From LastWordOnCollegeFootball, Author Michael Gray
Brutal. Ugly. Devastating. These are all words that typically describe a loss, but in the Georgia Bulldogs’ case, Saturday’s 26-24 win over the Nicholls Colonels cannot be described in any other way. If fans thought an opening week win over the North Carolina Tar Heels provided some much-needed answers about the state of the Bulldogs in 2016, the performance against Nicholls proves otherwise. Georgia lacks an identity under head coach Kirby Smart – understandably so – and is still a team in transition following the numerous off-season coaching and personnel changes.
So here comes Georgia vs. Missouri.
As the Bulldogs open SEC play against the Missouri Tigers, a game on the road under the lights at Faurot Field, it will be interesting to see which team takes the field. Will it be the one that looked hungry and disciplined against UNC, or the one that lacked energy and got pushed around by Nicholls?
Georgia is 4-1 in the series against Missouri, and won last season’s ugly affair by a final score of 9-6. Neither team eclipsed the 300-yard mark or scored a touchdown in the game.
Here are five questions heading into Saturday’s match-up against the Tigers:
1) Jacob Eason or Greyson Lambert?
Georgia freshman phenom quarterback Jacob Eason came out firing in the first start of his career, completing two passes against Nicholls en route to a quick UGA touchdown. He showed great touch on a 36-yard completion to wide receiver Terry Godwin. He led a five-play, 67 yard scoring drive in just over two minutes. The following three drives saw Eason go 3-for-6, leading to a total of three points. Incumbent starter Greyson Lambert was on the bench until the 7:50 mark of the fourth quarter, entering after an Eason interception that was returned 91 yards by Nicholls defensive back Jeff Hall. Lambert was unable to move the offense in his first drive, but did handle a bad snap and completed a pass to wide receiver Michael Chigbu out of his own end zone to effectively save the game for Georgia on a 3rd-and-long. Sure, Eason sounds like the easy choice, given his high ceiling, but it may not be that simple. Missouri is an SEC opponent, and these games matter more for Georgia to have a successful season than games against non-conference opponents. Smart has a tough decision to make ahead of Georgia vs. Missouri.
2) Will the offensive line recover?
Just call it as it is – Georgia’s offensive line got manhandled by the seemingly over-matched defensive line of Nicholls, and boy was it scary. The most telling result: elite running back Nick Chubb was held under 100 yards rushing for the first time in 14 straight games (excluding the game in which he injured his knee against the Tennessee Volunteers last year). After rushing for 289 yards as a team against UNC, Georgia was help to just 167 rushing yards on 39 carries (4.3 yards per carry), and even that stat is a little misleading. Heading into the fourth quarter, Georgia had just 81 rushing yards. The offensive line never asserted itself at the point of attack, and was backtracking most of the game. Guard Dyshon Sims appeared to have the most difficult time, getting called for holding twice. A showing like that against arguably one of the strongest defensive lines in the SEC would be a disaster for Georgia vs. Missouri. The only upside – Missouri has struggled against the run to this point in 2016.
3) Will special teams’ mistakes be remedied?
Wide receiver (and overall playmaker) Isaiah McKenzie is arguably one of the strongest reasons Georgia was able to survive Nicholls, catching a 66-yard touchdown pass and rushing for 33 yards on just three carries. He also had an explosive 55-yard punt return. However, two late mistakes by McKenzie on special teams almost cost the Bulldogs the game – a muffed punt deep in Georgia territory leading to a Nicholls touchdown, followed by an ill-advised attempt at returning a kick-off headed out of bounds. Georgia place kicker William Ham connected on 2-of-3 field goals, but he still has not hit a field goal attempt from longer than 29 yards this season (0-2 on such attempts). Georgia needs to be better on special teams during its SEC schedule.
4) Should fans expect an offensive resurgence?
Missouri is ranked 101st in rushing defense, allowing 191 yards per game on the ground (4.06 yards per rush) through the first two games. When it comes to passing, the Tigers rank 98th in passing yards allowed, surrendering 270 yards per game (11.74 yards per completion) to opposing quarterbacks. All signs point toward an offensive resurgence for the Bulldogs as they face off against a Missouri defense (ranked 105th in total defense) that has underperformed against two non-conference opponents. If Georgia – and its offensive line – wake up from its nightmare against Nicholls and performs to its potential, the Bulldogs could very well put up 500 yards on Missouri. If not, Missouri’s defensive struggles will not matter much.
5) Can Georgia win the turnover battle?
In 2014, under head coach Mark Richt, Georgia finished the season with a +16 turnover margin. Last year, the margin dipped to +4. Through two games, Georgia has a -1 margin and did not win the turnover battle in either contest. Missouri has lost three fumbles in its first two games, but quarterback Drew Lock has not thrown an interception. Since the Tigers joined the SEC, the Georgia vs. Missouri winner has never lost the turnover battle. For Georgia to win against the Tigers this year, it will likely need to force Missouri to make mistakes and have a significant edge in turnovers.