‘Tough, gritty’ Georgia team gets Vanderbilt for homecoming

ATHENS — The up-and-down Georgia Bulldogs are back up.

That’s back up, as in back to No. 1. The defending national champion, Georgia (6-0, 3-0 SEC) opened the season at No. 3 and toggled between 2 and 1 with Alabama in the weeks that followed. After struggling to win at home versus Texas A&M on Saturday, the Crimson Tide now are at No. 3 after being leapfrogged by Georgia and Ohio State heading into this weekend.

Facing No. 6 Tennessee in Knoxville, Bama could be right back to No. 1 with a decisive victory. Meanwhile, as nearly 40-point favorites over Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-2), the Bulldogs don’t stand to gain much credibility with pollsters, no matter what happens Saturday. They’ll have one more chance to impress against Florida on Oct. 29 before the first College Football Playoff rankings come out Nov. 1.

Saturday is homecoming for Georgia. The Bulldogs are 80-18-2 on homecoming. Here are five other things to know:

1. Gritty, tough and versatile

Asked what he thought was his latest team’s identity, coach Kirby Smart said, “Probably grit, toughness.”


“The way they practice, I really like it,” he said this week. “They’re really a unique, connected group, a little different than last year’s group. Last year’s group had been around longer. This group has created a little bit of an identity in how they care for each other, but also the grit and toughness they play with.”

Versatile also would be a pretty good description. For example, the Bulldogs have had five different players lead them in rushing in six games, three different ones lead in receiving and 20 players catch passes.

Also, “money” inside linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson has led Georgia in tackling the past four games. But seven is his season high, as 34 different players have recorded stops on the season.

2. Airing it out

Georgia’s ailing passing game will seek to get well against Vanderbilt – and it should.

The Commodores enter Saturday’s contest ranked 130th of 131 FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game, at 324. Vandy also ranks 111th in passes of 10 or more yards allowed and has given up 16 passing touchdowns. To compare, Georgia is giving up 173.5 yards per game and has allowed four scores through the air.

Vandy’s pass-defending deficiency is good news for a Georgia offense that hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in three games and has seen its efficiency rating plummet in the past two contests. Quarterback Stetson Bennett had only 25 yards passing at halftime Saturday against Auburn, with Georgia leading 14-0. The Bulldogs finally got it in gear in the fourth quarter, throwing for 86 of their 208 yards on 8-of-10 passing in an eventual 42-10 victory.

More alarming has been Georgia’s missed opportunities for explosive plays. Against the Tigers, Bennett overthrew deep balls intended for wide-open receivers Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey.

“Those are the worst ones,” Bennett said. “When you see them open, and you throw it, and you think you’re throwing it well, and then they don’t hit, we’ve got to fix that.”

3. In Georgia’s defense

At the season’s midpoint, the Bulldogs are allowing only 10.7 points per game. That’s impressive, considering it’s only a half-point off what Georgia allowed last season (10.2) when it fielded what was considered one of the greatest defenses of this century.

However, there are some telltale signs that the Bulldogs aren’t quite as stout as they were. Opponents’ red-zone scoring is up 15.3%, to 77.8% of the time, and opponents have scored five TDs so far. At this point last season, Georgia hadn’t allowed an offensive touchdown.

That’s certainly not to say the Bulldogs aren’t getting the job done. They still lead the SEC and rank fourth nationally in scoring defense. And they’ve been really good on third downs. Opponents are converting only 28% of the time, which ranks 12th in FBS.

Rushing-wise, Georgia ranks third in the SEC behind Alabama and Tennessee, at 89.7 yards. Last year, the Bulldogs allowed an average of 78.9.

The one area that has everybody concerned is sacks. Georgia ranks last in the SEC, with only six all season, or one per game. Smart addressed that earlier this season, saying the lack of sacks doesn’t concern him.

“It’s the evolution of the game,” he said. “Our job is to be disruptive and pressure the quarterback, affect the quarterback. That doesn’t always equal sacking the quarterback, which is obvious this year. That’s been tough to do.”

Opposing quarterbacks have been getting rid of the ball quickly. Nowhere was that more evident than against Auburn. Quarterback Robby Ashford was under pressure all day but never sacked. His 25 incompletions reflected a ton of throwaways.

Meanwhile, Georgia enters the Vandy game with a healthy number of QB pressures (78).

4. Vandy boys

The Bulldogs didn’t offer a scholarship to A.J. Swann, but they knew all about him.

One of the favorites for SEC Freshman of the Year, Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback is from Canton and camped at UGA several times during his high school career. A four-star prospect from Cherokee High, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Swann at one time committed to Maryland before flipping to the Commodores. An early enrollee, he won Vandy’s starting job in preseason camp and enters Saturday’s game against Georgia with 848 yards passing and eight touchdowns and no interceptions.

“We had him down several times,” Smart said of Swann. “Really throws the ball well; he’s a sneaky athlete. Kid throws back-shoulder balls, (read-pass options), spins it really good. You can see why they have confidence in him. The most recent games he stood out and did a tremendous job. For a freshman to go into the environments he’s played in, he’s played really well.”

Swann is one of several notably talented players on the Commodores roster. They feature the SEC’s leading tackler in 6-2, 230-pound senior Anfernee Orji (10.7 pg), the league’s leading receiver in Will Sheppard (5.83/75.33), a dynamic all-purpose athlete in freshman Jayden McGowan (95.33 ypg) and the No. 5 rusher in the conference in running back Ray Davis (84.5 ypg/4 TDs).

Vandy is in its second season with coach Clark Lea, Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator.

5. Back at it

Georgia will play without defensive tackle Jalen Carter, but we’ll likely see more of receivers A.D. Mitchell and Arian Smith and possibly linebacker Smael Mondon. The latter three have been sidelined with ankle injuries.

Carter, a preseason All-American, has played sparingly all season and not at all since suffering a sprained left knee on an illegal chop block by Missouri on Oct. 1. The Bulldogs’ hope is that Carter can return for the Florida game after next week’s bye.

Mitchell and Smith have dressed out the past two weeks but played sparingly in games. Mondon sat out against Auburn, which resulted in the first start of Rian Davis’ career at Georgia’s “Mac” linebacker position. Davis is the only upperclassman in Georgia’s inside linebacker rotation.

Running back Kendall Milton, who left the Auburn game with a groin pull, is questionable.

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