Georgia looked just fine against Vanderbilt on Saturday night. The Bulldogs weren’t exactly sharp yet still earned a decisive road victory against a conference foe in the opener. Well, officially it was a road game but unofficially Bulldogs backers made it their stadium.
“It’s a great way to start,” linebacker Azeez Ojulari said after Georgia’s 30-6 victory. “First game. We got the jitters out. It’s a good win, to me.”
I agree. However, No. 3 Georgia didn’t look as mighty as No. 2 Alabama. The Crimson Tide destroyed Duke, which is roughly Vanderbilt’s equal. Two nights earlier top-ranked Clemson clobbered Georgia Tech, which isn’t as good as Vandy. The Tigers had lapses, too, but the defending champs get the benefit of any doubt.
This is how it’s going to be for the Bulldogs. What they do will be sized up with Clemson and Alabama. There’s a gap between Georgia and the top two. The Bulldogs really won’t be able to do much to change that perception until Notre Dame comes to Athens in three weeks.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs can provide evidence that they’ll be ready to beat the Irish and start their march to the College Football Playoffs. Georgia could have made a more convincing case at Vanderbilt. Sounds strange to say after a 24-point victory but, again, the bar is high.
Georgia’s defense was great when it wasn’t gifting yards on personal fouls. The Bulldogs swiftly scored touchdowns on their first three possessions before idling to three field goals.
“Everything will be exaggerated great, or everything will be exaggerated horrible,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “That’s just the way it is.”
The reassuring thing for the Bulldogs was seeing that what was good in 2018 remains that way. D’Andre Swift (152 yards) still is splendid. Quarterback Jake Fromm still doesn’t make mistakes. Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship still is reliable.
Georgia’s needed big-play wide receiver didn’t announce himself, but that didn’t matter in this one. The Bulldogs rushed for 325 yards. Swift averaged 9.3 yards on his 16 carries.
“It didn’t feel like it,” Swift said. “I could have broke a couple more runs if I stayed on my feet.”
Some of Georgia’s weaknesses from 2018 looked better in the opener. The Bulldogs weren’t good at converting scores near the goal line last season. They did it against Vandy on the game’s opening drive. Tailback Brian Herrien got two cracks at third-and-one at Vandy’s six-yard line and made it on the second try. Fromm feathered a TD pass to Demetris Robertson on the next play.
Georgia’s pass rush was just OK in 2018. It was relentless against Vandy. The Bulldogs had just two sacks but frequently forced quarterback Riley Neal to bail from the pocket soon after he got the snap.
Georgia’s defense was great overall, save for three personal foul penalties. Vandy had 162 total yards before garbage time. No doubt the ‘Dores are limited offensively. No question they’ll fare better against opponents that don’t run and hit like Georgia.
When the Bulldogs weren’t being flagged, they allowed Vandy nothing.
“We can have a good defense,” Smart said. “We’ve got a lot of speed. We need some more activity up front.”
Some of UGA’s issues from last year carried over. That includes Smart’s strange decision-making.
The Bulldogs led 24-6 in the third quarter when they went for it on third down and a long yard at Vandy’s 17. The Commodores dropped Swift for a three-yard loss. Make a field goal there, with 3:08 left in the period, and the game’s essentially over.
“Kick a field goal and it’s still a three-score game,” Smart said.
Sure, but better that it’s three touchdowns. Anyway, it hardly mattered: Smart’s defense would not yield. After the turnover on downs, the Bulldogs forced a three-and-out to get the ball right back. They ran five plays before punting back to Vandy, which went three-and-out again.
Georgia’s offense was haphazard after halftime. Blankenship kicked a 50-yard field goal then the next three possessions ended with a turnover on downs, punt and fumble. Blankenship kicked two more field goals when drives stalled in the red zone.
Fromm had just 23 pass attempts, completing 15 of them for 156 yards. Smart said Fromm eventually will need to stretch the field and find wide receivers. But he credited his quarterback for checking to running plays when Vandy’s defensive looks dictated it.
“Ultimately, we wanted to come in here and play physical, establish the brand of football that we play,” Smart said.
The Bulldogs can win games like this with a straightforward run game and stingy defense. That’s a reason they are the class of the SEC East. The Bulldogs haven’t lost to an East opponent since Florida beat them on Oct. 29, 2016. The talk that the division could be stronger this season is over after what happened Saturday.
Georgia State shocked Tennessee on Rocky Top. Will Muschamp’s experienced South Carolina squad lost to North Carolina, which started a freshman at quarterback. Missouri for some reason played an opener at Wyoming and it didn’t go well.
The Bulldogs have bigger goals than winning the East again. Notre Dame will provide a measure of just how far along they are on that path. At Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs showed they are good enough to put down a conference opponent even when they aren’t at their best.
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