Opponent Outlook: Identifying strengths, weaknesses of Georgia
Expectations are high at Georgia.
Even with starting quarterback Jacob Eason temporarily sidelined with a sprained knee, the Bulldogs are still considered one of the favorites to win the SEC’s East Division. A dynamic running game and stingy defense should carry Georgia in head coach Kirby Smart’s second season leading the program.
Thousands of Georgia fans will follow the team to South Bend for one of the biggest Notre Dame football games of the year. What should the Irish expect to see on Saturday? We caught up with Seth Emerson of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a closer look at the Bulldogs.
• What has been the biggest difference in the Georgia program since Kirby Smart replaced Mark Richt as head coach before last season?
Emerson: “The most noticeable difference is the demeanor of the head coach on the sideline. Smart is very energetic, not afraid to get in his player’s faces and teach lessons during games, in contrast to the stoic Richt, who preferred to take a CEO approach to game days.
“Smart has also brought the Nick Saban philosophy on other things, such as media restrictions, working his staff hard, mapping out as much of the day as possible, etc. Otherwise, though, the jury is still out on whether the change has resulted in a more disciplined, winning program.
“Richt won a lot of games here, but the powers-that-be felt he had plateaued and wanted Smart, a Georgia guy who had seen what had worked at Alabama. Whether the program truly takes the next step under Smart — and there’s really only one step Richt didn’t make — remains to be seen.”
• How different will Georgia’s offense be with freshman Jake Fromm replacing Eason? Can Fromm handle the job?
Emerson: “Fromm seems to have all the intangibles: Leadership qualities, faith of his teammates, knowledge of the offense, etc. But he’s still just a true freshman making his first college start, and oh by the way on the road at Notre Dame.
“Fromm wasn’t as hyped a recruit as Eason, and is three inches shorter. But Fromm was a four-star recruit and has a lot of similar qualities to Aaron Murray, who set SEC and Georgia passing records here.
“Fromm seems more accurate a passer than Eason, which allows the offense to go more up-tempo. But the question is how much he’ll be able to go vertical, especially if Notre Dame packs the box and dares him to go. And while his play was encouraging in the opener (10-for-15 for 143 yards, no interceptions), there were a few ill-advised passes that stemmed from inexperience.”
• Georgia brought back nearly its entire defense after finishing in the top 10 nationally in a number of categories last season. What, if any, weakness does the defense have that Notre Dame could exploit?
Emerson: “The secondary, where the team’s best cornerback, senior Malkom Parrish, missed the opener with a foot injury. He was still on crutches and a walking boot during Saturday’s game, so that doesn’t bode well for him being able to return for this game.
“Another key defensive back, Aaron Davis, had to leave the App State game with a lingering hamstring injury, though he might be able to go this week. In any event, Georgia’s secondary has played well but is prone to some leakiness.
“I could also see some tackling issues in space if Brandon Wimbush and company are able to get outside. Parrish, for instance, is probably the team’s best open-field tackler.
“The pass rush is also still an open question. But otherwise the front seven is really, really salty. There are perhaps a half-dozen, maybe more, future NFL players in that group. Notre Dame has an experienced and good offensive line, so that matchup with Georgia’s front seven is going to be very intriguing.”
• Clearly the offense will continue to run through running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Who else can the Bulldogs count on to make big plays on offense?
Emerson: “Those two guys are the workhorses, but there are some other potential playmakers. Tight end Isaac Nauta is an athletic mismatch for linebackers. And the team uses three other tight ends too.
“Receiver Javon Wims is 6-foot-5 and can make plays deep or short. Receiver Terry Godwin is shorter (5-10) but can be a headache in the slot. And keep an eye on freshman D’Andre Swift and sophomore Brian Herrien, a couple of reserve tailbacks who can be used in the passing game. Swift caught three passes against App State.”
• StubHub released data last month indicating a majority of the tickets being purchased on its website for Saturday’s game were sold to people from Georgia. How much has the fan base been anticipating this game?
Emerson: “Georgia fans are going to be everywhere around South Bend this weekend. I remember back in 2010, when Georgia played at Colorado, hearing people there amazed by how many red-and-black clad fans they saw around town. It’ll be like that this time. Even fans who haven’t secured tickets, and may not get them, have already bought plane tickets and will be in town just to experience it.
“My colleague Chip Towers, who visited South Bend this spring and is back up there this week, estimates there will be 10-15,000 Georgia fans in the seats on Saturday night. This is a bucket-list game for a lot of fans, and even for me as an objective, hard-bitten beat guy, this is pretty cool too. I’m glad the series was set up.”