. He could immediately bolster the Bulldogs’ ability to pressure the passer as well as set the edge against the run. In two words, he should be a “difference maker.”