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Georgia-Vanderbilt Preview: When The Dawgs Have The Ball

Having gotten off the schneid last week with a dominating win over Tennessee, Georgia now attempts to stay off said schneid by welcoming the Vanderbilt Commodores to town. Nobody's going to confuse the 'Dores with a juggernaut, but neither should they be taking this weekend's game lightly -- Georgia has averaged just 25 points per game over their last four meetings with this supposed SEC doormat, and they'll likely have to work even harder with RB Caleb King on the sidelines

Against the pass: 15th nationally with 161.4 yards allowed per game, though of the passing offenses they've faced this year, only Northwestern's (20th) ranks in the top eighty in Division I-A. (The 'Dores are only 62nd in passing efficiency allowed.)
Against the run: 93rd in the nation with 183.8 yards allowed per game. They've allowed three hundred-yard rushers so far this season.

As you can see by the Vandy defense's rushing stats, whoever steps in to fill the shoes of the suspended Caleb King will be given every opportunity to succeed. Most likely, that'll be Washaun Ealey, though fullback Fred Munzenmaier has also been getting reps at RB this week. Status unconfirmed: Carlton Thomas, who missed the Tennessee game with a hamstring injury, and who's been dressing out but not participating in drills this week; and freshman Ken Malcome, currently being redshirted. There have been rumors of Malcome potentially losing that status depending on how things go Saturday, but given how loath Richt has been to burn redshirts in the past, I'd be surprised if that happened.

And it may not need to, if Aaron Murray can build on the performance that earned him SEC Freshman of the Week honors following the blowout win over UT. Murray has looked great all season long, but never more so than when he had A.J. Green to throw to for an entire game against the Vols. Murray looked poised and confident on the run, too, and should continue to do so against a Vandy defensive front that's only notched eight sacks in their first five games of the season. With a full complement of receivers and a game plan that's blessedly involving the tight ends and fullbacks more, Murray should have another fine performance despite the stout numbers the Vanderbilt secondary has put up so far.

Georgia also seems to have shaken off a special-teams performance that was slightly less impressive than expected over their first few games; Blair Walsh was 2-for-2 on field goals against Tennessee and put four of his eight kickoffs in the end zone (three for touchbacks), while Brandon Boykin had another solid day returning KOs. He'll get some opportunities against a Vandy kickoff unit that only has three touchbacks in 24 kicks this season and is ranked 10th in the SEC with 22 yards allowed per return.

Vanderbilt's run defense may be ranked next-to-last in the SEC right now, but can anyone on the Georgia sideline really afford to be too optimistic if the Bulldog running game comes down to Ealey and Malcome? The latter, however promising, is still a true freshman Richt was hoping to not even have to use this year, while Ealey has become more notable for his fumbles than anything positive he's done over the last few weeks. He fumbled inside the 5 against South Carolina and Mississippi State and coughed it up in prime scoring position against Tennessee, too, though that one at least went out of bounds (and the run was called back by an illegal block anyway). Beyond that, Ealey has only 84 yards on 23 carries over the last three games, so he'd better hope that A.J. Green's presence on the field keeps Vanderbilt from stacking the box.

And while Vanderbilt's pass-defense stats may have been constructed largely against sub-mediocre QBs, there's no denying that their secondary has done a decent job of getting to the ball. Cornerback Casey Hayward is second in the SEC with four picks so far this season, and he's almost certain to be planted on A.J. all afternoon, so Aaron Murray can't afford to get complacent after last week's performance. It'll also be incumbent on Mike Bobo to continue opening up Murray's options in the short passing game, and that means involving both the tight ends and the fullbacks. That'll be easier now that fullback Shaun Chapas has returned from his injury and is a regular part of the lineup again, but a 41-spot against Tennessee's injury-depleted defensive unit hardly means that all the Bulldogs' problems on offense have been solved.

And while kickoffs should be a strength of the Georgia special-teams unit this weekend, punt returns likely will continue to be an issue with Branden Smith still shaking off the concussion he suffered against Colorado. As exciting as it was to see A.J. Green fielding punts (and Logan Gray actually returning them!) last week, Georgia still only managed a total of 18 yards on three punt returns, and it won't get much better against a Vandy ST unit allowing only 3.7 yards per punt return this season.

Georgia RB Washaun Ealey vs. Vanderbilt MLB Chris Marve. Doormat reputation or no, Vanderbilt's linebackers have still managed to menace Georgia offenses for years now, and though Mark Richt may have taken the highly logical step of swiping the 'Dores' LB coach, Warren Belin, as part of his defensive coaching shakeup at the beginning of the year, the danger remains. Marve was Vanderbilt's leading tackler last year and is the star of a front seven that, despite its struggles against the run, has still managed to notch 42 tackles for loss this season, good for sixth in FBS. So run like the wind, Washaun, and for God's sake hold on to the ball.

(Tomorrow we'll examine how Georgia's defense stacks up against a Vandy offensive attack that may be trickier than you think.)

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