Is Georgia better or worse at the midpoint than we expected?
Coming off a lackluster 17-16 home loss against Vanderbilt, there is a feeling of uneasiness among the Georgia faithful.
As Kirby Smart likes to say, it takes time to steer the ship in the right direction, which has certainly become apparent as the Bulldogs try to find a new direction after parting ways with Mark Richt.
Entering the season, Georgia (4-3, 2-3 in the SEC) was expected to compete for the SEC East division title. Depending on who you asked, however, the Bulldogs were usually second or third on the list of contenders.
With a first-year head coach, growing pains were expected, but a full-blown rebuild was not. Georgia still has the talent to be competitive in the SEC East, which is why the Vanderbilt loss left fans feeling concerned.
The Bulldogs have a much-needed bye week before heading down to Jacksonville to face Florida. Before turning our attention to that game, let’s take a look and see whether Georgia is better or worse than people expected at the midway point of the season.
Breaking in a freshman quarterback means there are sure to be growing pains for the passing game. Georgia’s potent rushing attack was expected to carry the offense and allow Jacob Eason time to get up to speed.
That worked well in the team’s opener when the Bulldogs ran for nearly 300 yards on 52 carries against North Carolina. Injuries and offensive line issues then hampered Georgia’s ability to run the ball, leaving Eason to grow up rather quickly.
Eason has shown great potential and has improved since the beginning of the season, but the Bulldogs’ offense hasn’t been quite at the level people expected. Georgia is near the middle of the pack nationally with more than 400 yards per outing but ranks No. 92 in scoring, averaging just over 25 points per game.
Kirby Smart earned a head coaching job because of his defensive prowess at Alabama. Through the first half of the season, the Bulldogs have made nice strides on defense and should continue to improve as young players gain experience.
Georgia’s defense has had several young players step up to make impacts on the front seven, especially at linebacker. Sophomores Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith lead the team in tackles with 42 and 39, respectively. Defensive lineman Trenton Thompson (below) has taken a step forward in his second season, as well, and leads the team with five tackles for a loss.
The biggest concern has been the secondary, which came into the season as arguably the team’s strength. Georgia’s secondary has plenty of experience but is undersized and has struggled to match up with bigger receivers. Obviously that cost them during the season’s most glaring play: Tennessee’s Hail Mary to win in Athens.
Overall, the Bulldogs are allowing 26.4 points per contest, which is about average among college football teams. They are among the best on run defense, allowing 111.14 yards on the ground per outing, but are noticeably worse against the pass, giving up an average of almost 230 yards.
Freshman class: Better
This depends on how much of an impact you expected from Georgia’s freshmen, but there have some solid contributors right out of the gate.
Obviously, Eason is the headliner, and while he has definitely had some interesting moments, he is gaining valuable experience and has made excellent plays. He has passed for 1,366 yards with 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, which is better than how most freshmen fare in the SEC.
Isaac Nauta, Brian Herrien and Riley Ridley have already begun to make plays alongside Eason for the Bulldogs’ offense. Nauta looks like a future All-SEC player and has really come on strong of late, gaining 166 yards and 2 touchdowns on 11 catches over the past three games.
Herrien leads the team with 6.56 yards per carry and has gained 341 yards in total. Ridley also is finding his stride, with 126 receiving yards and a touchdown in the past three games.
The defensive front seven is full of freshmen earning valuable minutes. Julian Rochester has played in every game and has 14 tackles. Tyler Clark and Justin Young also have made plays for the line, and David Marshall has 1.5 sacks from the linebacker position.
Notable players like Mecole Hardman, Elijah Holyfield and Chauncey Manac have yet to see much of the field.
Returning stars: Worse
Nick Chubb’s first game back from a horrific knee injury had many fans understandably excited. It’s not often running backs gain 222 yards and 2 touchdowns less than a year removed from knee surgery, but Chubb is a special case. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to replicate that performance and has only topped 100 yards one other time. Sony Michel has looked strong since coming back from his own injury, but is still a clear No. 2 to Chubb.
Terry Godwin was expected to be the team’s next No. 1 wide receiver, but he is a distant second behind Isaiah McKenzie, who has been more of a pleasant surprise this season than an expected contributor. The three returning starters on the offensive line have had mixed results as the entire line has struggled through an up-and-down start to the season.
Defensively, there weren’t really many returning stars outside of the secondary, with the possible exception of Lorenzo Carter. Carter, the team’s best pass rusher, has come on really strong in recent weeks and has four sacks over the past three games. Dominick Sanders and Quincy Mauger are the leaders of the team’s defensive backfield and have played reasonably well, despite the secondary having some notable struggles this year.
Georgia looked to be improving over the first four games and nearly knocked off a talented Tennessee squad. In recent weeks, however, there have been noticeable problems and there’s really no excuse to lose at home to Vanderbilt.
Special teams have continued to be a big problem and should be a priority for the coaching staff during the bye week. Offensively, Georgia has been able to gain yards but has struggled to find balance or finish drives in the end zone.
Although the defense has improved, the Bulldogs’ secondary has struggled to contain the top offenses they have faced. Looking at the bigger picture, though, there doesn’t seem to be movement in a positive direction. The team still struggles to play with intensity and discipline at times, which is something Smart has consistently harped on.
The Vanderbilt loss ended the Dawgs’ SEC East title hopes, but they’re still on track to extend their bowl streak to 20 consecutive years.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia for Saturday Down South. For news on everything happening between the hedges, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.