The Georgia Bulldogs have opened seasons against higher ranked teams than the #22 North Carolina Tar Heels. They have, of course, opened seasons against JV teams as well. However, I would argue that this is the biggest season opener of my generation. You may argue otherwise, but hear me out. We open the season against a top 25 football team that was only a touchdown and 2 pt conversion away from defeating Clemson (eventual Nat’l Title Contender) in their conference championship last year. UNC finished the season 11-3 and went 8-0 in the ACC. Those three losses were by a combined 23 points. They set school (and some ACC) records in points scored and yards gained per game. The offense was extremely prolific. The defense is in their second year under the tutelage of familiar foe, Gene Chizek. Say what you will about how Chizek performed at Auburn without Cam Newton, but he can coach defense. They are most assuredly expected to be better this year on that side of the ball. It’s true that they lost some key players to graduation last year but they return a fair amount as well. But, more on the roster later.
Aside from the opponent for Saturday’s kickoff game in Atlanta, there is plenty on the Georgia side to contribute to this claim of “biggest season opener of my generation.” This season opener marks the first one in the last 15 years with a new head coach. That coach is former Bulldog player, Kirby Smart, who comes with an extensive resume of winning and pretty lofty expectations. He has turned the staff completely over, with the exception of Kevin Sherrer and Tracy Rocker, the lone holdovers from 2015. Nick Chubb, a 2015 Heisman hopeful, returns from a gruesome knee injury suffered in October 2015 against Tennessee. He was the heart and soul of the offense when Gurley was hurt in 2014 and for the first half of the season last year. This will be his first game action in almost a year. The most decorated and highly touted quarterback since Matthew Stafford, Jacob Eason, may or may not get his first college start Saturday, but we know he will see the field. A new era is beginning in so many ways.
The game will be played in Atlanta GA as part of the recent creation of the SEC vs ACC Chick Fil A Kickoff Classic, so a neutral site of sorts. Its right in the middle of one of the most exciting opening season schedules in many years. The weekend includes Auburn vs Clemson, Alabama vs USC, LSU vs Wisconsin and Ole Miss vs FSU, to name only a few. Our game kicks off Saturday at 5:30. There has been an ever growing rift between the SEC and ACC fans as we battle over jabs and records over the last few years. This will be the biggest test in a while with the SEC being given the top 3 ACC teams to face off against on the opening weekend. Anything is possible this weekend but the SEC will need to go at least 2-1 in those 3 games to retain bragging rights. ACC fans would love nothing more than a sweep of Georgia, Auburn and Ole Miss, unless they could somehow include Florida and Alabama.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams and matchup.
Georgia BulldogsThe biggest question on the mind of Georgia fans as of this writing is, “who will be the starting qb?” Freshman Jacob Eason is competing with fifth year senior Greyson Lambert for that distinction. It is the general thought that Brice Ramsey is no longer in that discussion and will serve as a backup to both. There are two logics in this battle. One is that Eason is the future, Chubb is healthy and we know what we have in Lambert, so let’s go with Eason. The other is that Eason is a true freshman, UNC has a very good secondary and Chubb is healthy so let Lambert protect the ball and manage the game. At this very moment, I find myself somewhere between the two. I would like to see Eason take over the offense and see what he has. I also don’t want to put him in a position to fail early and affect his confidence. It is true, we know what we have in Greyson Lambert, and it’s not a big flashy arm. It’s a steady, calming presence in the huddle that will protect the ball. He will not win any games on his own but likely won’t lose it either. This is where the addition of Kirby Smart as head coach makes things tough. If Mark Richt were still in Athens, I would wager my paycheck that Lambert would get the start and Eason would get a series in the first and second half. But again, now, anything can happen.Aside from the quarterback position, there aren’t many questions as to who will be on the field on the offensive side of the ball. The question of whether or not Nick Chubb would be ready was answered earlier this week with the official word coming from Smart that he would play and start. Sony Michel is most likely out until the Missouri game but Brendan Douglas, along with freshmen Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien, will provide support in the running game. I keep expecting Tae Crowder to appear on the depth chart but to no avail. The Dawgs will likely rotate 6 offensive linemen with Brandon Kublanow, Isaiah Wynn, Dyshon Sims, Tyler Catalina and Greg Pyke starting. Lamont Galliard will get a large amount of playing time in that rotation. The wide receivers will be a mixture of young and very young guys. Michael Chigbu will be the big receiver while Terry Godwin and Reggie Davis will stretch the field. Jayson Stanley and Riley Ridley should see some time as well. Expect to see doses of Isaiah McKenzie in the slot and at occasional running back as well. Jeb Blazevich was expectedly named the starting tight end but I expect to see Jackson Harris and Isaac Nauta on the field Saturday.
Regardless of the starting quarterback, the obvious strength of the Georgia Bulldogs is the running game. The obvious 2015 weakness of the UNC Tar Heels was run defense. I expect to see double tight end sets quite often with Nick Chubb shouldering the bulk of the offense. Not only is that our strength, it also keeps the high octane offense of UNC off the field. This game will be won with ball control and controlling the clock. If Georgia is successful on the ground, it will take a lot of pressure off of the quarterback and a defense that is learning new terminology in a new system from a new defensive coordinator. McKenzie and Godwin should get action in the run game as well to try and keep the defense on their heels, no pun intended. But ultimately, if Georgia wants to control this game, they have to punch UNC in the mouth and keep hitting them until the final whistle blows. You do that with one of the biggest offensive lines in college football and Nick Chubb.The defensive side of the ball seems “relatively” set with their position players with a couple of extra hands that will rotate in on a regular basis. The defensive line will start Trent Thompson, John Atkins and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle. Trent Thompson is a local boy that we are familiar with down here in southwest Georgia. We are used to seeing him control a line of scrimmage and I am expecting him to take that next step this year. Atkins has fought through some injury concerns but appears ready and has received rave reviews from the staff. Our strength on defense can be found in our linebacker corp. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy will be the outside backers and are two freakish athletes. Tall, big and fast. This will be their first year as full time starters and they will be asked to carry the load on defense.
The inside backers will be a rotating threesome of Natrez Patrick, Reggie Carter and RoQuan Smith. The loss of Jake Ganus will be felt in the leadership category and Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd will be missed in the pass rush but this is an extremely capable group. Finally, the defensive backfield should be strong but is currently a muddled mess as it relates to starters. Malkom Parrish and Juwan Briscoe appear to have locked down the starting cornerback spots but safety and the STAR position will rotate some combination of Dominick Sanders, Aaron Davis, Quincy Mauger, Rico McGraw and Maurice Smith. Mauger appears to be the odd man out at this time, provided that McGraw and Smith are interchangeable at the STAR as I expect.
Defensively, Georgia will look to remain strong in the secondary, where they finished 2nd in the SEC last year. The secondary had a tremendous amount of help from Floyd, Jenkins, Ganus, Carter, Patrick, Thompson and Sterling Bailey last year so I look for the front seven to maintain their intensity and get after the quarterback in this aggressive defensive scheme. Special teams should be improved by the mere fact that we finally hired a special teams coach and he comes from a very good background in the department. His last name is Beamer. I expect Mecole Hardman to contribute immediately in the return game. We might even see some trickery from time to time as opposed to the predictable phase of the game over the last several years.
North Carolina Tar HeelsNorth Carolina does not question who their starting quarterback is heading into Saturday’s opener. That would be Mitch Trubisky. Trubisky was a highly touted recruit when Larry Fedora took over as head coach at UNC. He is a junior and was fully expected to contribute before now. However, a guy named Marquise Williams came along and he led them to an 11-3 record last year. Trubisky finally gets his shot in 2016 and appears to be a fan and teammate favorite. In limited work in 2015, he was an eye popping 40-47 with six touchdowns. He was also named Mr. Football in the state of Ohio his senior year of high school. He has some solid weapons at his disposal as well in Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard. Mack Hollins stretches the field and is a tall receiver that is very tough to cover one on one with a smaller cornerback. However, he is suspended for the first half of the game due to an illegal hit in the bowl game last year. When he makes his appearance in the second half, expect Trubisky to look his way often if the Bulldogs have not covered him up with additional help. Switzer is a Wes Welker type slot receiver and return specialist that knows how to find open holes in zone defense. He may present a strong matchup issue with our bigger backers. Roquan Smith or the STAR would be ideally set up to cover him. Finally, Bug Howard is a 6’5 monster from Wilcox County that will deserve plenty of defensive attention as well.If the receivers weren’t scary enough, UNC boasts one of the best, and underrated, running backs in the country in Junior, Elijah Hood. At 6’0, 220lbs, he rushed for 1,463 yards in 2015, while scoring 17 touchdowns. He was not a big threat in the passing game with only 13 receptions. Senior RB TJ Logan, is a smaller back that is used more in the passing game and would be a starter on most ACC teams. He has the unfortunate problem of being behind a back like Elijah Hood. I’m guessing Keith Marshall and Sony Michel know how he feels. The offensive line returns 3 starters and is less experienced than in 2015 and may be a weakness for the team in the early going. The youngest position on the team is TE with one sophomore and two freshmen. This won’t help the experience on the offensive line.The Tar Heel offense set 62 team records in 2015. You read that right, 62 team records were set on offense in 2015. Those included 570 points in a season, 40.7 points per game, 6,817 total yards, 486.9 yards per game, 73 touchdowns on the season, most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and most passing yards and passing touchdowns in a season. That offense returns 7 starters. That is the definition of prolific. That is what the Bulldogs are preparing for while Bulldog Nation frets over whether Jacob Eason or Greyson Lambert starts the game at quarterback. Have I painted a scary enough picture of what our defense has to face this Saturday? The Bulldogs are capable, no doubt, but they will have a tremendous challenge in front of them.Where UNC was vulnerable in 2015 was on the defensive side of the ball. The defense returns 6 starters from last year’s unit, including standouts M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence in the secondary. The secondary is the strength of the defense and will present both Eason and Lambert with confusing looks. Again, more reason for the Bulldogs to hammer the running game early and often. The linebacker group is very young but is athletic and looking to help the secondary match or improve on its 15th ranked pass defense. Cole Holcomb is a former walk on getting his first start on Saturday at the outside backer position. Cayson Collins is the only upper classman of the linebacker group with sophomore Andre Smith getting the start as the third backer. The pass defense only allowed 6.1 yards per pass attempt and had 17 interceptions. You do not attack them through the air.
The defensive line on the other hand, was a veritable sieve in 2015. They allowed an awful 5.13 yards per rush in 2015, bad enough for 109th in the country. Remember, there are 128 teams in that ranking. Nazair Jones and Mikey Bart are two returning linemen to the unit and they are looking to improve with the addition of youngster Jalen Dalton. This group will be attacked frequently by the Dawgs and rightfully so. If the offensive line for UGA gels early, it could be a long night on the ground for this unit. The prolific offense doesn’t help a unit like this without depth as well and UNC doesn’t have much.
Summary and Prediction
This is a lot to take in and we don’t have much time left to do it. If Georgia wants to come away with a W in week 1 of 2016, there seems to be a specific formula that plays out in the above analysis. Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball! This accomplishes several things. It keeps UNC’s high scoring offense off the field, it helps break in a freshman quarterback and it attacks UNC’s defensive weakness. On defense, the Bulldogs are going to have to play fast and be very active in the run pass option. You have to believe that Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker will have them as prepared as possible through the summer work. UNC players are on record as calling this the most important game of the year for them. They lost the season opener last year to another SEC opponent, USC(e). They just didn’t realize how embarrassing of a loss that would turn out to be. They will come in to Atlanta with a chip on their shoulder. They are in the little brother ACC conference, they haven’t fared well against SEC competition and they are on a big stage. The lights of national TV and the Georgia Dome are bright.
Even though UGA comes in with a higher national ranking, I would venture to say that the expectations are higher for UNC this year. They are coming off of an 11-3 season and a close conference title game. UGA has a new coach, new scheme and freshman QB. We want to win now but we also understand that there may be growing pains. With that being the case, I will give the pressure edge to UGA. The offensive edge leans to UNC and the defensive edge goes to UGA. There is also a lot of momentum in Athens with the new coach, great recruiting class and they are coming off a bowl win against Penn State in their last official football game. In UNC’s last game, they lost to Baylor in the bowl, while having their best offensive weapon suspended and giving up over 600 yards on the ground. So give the Dawgs the old MO advantage too. But, advantages are all pre game and we will find out just what we have when the kickoff is in the rear view. I can’t wait and I know you can’t either.
My prediction is Bulldogs 27-24. It will be close but I’m going with the red and black. What say you?