There was no drama at Sanford Stadium on Saturday. The Georgia Bulldogs, reigning SEC champions, routed Austin Peay, the over-matched FCS foes. Georgia’s quarterbacks won’t be the talk after incumbent Jake Fromm played well and Justin Fields looked just fine, but also like a freshman, in his debut.
Bulldogs backers started heading for the exits before halftime, satisfied that their team handled the over-matched visitors. Can’t blame them. The entertainment value was low, and the temperature was high.
But I saw something interesting, and it might hint at things to come.
The Bulldogs scored their first touchdown of the game with Fromm running a no-huddle offense at a rapid pace. The Bulldogs picked their spots to play fast in Fromm’s first season as a starter — that’s never been offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s thing — but here was evidence of how well they can do it.
“As far as playing fast, that’s a huge asset to our team,” Fromm said. “That’s something we do pretty well. Any time we go fast, it’s nice and easy. Dink-and-dunk and get the play-makers the ball.”
Maybe the Bulldogs should do that more often now that coach Kirby Smart is stacking talent. The more plays the team with superior talent runs, the more likely it is for that talent gap to emerge. The Bulldogs figure to have better players, and more of them, in every game this regular season.
The talent gap won’t be as wide as it was against Austin Peay, but running a bunch of plays is a way for Georgia to push whatever advantage is there. After watching the opener, it’s obvious that team speed will be among them.
The Bulldogs were a power team playing at a slower pace with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Now they can punish opponents by pushing a quick pace and feeding speedy skill players such as D’Andre Swift and Demetris Robertson.
Georgia has the quarterback to play at a fast pace. Fromm makes quick, good decisions. During that fast-paced drive that got the Bulldogs on track, he was willing to dump it off to his running backs in space when that’s all the Governors would allow.
Those gains started adding up.
“It’s never a bad play checking the ball down, especially when you have backs as good as ours,” Fromm said.
Georgia’s offense was a bit sluggish at the start against Austin Peay. Its first drive ended with a field goal after Fromm’s pass to a well-covered target fell incomplete. Georgia’s next drive began with Fromm trying to throw to Mecole Hardman, who was double-covered.
Then the Bulldogs sped it up, and Fromm found his rhythm.
Swift had 15-yard run and, a few ticks later, Fromm passed to Swift for a 10-yard gain. Two plays and no more than eight seconds of real time later, tailback Brian Herrien gained 13 yards on a catch. It wasn’t long before Riley Ridley was gaining 11 yards on another catch.
Austin Peay defenders kept trying to sub out during Georgia’s rapid advance, but they couldn’t because the Bulldogs stayed with the same 11.
“We have the depth to do that,” Swift said “and we have the conditioning to do that.”
Georgia’s march paused only when a Governors player went down with an injury. When play continued, Fromm found Swift again, the Bulldogs kept pressing the tempo, and Fromm ended the drive with a quick-hitting pass to wide receiver Ridley for a 10-yard touchdown.
The Bulldogs ran 11 plays for 80 yards over 3:27 of clock. It was impressive, with the obvious caveat of the inferior competition, both in quality and quantity. Austin Peay is allowed 63 scholarship players to Georgia’s 85. The Governors wilted in the sun. Did I mention it was hot?
Still, Georgia’s quick-paced offense intrigued me. As mentioned, Chaney’s recent teams haven’t played fast. Football Outsiders has calculated an adjusted pace metric starting in the 2014 season. The national rankings for the units Chaney ran in those seasons: 116th at Arkansas, 113th at Pittsburgh and 64th and 120th with the Bulldogs.
Smart knew this when he hired Chaney. It fit with the perception that Smart, a defensive-minded coach, would rather grind out victories. During Smart’s two seasons as Bulldogs head coach, they’ve played slow and favored the run.
Playing faster isn’t necessarily better. Note that Georgia’s offense played faster in 2016 (when it was not good) than in 2017 (when it was very good). And there are some potential drawbacks to a quicker pace.
“Sometimes, communication is tough.” Fromm said. “But at the end of the day, you have answers in the play. Just take what they give you.”
Next week’s opponent, South Carolina, will be a tougher test for the Bulldogs. Will Muschamp’s team likes to play at a plodding pace. But if the Bulldogs decide they want to play fast, I don’t see how the Gamecocks can keep up.