For the 113th time (or 111th, by Georgia’s accounting), Georgia Tech and its archrival from Athens meet Saturday, at Sanford Stadium, to determine state bragging rights for the next 12 months. The No. 5 Bulldogs need a win to keep their College Football Playoff hopes in working order. The Yellow Jackets want to continue their rally in the second half of the season.
Five things to know about the game:
Jackets need big plays, field position
In the past two Tech-Georgia games, the Jackets have had 18 legitimate possessions (not counting drives at the end of a half to kill the clock). A remarkable 17 of them have started behind Tech’s 30-yard line. Of those 17, four have ended in the Georgia end zone.
The common trait that all four shared and the other 13 didn’t? Each of the four possessions was boosted by one or more plays of 30 yards. The statistic speaks to two realities for the Jackets. First, against a defense with superior talent, albeit one not quite up to last year’s standards, they likely can’t count on grinding out long drives and continually converting third downs.
Second, advantageous field position, either through special teams or turnovers, also is critical. The one possession of the 18 that didn’t start behind the Tech 30? It was Tech’s game-winning touchdown drive in 2016 that began with Lance Austin’s midfield interception of UGA quarterback Jacob Eason.
Stop that man
An X-factor in Saturday’s game could be Georgia return specialist Mecole Hardman, particularly on the kickoff return game. Tech’s kickoff coverage team has been up and down. After the win over Virginia, Johnson called the unit “feast or famine” and said he wanted to cover his eyes on opponent returns.
Hardman, a burner who is also dangerous in the passing game, had one kickoff return against Tech last year for 29 yards. This season, he has brought four kicks back 30 yards or more with a long of 41 yards. A big return by Hardman could be a momentum breaker after a Tech score and give the Bulldogs’ offense more help than it needs. (Hardman also returned a punt 28 yards last season against the Jackets, although Tech’s punt team is considerably improved.)
Tech has allowed 11 kickoffs of 30 yards or more, tied for most in FBS. Pressure will be on kickoff specialist Shawn Davis to get the ball into the end zone. He has three touchbacks in his past 28 kickoffs.
“We’ll kick one to the right or to the left where it’s a directional kick, but for the most part, kick that joker as hard as you can,” Johnson said. “Let it ride.”
Up against giants
The average height and weight of Georgia’s starting offensive line is 6-foot-5 and 327 pounds. Tech’s starting defensive line averages 6-2 and 271.
Most lines, Tech defensive end Branch said, have a mixture of sizes.
“For Georgia, they have all big guys,” he said. “It’s just that going against all big guys, you’ve got to tweak the plan a little bit.”
UGA has mashed Tech in the run game in the past two seasons, pounding out 263 yards in 2016 and 247 rushing yards last year. Defensive coordinator Nate Woody’s scheme is different and more suited for smaller players (relatively speaking) like defensive ends Anree Saint-Amour and Branch, enabling them to be quick and aggressive to attack gaps. But the challenge against the Bulldogs literally is immense.
Reunions on the field
On Saturday, there will be no fewer than 23 high schools that will have representatives on both teams, 21 from the state of Georgia. It’s part of what makes any intrastate rivalry like Tech-Georgia special.
Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall and Georgia linebacker Tae Crowder epitomize this element. The two were classmates at Harris County High (north of Columbus) and helped the Tigers win or share three consecutive region championships before going their separate ways.
On Saturday, Crowder figures to be a part of a linebacker group that will have its sights on blowing up Marshall in the run game. Yet, Marshall said Monday that he had been talking with Crowder to see if he wanted to spend Thanksgiving with Marshall’s family.
“He knows I made the best decision for me, and he made the best decision for himself,” Marshall said. “But no matter what, whatever school we’re at, whether there’s a rivalry or nothing, we’re going to have each other’s back.”
What’s at stake
For Tech, plenty. For starters, an eighth regular-season win, which would be the fifth in Johnson’s 11-season tenure. In the 41 seasons before Johnson’s hire, Tech had seven such seasons (although most of those seasons were 11 games, not 12).
A win over No. 5 Georgia would give the Jackets a shot at getting into the Top 25 for the first time since the third week of the 2015 season. In the ACC, only Wake Forest has gone longer without spending at least a week in the AP Top 25.
It would also be Tech’s third consecutive win in Athens, a streak that the Jackets have enjoyed only once before, a four-game run in 1950-52-54-56. A win over the Bulldogs would also most likely knock them out of the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff, an accomplishment that would give Tech fans no shortage of pleasure.
A win would also improve Tech’s bowl standing and put the Jackets in play to go to the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
A loss would end Tech’s four-game winning streak, be a second consecutive loss to the Bulldogs and downgrade bowl options. A trip to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., would seem a possibility.
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