PLANNING FOR THE OPPONENT
ATHENS — Most of the focus on Georgia heading into Saturday’s season opener has been on who will start at quarterback. To be sure, the decision to start fifth-year senior Greyson Lambert over freshman phenom Jacob Eason was one that created ripples from coast-to-coast in college football.
However, the reality is that who starts and/or plays at quarterback Saturday is really not the most important factors when it comes to the Bulldogs’ objective of beating North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. After all, UGA got what most would describe as only moderate play out of the quarterback position last year and still managed to win 10 games.
How the Bulldogs perform at the tailback position and, by association, the offensive line, will go much further in determining how well they do in this contest, and on offense in particular. They already have one leg up in that regard with the clearance of junior Nick Chubb to play in the game.
Not only has Chubb successfully recovered from major knee surgery to be able to start in the season opener, he actually was able to participate in every single preseason practice without limitations. That’s a big deal. Likewise, he will not be saddled with any sort of the carries limitations against North Carolina, according to head coach Kirby Smart.
It’d be better for the Bulldogs if they knew for a fact that Sony Michel could also play in this game. The junior who rushed for more than 1,100 yards in relief of Chubb the second half of last season still was not medically cleared to play from a broken left forearm as of the week heading into the game. But, Michel, too, has practiced throughout the preseason without contact, and it will be nearly 10 weeks since he underwent surgery. So he could conceivably could play. It will come down to whether the Bulldogs are willing to risk his long-term health in a non-conference contest with 11 other games left to play.
The bottom line is, the key to beating a high-powered, high-tempo offensive team like North Carolina is by pounding its defense with a strong running game. Georgia would be way better to that end with both star tailbacks rotating, not to mention lining up on the field at the same time. But that answer won’t be provided until kickoff, if then.
Here are some other key factors to consider for this game:
The Bulldogs will start Lambert, who has been efficient but unspectacular, over Eason, the No. 1-rated pro-style prospect in America coming out of high school. Regardless, they’re probably both going to play.
In either case, Georgia’s game plan is not going to change. The Bulldogs will attempt to control the clock and possess the football to keep North Carolina’s “fast-ball offense” sidelined. They will do that obviously by handing the football to No. 27 as often as possible. But they’ll also do it with a short-to-mid-level, controlled passing games. That means quick-hitches to their fleet-footed wideouts out on the perimeter and hitting a deep unit of talented tight ends with play-action passes.
It’s unlikely the Bulldogs are going to be leaning on spectacular quarterback play to get them through this first game. Getting into the right play – or out of the wrong one – may be more important than making the big play.
Georgia also was able to settle its situation on the offensive line, and that could help things. Tyler Catalina, a graduate transfer from Rhode Island, an FCS school, was able to win the left tackle job in camp. Also, the coaches have been pleased with Greg Pyke’s transition from right guard to right tackle. With Isaiah Wynn, Brandon Kublanow and Lamont Gaillard manning the middle, new line coach Sam Pittman has been happy with what he’s seen and there’s a quiet sense of confidence heading into the first game. They’ll be challenged, though, by a UNC defensive front that includes pass-rushing specialist Mikey Bart and big Naz Jones (6-5, 310) in the middle.
TAR HEELS EXPRESS
The No. 1 objective for Georgia’s defense is to slow the Tar Heels’ quick-tempo offense. Many tried and failed a year ago as North Carolina set school records for points per games (40.7) and touchdowns (73). It doesn’t look like it will be much easier this season as the Heels returned 1,463-yard rusher Elijah Hood, three of their of top four receivers and four of five offensive linemen. And while they are having to replace last year’s starting quarterback, Marquise Williams, some think junior Mitch Trubisky might be even better. He completed 85 percent of his passes for 555 yards and six touchdowns as a fill-in last season.
FRONT 7 REBUILD
Georgia’s defensive front looks vulnerable. Expectations are high for sophomores Trent Thompson and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckles and junior John Atkins. But there simply aren’t many players behind them and most them are freshmen or otherwise inexperienced players. Meanwhile, two players who would have been part of the rotation aren’t available. Expected defensive end starter Jonathan Ledbetter is sidelined while getting drug and alcohol treatment, and Chauncey Rivers was dismissed from the team because of a similar issue. So freshmen will be counted on to play, and that’s usually not good news on the defensive line.
UGA is also employing across-the-board replacements at inside linebacker. The Bulldogs led the nation in pass defense last season, but didn’t face many aerial attacks in the process. They’ll need to apply more pressure on the passer than they did with only 19 sacks a year ago while also maintaining gap integrity and keeping North Carolina’s Hood from finding creasing and running free. It’s a tall task.
SPECIAL TEAMS MYSTERIES
Technically, Smart still has not named starters at any of the kicking positions, but it’s expected to be new ones at all three spots. Walk-on William Ham will handle placement kicks, walkon Rodrigo Blankenship will handle kickoffs and true freshman Marshall Long won the punting job over Brice Ramsey. How those rookies perform on a big stage figures to be a major factor in the outcome.
Heading into his first game as a college head coach, Kirby Smart wasn’t sure if he’d wear his trusty visor or not, much less how he’ll act or what his demeanor might be during the game. As a defensive coordinator at Alabama the past nine years, Smart was into every defensive play and would often meet players with high-flying chest bumps after big plays. It figures he’ll be more subdued having to listen to both the offensive and defensive chatter through his head phones and having to make all the important game-day decisions. But the expectation from his interactions with players on a daily basis in meetings and at practice is he’ll be closer to his friend Will “Boom” Muschamp than the coach he’s succeeding, the always cool-and-calm Mark Richt.
We’ll all find out Saturday.