5 things to know about Georgia’s matchup with Mississippi State

ATHENS — No. 1 Georgia can clinch its fifth SEC Eastern Division championship in the past six years with a win over Mississippi State on Saturday in Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0 SEC) have not played the Maroon Dogs (6-3, 3-3) – as the rest of the SEC often refers to them – at Davis Wade Stadium since 2010. Georgia lost 24-12, snapping a nine-game win streak in the series.

The teams last met at Sanford Stadium in 2020. Tied through three quarters, Georgia scored the winning points on a 40-yard touchdown pass from JT Daniels to Kearis Jackson on third-and-20 with 9:50 remaining in the game.

Georgia leads Mississippi State 19-6 overall in its least-played series against fellow charter members of the SEC. This will be only the seventh trip to Starkville in UGA history.

Here are five things to know about Saturday’s 7 p.m. matchup (ESPN):

1. ‘Air Raid’ awaits

The reason Georgia struggled so much the last time it played Mississippi State was the “Air Raid” offense the Maroons employ under coach Mike Leach. Utilized by Hal Mumme, Sonny Dykes and some others, Leach has put his own touches on the quick, short-pass strategy during his head coaching stops at Texas Tech, Washington State and now at State.

In Will Rogers, Leach believes he has found the consummate quarterback for running his system. Rogers, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior, was a freshman when he made his starting debut against Georgia in Athens on Nov. 21, 2020. He completed 41 of 52 passes for 336 yards.

“He played really well in that game and kind of got a lot of confidence playing against us,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I don’t know how many games he’s played since then, but a lot.”

The answer is 31 games. Rogers has completed 71% of his passes for 73 touchdowns and 21 interceptions during his career. He needs only 373 yards to become the 10th quarterback in SEC history to go over 10,000 yards in passing during his career.

Entering Saturday’s game, Rogers ranks third in the SEC with a 68.3 completion percentage and leads the league in passing yards (2,912) and touchdowns (26).

2. ‘Starkvegas’ and cowbells

A decent number of Georgia fans are thought to be making the trip to the small town affectionately known as “Starkvegas.” That’s because the Bulldogs have played them so rarely and the “get-in” price at Davis Wade Stadium has hovered around only $50 this week. While the SEC’s smallest city by population (24,657), Mississippi State is well-removed from many of the amenities football fans are accustomed to, that’s not to say it’s an easy place to play. On the contrary.

Between the ringing of cowbells and the unique offensive and defensive systems the Maroons employ there, it’s one of the SEC’s toughest venues.

“I’m actually pretty excited about it,” senior offensive lineman Warren Ericson said. “Coach Smart’s been showing us videos about the cowbells and the different environment there. They do have a different environment there, and being a part of that’s going to be cool.” The Maroon Dogs are undefeated at home this season (5-0), averaging 43 points in those contests and winning by an average margin of 20.8 points.

3. Playing to win

Of course, no SEC team has been more dominant at home or away than Georgia. The Bulldogs enter Saturday’s game having won their conference games by an average score of 40-12. That average margin of 28 points far exceeds the other SEC championship contenders, including Tennessee (11.8), Alabama (16.5), LSU (4.7) and Ole Miss (3.8).

The wonder is what UGA’s margin might look like if Smart didn’t play so conservatively with a lead. After passing for 306 yards in the first half against the Volunteers on Saturday, the Bulldogs attempted only four passes in a second half marred by a steady downpour. Also, leading 21-6 late in the second quarter, poor clock management did not leave enough time for the Bulldogs to get another crack at the end zone from inside the 2. Instead, they settled for a chip-shot field goal on third down.

“Yeah, I probably didn’t do a good job there,” Smart said later.

But he was making no apologies for being conservative in the second half.

“Did we take the air out of it? Yes. But did I question doing that? No, not based on the circumstances,” Smart said. “I think that was to play in the moment because the conditions changed, and you have to be smart when you’re coaching. It could be wind, it can be rain, it can be an injury, it can be anything, but you have to be smart.”

Georgia and Tennessee running backs fumbled on back-to-back plays late in the third quarter. The Bulldogs would attempt only one more pass in the game, and that came on a third-and-12 leading by 14 points with four minutes to play. The game ended with Georgia kneeling on first-and-10 at the Vols’ 25-yard line.

4. Specialists could decide

Georgia quite notably got a 75-yard punt from Brett Thorson to the Tennessee 1, which helped turned the tide toward the Bulldogs early in Saturday’s game. Georgia also was proficient on kickoffs, with all five of Jack Podlesny’s kicks reaching the Vols’ end zone, three of them resulting in touchbacks.

That will be important against Mississippi State, which features the SEC’s most dangerous returner in Lideatrick Griffin. The 5-10, 180-pound sophomore enters the game with 498 yards on 15 returns, including a 92-yard touchdown.

“He’s really good, and they have a good scheme around him,” Smart said of Griffin. “He sticks it up in there. A lot of your kickoff-return success comes from fearless returning. They have a front-line and back-end group that is really coordinated. … We’ve worked overtime on that, and hopefully we can be successful.”

5. Banged-up but bowed-up

As Smart has emphasized for a while now, the Bulldogs are a “beat-up team,” and that remains the case heading into the 10th game. Georgia knows it will be without star outside linebacker Nolan Smith (torn pectoral) for the rest of the season, sophomore split end A.D. Mitchell (ankle) is doubtful and starting left guard Xavier Truss (toe) is questionable after missing the last game. Meanwhile, the status of Robert Beal, Smith’s replacement at “Jack” linebacker, is largely unknown heading into Saturday’s contest.

Smart expressed confidence that Beal would “be able to go” against State, but his effectiveness is uncertain after suffering a “stinger” neck injury on Georgia’s first defensive series of the second half against Tennessee. Beal did not play the rest of the way but has been getting non-contact work in practice.

Sophomore Chaz Chambliss (8 tackles, 1 sack) and freshman Marvin Jones (2, 0) got all but one snap in Beal’s absence. Freshman Jalon Walker got the other rep. Curiously, junior M.J. Sherman did not get any defensive snaps but played on special teams.