A massive Saturday of action in the SEC for Week 5 of the 2021 college football season begins at noon ET with Georgia hosting Arkansas in a clash of top-10 teams. The Bulldogs were projected to be in this spot by most at the start of the year, but the Razorbacks have been one of the biggest surprises through four weeks of games. Despite the success of Arkansas this season, coach Sam Pittman's team is nearly a three-touchdown underdog. Motivation won't be lacking for the Razorbacks, and Georgia certainly has plenty at stake as well, as coach Kirby Smart's team hopes to keep its place near the top of college football as the season reaches October.
Arkansas' first 4-0 start since 2003 has been fueled by its defense and strong ground attack, as well as steady play from quarterback K.J. Jefferson and big plays from receiver Treylon Burks. The Razorbacks used that formula to easily dispatch Rice, Texas, and Georgia Southern in non-conference games, while opening SEC play with a 20-10 win over Texas A&M last Saturday. The 4-0 start is another data point in the turnaround effort by Pittman in Fayetteville. After winning four SEC games from 2016-19, Arkansas already has four under Pittman's watch and has reached the Top 25 for the first time since '16.
National championship aspirations surrounded Georgia this offseason, and through four games, Smart's squad looks capable of winning it all. As expected, the defense is dominant, and the offense is starting to find the right mix behind quarterback JT Daniels. The Bulldogs dominated Clemson 10-3 in the season opener and cruised to easy wins over UAB, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt to get to 4-0.
Georgia holds an 11-4 series edge over Arkansas. The Bulldogs are also 9-2 over the Razorbacks in SEC games. The Razorbacks held a halftime lead over Georgia in last year's matchup, but the Bulldogs pulled away for a 37-10 victory.
No. 8 Arkansas at No. 2 Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at Noon ET
Spread: Georgia -18.5
When Arkansas Has the Ball
The battle in the trenches between Arkansas' offense and Georgia's defense should play a huge role in the outcome of this game. The Razorbacks rank No. 1 in the SEC in rushing attempts (188), yards per carry (5.5), and yards per game on the ground (261). Georgia can counter with the SEC's No. 1 rush defense, which is holding teams to just 2.3 yards per carry and 69.5 yards per game. The Bulldogs are deep across the defensive front, headlined by standout lineman Jordan Davis, as well as linebackers Nakobe Dean and Adam Anderson.
Trelon Smith (298 yards) is the leader at running back for the Hogs, but coordinator Kendal Briles can deploy a couple of other options, including Rocket Sanders (164) and AJ Green (102). Jefferson also ranks second on the team with 230 rushing yards (7.2 per carry) and attempts (32). The sophomore quarterback was banged up in the win over Texas A&M but is on track to play on Saturday.
No team has managed more than 127 rushing yards in a game against Georgia this season, but Arkansas has to get this element of its offense on track in order to win on Saturday. It's imperative for the Razorbacks to have success on early downs rushing or to find ways to keep the Bulldogs off-balance. Arkansas ranks 13th in the SEC in third-down offense, and Georgia's defense is limiting teams to just 28.1 percent on third-down conversions.
Considering the strength of Georgia's defense, Briles may have to let Jefferson throw on early downs to alleviate some of the focus on the ground attack. Jefferson is connecting on 59 percent of his throws and leads the SEC by averaging 10.8 yards per attempt. He's tossed six touchdowns to only two picks and is tied among signal-callers in the conference with seven completions of 40-plus yards.
When Jefferson throws, it's no secret Burks will be his go-to target. The junior has been targeted 30 times this year, catching 19 passes for 373 yards and two scores. As evidenced by allowing just one offensive touchdown all year, Georgia's defense doesn't have many vulnerabilities. However, a revamped secondary has yet to be challenged much this season, which should give Jefferson and Burks chances to take shots downfield. Containing Burks and forcing the other receivers to win this game is likely to be a cog of the strategy from Smart and coordinator Dan Lanning.
When Georgia Has the Ball
Georgia's offense enters Saturday's showdown just starting to round into form. The Bulldogs averaged only 4.2 yards per play in the 10-3 win against Clemson to start 2021, but this group has averaged better than seven yards a snap in each of the last three contests. While opponent strength (UAB, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt) certainly plays a part in that, this unit hasn't necessarily needed to open things up. Georgia had to break in a few new pieces along the offensive line this year, and injuries at receiver have limited the weapons for Daniels. But with the heart of SEC play up next, the Bulldogs should be closer to full strength.
A knee injury limited Daniels to just five starts last season, but his arm has allowed Georgia to open up its offense and test defenses downfield. Daniels enters Saturday's matchup with 567 passing yards and five touchdowns to just two picks, which will test an Arkansas defense ranked third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. While the Razorbacks have been tough against the pass, this is also their toughest matchup of the year in terms of quarterback and receiver talent.
Freshman tight end Brock Bowers (18 catches) has been the preferred target for Georgia's quarterbacks this year, but receiver Jermaine Burton (18.3 ypc) is an emerging star on the outside. Daniels can also target Adonai Mitchell or Kearis Jackson, and reinforcements in the passing could come in the form of tight end Darnell Washington or receivers Dominick Blaylock, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, and Arian Smith if any are able to suit up due to injuries.
Arkansas came into the year with question marks along the line of scrimmage, but its defensive line has been a strength this year. The Razorbacks have generated 32 tackles for a loss and are holding teams to just 3.6 yards per rush. The Bulldogs have a handful of talented rushers, starting with Zamir White (207 yards) and James Cook (150 total yards this year). Winning the battles up front is a big reason why Arkansas is 4-0. Can this unit continue to dominate the line of scrimmage and limit the damage of White and Cook on the ground, while also getting pressure on Daniels in passing situations?
The first weekend of college football in October is a good barometer for all teams as conference play kicks off in earnest for all 10 leagues. Georgia and Arkansas have aced all of their tests so far, and a win here would only entrench a spot in the top 10. The Bulldogs are the most balanced team on offense and defense that the Razorbacks have faced this season. If Arkansas can get its running game going, and Jefferson hits a few shots to Burks, then this game will be close in the second half. However, it's difficult to see Georgia's defense bending too much against the run, and eventually Daniels and the Bulldogs ground game put this contest away in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Arkansas 20
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread