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Post Georgia @ Okla. St.: What I’ll be looking for

Friday September 4, 2009

You’ve read the previews and probably have a good idea what to watch for in terms of matchups and stars. An opener against a quality opponent like this can give you a pretty good read on your team in a hurry. That said, several of the things I’ll be watching for tie in to some of those offseason themes and should serve to let us know how different the team will be from the group that took the field against Georgia Southern over a year ago.

1) Leadership put to the test. If there’s been one overarching theme this offseason, it was leadership. From Cox to Owens to Curran, Georgia’s had no shortage of guys saying and doing the right things. If you like, you can hold up Georgia’s relatively clean offseason discipline record as evidence that all of the talk isn’t just so much bluster. Even Vince Dooley is impressed by the team’s apparent unity.

But of course the ultimate test of what’s changed will come on the field. How does unity and leadership hold up on the road under adversity? Does Joe Cox stay cool and in control after a sack or, God forbid, a turnover? Now that’s he’s facing the flu, will the team avoid being rattled?

This is still, going by the numbers, a team with a lot of young guys in key positions. The leading receiver, tailback, and the cornerback that will often line up opposite Dez Bryant are all true sophomores. The offensive line, with two juniors and three sophomores, look like grizzled veterans by comparison. Even Cox himself is getting his first start since 2006, and it’s a road start against a top 10 opponent.

2) Take away Bryant and Green. Who’s left? Dez Bryant and AJ Green will surely get plenty of attention from the other team’s defense. It’s doubtful that either will be completely shut down, but both teams are going to have to get production from elsewhere, and neither has the strongest of supporting casts. Oklahoma State doesn’t have many experienced returning receivers, and the loss of their starting tight end won’t help. Georgia has just six scholarship receivers, and that includes just one upperclassman. Georgia’s tight end position includes a starter with all of three receptions a year ago who will be backed up by two true freshmen.

3) Hidden yards and points. Georgia’s 2008 issues with penalties, kick coverage, and generating turnovers have received plenty of attention during the offseason. The Dawgs risked a scholarship on a kickoff specialist, and they’ve placed practice emphasis on reducing penalties and creating turnovers. Oklahoma State’s new defensive coordinator likewise is “preaching” a focus on turnovers.

In two games last night we saw sloppy fumbles, interceptions, botched kicks, and even a safety. Georgia’s 2007 win over Oklahoma State started with a short scoring drive following a muffed punt after the Cowboys’ opening drive. Points from these areas weren’t a Georgia point of pride last year; in fact, it amounted to about a touchdown per game advantage for Georgia’s opponents. The OSU offense is good enough without getting help from Georgia’s offense and special teams.

4) Return of the injured. A couple of Georgia’s perceived strengths this year depend on the recovery of key players. On the offensive line, both Sturdivant and Davis (and Vance) have had surgery. Ben Jones missed most of last week with an ankle injury. Then you have defensive lynchpin Jeff Owens whose 2008 injury shook up the defensive line. Defensive end Rod Battle was slowed by injury most of last season, and Reshad Jones was one of many who missed time this August with minor nuisance injuries. They’re all good to go, but any impact of lost practice time and conditioning will be apparent against a quality opponent. Still glad to get them all back, and the Dawgs have to feel fortunate to have had a preseason relatively uninterrupted by injuries. The absence of Kris Durham or Caleb King notwithstanding, it’s a far cry from last August when the team had a single healthy defensive end with which to practice. Perhaps most importantly, the offensive line has been able to work together as a unit for much of the summer and preseason. Remember – they might be experienced individually, but this starting offensive line combination has never taken the field together in a game.

5) The Russell Okung factor. A good left tackle can’t be overvalued (think back to Sturdivant and his injury), and Oklahoma State has perhaps the best in the nation. That’s one of the bigger differences from the game two seasons ago. The zone reads and speed options will rely on Okung to lead the way to the outside. He’ll also be the key to pass protection on a line that only gave up 16 sacks a year ago. Georgia should have the advantage inside, but how heavily can the Cowboys lean on their star tackle?

6) What’ve we got, exactly?

I’ll admit this has been one of the hardest Georgia teams to get a read on. On one hand you have some significant holes to fill. Much of the improvement is expected to come from a lot of the same players and coaches who couldn’t get it done last year. At the same time, there’s a confidence and cohesiveness about this team. As I said up top we’ll find out how that holds up in a real test, but you couldn’t ask for a better preseason in terms of discipline, health, and attitude. That confidence must be catching on, because I don’t get where this comes from:

In some respects, though, Georgia fans almost have to be waiting for the other shoe to drop — it seems more likely a question of which of the first five games the Dawgs will lose than whether they will fall.

It might be due to my own echo chamber, but I haven’t heard that sentiment from any Georgia fan, nor have I seen much analysis that concludes that a loss in the first five games is an inevitability. I grant that none of those five games is a clear-cut win, but Georgia has every reason at this point to be confident in their chances to compete in and win all of those games. Last year was full of shoes dropping; this year, not so much so far.

Does that mean a better team or a more satisfying season? Not necessarily. It’s entirely possible that the questions facing this team will be answered with a big, “NO”. As much as any opponent during this first month has an even-money shot at beating Georgia, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this team undefeated heading in to October. Maybe it’s just a matter of being conditioned to sailing through September with relatively easier schedules. The cold reality of Sunday morning might require a major reevaluation, but for now it’s full steam ahead.

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