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Georgia-Vanderbilt Preview: When The Commodores Have The Ball

It's nice to be looking forward to football games again, but don't let your warm, sunny feelings lull you into thinking Vanderbilt's going to be an easy mark. Their offense has improved considerably over a dismal showing in 2009, and many of their improvements could hit right at the Dawgs' biggest weaknesses.

Passing: Averaging 178.6 yards per game, 91st in FBS. QB Larry Smith's only outings of 200+ yards came against Northwestern and Eastern Michigan.
Rushing: Rolling up 171.6 yards per game on the ground (46th nationally). Leading rusher Warren Norman has amassed 327 yards at a rate of 6.2 per carry.

Was it really only five years ago that Jay Cutler threw his last pass for the Commodores? Seems like it's been a lot longer, though that probably has something do with Vandy's passing game having stunk on ice ever since. The 'Dores ranked 112th in the nation in passing the last two seasons, about as low as you can get if you're not running the triple option. They've improved their stats some this year, but Larry Smith still trails all regular SEC starters except LSU's Jordan Jefferson in passing efficiency; he's averaging 159 yards per game and just over six and a half per attempt. He's making fewer mistakes than he did last year, but he's clearly not intended to be the focal point of this offense.

That might stem partly from the fact that his offensive line hasn't done a great job of protecting him. Only one starter returns from last year's line, and there's only one senior, center Joey Bailey; Smith's blind-side protection is coming from Wesley Johnson, a redshirt freshman moved over from guard. With that in mind, perhaps it's not surprising that Vandy QBs have been taken down 14 times this season, but that won't come as much comfort to Commodore fans with Georgia linebacker Justin Houston lurking on the sidelines, anxious to pad his SEC-leading sack numbers.

It all adds up to a fairly simple game plan for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Rely on the secondary, despite its recent struggles, to cover Vandy's receivers -- none of which are huge, and the biggest of which is a redshirt freshman -- man-to-man, and blitz like crazy. Throw as many guys at the Vandy offensive front as it takes to rattle Smith early and disrupt the passing game. That's been a dicey strategy as the Dawgs have struggled to adapt to their new assignments under Grantham's 3-4, but the defensive front as a whole took a step forward last week by sacking Matt Simms four times and neutralizing running back Tauren Poole. If they can build on that performance this weekend, they'll be in good shape.

Oh, and Georgia will be passing the torch -- or the spiked collar -- from interim mascot Russ to the official heir apparent of the Georgia Bulldog lineage, Uga VIII, before the game on Saturday. If that's not the kind of moment that will get a team fired up, what is?

New Uga or no, the Dawg defense had better not go into the Vanderbilt game exhibiting any complacency, for the Commodore running game has been almost as good as the passing game has been bad, and will make them pay for it. Last season's SEC Freshman of the Year, running back Warren Norman, may only have 327 net rushing yards this season, but he's been racking them up at the rate of 6.2 per carry; his understudy, fellow sophomore Zac Stacy, has 241 yards and an even higher average. Combine that with Larry Smith's mobility and you've got exactly the kind of combination that caused the Georgia front seven to implode in back-to-back weeks against Mississippi State and Colorado. Maybe the Tennessee game was a sign that they've finally put it all together, but if not, it could be a long night full of agonizing third-down conversions as the Dawgs try desperately to account for all the weapons in Vandy's backfield.

As if that weren't enough, Norman is also a major threat on kickoff returns -- his three special-teams TDs last season were a big part of what earned him Freshman of the Year honors, and he's averaging 30 yards per return this year. No touchdowns yet, but his season best is a 72-yarder that set the 'Dores up for a short touchdown drive against Connecticut a couple weeks ago. Fortunately, Georgia's kickoff coverage has soared from a dismal 117th in the nation last year to 15th in 2010, but they'll need to stay on their toes.

The X-factor in this matchup could be Brandon Barden, the second-leading tight end in the Southeastern Conference with 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He's a big, sure-handed target who gives Smith just the kind of weapon he needs to execute Vandy's conservative passing game. Even if the Dawgs manage to clamp down on Norman, they can't afford to let Barden get behind them and keep moving the chains.

Georgia LB Christian Robinson vs. Vanderbilt RB Warren Norman. Particularly given Vandy's struggles in pass protection, the Dawg defense should be able to just send Justin Houston out onto the field and let him hunt. It's managing what happens after Larry Smith hands off that may be the bigger challenge, and Robinson (along with the rest of the linebacking corps) will have to account for his whereabouts and make sure they continue the physical tackling that they displayed against Tennessee in last week's big win. Norman only managed 52 net yards against the Dawgs in last year's meeting in Nashville; if Georgia holds him to a similar number this weekend, they'll be headed for a win.

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