Show Me My Opponent: Georgia
Oh my God, Tennessee beat Florida. That really happened!
Sorry, I had to get that out of the way first. Like it or not, our celebration will be delayed momentarily by the unfortunate circumstance of a game immediately following the best Tennessee football victory in 12 years if not 15. Tennessee will now travel to Athens, GA to play the somehow still ranked Georgia Bulldogs, who beat Nicholls State and Missouri by a combined three points and left this past Saturday with rears firmly kicked by Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss. (Side note: if you are going this Saturday and have any free time, get in touch with me and I will pay you the appropriate amount to pick up a six-pack of Creature Comforts’ Tropicalia and/or Cosmik Debris beer.) Tennessee just finished dropping 38 unanswered points on the supposed best defense in college football. This shouldn’t be close, right?
Well, yes and no. We don’t have to go back far at all to remember instances of this rivalry that were way closer than you’d expect. 2–3 Tennessee entered Neyland Stadium last year and went on a 35–7 run to defeat a 10-win Georgia team. A Top 15 Georgia team took on a bad Tennessee team in 2014 as two-touchdown favorites and needed a terrible first down call to close the game out and win by three. Let’s not talk about 2013. Tennessee gave up half a hundred plus one to Georgia in 2012 and still nearly won. I’d honestly argue that no rivalry in the SEC in this short decade has been as consistently entertaining and/or close; after Georgia whipped a defeated Tennessee team 41–14 in 2010, neither team has won by more than eight points since and the average margin of victory is 5.6 points.
What’s become unusually common in this rivalry is both offenses shining in victory. The losing team has averaged 30 points in defeat, which is no small task. This means that on average, you’re looking at a total of 65.6 points, very firmly above the current Vegas-suggested over/under of 53 points. The pundits will scream the following based on these stats: “the past is the best predictor of the future.” (Dr. Phil is far more influential than you or I ever thought.) That’s nice and all (and it’s eerie how the total the last three years has almost registered at the exact same number — 65, 67, 69), but this year seems a bit different and I’ll lay out why below.
We’re still not really sure if Jacob Eason is good yet
Freshmen (football or not) are, by nature, supposed to be inconsistent. There’s almost no reason for them to show up and take a junior and senior’s game by storm, which is why we celebrate the outliers so much. What you’d hope for a true freshman to do in a realistic world is to consistently and incrementally improve his game week-by-week, even though it may not show up on a box score. To put it simply, Jacob Eason is not doing that. Since winning the job as starting quarterback over Greyson Lambert, he’s actually declined in performance in each game despite playing exactly one good defense so far. (The Ole Miss secondary was impressively ugly prior to last Saturday.) This is not a good trend:
In every single useful stat (completion percentage, YPA, QBR, and even interceptions), Eason is getting worse before he gets better. There’s almost no chance that someone as talented as him will continue to put up more Ole Miss performances and hand the job back to Lambert, but this is a scary sign for a team that has Nick Chubb on it and couldn’t top four yards per carry.
Sure, this touchdown against Missouri was nice:
However, that’s a very rare moment where Eason has lived up to the near-immeasurable hype placed on him by Georgia fans (and non-fans) throughout the country. Compounding all of this is an offensive line that’s 13th of 14 in the SEC only because Kentucky’s passing down sack rate is 125th of 128 in the entire nation. Basically: I don’t think this is all Eason’s fault (his receivers are averaging 4.25 drops a game), but I also haven’t seen where he’s adjusted to the speed of the college game yet. More on his line and receivers shortly, but first…
Nick Chubb! (May not play)
This would be rather disappointing for all college football fans, because even when you’re playing Georgia it’s hard not to like Nick Chubb. After the horrific injury he sustained against Tennessee last year, it looked like he’d put a hammerlock on the Heartwarming Return of the Year category for 2016 with a 222 yard (6.94 YPC) and 2 TD performance against a poor North Carolina rush defense. Since then, he hasn’t even averaged 4 YPC against Nicholls State, Missouri, and Ole Miss (who still has the 92nd-ranked run defense in success rate per Bill Connelly’s S&P+). Tennessee fans know how unbelievably frustrating it is to watch Jalen Hurd’s 240-pound frame be stopped by an offensive lineman getting his tail whipped. That’s basically what’s happening at Georgia, where Chubb hasn’t had a single 20+yard play in the last three games after having 8 in his first five last season. Tennessee allows very few explosive plays (12th in Bill Connelly’s metric), so this likely won’t change. Chubb seems to be the same guy in terms of cuts and football smarts, but the holes simply aren’t there for him to run through, and I’d assume it’s extremely tiring to have to create your own holes on every single attempt.
Sony Michel’s still pretty fun when he’s given room
You’ll be shocked to hear this, but Georgia has like 83 good running backs yet again. (I didn’t have room to toss some love to Brian Herrien, who’s been UGA’s most efficient back by far with 7.08 YPC.) If Chubb’s out, Michel’s the likely starter in what I’d presume to be a 60/40 or 65/35 split with Herrien. Only issue for Michel: the offensive line is extremely negatively affecting him as well, as he doesn’t have a 20+ yard gain this year (4.6 YPC overall) despite having one every 14.6 attempts last season. (The entire rushing offense currently averages one for every 57.7 attempts, which means it takes them nearly six quarters to get one explosive play.)
Isaiah McKenzie and no one else
You’ll appreciate it if I’m honest, right? Well, here you go: Georgia’s receivers that aren’t named Isaiah McKenzie are a trash fire that put A.J. Green, Reggie Brown, Hines Ward, and Mohamed Massaquoi (who was ridiculously good his senior year and would have been a Pro Bowler in at least two of 10 simulated careers) to shame. Look at the adjustment McKenzie makes above to catch this pass from Eason: it’s phenomenal. The only issue is that Jacob Eason had to throw a damn jump ball to a 5'8", 170 pound wide receiver with a career path of NFL special teams because no one else on this roster can catch a pass. They average 4.25 drops a game and one drop every 7.9 attempts. No wonder Jacob Eason looks awful. A special and hilarious shoutout to every Vol fan’s favorite Georgia receiver, Reggie Davis, who has caught four of 13 targets this season, so things haven’t changed much since this happened…
I hate this offensive line so much
I’m pretty objective outside of Tennessee football (and to a small extent, Michigan), but Jesus, Georgia, make this offensive line not suck after this game is over. You’re wasting Nick Chubb’s talent, Sony Michel is withering to the third string because Kirby Smart probably thinks everything is fine up front, and Jacob Eason will be both allergic to and terrified of the smell of grass by November. Also, Greg Pyke is the closest thing the SEC will ever see to 2013 Taylor Lewan on Brady Hoke’s Michigan team: someone who now has to rely on smart scouts to see that he’s very talented and NFL-ready despite playing with three heavily used copies of R.E.M.’s Monster and one pair of broken headphones.
Well, this isn’t great either
I mean, it’s less bad than the offense, sure. But against one great offense (Ole Miss), one good one (North Carolina), one questionably-good one (Missouri), and Nicholls State (Nicholls State), the defense is giving up 6 yards per play. The run defense seems to be less bad — after a brutal 8.37 YPC outing against UNC, they’ve averaged 3.7 YPC to bad running offenses since. I mean, you could do better, but you could also do a whole lot worse. That’s at least acceptable. Tennessee will be able to run, but I have a feeling Georgia can somewhat limit Tennessee’s explosive ability on the ground.
There is no kind way to say it without the GIF above: Georgia’s pass defense at the moment is four different defensive backs doing the Jalen Tabor, getting burned by high school quarterbacks left and right. They make enough plays to make the havoc stats seem okay (38th of 128 in that), but it’s very inconsistent: 6 interceptions in four games but a 135.77 QBR allowed, which ranks 90th in the nation. Alternately, the 84th-best passing completion rate allowed in America. Or you could say they’re currently tied with Georgia Southern in YPA allowed at 83rd. I mean, you could also voice the opinion that they’ve gotten actively worse in each game.
If you wanted, you could tell me they allowed Drew Lock to average nearly 10 yards per attempt. I’m sure there’s also a college paper out there about how they’re currently allowing a 70.3% completion rate on first and second downs. But, if you really want to argue, you could say that a defensive line with two sacks against FBS competition could be the problem.
(This is Will from the afterlife speaking; angry Georgia fans have murdered him.)
About that defensive line
You may not know it, but when you watch this Georgia defensive line take the field Saturday, you’ll be seeing a group with some of the widest varying outcomes in America when it comes to stopping the run vs. a pass rush. Georgia currently ranks a solid 0.36 yards above average in defensive line yards per carry, which is at least some sort of a positive sign. I already told you about how they’ve basically shut down three mediocre-to-bad rushing offenses, but good run defenses do that. I really do think Georgia’s better than the stats show here. I also think that their pass rush is among the most woeful in all of America, not just in the SEC.
As I mentioned earlier, Georgia has just four sacks total on the year, but two of those came against FCS Nicholls State. That means in three games against Actual Teams (only one of which has had good pass protection so far, Missouri), they have two sacks. Two sacks in three games. It’s almost too beautiful to look away from: two sacks in three games. Against FBS competition, Georgia has had 110 chances to sack a quarterback, and has succeeded twice. Once every six quarters. Dear God. They couldn’t get it going against a weak Ole Miss line, and I doubt they can do it against a suddenly recharged Tennessee group.
No GIFs here as it’s a bit difficult to find any good ones from either Natrez Patrick or Roquan Smith, but they’re the second and third-best players on Georgia’s defense and I don’t think it’s particularly close. I like both of them, especially Smith. He came in as Pro Football Focus’s second-best SEC linebacker in Week 4 despite the 45–14 loss. They’re solid in run coverage and only Gronk-lite Evan Engram has had much success against them as a tight end, to my knowledge.
Let’s just run that Ole Miss GIF back. I already mentioned all the important stats above, though I would also note that two members of Georgia’s secondary have received honors as a part of Pro Football Focus’s College Team of the Week: CB Maurice Smith (2 pass breakups) and SS Dominick Sanders (half a sack, INT). Those two seem to at least be okay, and I have a strong feeling that this secondary would have a much better reputation if Georgia had any sort of pass rush whatsoever, as this article theorizes.
Presented without comment…
Everything I have typed up to this point should let you know that this is a Georgia team destined for an 8–4 run where their best win is very easily North Carolina, a team that may not actually be good. The lines on both sides are ruining efforts by most skill position players, and on the rare opportunity they have for a great passing play or the like, there’s an unfortunately high chance the ball will be dropped anyway. Nick Chubb might be hurt. There’s no pass rush. There’s one good playmaker offensively right now if Chubb can’t go. Even the special teams appear to be pretty brutal.
The metrics I’ve cooked up for this game (a combination of Bill Connelly’s S&P+, ESPN’s FPI, and Massey Ratings) give Tennessee a 72.2% chance of winning on Saturday. (Because someone asked last week: S&P+ says 74%, FPI 71.7%, Massey 71%.) Depending on the rating system you use, this translates to anywhere from a 7.3 (FPI) to an 8.1 (Massey) to a 10.9 (S&P+) point win. Also depending on the system you use, the total number of points scored between the two is between 51 (Massey) and 59 (S&P+). (FPI doesn’t give projected scores.) Let’s roll with the average on both of these in a game where Tennessee leads by two scores in the fourth quarter but gives up a garbage time score of some sort.