With a relatively unfamiliar opponent and with Georgia so heavily favored in this game, I’m looking at it as a way to measure Georgia against itself. For most of us, that starts with the defense. We’ve accepted that 1) we’ve faced two of the best offenses we’ll see all year and 2) we’re in an era of very productive offenses. Granting all of that, there are still a lot of ways for Georgia’s defense to improve. We can start with individuals – Langley was picked on by South Carolina, owned his performance, and has the attitude you hope for from a young cornerback. There are also some more general and measurable things we’ll look for from the defense:
- Rushing yardage: Only Clemson’s 197 rushing yards are keeping Georgia opponents from a long streak of rushing for at least 200 yards that goes back to last November. Coaches have mentioned several tweaks that might help. There’s a chance for increased playing time for a larger defensive lineman like Chris Mayes. We’ll also see more of some younger inside linebackers. In general, there’s been a greater emphasis on better angles and proper tackling during the bye week. Are any of those a silver bullet? Probably not. Hopefully the sum effect of these changes will be positive. It’s time for Georgia’s defense to shut down an opponent’s running game.
- Turnovers: Georgia’s preseason scrimmage reports featured a fair number of turnovers generated by the defense. So far that defense has generated a single fumble through two games (Georgia’s other takeaway came on special teams.) Georgia and Kentucky are the only SEC teams without an interception this season. There have been dropped interceptions in each game (Herrera at Clemson and Langley against South Carolina.) The Mean Green have already turned the ball over seven times this year, so there should be an opportunity for some takeaways.
- Sacks: Only Alabama has fewer sacks than Georgia. That tells you that sacks aren’t a perfect metric of defensive pressure or ability, but we’ve seen a couple of elusive quarterbacks avoid Georgia pressure and make plays. Georgia’s linebackers have only recorded 1/2 of a sack (by Herrera.) Will Jordan Jenkins record his first sack this week? North Texas has only allowed two sacks through three games, so they should be a fair test of Georgia’s pass pressure.
- Third downs: Georgia’s third-down defense, at 44.4%, has been the worst in the SEC. That’s no surprise if you’ve watched Georgia’s first two shootouts. Can the defense get off the field?
Of course it’s all related and intertwined. Better rushing defense puts opponents in more obvious passing situations. More effective pressure can lead to sacks but also to turnovers. I expect that if we see improvement in one area of the defense, it will show up in other areas as well. A few more areas I’ll be watching:
Inside Linebackers. Are Carter and Kimbrough ready to take on larger roles? Wilson and Herrera are the established vets on the interior, but each has his strengths and weaknesses. Carter, in particular, should get a chance to spell the starters and earn more time for himself.
Offensive Line. We’ve talked mostly about defense, but uf Georgia sleepwalks into this game, I think it’s most likely to show up along the offensive line. Speed doesn’t take a week off, so Georgia’s advantages at the skill positions should remain fairly strong. Georgia’s offensive line wasn’t perfect against South Carolina, but it did improve from week one. If we see a muddled running game or Murray scrambling more often than not, we’ll be back to talking about inconsistency among this experienced group rather than progress.
Routine special teams. Can we make it through a game with clean operations on all kicks? Will the return of Morgan be uneventful? If we can have that much, I’ll take it.
The occasional productive punt return. I’m OK with few or no kickoff returns. You usually don’t end up with better field position than what you get from the touchback. Punts are different. It’s a problem when you’re not forcing many punts to begin with, but the Dawgs have managed only two returns so far for a total of seven yards. Swann made a fair catch on a very returnable punt against South Carolina and later attempted a return against much better coverage – possibly because the coaches got in his ear about the earlier fair catch. I understand Mark Richt’s reasoning – it’s not as if the offense has struggled to drive the ball, and you don’t want to get burned by the fake. Still, it’s frustrating to leave yards on the table if they’re there.
Debuts. We’ll see Morgan’s first action. We still don’t know if Rumph’s health will allow him to go. We might see Hutson Mason’s first snaps in a couple of seasons. Several others have already seen playing time in limited action or on special teams, but we’ll hopefully see a lot more of them in this game. Will anyone stand out?