The Georgia Bulldogs were expected to experience some growing pains this season. With a new head coach in Kirby Smart, new coordinators, and essentially a new culture instilled in Athens, the team deserves a little slack.
What was not expected was a team searching for its identity after four weeks. Georgia has been known for a strong running game and opportunistic defense over the last two years, waiting for a star quarterback to arise. Now, with freshman quarterback Jacob Eason at the helm, the Bulldogs feel like it has finally found its star. So what is the problem?
Georgia is facing an identity crisis.
After an impressive opening win over the North Carolina Tar Heels, everyone saw Georgia’s ground-and-pound offense go to work. Running back Nick Chubb demolished the North Carolina defense for 222 yards and two touchdowns. The secondary played lights-out, surrendering only 156 passing yards.
That is the identity experts and fans were expecting. But then, a near-disaster against the Nicholls Colonels brought all the positive momentum to a screeching halt. The Georgia Bulldogs were manhandled by the Nicholls defensive line. Chubb was unable to find any running room, and the Bulldogs were only able to manage 4.3 yards per carry on 39 carries. Eason completed just 55 percent of his passes.
Games against Missouri and Ole Miss were even more telling.
Sure, Georgia beat Missouri on a late fourth down touchdown pass from Eason to secure a much-needed SEC win. But Georgia rushed for just 101 yards as a team – 2.7 yards per carry – and surrendered 471 total yards on defense. The Georgia Bulldogs did force five Missouri turnovers, but that was one of the only positives from the win. Georgia’s identity as a rushing powerhouse was still missing.
After the Missouri game, the writing was on the wall heading into the match-up against Ole Miss. With an ineffective run game and a freshman quarterback forced to throw the ball –with 55 pass attempts against the Tigers – Georgia had no chance. Throw in a receiving corps that seemed to forger the fundamentals of catching a pass, and you get the unmitigated disaster that was the 45-14 loss in Oxford. The Bulldogs faced its toughest test to date, and though the beleaguered offensive line finally opened up some small holes for Chubb and company, most of the Dawgs’ rushing yards came after the game was already out of hand. Eason’s stat line was ugly, but his receivers did not help, dropping a couple of sure touchdown passes.
Georgia vs. Tennessee (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Saturday’s game against the Tennessee Volunteers should frighten any Georgia Bulldogs fan. The Vols are coming off a seemingly program-defining win over the Florida Gators – Tennessee’s first victory of the Gators in 11 years. Sitting at 4-0 and atop the SEC East, Tennessee is poised to take a commanding lead in the division as the calendar flips to October. In its win over Florida, Tennessee picked apart what many believe is the best defense in the SEC – or even the country – racking up 498 yards (319 passing, 178 rushing).
One thing Georgia has going for it – Tennessee’s Jekyll and Hyde performance this season. Though currently on a 10-game winning streak dating back to last season, Tennessee’s four wins in 2016 have been anything but convincing. The Vols fell behind once-FCS power Appalachian State 13-3 before rallying for a 20-13 overtime win to open the season. Against the Virginia Tech Hokies the following week, Tennessee fell behind 14-0, but used a strong second quarter en route to a decent 45-24 win. In a game where it entered as a four touchdown favorite, the Vols struggled to put away the Ohio Bobcats until the fourth quarter, winning 28-19. Finally, against Florida, Tennessee looked lost in the first half, spotting the Gators a 21-3 halftime lead before dominating the second half.
Tennessee has the talent to make some noise nationally this season, but if the first-half struggles continue, it will catch up to the Vols. For the Georgia Bulldogs, playing at home while desperate to find its identity in a must-win SEC East showdown, the hope is that this is the week it finally happens.
If the Tennessee team that throttled Florida in the second half shows up to Sanford Stadium, Georgia will lose by three touchdowns. But if the Tennessee team that struggled against Appalachian State and Ohio gets off the bus, Georgia has a chance to pull the upset (current line: Tennessee -3) and shockingly take the lead in the SEC East by way of a tiebreaker.
FINAL SCORE: Tennessee 38, Georgia 28