By Darren Hellwege
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Prior to the 2014 season, I went through each of the Tigers scheduled opponents to preview each. With Saturday’s game against Georgia being a key game and many changes since we last looked into Georgia, let’s update a few things, and see what I got right, and what I got wrong…sometimes very wrong.
I get plus grades for quarterback discussion, sort of. I said Hutson Mason looked good, but to watch for young guys. The good news from a Georgia fan’s perspective is I was right, the young guys have looked good. The bad news? Rather than pick one, Bulldogs coach Mark Richt is splitting time between not two but three QBs: Mason, redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey, and redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta.
Georgia had 12 offensive drives against Vanderbilt with Mason at the helm for eight, Ramsey for three, and Bauta for one. It’s hardly a typical rotation, but it is still drives without your main QB in. And no matter how good Ramsey and Bauta can be, if this game is close the best bet’s going to be to stick with Mason. This rotation thing almost never works.
I should get half-credit at best for the running back preview, in which I said Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were perhaps the “best tandem in college football.” Gurley’s proven to be the best RB in college ball (Mizzou defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said he was the best player in college football, period.) But it’s been true freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel who’ve gotten the bulk of the work aside from Gurley, while Marshall has averaged all of eight yards per game.
Expect Georgia to run the ball a lot. That they had a scoring drive that featured 10 straight runs by Gurley against Vandy should surprise nobody. And, just because I like numbers like this, here are the teams in the SEC that run the most:
||Rushes as percentage of plays
There’s a big change with receivers that might startle Missouri fans a bit. I mentioned Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, and they’ve done very well. However, the other receiver who impressed me in the past, Malcolm Mitchell, is evidently back after missing most of last year and a big chunk of this season with knee injuries. He had his first catch of the season against Vandy and if he’s back, UGA’s passing game gets a little scarier. Mitchell isn’t listed as a starter against Mizzou, but if I were Mark Richt a healthy Mitchell would be a part of my game plan.
The part of the pass game nobody could have seen coming was Jeb Blazevich, whose name I didn’t even mention in the preseason preview. I said that Jay Rome was a very good tight end, and he is, but true freshman Blazevich has taken over the position and leads the team, averaging 19.9 yards a catch on seven receptions. Oh, one other wrinkle in the passing game against Vandy is one I doubt we’ll see too much more—Todd Gurley passing? He threw a tailback pass to Blazevich for 50 yards, but it wasn’t a thing of beauty (was that a “quack” I heard?) and Richt is about as fond of gadget plays as Gary Pinkel is. Still…be aware.
I’m always ready to admit when I’m wrong, but I’m not above bragging when I get one right. I said the offensive line returned just two starters but that the cornerstone, center David “Boss” Andrews was back, and that I was impressed with a young guy I watched closely in the spring game, Greg Pyke. Pyke is now starting at right guard, and having given up just six sacks in five games, the offensive line is better than a lot of people thought they’d be. As I mentioned before, Pyke’s a very large fellow but moves extremely well. Remember the name, he’ll be a handful for SEC defenses for a while. As for Andrews, Reese Dismukes of Auburn, Ryan Kelly at ‘Bama and Mizzou’s Evan Boehm are generally considered the best centers in the SEC, but I think Andrews belongs in the conversation as well.
Which raises a final point on this side of the ball. One reason there aren’t that many sacks is that teams cannot blitz a lot against Georgia for fear of Gurley and the rest of the run game. Fortunately for Mizzou, the Tigers’ defense is predicated more on the strength of the defensive downs to get sacks, not necessarily blitzing linebackers or secondary. In fact, of Missouri’s total 18 sacks this year, only one-half of one sack is credited to a non-lineman (cornerback Kenya Dennis.) If the Tigers defense remains assignment-correct and tackles well, that should be plenty adequate to get the job done against Georgia.
I listed Georgia’s linebackers as outstanding, the secondary as a problem, and the line as a question mark. I’ll stand by that mostly. Toby Johnson starts in the middle of the line instead of James DeLoach as I’d predicted, and Johnson’s four tackles for loss are among the team leaders. The other defensive lineman who impressed me before the season is now gone as Jon Taylor was dismissed from the team in July after an assault charge. Mike Thornton is a senior but hadn’t started before the season, and another senior, Ray Drew, fills out the front.
There’s not much to say about the linebackers. I said they’d be great, but so did everyone else, so I can’t really brag on this one. Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, Ramik Wilson and Amario Herrera all rank among the top five on the team in tackles. Floyd and Herrera also have three sacks each. This will be a stiff test for Mizzou’s offensive line — keeping these four guys off of Maty Mauk’s back could be a major key for this game.
The secondary isn’t great, but might not be as bad as I’d predicted. Georgia currently ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense, but with Clemson and South Carolina on their schedule early, they’ve played a little better competition than some teams, so take those numbers with a grain of salt. They’re in the lower half of the league in passes defended and broken up. This is an aspect of the game we’ll be watching closely, as Gary Pinkel told us in Monday’s media day that Tiger starting receivers Darius White and Jimmie Hunt were “better than 50/50” to play Saturday. Suffice to say this is a big deal for the Tigers, having White and Hunt back dramatically improves the Tigers’ chances. One other note on the Georgia secondary is the fine play of true freshman Dominick Sanders at the star position—a safety/linebacker hybrid. Sanders has 14 tackles, a couple of pass break-ups and a couple of QB pressures, so he can be a disruptive force.
Georgia has been highly ranked since beating Clemson 45-21 early in the season. But I’m wondering if Clemson is down from last year. The Bulldogs have since lost to a South Carolina team that’s also clearly not as good as we thought. So, I’ll hedge my thoughts on UGA this way—I said they wouldn’t be that good, they’re better than I thought they’d be, but not as good as a lot of others seem to think. They were ranked No. 6 in the nation and actually received a couple of first-place votes in the AP poll the week after beating Clemson. That was a massive over reaction to one game. This is not one of the 10 best teams in the nation.
But they are a good team and the outcome Saturday depends entirely on which Mizzou team shows up. A defensive performance as we saw against South Carolina means the Tigers probably win. Give MU a healthy bunch of receivers and Mauk at his best and they could win big. But those are “ifs,” and turn that into “if not,” and Georgia’s absolutely capable of winning this game. Missouri should—but no way am I ready to say they will.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the United States Basketball Writers Association