Jake Fromm and the Bulldogs look to keep things rolling against the Blue Raiders from Conference USA
Saturday will mark just the second game between the Georgia Bulldogs (2-0, 1-0 SEC) and Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (1-1), even though the two schools are separated by less than 300 miles. Georgia won a 2003 matchup against MTSU by a score of 29-10. Originally scheduled for prime time on ESPN2, a decision was made Friday morning to move the game up due to the threat of Hurricane Florence. Kickoff will take place at noon ET and the game will be broadcast on ESPNews.
The Bulldogs are riding high following a 41-17 road victory over division foe South Carolina last Saturday. It was truly a statement win against the team widely regarded as Georgia’s biggest competition for the SEC East crown in 2018. But with another big SEC road test looming against Missouri next week, will Kirby Smart have his heavily favored Bulldogs motivated to face an opponent from Conference USA on Saturday?
Motivation should not be a problem for the Blue Raiders, who make their way to Athens to face the second of three SEC opponents this season. MTSU’s first bid to upset a team from the SEC failed miserably in the form of a 35-7 loss to Vanderbilt in Week 1. The good news is that the Blue Raiders now have a little momentum after jumpstarting their offense in a 61-37 win over FCS opponent UT Martin last week. They will need every bit of that momentum as they prepare for their biggest challenge of the season against the powerhouse Bulldogs on the road.
Middle Tennessee at Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -32.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Big night for the Georgia passing game?
Middle Tennessee's pass defense has struggled mightily so far in 2018. Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur averaged 17 yards per completion against the Blue Raiders in Week 1. And the MTSU secondary was routinely torched by an FCS quarterback last week to the tune of 358 yards and four touchdowns.
That certainly bodes well for Jake Fromm and Justin Fields. The question is, will Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney actually unleash the passing game to take advantage of the favorable matchup? It’s possible, and Fromm and Fields are certainly capable of putting up big numbers against a vulnerable MTSU pass defense. But don’t expect the Bulldogs to stray from their stellar rushing attack to make that happen. Georgia’s running back-by-committee approach has already produced 555 rushing yards and six touchdowns in two blowout wins this season.
2. Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill
Stockstill is accustomed to putting up big numbers in the passing game. In fact, the senior quarterback is MTSU’s all-time leading passer (9,524 passing yards) and lays claim to just about every school passing record imaginable. And yes, he is also the son of Blue Raiders’ head coach Rick Stockstill.
More importantly, Stockstill ranks up there with Missouri’s Drew Lock as the most experienced and decorated quarterback the Bulldogs will face all season. Through two games in 2018, he has completed 70 percent of his passes for 585 yards with six touchdowns and just one interception.
Stockstill has a solid corps of weapons at his disposal as well. Chief among them are Ty Lee, CJ Windham and Brad Anderson. But he could use a lot more help from the run game and his offensive line. Both have struggled to gain traction so far this season. It will be interesting to see if Stockstill can find success on Saturday night against what will probably be the best defense he has ever faced at any point in his college career.
3. Georgia's pass rush
It’s difficult to find a flaw in a Georgia defense that has been nothing short of impressive. However, there has been one noticeable deficiency that begs the question: Where’s the pass rush?
Kirby Smart places an emphasis on stopping the run first and foremost. And it’s possible that the Bulldogs’ lack of pass rush through the first two games has been by design. However, it is somewhat discouraging that Georgia only managed to produce one sack against South Carolina. This after coming up completely empty against FCS Austin Peay in Week 1.
The good news is that the Georgia pass rush should have a golden opportunity to get on track this week. Only two teams in the FBS have allowed more sacks than MTSU so far this season. The Blue Raiders offensive line surrendered six sacks against Vanderbilt and gave up another four against FCS UT Martin last week. And if there is a knock on MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill, it is that he tends to hold on to the football for too long. If the pass rush doesn’t show up this week, Bulldog fans might actually have cause for concern.
Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill claimed earlier in the week that it would take a “perfect” performance for his Blue Raiders to have any chance against the Bulldogs. So far, MTSU has proven to be far from perfect, giving up an average of 36 points per game through two games. The elder Stockstill has a capable weapon in his son at quarterback. But beyond that, the Blue Raiders are severely outmatched across the board. It’s possible that MTSU will catch Georgia napping a little bit with another big SEC road matchup looming next week against Missouri. But I don’t think Kirby Smart will allow that to happen. The Bulldogs should take care of the business at home on Saturday night.
Prediction: Georgia 49, Middle Tennessee 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.