GA News: OnlineAthens - At season's midway point, seeing where the Bulldogs stand

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From OnlineAthens.com
October 14th, 2016 01:28 PM

Kirby Smart’s return home to become the head coach at Georgia, where he played safety and spent a season as an assistant coach, ushered in a new era for Bulldog football this offseason.
We are now at the midway point of season No. 1 for Smart — a good time to take stock.
Smart has often used the example that putting his stamp on the program is akin to turning around a battleship. So where this team is heading into Saturday’s noon homecoming game against Vanderbilt is just steps along the way.
There are still recruiting classes to bring in to upgrade, for example, both lines of scrimmage, but Smart singled out the guys in the trenches this week in showing progress.
“I think the defensive line has improved, not necessarily in pass rushing and affecting the quarterback, but striking blockers and knocking people back and controlling the line of scrimmage,” Smart said. “I think the offensive line has improved. I think it’s a deal where we emphasize each week us going good on good makes us different from everybody else. I think everybody does it. I think we’re doing it more than most .”
The on-the-field product so far is 4-2, 2-2 in the SEC.
That’s exactly where Georgia stood at this point in the season a year ago when it also was unranked. It had dropped back-to-back games to Alabama and Tennessee and lost star running back Nick Chubb to the season with a devastating knee injury.
Chubb now has bounced back from the ankle injury and helped the Bulldogs roll up 326 rushing yards in Sunday’s win at South Carolina.
A healthy Chubb — along with an improved offensive line — is reason for optimism for the second half of the season.
Here’s a lookahead and our take on the highs and lows from the first half of the season.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
• Turnovers gained: Georgia ranks fourth in the nation with 15 takeaways. That’s up 51 spots from this point last season when the Bulldogs had forced nine turnovers. Georgia has recovered seven fumbles this season.
• Kickoff return: Special teams have been a sore spot, but the Bulldogs are averaging 23.31 yards per kickoff return compared to 14.95 one year ago, which ranked 126th. Terry Godwin’s 43-yard touchdown on an onsides kick return helps, but Reggie Davis is averaging 26.2 on nine returns this year.
• Rushing defense: Georgia is ranked 25th in the nation in stopping the run, giving up 119.3 yards per game. That’s an 18-spot improvement at this point over last season when the Bulldogs were yielding 137.5 yards per game.
AREAS THAT NEED TO IMPROVE
• Passing efficiency/completion percentage: Georgia is 107th in the nation at 112.9, down 85 spots from a year ago as quarterback Jacob Eason has his rough edges as a freshman. The Bulldogs are also 114th in the nation in completion percentage at 52.2 percent, down from 61.2 percent at midway last year. That included Greyson Lambert’s 24 of 25 game against South Carolina last season and he is 7 of 11 this year. Drops haven’t helped this year’s numbers but Eason needs to be more consistent.
• Pass defense: Georgia is allowing 54 yards per game more through the air. The Bulldogs rank 91st in the nation. They were No. 1 at the end of last season, but only 41st midway through at 194.3 per game. Opponents have attempted 191 passes, not far off last year’s 182.
• Scoring offense: The Bulldogs are 83rd in the nation at 26.7 points per game, down 60 positions at this point a year ago when the Bulldogs averaged 37.2 points per game. Georgia’s scoring high this year is 33 points in the opener against North Carolina. Georgia scored 48 or more points in three of its first six games last season, but never scored more than 27 in their final seven games.
STATISTICS THAT MAY BE MISLEADING
• Time of possession: Leading the SEC and sixth nationally at 35:09 per game. That’s quite the change from a year ago when the Bulldogs ranked 116th nationally at this point at 26:01. It didn’t pay off in losses to Ole Miss when Georgia had the ball for 35:48 or Tennessee when the Bulldogs owned it for 36:07.
• Sacks allowed: Georgia is giving up 2.67 sacks per game compared to 1.00 after six games last season. But the Bulldogs have 180 pass attempts now and had 152 then.
• Net punting: Georgia has shown a 19-spot improvement from the midway point in 2015, but the Bulldogs still rank last in the SEC now at 36.06. Georgia was 115th in the nation a year ago at 33.26 before Brice Ramsey took over for Collin Barber.
FIRST HALF SURPRISES
• Isaiah McKenzie: Georgia’s explosive punt returner emerged as the No. 1 target in the passing game. He leads the Bulldogs in catches (26), receiving yards (359) and touchdown catches (five), but hasn't had more than 26 receiving yards in any of the past three games. The rest of the team combined has three touchdown catches. He’s also the team’s fourth leading rusher with 74 yards on 14 carries.
• Maurice Smith: The Alabama graduate transfer nickel back made an instant impact. He’s started every game and is fifth on the team with 26 tackles, is second with three pass breakups and has an interception, tackle for loss, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
• Brian Herrien: Georgia’s leader in yards per carry isn’t Nick Chubb or Sony Michel. It’s the Bulldogs’ late recruiting addition who is averaging 6.8 yard per attempt and is second on the team with 340 yards and second with three rushing touchdowns.
POISED FOR BIG SECOND HALF
• Jonathan Ledbetter: The sophomore defensive end should be fresh for the stretch run after being limited to scout team while serving a six-game suspension. He was poised for a possible starting job this spring and now has a chance to be the latest underclassmen to show his stuff on a line filled with freshmen and sophomores.
• Terry Godwin: The sophomore has taken a step back in terms of production at wide receiver under the new coaching staff. He’s without a touchdown catch and has 13 receptions for 179 yards after finishing last season with 12 catches in the final two games and 35 catches for 379 yards on the season.
Smart says Godwin is more physical and playing with more toughness: “I think as the year goes and Jacob develops, we’re going to use Terry more and more.”
• Nikc Chubb: Duh. When Chubb is fresh (see North Carolina, see South Carolina), he is a handful for defenses to bring down. So after going up against Vanderbilt, Chubb gets a week off before playing Florida in Jacksonville. Chubb has rushed for 546 yards and five touchdowns and is averaging 121.5 yards per game in the four games he finished.
MUST-SEE SECOND HALF GAMES
• Florida, Oct. 29 in Jacksonville: The loser is likely all but eliminated in the SEC East race, but Georgia should be plenty motivated to just get a win against the Gators for the first time since 2013. Luke Del Rio returns as starting quarterback this week.
• Auburn, Nov. 12 in Athens: The Tigers are back in the top 25 and riding a three-game winning streak but must play Arkansas and Ole Miss back-to-back the next two weeks. Georgia has won four of the last five in the series.
• Georgia Tech, Nov. 26 in Athens: When the Yellow Jackets are 26th in the nation in rushing, that spells trouble for the triple-option. The 3-3 Yellow Jackets are currently on a three-game slide with games at North Carolina and Virginia Tech still ahead. Georgia Tech could need this game to be bowl eligible.
HOLIDAY DESTINATIONS
• Tennessee or Texas? The Music City Bowl is one that Georgia has been projected to go to along with the Texas Bowl in Houston (against a Big 12 team) and the TaxSlayer in Jacksonville.
• If the Bulldogs stumble to 7-5, an even lower-tier bowl like the Liberty or Independence bowls will be in play.
• Having said that, Georgia should be favored in all but one of its remaining regular season games. Running the table and reaching the SEC championship game would likely put Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Going 9-3 might mean the Outback in Tampa.


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