First of all, I apologize for being a day late with this.
Saturday was a little scary for Georgia fans, to say the least. A loss to Tennessee would have put the Bulldogs squarely behind the 8-ball in the SEC East. No Georgia team has ever lost to two Eastern division foes and still won the division. In fact, I’m not sure that anyone has. South Carolina lost three league games in 2010, but two of those came to Auburn and Arkansas (South Carolina does have the distinction of being the only SEC East champion to ever lose to Kentucky, though). I can promise, standing in the stadium in the 2nd half Saturday, the SECCG was pretty far from my mind. I was reminded once again of the ultra competitive nature of SEC. I have never quite understood why fans will spend all off season talking about the greatness of the conference and the extreme difficulty of an SEC schedule, then complain when winning an SEC game proves difficult. Did Saturday leave something to be desired for Georgia fans? I suppose. But the object of the contest was to end it with more points than Tennessee, and Georgia did that. And a few hours later, the Dawgs were right back in control of their own destiny in Eastern division.
All four of Georgia’s opponents to start the 2014 have taken the opening kickoff and promptly and methodically driven the length of the field, making their offenses look as though they were running a pass skeleton. It’s hard to know why this has been the case. Perhaps Jeremy Pruitt is in “feel out” mode early in the games. Whatever it is though, in all three games against legitimate opponents, the Bulldogs have found themselves trailing before their offense touches the football.
I’ll be the first to admit that I thought Georgia would cover the 17.5 point spread. My score prediction was 42-20. And after the initial onslaught, the Dawgs reeled off three TDs to take a 21-10 2nd quarter lead and I felt as though the Dawgs were right back on pace to win comfortably.
The Tennessee touchdown drive late in the 2nd quarter was bothersome. With 1:17 left in the half, Tennessee got the ball on their 17 yard line. After hitting 4 plays of at least 18 yards, in all of 59 seconds, the Vols found the endzone to cut the Georgia lead to 21-17. UT would kickoff with 18 seconds left in the half. It was eerily similar to the 2012 game, in which Georgia took the football very late in the 2nd quarter, drove toward the east end of the stadium, and got a long Marshall Morgan FG at the buzzer. On Saturday, I thought that the Dawgs really squandered a good opportunity to add some late points. Starting off at their own 40 with 14 seconds and pair of timeouts, the Dawgs only needed about 20-25 yards to set Morgan up for a long field goal. Instead, Hutson Mason held the ball too long and was forced to scramble, picking up 12 yards before running out of bounds. With 6 seconds left from the Tennessee 48, Georgia only needed a 10 yard gain to set Morgan up for a 55 yard FG. Mason again held the football too long and was sacked, ending the drive and scoring chance.
Much has been made of Hutson Mason’s performance. It was poor, by any objective measure. Beyond the interceptions, Mason appeared to be tentative in the pocket. Several times, he seemed to hold on to the football until the last possible second. No throws were attempted down field, and Mason’s ball seemed to have less velocity that we’ve seen in games past, including two games played in the rain. The lack of a true deep threat wide receiver is a real problem too, in fairness to Mason. Both Chris Conley and Michael Bennett are fine possession receivers, Bennett is arguably as good as anyone to ever play in Athens in that department, but neither guy is a “vertical threat.” Of course, Mason also appears to check down an awful lot, even when he does have an intermediate or deep option open (see the incomplete pass to Isaiah McKenzie on the Georgia sideline against Troy for an example), so one does wonder if Georgia is truly unable to throw the football deep or if their QB is simply choosing not to do so. Even a defense as pedestrian as Tennessee’s is at a large advantage when the opposing offense is one-dimensional. On Saturday, Georgia was just that.
One thing that could be said for Mason prior to Saturday was that he was taking care of the football. With the two interceptions on Saturday, we couldn’t even say that. And if Mason makes multiple interception games a habit, Mark Richt and Mike Bobo will have no choice but to turn to Brice Ramsey. In my view, it is quite premature to suggest this change being now. The Dawgs should get Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott Wesley back for Saturday’s tilt against Vanderbilt. Let’s see how Mason fares with a couple of deep threat, home run type guys.
Saturday marked the 4th game of the young season for Georgia and was the 2nd time that Todd Gurley set a career high in rushing yardage. FirGurley’s day against Tennessee was easily his best in a Georgia uniform. With virtually everyone in the stadium knowing that the football was going to #3 in the second half, Gurley still managed to rack up a whopping 138 yards on 16 carries. There is something special about watching a player of that caliber elevate his performance when the chips go down. Without Todd Gurley, the Dawgs are very likely 1-3 today.
Defensively, to say that Saturday was a mixed bag for Georgia would be an understatement. The secondary struggled again, but the front seven is showing signs of being pretty good. I thought that Pruitt did a good job of dialing up some creative blitz packages. More than that, Ray Drew and Toby Johnson both had fantastic days and were able to generate some pressure on the Volunteeer QBs without Georgia having to blitz. And while the secondary as a whole struggled, Damian Swann turned in another good day and is establishing himself as the best player on the Georgia defense. Lorenzo Carter is starting to look like a 3 year player.
After he struggled mightily against South Carolina, snaps have been hard to come by for James DeLoach. Josh Dawson has seen less playing time as well, although he did make two key fumble recoveries. It appears that the Georgia defensive line is getting set with Drew and Sterling Bailey at the DE spots, and I figure that the line will be better as a result. Jordan Jenkins had what I thought was his best game since playing opposite Jarvis Jones. Perhaps people don’t want to hear this, and I am not entirely sure why, but I see some real bright spots on the defense. The ceiling is not sky-high, but I expect this unit to continue to improve. While the offense struggled tremendously to move the football in the 3rd quarter, the defense kept Georgia in the game. It’s easy to focus on the last Tennessee drive in the 2nd quarter or their last TD in the 4th, but the defense did make several stops and generated two turnovers again, which was almost unheard of in 2013. I thought that Saturday represented a strong improvement over the performance against South Carolina. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be happy with the progress.
The Georgia coaching staff, all of it (offense, defense, and special teams) saw a number of things on the tape from Saturday that should be corrected. It’s so much easier to make those corrections off a win, though. While there is certainly reason to be concerned with the current state of the passing game, I really like this Georgia team. In no way was I in a bad or disappointed mood leaving Sanford Stadium on Saturday afternoon.