Tennessee couldn't run on Appalachian State last year, so can Georgia this year?
According to the recruiting rankings, Georgia is going to be bigger, faster and stronger Saturday against Appalachian State.
Tell that to Tennessee, though. The Mountaineers made life miserable for a traditional SEC power in Week 1 a season ago, as the Volunteers trailed 13-3 late in the third quarter before rallying and finally prevailing 20-13 in overtime.
In particular, UT couldn’t run the ball effectively despite the presence of stud tailbacks Jalen Hurd — at the time, he was considered one of the conference’s elite players — and Alvin Kamara and mobile quarterback Joshua Dobbs. App State held the mighty Vols to 127 yards on 43 carries, which is a little less than 3 yards per attempt.
While Hurd did have 110 when it was all said and done, it took him 28 rushes to get there and he never broke one longer than 13.
“They’re the fastest defense I’ve seen on tape,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday via the weekly SEC coaches teleconference. “That goes for every position. We had that tape last year. We played Tennessee. I’m sure we factored that, but that was one of the tapes that we studied. They do a tremendous job defensively. I’m talking about flying to the ball, pursuit, incredible leverage.”
The ‘Eers have 14 defensive linemen listed on their 2017 roster, yet they only average about 256 pounds. UGA, on the other hand, has 12 offensive linemen that tip the scales at 300-plus, including true freshman Isaiah Wilson at 345.
It was a comparable situation last year in Knoxville. Despite the fact that Tennessee was the favorite in the East at Media Days — that projection fell flat — Appalachian State was dominant defensively for long stretches of the game. The massive Volunteers just couldn’t control the line of scrimmage facing rather diminutive foes.
According to Smart, being 50 pounds or so lighter isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. Neither is being a few inches shorter.
“They are outweighed, but they’re lower than the 300-pounder that they’re going against,” he said, “so they get leverage on them because they’re shorter and they get up under them.”
Despite the presence of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who both returned to Athens for their senior campaigns, the Dawgs need to repair their ground assault. They were only ninth in the conference last season at 191.2 yards per game.
Both of them should be healthier than they were in 2016 — Chubb was coming off reconstructive knee surgery, while Michel broke his forearm the previous summer — and surely want to finish their collegiate careers in style. Chubb averaged just 5 yards per attempt this past season as a junior after 8.1 as a sophomore and 7.1 as a freshman.
Even if Chubb (below) mauled North Carolina for 222 yards in last year’s opener, the Mountaineers offer a very different challenge.
“They play with incredible speed, toughness, quickness, tenacity,” Smart said. “They’re just one of the best defenses I’ve seen on tape, where you watch them and watch all the games. They do a tremendous job, I think. Just speaks volumes of what they’ve created because they recruit to a certain type player. That player is fast. Sometimes he’s shorter. He’s quick. He’s really tough. They play really hard on defense.”
Of course, if Chubb and Michel had superior blocking in front of them a year ago, they likely would’ve put up much better numbers. It’s no secret that the duo struggled to find holes and had to create something out of nothing too often.
Additionally, then-true freshman QB Jacob Eason — he of the 5-star skills and suffocating hype — was rarely afforded the opportunity to set his feet in the pocket and deliver the ball accurately downfield. He might not be a statue back there, but he isn’t the kind of passer who excels at extending plays with his legs and improvising on the fly.
You can’t always block a 250-pounder like you do a 300-pounder, so Smart knows he has to do things a bit differently this week.
“You’ve got to be careful about one-on-one situations,” he said. “They move. They’re really quick. We’ve talked about pad level. We’ve talked about not ducking your head. Those guys do a tremendous job, and it creates a little bit of a disadvantage sometimes for your offensive linemen, where they usually go against bigger guys in our conference.”
As mentioned above, UT was supposedly the team to beat in the division last season but disappointed and didn’t make it to Atlanta. The way the Vols floundered so badly for three periods when facing App State was an immediate red flag.
Now it’s Georgia apparently en route to Mercedes-Benz Stadium come December. Eason will presumably be better with a year of experience under his belt. Chubb and Michel are a tremendous tandem. The defense features 10 returning starters off a solid unit. On top of that, the ‘Eers shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise anymore with their reputation.
Despite their physical limitations, they were 20th nationally in 2016 vs. the run and have a depth chart full of upperclassmen.
“They’re unbelievably quick,” Smart said. “They flash, they tackle — just very disruptive at what they do. You’ve got to try to simulate that, and that’s what we’ve tried to do with our look squad this week.”
Another danger for the Bulldogs is looking ahead to Week 2, when they will travel to South Bend for the first time in school history. Notre Dame may not be what it once was, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime road trip for everyone involved.
Fortunately, all Smart has to do is turn on last season’s Tennessee tape to get his offense’s attention. It’s been a decade since the Mountaineers delivered one of the most shocking upsets college football has ever seen — taking out Michigan at the Big House in 2007 — but this past year at Neyland Stadium was quite the reminder.
UGA is Goliath. App State is David. The Dawgs would be wise to clear Sanford Stadium of any stones prior to kickoff.