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UL-Lafayette Preview: Warm-Up For A Pivotal Season?

Since 2003, the Dawgs’ season openers have alternated between BCS-conference teams and mid-majors/I-AA bodybag teams. And this being an even-numbered year, it’s time to bring on the patsy. Louisiana-Lafayette isn’t terrible; they’ve actually finished at .500 or better in four of the last five seasons. But if all goes even remotely according to plan, this won’t be anything more than a nice warm-up opportunity for Georgia’s redesigned defense — and a chance to kick off a pivotal season with an easy win.

The Ragin’ Cajuns got destroyed by a combined score of 86-3 against LSU and Nebraska, but stunned Kansas State to start the season 4-2; struggled down the stretch but beat Arkansas State and UL-Monroe to finish the season 4-4 in Sun Belt play, 6-6 overall. Did not get a bowl invite.
Offense: 224.8 yards per game passing (49th in D-IA), 136.9 rushing (71st), 361.7 total (76th).
Defense: Allowed 222.4 yards per game passing (70th), 181.9 rushing (99th), 404.3 total (92d).

Statistically, the Ragin’ Cajuns were mostly just mediocre last season as opposed to godawful, but those defensive numbers aren’t pretty no matter how you spin them. And they weren’t just the fault of the LSU and Nebraska blowouts, either: ULL got caught in a shootout with a bad North Texas team, gave up 48 points to Troy, and got a 51-spot hung on them by Florida Atlantic (who would finish the season 5-7) at home. The Cajuns’ D-line does return three of four starters, but without star DE Hall Davis, any improvement relative to last year’s horrendous numbers against the rush may be incremental at best. Basically, it’s a good time to be Caleb King: Between ULL’s porous defensive front and the suspension of backfield partner Washaun Ealey for the opener, King has a decent opportunity to go over two bills on Saturday. Backup Carlton Thomas will be given plenty of chances to shine as well.

On the other side of the ball, things set up almost as well for a Georgia D-line that will be showing off its new 3-4 front for the first time before a live Sanford Stadium audience. Last year’s Cajun running game managed only 3.6 yards per carry; this year the offensive line has lost a pair of back-to-back All-Sun Belt first-teamers, and may start two sophomores in the opener. The Bulldogs’ defensive front still faces some personnel questions heading into opening weekend, but Todd Grantham and Rodney Garner will have plenty of opportunity to rotate bodies around and find a combination that works.

UL-Lafayette obviously isn’t the stoutest challenge Aaron Murray could be facing in his very first appearance as a Georgia Bulldog, but they won’t be pushovers, either, at least in the defensive backfield. The Ragin’ Cajuns picked off 16 passes last season, and their secondary has six guys in the two-deep who started at least one game last year, including another All-SBC first-teamer, cornerback Dwight Bentley. Which is not to say A.J. Green necessarily has a lot to worry about, but with presumptive starting split end Tavarres Green suspended for the opener, there might be just enough unsteadiness in the receiving corps for the Cajuns to pull off a big play or two.

Then there’s the simple fact that this is an early-season game against a supposed gimme opponent, circumstances under which the Dawgs haven’t often played their best football over the past decade or so — they’re just 4-4 against the spread in early-season games against non-BCS opponents, not counting a string of sloppy performances against I-AA squads. There will be plenty of opportunities for the Dawgs to look rusty on Saturday, the new defensive scheme being only one of them; the most important thing to watch for will be whether they tackle well and nail the fundamentals that deteriorated markedly over the latter half of Willie Martinez’s tenure in Athens.

NT DeAngelo Tyson (and/or Justin Anderson). Whatever else you think about Georgia’s new defense, there’s not much disagreement over one thing: Without stability and consistency on the line, particularly at nose tackle, the transition to a 3-4 is going to be a struggle. At the start of summer practice, Tyson was in the lead to start at nose, but once he started showing impressive proficiency at end, he was swapped out for converted O-lineman Anderson; then, when the final depth chart of the offseason was released last week, Tyson was back in the starter’s spot — but the coaches seemed pretty clear that that wasn’t set in stone, either. For the sake of Todd Grantham’s and Rodney Garner’s respective blood pressures, it’d be awfully nice if a regular starter could emerge from the ULL game.

Dawg fans all know what they’d like to see happen on Saturday: Aaron Murray launches a couple of 60-yard touchdown bombs early and the defense holds onto a shutout as Caleb King and Carlton Thomas power the team to the finish line. Obviously, the perfect scenario isn’t going to happen; in the past, it’s been hard enough even for seemingly invincible Dawg teams to get completely dialed in for these early-season tune-ups.

But as early-season tune-ups go, Louisiana-Lafayette is a pretty good matchup for a regrouping Dawg team. On defense, the Dawgs will face a fairly one-dimensional attack — ULL’s leading rusher last year had only 446 yards, and he graduated — meaning Todd Grantham’s new front will have plenty of time to key in on Chris Masson, the Cajuns’ reasonably mobile QB, and come up with the winning formula for a strong pass rush. While all this is going on, keep your eye on the defensive backfield to see whether Scott Lakatos’ new attitude and aggressiveness in the secondary pays off in improved pass coverage; the better the pass defense can blanket ULL’s experienced but undersized receivers, the more time Masson will have to spend scrambling away from guys like Justin Houston and Akeem Dent.

That leaves the offense, where the big question, obviously, is Aaron Murray. Don’t expect to see any fireworks, or even attempted fireworks, from Murray in this game; Mark Richt has already made very clear that they’re bringing Murray along gradually, and besides, he’s not about to tip his hand to Steve Spurrier in advance of next week’s SEC opener. Basically, this will be a classic case of running to set up the pass, giving Murray a modest workload in his first appearance and grinding out enough clock to keep the defense reasonably fresh. Murray may get a home-run shot or two to A.J. Green before halftime, but otherwise it’ll be a steady diet of high-percentage passes that take advantage of the Dawgs’ ridiculous wealth of tight end talent and give the non-A.J.-Green elements of our WR corps a chance to shine.

So don’t go expecting any wild scoring outbursts that lead to an outrageous halftime score of 45-0 or something like that; this will be a deliberately called and executed game from start to finish. Do expect to see a 150-yard day from Caleb King and a performance from Carlton Thomas, filling in for the suspended Washaun Ealey, that pushes right up against the century mark. Also expect to see promising returns from the front seven and, yes, plenty of face time with freshman QB Hutson Mason in the second half. Georgia’s lead will be constructed very gradually, but when the smoke clears, there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll exceed the four-TD spread set by the oddsmakers — for entertainment purposes only, of course.

IF YOU’RE NOT GOING: The game will be televised via ESPN’s “SEC Network” arrangement — you can watch it on WPCH (Peachtree TV) in the Atlanta area or on the Fox affiliates in Columbus, Macon, and Savannah. On satellite radio, it’ll be on channel 200 on XM, 219 Sirius.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.