Clemson starts the year with the biggest college football game of the regular season when they travel to Charlotte for a neutral site affair with old rival Georgia. To shed some insight on the Bulldogs, we connected with MaconDawg from DawgSports. Please consider giving him a follow on Twitter. He has written some great pieces including one about conference re-alignment which I’ve linked to at the bottom of this article. Enjoy the interview.
Ryan: The Bulldogs are 44-9 over the past four seasons with appearances in the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl (2x), Peach Bowl, and National Championship game. Among the 44 wins are triumphs over #4 Auburn (2017), #2 Oklahoma (2017), #7 Notre Dame (2019) and #6 Florida (2019). Despite that, three losses to Alabama in that time (six straight in the series) as well as last season’s blowout loss to Florida have led many to claim that Georgia is good, but “can’t win the big game.” Do you feel like fans and media are unfair in casting this aspersion or do you feel the same way?
Macondawg: At this point the difference between Georgia and everyone else (other than 2016 and 2018 Clemson) is getting the chance to lose to Alabama two weeks earlier. Nick Saban has built a buzzsaw of a program in Tuscaloosa and it’s Smart’s unfortunate lot to have to get through that buzzsaw annually. It’s what he signed up for when he took the job, so I don’t think he expects much sympathy.
Smart is actually 10-6 at Georgia versus AP top 10 teams. That includes three wins over top 10 ranked Florida teams, a top 10 ranked Notre Dame, and #2 Oklahoma in a CFP semifinal. Three of those losses are to Alabama teams who ended up winning the national title (one in overtime, one in the final minute of play), one was to that Joe Burrow-led LSU team that also hoisted the trophy. So saying Smart “can’t win the big game” is not really accurate. He’s won several objectively big games, on the national stage.
It is however fair to say that he was hired to win a national title, he knows that, and that he hasn’t yet done it.
Ryan: In talking to some of my Georgia friends, it seems like it has been National Championship or bust since 2017. I know the feeling! After Clemson’s close loss to Alabama in 2015, getting back and winning was practically an unhealthy obsession. Georgia’s recruited talent is so insanely strong that it is pretty reasonable to expect them to win it all, but is it fair? What’s are your expectations headed into this season?
Macondawg: Mark Richt had a team in 2007 that many felt could have won a national title, but instead had to settle for throttling Hawai’i in the Sugar Bowl. In 2012 Georgia came within one play in the SEC title game of beating Alabama for the honor of dispatching Notre Dame. In 2017 Smart’s ‘Dawgs fell to Alabama in overtime in the national championship.
What I take from all that disappointment is that to a certain extent there’s an element of luck that goes into hoisting the trophy at the end of the season. What Kirby Smart’s done by accumulating an army of blue chip recruits and a stellar coaching staff is put his team in the best position possible to be squarely in the title chase every year.
Georgia fans love golf and golf analogies. The feeling most Bulldog fans, myself included, have is that if Georgia keeps putting putts right around the hole one of them is bound to eventually drop in. This year looks like a serious possibility. The Bulldogs return a ton of talent on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams. This weekend’s game is likely the only one of the regular season in which they won’t be the favorite.
Georgia fans genuinely hate hope. Because hope has failed us repeatedly and in ever more excruciating ways. But there’s certainly reason for optimism. Again.
Ryan: In 12 games at USC, QB JT Daniels averaged 241 passing yards per game while compiling a 15-11 TD-INT ratio. In four starts with Georgia last season, he averaged 308 passing yards with a sterling 10-2 TD-INT ratio. This leads me to several questions. How much stock can we really put into those four games? Only one came against a team with a winning record (Cincinnati) and it is just a four-game sample size. If he was really that outstanding, why did it take so long for Coach Smart to get him in at quarterback? Daniels is among the top Heisman favorites according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers. Is he being overhyped or did you see something that makes you believe it is sustainable?
Macondawg: Smart and Daniels have both been pretty clear that the reason Daniels didn’t take over sooner was that he wasn’t medically cleared following the knee surgery that knocked him out at USC. In fact, even when he returned it was clear that he wasn’t 100% in terms of mobility.
It’s helpful to remember that Daniels actually enrolled early at USC in 2018 and won the starting job as an 18 year old true freshman. Unfortunately, for him he wasn’t surrounded by a great cast, and it showed.
Last season was really the first time he’d played extended minutes in almost two calendar years. The fact that only one of the four teams he lit up was ranked seems like kind of a red herring. Heck, only 1/4 of the teams Trevor Lawrence started against last year were ranked and he dang near won a Heisman. It’s not like his stats against Wake Forest and Syracuse don’t count. Ditto for Daniels throwing for 315 yards per game while completing 67% of his passes and throwing 10 touchdowns. It was a promising preview.
That being said, I think the jury is still out on Daniels. He’s going to have a lot of weapons to work with this year, but Georgia is also replacing some key, multi-year starters on the offensive line. Those are things outside JT’s control that are likely to have a major impact on his season. He’s always had the arm talent — there’s really no question about that — but this year we’ll see if the hard knocks he’s sustained since being the nation’s top QB recruit in 2018 have helped him develop the necessary mental makeup to lead Georgia to a title.
Ryan: With Derion Kendrick dismissed and Fred Davis Jr. possibly out (official discipline TBD) following a scary reckless driving misdemeanor, the Tigers are thin at cornerback. Do you expect Georgia to lean more on the passing game than in years past in an attempt to exploit this potential weakness or do you expect more of the traditional Bulldogs attack leaning on elite offensive line and running back play?
Macondawg: Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken has shown a propensity during his career to go with what works. This year that’s going to require some tough decision-making. While Georgia has a host of proven playmakers at receiver (Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, Darnell Washington, James Cook) and several promising newcomers, the running back rotation is five deep with backs who tallied at least 35 carries in 2020.
I expect Georgia to try to establish the run early and take shots downfield, especially off play-action, and to mix in some run/pass option. An absolute ideal situation for Georgia would be to steal a possession or two with a turnover on defense, to build a lead, and then start cycling in fresh tailbacks to shorten the game and keep their own young and injury-hampered defense off the field.
Ryan: Georgia is rebuilding their secondary through the transfer portal most notably with the aforementioned former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick. What are your thoughts on the Bulldog secondary? Is it a potential weakness in game one?
Macondawg: The Kendrick transfer obviously got a lot of press and is the most relevant to this game, but I think Georgia’s pickup of West Virginia All-American safety Tykee Smith was actually more significant. While the Bulldogs already had a lot of talent (if not experience) at corner, replacing three-year starter Richard LeCounte at safety was probably a more pressing need.
Smith looks to however be out for this weekend due to a foot injury suffered in camp. His replacement at “star” will likely be Latavious Brini, who started the Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati, spelled by walk-on Dan Jackson. At safety the Bulldogs will lean on returning starter Lewis Cine and senior Christopher Smith, who’s also played a good bit the past two seasons.
In addition to Kendrick, Georgia will likely go with second year players Kelee Ringo and Jalen Kimber. The coaches are very excited about both of those guys, but this Saturday will be a big challenge for them. I expect the Bulldogs to give up some big plays against the Tiger offense, but by the end of the season this group has a chance to be very good.
Ryan: Lastly, could you share some final thoughts about the importance of this game for each team and the outcome you anticipate we’ll see?
Macondawg: It’s sort of ironic that so much attention has been focused on this game which, in the grand scheme of things, won’t really decide the season for either team. I don’t think either squad is likely to get run off the field, and a close, week 1 non-conference loss this early in the season is likely to be written off as a “good loss” for either team provided they take care of business from here.
That being said, Georgia’s suffered some injuries and losses this preseason that are going to be hard to overcome. Assuming DJ takes care of the ball and the Tiger defensive line plays up to its potential I just don’t know that the ‘Dawgs have all the pieces in place to pull this one out.
The wild card may be UGA nose tackle Jordan Davis. Davis is a likely first round pick in this spring’s NFL Draft, and he’s a disruptive force in the middle. I think Georgia’s quickest route to victory is for Davis to take over as a disruptive force in the middle, keeping Uiagaleilei from getting comfortable and forcing some early mistakes. But I think that may be asking too much.
Clemson 37, Georgia 30.
A big thank you for MaconDawg for stopping by to give us an inside look at Georgia. Also, be sure to check out what he wrote about conference realignment.