While the rest of the program is rebuilt around them, the remaining Georgia players have one more game to play. It’s a meeting of two tradition-rich programs, and those of us old enough still have some old Sugar Bowl scores to settle.
It’s become the mission of any bowl preview: figure out which team wants to be there and which has already cashed in. There’s no formula to follow and easy to get wrong – how many people expected Georgia to come out fired up last year after a loss to Tech and Richt rumored to be on the way out? Both Georgia and Penn State have gone through some changes since the end of the season, and I’m not going to guess which will have more to play for. But if Georgia is going to find motivation to play well in this game, it’s most likely going to have to come from within. Their new coaches aren’t in place yet. Their old coaches have largely scattered. Fans have been slow to buy tickets, and many have already moved on to the Smart era.
So it’s pretty much down to the guys suiting up. There are some concrete goals – a 10-win season and 40 wins for the seniors. Those will get the team so far, but the motivation that matters will have been what got the team through bowl practices. Are they prepared, on the same page, and willing to play for each other? If so, they’ll be fine.
James Franklin will be on the other sideline. He was annoying while at Vanderbilt if only because he made the games (in Nashville, at least) more competitive. His teams fought back several times against Georgia, and that’s a credit to Franklin for getting that response at a program used to losing. I have no doubt that we’ll see an opponent that continues to compete even if Georgia proves to be the better team. The Dawgs can’t sit on a lead.
One thing we also saw a lot of from Franklin’s Vanderbilt teams was trick plays, particularly on special teams. We’ve seen onside kicks, fake field goals, and the center-eligible fake punt. Offense could be at a premium in this game, and points or just sustained possession from a trick play could prove decisive.
Line play is a key in most games, and it will be especially important in a game that features excellent pass rushing by both teams. Georgia seems to have the slight edge – the Bulldog offensive line has been inconsistent but is capable of a good game. There are two different challenges. First, can the Georgia offensive line play to form against Carl Nassib and his teammates? Penn State has racked up 44 sacks, but Georgia has allowed only 13. Which unit will flinch? The other challenge is for Georgia’s defense. Penn State’s offensive line has been a weakness all season, but can Georgia’s defensive front take advantage? This is a big opportunity for Jenkins and Floyd to leave a very positive impression before they head to the next level.
With such good pass rushes, the offenses will do their best to avoid obvious passing situations. Georgia’s running game is working with some good news and bad news: Michel and Marshall will be as healthy as they’ve been in a while. But Douglas and Hicks are out for the game. The Dawgs will have to dig deep at both tailback and fullback. We might even see the debut of A.J. Turman. Hopefully Georgia’s bowl coaches will continue the use of McKenzie, Godwin, and other skill players in the running game.
Penn State has found a tailback in true freshman Saquon Barkley. Barkley has posted over 1,000 yards and gone for over 100 in five games behind that suspect offensive line. Three of those five 100-yard performances came against ranked opponents: Ohio State, Michigan State, and Northwestern. Like Georgia, they’ve struggled to establish much depth behind their lead rusher.
If you thought Georgia was bad on third down (and they’ve been), Penn State has been worse. Only two FBS schools have a worse success rate on third down. Both teams will place an emphasis on winning early downs and then turning their dominant pass rushes loose against an opposing offense that ranks among the bottom ten on third down.
The formula that’s allowed Georgia to finish the regular season 5-1 won’t change much for this game despite whatever wrinkles have been installed during bowl practice. Run, manage, defend. The Dawgs will have to sustain drives on the ground against a fantastic front seven. Both teams are fairly even in turnover margin – a swing either way would help a struggling offense as would any big special teams plays. The Florida game is a good reminder of how fast things can go south for Georgia’s formula with a few miscues. Of course any team wants to play with the lead, but it’s especially important for these two teams that they not have to play from behind and abandon the run.
Georgia’s first priority is to make sure strengths remain strengths. That begins with the outside linebackers and up front where they should have a relative advantage over Penn State’s offensive line. If Georgia’s pass rush takes the day off, the Penn State quarterback is more than good enough to make plays. But if the Dawgs show up on defense and take advantage of a struggling Penn State offense, the Dawgs should have the upper hand.