First up, small-college powerhouse Georgia Southern.
The Bulldogs, who have already locked up a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game, should have no trouble adding another win to their record on Saturday. Even so, this apparent mismatch could provide some useful guidance on how Georgia will handle its regular-season finale against another neighborhood rival, Georgia Tech.
The Eagles are coached by Jeff Monken, who used to be an assistant at Georgia Tech. Both teams have essentially the same run-oriented option offense, giving Georgia (9-1) a useful tuneup for next week’s game against the Yellow Jackets.
“If you’re going to play that type of offense twice in a season, it’s probably better to do it back to back rather than in game four and game nine,’ Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. “You kind of go back and forth on a certain mentality, and if we can maintain the same mentality for two weeks in a row instead of having to go back and forth, it’s probably not a bad thing.”
Linebacker Christian Robinson said it will be especially beneficial to work against Georgia Southern’s cut blocking scheme, a potentially dangerous technique that involves hitting at the knees. The Bulldogs will certainly see more of that when they face Georgia Tech.
“It’s a good thing the way this works out,” Robinson said. “A big thing for this week is that we’re going to have to knock them back and then stay on your feet and make plays. Obviously we’re going to go against cut blocks, so getting to play against it two weeks in a row will allow us to get better at playing against that block.”
Richt had been working hard to make sure his team doesn’t look beyond these next two games, but that’s going to be difficult. Georgia will be making its second straight trip to the SEC title game (and a likely meeting against No. 4 Alabama), and there’s still an outside shot at slipping into the national championship race.
The Bulldogs are fifth in the BCS. They’ll need to win out, pull for two of the undefeated teams to lose (from a group that includes No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Kansas State and No. 3 Notre Dame), and hope that’s enough to land them a spot in Miami.
“I don’t worry about it,” Richt said. “If you worry about stuff you can’t control, you’re really wasting your time and you’re going to make yourself crazy a little bit.”
Besides, it’s rather stunning that Georgia finds itself in this position at all, considering its one loss was a doozy — a 35-7 blowout at South Carolina. But a favorable schedule and a big win over Florida propelled the Bulldogs to another SEC East title.
Now, they’ve got a chance to sneak in the back door for a shot at the biggest prize at all.
“I haven’t talked to (the players) about it,” Richt said. “We just talk about focusing on Georgia Southern. I don’t know how often they look at that or think about that.”
Georgia Southern (8-2) claimed a share of the Southern Conference championship and will be doing some scoreboard-watching of its own. If The Citadel beats Furman, the Eagles will get the league’s automatic berth in the FCS playoffs.
Monken hopes the triple-option gives his team at least a fighting chance against the Bulldogs.
“It really is a different brand of football in terms of the kinds of things defensive coaches are teaching their guys on a weekly basis in preparation for a more traditional offense,” he told the Savannah Morning News. “That gives a little bit of an advantage to teams that are running the option because it is so different.”
Georgia’s defense, coming off its first shutout of Auburn since 1976, knows that it can’t fall for all the chicanery the Eagles will try to pull with their fakes and misdirection. The coaches are always preaching about sticking to assignments and not trying to do too much, but that’s especially important against the option.
“It’s difficult, but at the same time it still helps you with the fundamentals of football,” Robinson said. “A lot of the time defending this style of offense comes down to the most basic fundamentals of football, of just being in position, making tackles, and knocking them back. That’s how you defend this offense and that’s how you win games.”
The Bulldogs will have to be especially mindful of Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon, who accounted for five touchdowns in last week’s victory over Howard.
He rushed for a career-high 198 yards and three touchdowns and threw two passes, as well.
Georgia Southern leads the FCS in rushing, averaging 401.2 yards per game, and will look to keep the ball away from Georgia’s offense as much as possible. Because it’s hard to see the Eagles doing much to slow the Bulldogs’ potent attack.
Aaron Murray leads the SEC in passing efficiency, freshmen running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have combined for nearly 1,600 yards, and Georgia is averaging nearly 37 points a game.
Murray said the two freshmen, nicknamed “Gurshall” in tribute to former Georgia great Herschel Walker, have allowed the offense to flourish.
“We want to be balanced. They give us balance,” Murray said. “They can run the ball, eat up the clock, make big runs. It’s unbelievable. It feels like the Oregon offense sometimes, how they break through with those big 40-, 50-, 60-, 70-yard touchdown runs.”