5 things to watch for when Georgia hosts Arkansas State

Georgia's secondary is expected to stay busy Saturday trying to keep the ball out of the hands of Arkansas State's 6-foot-3, 207-pound wideout Omar Bayless, who has had three consective 100-yard games and already has 5 TD catches this year. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Georgia's secondary is expected to stay busy Saturday trying to keep the ball out of the hands of Arkansas State's 6-foot-3, 207-pound wideout Omar Bayless, who has had three consective 100-yard games and already has 5 TD catches this year. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Blake Anderson is the first coach in a while to stick around at Arkansas State. The three coaches who preceded him – Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin – all bounced on to bigger jobs after a single successful season.

The Red Wolves have been just as good under Anderson – winning three of the past four Sun Belt titles – but now they’re able to benefit from stability as Anderson enters his sixth season. That has translated into a regular flow of exceptional offensive skill players eager to prove they were overlooked by the Power 5 schools.

In two previous meetings with Arkansas State, Georgia has managed to win by the aggregate score of 83-14.

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Here are five things to keep an eye on Saturday:

How much pink will there be?

Breast cancer awareness month is not until October, but you might not be able to tell that Saturday. Georgia fans have organized their own campaign to “pink out” Sanford Stadium to show support for Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson. Anderson’s wife, Wendy, died Aug. 19 after a two-year battle with breast cancer. She was 49.

Anderson took a leave of absence right before Wendy Anderson died and remained with his family until Saturday, when he made a surprise return the day of the UNLV game. The Red Wolves won 43-17.

Hearing Anderson’s story, Georgia fans mounted a social-media campaign to get everybody to wear pink to Saturday’s game. After Bulldogs Battling Breast Cancer got involved, the movement has gained major traction.

Numbers game for Swift

D’Andre Swift could become the Bulldogs’ 16th player to reach 2,000 yards rushing. A junior, Swift needs 119 yards to reach that mark in career rushing.

Based on the way he’s been running, it shouldn’t take Swift very long to achieve it. He is averaging 9.8 yards per carry this season. If he keeps that up, he’d need only 12 carries Saturday to get to 2,000. That doesn’t seem like much, but through two games, Swift is averaging only 11 carries per game. He had six Saturday against Murray State.

With 1,881 career yards, Swift needs 110 more to move past Jimmy Poulos (1971-73) into 17th on the Bulldogs’ list of all-time rushers. His career 7.07 yards per-carry average is on pace to set the school record, currently held by Todd Gurley (6.44). The SEC record of 6.62 is held by Auburn’s Bo Jackson.

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O-line shuffle

Jamaree Salyer started at right tackle against Murray State because Isaiah Wilson was sidelined with an ankle injury. Salyer played all right, but was part of a breakdown that led to quarterback Jake Fromm being sacked in the first quarter.

Indications from practice this week are that sophomore Cade Mays may get the nod at the outside spot on the right side. The ultimate “putty guy” because he can fill in anywhere on the line, Mays started the first two games at right guard, ahead of junior Ben Cleveland. Mays also has worked at center and left tackle. Cleveland can play right tackle, and Salyer can play right guard. So, the Bulldogs have a lot of options, and none are bad.

Meanwhile, coach Kirby Smart hasn’t closed the door on Wilson’s return. The 6-foot-7, 345-pound sophomore is out of the walking boot he had been wearing on his left foot and was running under water in the Bulldogs’ training room in an attempt to get back as soon as possible. But with No. 8 Notre Dame set to visit next week, it’s unlikely Georgia would risk a too-early return.

More work for Bennett?

The Bulldogs were practically certain that their backup quarterbacks would play against Murray State, but there’s no guarantee of that against the Red Wolves, as Smart’s persistent warnings suggest. But Georgia really needs Stetson Bennett to get in some more work.

Not that Bennett’s work has been subpar. What he did Saturday against the Racers was solid, completing 69 percent of his passes for 124 touchdowns and two touchdowns and running for another one. In all, Bennett led the Bulldogs on four TD drives.

But he also gave up a “pick-6” interception and could have had another if not for the Murray State defender dropping a throw straight to him. As Smart mentioned this past week, the best way to make the needed improvements is with game experience. So the Bulldogs need Bennett, a sophomore, to get more of that before they find themselves in a situation where they’re totally dependent upon him.

“Stetson is going to grow as a player; he continues to grow in practice,” Smart said. “I’m looking for him to improve in all facets: his accuracy, his timing, his confidence, his points, his decision-making. He did some good things, but he did some things that he doesn’t typically do in practice.”

Secondary to be tested

One need watch only a few minutes of Georgia’s practices this week to see how serious Smart is about the Bulldogs improving on defense, particularly in the secondary. Smart, who played safety at UGA in the 1990s, has been taking a hands-on approach with the defensive backs. Smart had a near-meltdown Tuesday when cornerback Tyson Campbell failed to exhibit proper technique in a pass-defense drill.

The issue is the sophisticated passing attack the Red Wolves will be bringing to Sanford Stadium. Arkansas State leads the Sun Belt Conference in passing at 302 yards a game and quarterback Logan Bonner already has thrown six touchdown passes, with one interception. Five of those TDs have gone to wideout Omar Bayless, a 6-3, 207-pound, fifth-year senior. Bayless caught four of those against SMU in the season opener.

Add to that a pair of backs in Marcel Murray and Ryan Graham who are each averaging more than five yards per carry, and the Bulldogs know they’ll have a lot to defend Saturday.