The first weekend of real games – Alcorn State and Austin Peay don’t qualify – for our three major local entities offered no revelations. On the contrary, they brought more of the same. Georgia Tech is still gaining yards and blowing leads. The Falcons still can’t score touchdowns in Philadelphia. Georgia is what Georgia became last season, which is to say awesome. A look at each ensues.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets were favored against USF in Tampa, which always struck me as a betting-line reach. The Bulls had won 21 games the past two seasons – Tech had won 14 – and the Jackets have won two true road games since the 2014 Orange Bowl. This was always going to be a tough test; it wound up being the same exam Tech keeps flunking.
The Jackets gained 595 yards and scored 38 points. They lost by 11 after leading by 10 with 12-1/2 minutes remaining. This is now what Tech does. (We think, mostly but not entirely, of the egregious loss to Tennessee on Labor Day 2017.) It’s still lousy on special teams, although yielding two touchdowns on kickoff returns in the first quarter takes lousiness to the lowest level. Its defense is still awful at the end of games – USF’s final three possessions: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown – and can’t get off the field on third down.
With the arrival of Nate Woody from Appalachian State, the dark days of third-and-Roof were supposed to be at their end. This isn’t to suggest that Woody won’t be an upgrade at defensive coordinator – Tennessee yielded 48 consecutive points to Florida in John Chavis’ third game as D.C., and the Chief turned out OK – but it is to pose a gentle question: What if Tech’s defensive issues are less a function of scheme than manpower?
The offense is always going to be fine, more or less. But the Jackets are 18-20 since the Orange Bowl, and that’s including the 9-4 of 2016. As it stands, Tech must beat one of the four ranked teams – Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech or Georgia – on its schedule to keep from finishing 7-5 at best. The tale of this team is nowhere close to being written, but Saturday’s was a deflating loss.
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The Falcons: They lost to the reigning Super Bowl champs at their place on a supercharged night. There’s no great shame in that. There was, however, a distressing familiarity. Thursday’s game ended the way January’s Division Round encounter had – with Matt Ryan throwing to Julio Jones at the pylon to no avail. (Different pylon this time, though. For Steve Sarkisian, that constitutes a wrinkle.)
On Jan. 14, the Falcons managed 281 yards, 10 points and one touchdown. On Sept. 6, they managed 299 yards, 12 points and one touchdown. In the playoff game, they were 1-for-3 on scoring touchdowns inside the 20; on Opening Night, they were 1-for-5. We’ve heard all offseason how the red zone had been a point of emphasis, and perhaps that emphasis will generate down-the-road results. In the short term, this was second verse, same as the first.
Doug Pederson and D.C. Jim Schwartz outcoached a lot of people – the great Belichick included – en route to that improbable Super triumph. This is twice that those two have, without benefit of their No. 1 quarterback, trumped Dan Quinn and Sarkisian. This is twice that the Eagles have appeared, man for man, the slightly lesser team and won anyway. If you’re the Falcons, that’s (again) the most troubling sign.
These next three games – Carolina, New Orleans and Cincinnati, all here – are immense. Winning only two would leave the Falcons 2-2 headed to Pittsburgh, and this wouldn’t appear a season in which an NFC South team could survive a halting start. The Falcons have so much talent that they’re not going to 6-10; with this schedule, though, a slow start could yield a 9-7, which isn’t at all what Arthur M. Blank had in mind.
Georgia: The 2017 Bulldogs’ average margin of victory in eight regular-season SEC games was 20 points. Georgia’s MOV in its first league date of 2018 was 24 points. Only once over that span has any opponent in conference play come close to the Bulldogs, and that was a superb Auburn team working before a frothing Jordan-Hare gathering.
Such is the gap between Georgia and the rest of the SEC East that it’s hard to imagine any division foe giving the Bulldogs a game, much less beating them. There was a time when Georgia’s talent could be overridden by an inspired opposing game plan or an uninspired UGA performance. Those days are gone. Kirby Smart isn’t about to get outflanked. This is a hugely gifted team that, every blessed week, comes close to playing to its massive gifts.
As for the rest of the East ... again, there’s not much. Tennessee was beaten 40-14 at home by West Virginia. Florida lost to Kentucky for the first time in 32 years. South Carolina flunked its audition. Missouri’s best wins last year came against Tennessee, Florida and Arkansas, all of which fired its coach. Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt. Two weeks in, the East’s second-best team appears to be Kentucky, which tells us all we need to know about the East.
With 10 games remaining, Georgia has two chances to lose. The first will come at LSU, which can’t match the Bulldogs for players or coaches. The second is Auburn, and that will be in Sanford Stadium. Georgia having aced its first purported test, the thought of 12-0 is more than a thought. It seems a waiting reality.