The Bulldogs are 6-0 but a tough second-half slate is on tap
Georgia reached the midpoint of its 2018 college football season with all of its preseason goals intact. Coach Kirby Smart’s team fell just short of winning the national championship last fall and began the year as one of the favorites. So far, the Bulldogs have done little to rescind that prediction. Georgia has won all six of its games by 14 points or more, including victories at South Carolina (41-17) and Missouri (43-29).
While Georgia has cruised to a 6-0 start, the season is really about to start for Smart and his team. That’s due to a brutal second-half slate, starting with a trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU on Oct. 13, followed by the annual showdown in Jacksonville against Florida, a matchup at Kentucky on Nov. 3 and the rivalry game with Auburn on Nov. 10. And if the Bulldogs survive those four contests, along with matchups against UMass and Georgia Tech, Alabama — the clear No. 1 team in the nation — is likely to be in the SEC Championship Game.
The path to another playoff berth won’t be easy for Smart’s team, but the personnel is in place. The offense ranks second in the SEC by averaging 42.8 points a game and leads the conference in rushing (245.2 ypg). Quarterback Jake Fromm has passed for 12 touchdowns to two picks so far, with talented freshman Justin Fields also seeing a handful of snaps each week. Georgia’s defense is still a work in progress. The Bulldogs had a lot of turnover on this side of the ball and aren’t hurting for talent. However, the defense has been vulnerable (at times) to the run, and the pass rush has only generated six sacks.
Offensive MVP: QB Jake Fromm
A case could be made for all-around playmaker Mecole Hardman or center Lamont Gaillard here, but let’s give the nod to Fromm. The sophomore is completing 72.8 percent of his throws for 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns to just two picks. Fromm’s six completions of 40 yards or more rank third among signal-callers in the SEC.
Defensive MVP: CB Deandre Baker
Linebacker D’Andre Walker is a strong candidate here, but Baker is arguably the top cornerback in college football. The senior anchors a Georgia secondary that ranks 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense and has allowed just five touchdown passes through six contests. Baker has connected 21 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions so far in 2018.
Best Moment of First Half: Deandre Baker’s Interception, Juwan Taylor’s Recovery
It’s safe to say this play is likely to be one of the strangest plays of the 2018 college football season. With South Carolina near midfield on its first drive of the game, Baker picked off quarterback Jake Bentley and returned it to the end zone for a touchdown. On further review, Baker actually dropped the ball short of the goal line, but Taylor was in the right place at the right time and handed the ball to the official to preserve the touchdown.
Best Newcomer: CB Tyson Campbell
Campbell was regarded as one of the top cornerback recruits in the 2018 signing class and has lived up to the hype in his first year on campus. The freshman has started all six contests, recording 15 tackles and a pass breakup. The Florida native also returned a fumble 64 yards for a touchdown in the win over Missouri.
Biggest Surprise: Georgia’s Run Defense
Considering Georgia is off to a 6-0 start and has won a chunk of its games in convincing fashion, not too much has been a surprise so far. However, there are a few reasons to be concerned about how fast the defense is reloading. The Bulldogs allowed 138 rushing yards to Vanderbilt (up from 64 last season) and 172 to Missouri (up from 59). This unit also ranks eighth in the SEC in yards per carry allowed (3.8). Obviously, the loss of Roquan Smith to the NFL has played a role against the run, but this area hasn’t hindered Georgia’s season, largely because it’s able to pull away on the scoreboard. With LSU, Florida and Kentucky up next, Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker will find out just how much this unit has progressed.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can Georgia navigate a brutal second-half schedule?
According to Brian Fremeau’s FEI rankings, Georgia has the second-toughest schedule the rest of the way. In order for the Bulldogs to make another trip to the CFB Playoff, it will have to navigate road games against LSU and Kentucky, the matchup with Florida in Jacksonville, and a home contest against Auburn. And if the Bulldogs survive that gauntlet, a matchup against Alabama likely awaits in the SEC title game.
Five toughest schedules played to date per FEI:— Brian Fremeau (@bcfremeau) October 9, 2018
1. Texas A&M
5. Arizona St
Five toughest schedules remaining per FEI:
2. Georgia’s pass rush
After generating 34 sacks last season, Georgia has registered just six through six contests in 2018. Linebacker D’Andre Walker has four out of the team’s six sacks, with Tae Crowder pitching in one, and Julian Rochester and Tyler Clark recording a share of one. Can the Bulldogs pick up their production here? And will more players become a factor in the pass rush?
3. Jake Fromm and Justin Fields
Fromm is off to a good start in his sophomore campaign, but it’s going to be tough to keep Fields on the sidelines. How much more playing time will Fields earn over the second half of the season? And with the schedule getting tougher, could Fields’ mobility be an x-factor in big games against Florida and LSU?
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 13 at LSU
It’s a coin flip between the matchup in Jacksonville versus Florida and the road test at LSU for the toughest spot on this list. The Oct. 13 matchup at LSU is Georgia’s first meeting with the Tigers in Baton Rouge since 2008. LSU’s defense will be a handful for the Bulldogs’ ground game, and Smart’s defense has to find a way to generate more consistent pressure on quarterback Joe Burrow.
2. Oct. 27 vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
As mentioned above, it’s a toss-up on whether or not Florida or LSU is Georgia’s toughest remaining game. The Gators have made marked improvement under new coach Dan Mullen, leaning on one of the SEC’s top defenses to knock off LSU and Mississippi State in recent weeks. Florida won three straight in this series from 2014-16, but the Bulldogs won 42-7 last fall. Will that trend continue or can Mullen find a way to close the gap from last year’s blowout?
3. Oct. 20 at Kentucky
At the beginning of the season, it’s unlikely many circled the Georgia-Kentucky showdown as a game that could decide the SEC East title. But that’s exactly what’s at stake when the Wildcats host the Bulldogs on Oct. 20. Can Georgia’s defense contain running back Benny Snell Jr.?
4. Nov. 10 vs. Auburn
The Georgia-Auburn matchup was supposed to be one of the SEC’s must-see games for 2018. However, the Tigers have slipped from their top 10 preseason ranking and have struggled to find a rhythm on offense. Georgia lost at Auburn in the regular season but defeated the Tigers to win the SEC title. The Bulldogs have not lost to Auburn in Athens since 2005.
5. Nov. 24 vs. Georgia Tech
Georgia holds a 62-40-5 series edge over its in-state rival, but these two teams have split the last four matchups. The Bulldogs pounded the Yellow Jackets 38-7 last season, with coach Paul Johnson’s team winning 28-27 in Athens in 2016. Of the last five meetings between these two programs, four have been decided by seven points or less.
6. Nov. 17 vs. UMass
After a brutal stretch on the schedule, this game against UMass should allow Smart to empty the bench and do some advanced prep for rival Georgia Tech the following Saturday. The Minutemen can score points behind quarterback Andrew Ford, running back Marquis Young and receiver Andy Isabella but are giving up 44.9 points a game after Week 6.