Will Georgia sleep on Arkansas State ahead of next week's big tilt against Notre Dame?
It has been smooth sailing for the No. 3-ranked Georgia Bulldogs ahead of Saturday’s matchup between the hedges against the Arkansas State Red Wolves. The Bulldogs cruised to an easy 30-6 win over SEC East foe Vanderbilt to open the season, followed by a 63-17 shellacking of Murray State last week.
The challenge this week: not overlooking a potentially dangerous Arkansas State team. Georgia enters Saturday’s matchup against the perennial Sun Belt frontrunners as a heavy favorite, and for good reason. But with all the buzz centered around next week’s big game against Notre Dame, will head coach Kirby Smart have his Bulldogs focused and ready to roll for an early kickoff against the Red Wolves?
The Red Wolves opened the season with heavy hearts and a tough 37-30 loss to SMU in the absence of head coach Blake Anderson, who took a leave of absence just before the tragic passing of his wife, Wendy, after a long battle with breast cancer.
Anderson made a surprise return to the Arkansas State sidelines last week, en route to an inspiring and impressive 43-17 win over UNLV. He will now lead an emotionally charged team into Sanford Stadium to face its biggest test of the season. In a gesture of goodwill, Georgia has asked fans to wear pink on Saturday to honor Wendy Anderson and help bring awareness to breast cancer.
Arkansas State at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 14 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -33.5
When Arkansas State Has the Ball
Junior quarterback Logan Bonner came into the season with big shoes to fill in replacing Sun Belt Player of the Year Justice Hansen under center. So far, Bonner has been up to the challenge, completing 62 percent of his passes for 608 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception through two games. Of course, he will face a much bigger challenge against Georgia on Saturday.
The good news is that Bonner has an outstanding supporting cast to lean on against the Bulldogs. Two senior wide receivers headline that group in Kirk Merritt and Omar Bayless. Merritt hauled in 83 passes for 1,005 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the Red Wolves, while Bayless has been on fire through the first two weeks, racking up 16 receptions for 281 yards and currently leading the nation with five touchdown catches.
Arkansas State also features a respectable ground attack, spearheaded by sophomore running back Marcel Murray, who garnered Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors last season. But it could be junior college transfer Ryan Graham who does most of the heavy lifting for the Red Wolves on the ground this week. Graham rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on just 12 carries last week after Murray went down with an apparent ankle injury. Murray is currently listed as day-to-day. And regardless of who is running the football for Arkansas State, the Red Wolves are sure to have a tough row to hoe against a stingy Georgia run defense that has allowed just 139 rushing yards and zero rushing touchdowns through two games.
Arkansas State’s offensive line will likely play the most pivotal role in its chances for success on Saturday. This group has held up relatively well to this point, allowing just two sacks. But it’s difficult to like their chances against a Georgia pass rush that has already generated eight sacks. The Red Wolves will need to be particularly aware of freshmen linebackers Nolan Smith and Azeez Ojulari, who seem to be emerging as elite pass rushers for the Bulldogs.
When Georgia Has the Ball
If the first two games are any indication, you can probably expect to see plenty of the Bulldogs' potent ground game on Saturday. Georgia is averaging close to 300 rushing yards per game, with seven rushing touchdowns through the first two weeks, thanks to a star-studded rotation of backs that includes D’Andre Swift, Zamir White, Brian Herrien and James Cook. That bodes well against an Arkansas State run defense that didn’t look particularly good in matchups against SMU or UNLV.
Of course, if by some miracle Arkansas State does manage to stifle the Georgia ground attack, Jake Fromm is more than capable of picking up the slack in the passing game. As per usual, Fromm has been impressive in the early going, completing 74 percent of his passes for 322 yards and a pair of touchdowns, despite attempting just 34 passes through the first two weeks.
Fromm will rely on a Bulldog receiving corps that is still a work in progress but appears to have found a bona fide playmaker in true freshman George Pickens. Demetris Robertson, Dominick Blaylock, Lawrence Cager, and Eli Wolf have all shown flashes in the early going as potential go-to targets as well.
The biggest adversaries for the Georgia passing game on Saturday will Arkansas State defensive backs Jerry Jacobs and Darreon Jackson. Meanwhile, the Georgia offensive line will be charged with keeping tabs on defensive linemen William Bradley-King, Forrest Merrill and Kevin Thurmon, who have combined for six sacks through the first two games. An imposing Georgia offensive line should be more than up for the challenge, even without Isaiah Wilson (ankle).
The Bulldogs would be ill-advised to completely look past the Red Wolves in anticipation of next week’s marquee matchup against Notre Dame. Arkansas State has legitimate weapons on both sides of the football, and the Red Wolves will be highly motivated for this matchup with head coach Blake Anderson back on the sidelines. That being said, Georgia has a far superior football team across the board. And there’s little doubt that Kirby Smart will have his team focused on the task at hand. The Bulldogs should win with relative ease in front of the home crowd on Saturday.
Prediction: Georgia 45, Arkansas State 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.