Georgia Bulldogs back at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, this time vs. Oregon

Talking season is over. The proverbial hay is in the barn. It’s time to play ball, and the Georgia Bulldogs and their considerable fan base couldn’t be more fired up about it.

Opening a season as defending national champions for the first time in 41 years, optimism is running high. Some think the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs might be playing with house money this year. After all, the gold College Football Playoff trophy is safely displayed inside the new $80 million football facility in Athens. So is the iconic, crystal-football-topped coaches’ trophy and that ostentatious thing they call the MacArthur Bowl. All signify that Georgia did, indeed, finish on top in 2021.

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But none of that matters starting Saturday. The question will be, again, what have the Bulldogs done lately? For the past month, they have been preparing for a very challenging first task: trying to take down No. 11 Oregon, which is coached by Georgia’s former defensive coordinator.

Here are five of the main storylines:

Bulldogs love the Benz

Georgia loves playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It has done it a lot.

In fact, Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against Oregon represents the sixth year in a row the Bulldogs have played in that venue. It will be the seventh consecutive season they’ve played in the general vicinity. Georgia opened the 2016 season – and the Kirby Smart era – in the old Georgia Dome, which was razed the next year.

If things go extremely well for the Bulldogs, they actually could play in Arthur Blank’s building three times this season. The SEC Championship game will be played there Dec. 3, and the Peach Bowl will host a CFP Playoff semifinal there Dec. 31.

Saturday’s matchup will be Georgia’s third appearance in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. It would have been four, but the 2020 game scheduled against Virginia was canceled because of the pandemic.

“Yeah, I love playing in this game because No. 1, it’s in Atlanta, and No. 2, I like playing in it because they do a tremendous job,” Smart said this week. “It’s an unbelievable venue. Your hope is you’re back in the stadium and you’ve got a chance to play in it once already, when it comes to the SEC Championship game. So that has a lot to do with it.”

It’s only the second time the Bulldogs have played Oregon. They first met in Athens in 1977, and Georgia won 27-16. The teams were scheduled to play home-and-home in 2015-16 before the schools “mutually agreed” to cancel the game contract in 2010.

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Matching wits

First-year Oregon coach Dan Lanning spent the past four seasons coaching Georgia’s record-setting defense. He knows the Bulldogs inside and out and has replicated much of what they do and have been doing with the Ducks. Mentor versus protégé, such as we’ve witnessed the past few years with Smart and Alabama’s Nick Saban, makes for a very intriguing subplot for Saturday’s game.

But the familiarity doesn’t stop with Lanning and Smart. The Ducks also employ former UGA player personnel director Marshall Malchow as Lanning’s “chief of staff,” and Tosh Lupoi as defensive coordinator. Lupoi was a defensive analyst under Smart at Alabama before becoming a full-time assistant, then defensive coordinator.

Georgia has some inside intel on the Ducks as well. New wide receivers coach and passing-game coordinator Bryan McClendon held that same title at Oregon last year.

At the end of it all, expect the mutual knowledge of the respective programs to cancel out and Saturday’s outcome to come down to on-field execution.

It’s Bo time (again)

Speaking of familiar faces, Oregon is expected to have another one behind center Saturday. Bo Nix, starting quarterback for Auburn the past three seasons, is expected to start for Oregon.

Nix, a 6-foot-3, 214-pound senior, joined the Ducks as a graduate transfer after last season. Lanning hasn’t announced him as the starter, but considering Nix has started 38 games and the two redshirt freshmen with whom he’s been competing have combined to play in four games as backups, logic dictates Nix will get the call.

Nix didn’t have much success against the Bulldogs previously. Auburn was 0-3 in the past three games he started for the Tigers. It wasn’t necessarily Nix’s fault. In fact, he almost brought them back from a 21-0 deficit in a 21-14 loss as a freshman. But the other two games were blowout losses in which Georgia’s defense had Nix on the run.

In his career versus the Bulldogs, Nix has 639 yards on 56.3% passing with a TD and two interceptions and 34 yards on 34 rushing attempts.

“It’s tough moving the ball on Georgia; I know that from experience,” Nix said earlier this summer. “But we just need to go out there and execute as a team.”

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Battle in the trenches

Georgia enters the game as a 17½-point favorite. But if Oregon possesses any advantage, it’s thought to be its offensive line. The Ducks feature 19 offensive linemen. Nine of the top 10 slated to be available Saturday are returning lettermen. Four of those are returning starters, led by first-team All-Pac-12 guard T.J. Bass. What makes that particularly intriguing is that it is up front and in the interior of the defense where the Bulldogs probably have the most questions. Sure, junior tackle Jalen Carter will be a matchup problem for every team Georgia faces. But nose guard Zion Logue, defensive end Tramel Walthour and both inside linebackers all are going to be first-time starters for the Bulldogs.

Conversely, the Ducks’ defensive strength lies with their two inside linebackers, Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe. Georgia unsuccessfully recruited both players.

The Stet Effect

The growing pains the Bulldogs surely are going to encounter on defense are allayed by the confidence they have in a comparatively veteran-laden offense. Of course, that starts with the presence of sixth-year senior Stetson Bennett at quarterback.

For the first time in his career, the 5-11, 190-pound signal-caller has been able to experience an entire offseason and preseason camp as his team’s QB1. That has manifested itself in a lot of positive ways, not the least of which has been close, intensive work with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken the past eight months. Moreover, the two of them are working with some exceptional pieces, including an unmatched group of tight ends led by Brock Bowers, top returning wideouts Ladd McConkey and A.D. Mitchell and an elite offensive line. “They’re ready to maul,” Logue said of the Bulldogs’ O-line. “They’re going to move some stuff.”