J.R. Reed's steady play has helped keep the Bulldogs among the nation's best defenses
Everything had gone according to plan for the 2019 Georgia Bulldogs through the first five games of the season. Georgia looked every bit the SEC East favorite it was projected to be through a 5-0 start, which included a 2-0 mark in conference. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 3 in the AP poll, squarely in the mix for another run at the College Football Playoff. And then everything changed.
It’s fitting that our Georgia football midseason review and second-half preview comes the week after the Bulldogs lost 20-17 to South Carolina in double overtime. The Dawgs had several chances to escape with a win and dominated the Gamecocks statistically, outgaining them 468-297 yards overall and by an average of 0.56 yards per play. What's more, South Carolina was forced to turn to third-string quarterback and part-time receiver Dakereon Joyner after an injury to starter Ryan Hilinski. Georgia held a 30-16 edge in first downs, converted half (9-for-18) of its third-down opportunities (compared to South Carolina’s 5-for-18), and finished with more passing yards (295) and rushing yards (173) than the Gamecocks (155 and 142, respectively).
But the Bulldogs lost the turnover battle 4-0. Quarterback Jake Fromm was responsible (at least statistically speaking) for all four giveaways, as he threw his first three interceptions of the season, including one that was returned for a South Carolina touchdown just before halftime. Fromm also lost a fumble, which killed a promising third-quarter drive at the Gamecocks 30-yard line.
It wasn’t all Fromm’s fault, of course. All-American kicker Rodrigo Blankenship drilled a 50-yard field goal on the opening possession of the game, but he had a 53-yard attempt blocked (his first failed attempt all season), wasn’t given the chance at a potential game-winning, 55-yard attempt at the end of regulation, and then missed a 42-yarder outright to seal the loss.
Furthermore, the offensive line was uncharacteristically shaky all day and allowed three sacks after surrendering just one in its previous five contests. Receivers struggled to get open, which hurt both Fromm and the offensive line. The defense failed to record a sack for the second time in three weeks. Head coach Kirby Smart opted not to try the last-second field goal because he believed an illegal shift penalty pushed Georgia out of range. The pick-six came on a poor decision by Fromm, but the interception in OT was due to a catchable pass bouncing off of wide receiver Tyler Simmons' hands. The offense gained zero yards in the second overtime period prior to Blankenship’s miss.
In short, Georgia dominated South Carolina in many ways, but the Bulldogs were undone by inconsistency, poor execution, and missed opportunities. And now, with a back-loaded schedule on the horizon, the Dawgs have little room for error in the SEC East and zero in the playoff hunt.
Offensive MVP: OT Andrew Thomas
If not for the poor result against South Carolina, the Bulldogs’ first-half offensive MVP likely would have been Jake Fromm. The junior quarterback has completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 1,371 yards and nine touchdowns overall. Running back D’Andre Swift is another worthy candidate, with 573 rushing yards, 155 receiving yards and six total touchdowns through the first six games.
However, tackle Thomas — an Athlon Sports Midseason All-American — is the best player on the Georgia roster. Thomas has allowed zero sacks and only three hurries in 372 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. And though the offensive line was a weak spot against the Gamecocks, Thomas was solid as usual.
Defensive MVP: S J.R. Reed
Few Georgia defenders rank among the SEC leaders in major statistical categories. The primary exception is safety Eric Stokes, who is currently tied for third in the league with seven passes defended. Linebacker Monty Rice ranks No. 19 on the SEC leaderboard with 38 tackles, and top pass rusher Azeez Ojulari is tied for No. 7 in the league with 3.5 sacks.
But the best all-around performance this year belongs to Reed, which should come as no surprise given his preseason All-American status. The senior safety is second on the team with 31 total tackles, tied for the lead with one interception (a fourth-quarter pick that helped secure the 23-17 win over Notre Dame), and his 14-yard touchdown on a fumble return against Murray State is one of two defensive TDs the Bulldogs have scored thus far. Reed also has recorded 1.5 tackles for a loss and three pass breakups.
Best Moment of First Half: Win Over Notre Dame
The support Georgia fans showed to Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson honoring his late wife, Wendy, was one of the best feel-good stories of the first half for any program. On the field, a 43-14 victory over Tennessee in Knoxville is worth celebrating more. However, a win over a top-10 Notre Dame squad — which would be an important piece of the puzzle for the Bulldogs' efforts to rebuild a playoff resume — could prove to be most important should Georgia run the table in the regular season and make a late CFP push.
Best Newcomer: WR George Pickens
No Georgia newcomer has created more highlight plays than Pickens. He posted career highs with seven catches and 98 yards against South Carolina, and he leads the Bulldogs with 283 receiving yards overall. The former five-star recruit has 19 receptions, which ties him with fellow newcomer and Miami graduate transfer Lawrence Cager.
Biggest Surprise: Loss to South Carolina
This could also be labeled "Rodrigo Blankenship isn’t perfect," given the star kicker missed a 42-yard field goal that would have sent the game into a third overtime. Nevertheless, the loss as a whole (in which there is plenty of blame to go around between players and coaches), was one of the most unexpected of the 2019 college football season to date. Georgia was more than a three-touchdown favorite to beat the Gamecocks at home.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Offensive line health
Andrew Thomas is our pick as the first-half offensive MVP, and the offensive line as a whole has widely been described as a strength of the team, having surrendered an SEC-low 4.0 sacks this year. Only two FBS teams have allowed fewer. However, the O-line also has suffered several significant injuries with multiple starters missing time. In fact, the Bulldogs have fielded five different starting lineups in six games. Improved health and consistency are vital to Georgia’s SEC title hopes.
2. Improvement rushing the passer
The biggest weakness of the Georgia defense in 2018 was its inconsistent pass rush. The Dawgs started well in 2019 and racked up 12 sacks in the first three contests, putting most concerns to rest. Yet Georgia has recorded just three sacks in each of its last three games and was shut out in the category against both Notre Dame and South Carolina — inarguably the two toughest opponents to date. The dry run has sunk the Bulldogs into a tie at No. 43 on the FBS leaderboard in both overall sacks (15.0) and average sacks per game (2.5). Only four SEC teams rank lower. And with the schedule getting tougher in the second, inconsistency pressuring the quarterback is again an issue.
3. Offensive play-calling
Though Georgia ranks fourth in the SEC and a more-than-respectable No. 18 in the country in scoring offense (38.5 ppg), some in the fan base believe play-calling has been too conservative. Swift recently shared his belief the Bulldogs need to "do a better job getting the ball to playmakers in space and trying to get the ball outside a little more," as well as "take more shots downfield." Georgia has a talent advantage on offense in virtually every game it plays the rest of the year, and it will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator James Coley opts to use it more aggressively moving forward.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 2 vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
What has long been considered the de facto SEC East championship game is even more important now that both teams have little room for error following losses. The Gators have been banged up on both sides of the football, losing quarterback Feleipe Franks early in the season, playing without Kadarius Toney for several weeks, and shuffling starters in and out along the defensive line and in the secondary on a weekly basis. But Florida is still one of the most talented teams in the country — especially on defense.
2. Nov. 16 at Auburn
Auburn was arguably the most impressive team in college football through the first six weeks of the season, picking up wins over ranked Oregon and Texas A&M before falling to Florida. True freshman quarterback Bo Nix has a bright future, and Auburn is strong on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Defensive lineman Derrick Brown headlines perhaps the best unit in the nation.
3. Nov. 23 vs. Texas A&M
Like South Carolina, Texas A&M is midway through one of the toughest schedules in the nation. But also like the Gamecocks, the Aggies have the talent to compete with the best. Quarterback Kellen Mond has been inconsistent as a passer, but he has a big arm, quick feet and one of the best receiving corps in the SEC.
4. Nov. 9 vs. Missouri
Georgia leads the SEC in scoring defense (12.3 ppg allowed) and rushing defense (73.33 ypg), but Missouri has posted the most impressive numbers in terms of total yardage allowed. The Tigers lead the league and rank sixth in the country in both total defense (262.7 ypg) and yards allowed per play (4.04), and Mizzou's SEC-leading pass defense (154.7) ranks fourth overall. Plus, the offense has been solid with Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant leading the way.
5. Oct. 19 vs. Kentucky
Next up for the Bulldogs, Kentucky is set to visit Athens with one of the most dynamic players in the conference playing a bigger and more important role. All-SEC-caliber receiver and return man Lynn Bowden started at quarterback for the Wildcats in last week's 24-20 win over Arkansas. Bowden completed seven of 11 pass attempts for 78 yards and a touchdown, gained 196 rushing yards, and scored twice on 24 carries. It’s unclear whether or not Bowden or Sawyer Smith will start behind center, but regardless, Bowden is an elite playmaker who could give the Dawgs fits.
6. Nov. 30 at Georgia Tech
The first season for new Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins has been a struggle, and Georgia will likely be a huge favorite over its in-state rival. This year's clash with the Yellow Jackets should be a tune-up for the postseason, as by Thanksgiving the Bulldogs should know whether they’ll make a return trip to Atlanta the following week for the SEC Championship Game or stay home and wait for a later bowl game.