Are you ready for some bowlin'? Because gosh dang it, I am ready to get super emotional over a largely meaningless football game involving my alma mater. TAXSLAYER BOWL LET'S GET IT.
Well, before we get to the game, it'd probably be good to go behind enemy lines and learn about our opponent, no? That's why we reached out to MaconDawg – the boss over at Dawg Sports – to get some insight into the program heading into this game, how the team will look when it takes the field, and why exactly Georgia fans hate James Franklin. Thanks again to him for answering our questions, let's see what he had to say.
Black Shoe Diaries: What’s the current mindset around Georgia’s program?
Dawg Sports: Georgia fans are simply ready for what’s next. Firing Mark Richt was a controversial move. Even many of those who called for his firing in the past admitted after the fact that doing so is a real flier. Some of the internal fighting over the move seems to be healing for now. But Bulldog fans are expecting a 2016 with a new head coach, new offensive coordinator, perhaps a new starting quarterback. While fans want to win this one, it really seems more like a speed bump on the way to what happens next. If the team shares that sentiment, it could be really dangerous.
BSD: Was firing Mark Richt the right move?
DS: While we don’t yet know for sure, my suspicion is that the risks of the move outweigh the likely rewards. Logically speaking, the odds that Kirby Smart is going to average 9.7 wins per season over 15 years the way Mark Richt did are low. Because there really aren’t that many coaches period who have that kind of track record of sustained success. There have been none at Georgia. At Dawg Sports we ran a feature over most of Richt’s tenure tracking his win percentage and totals versus the most successful coaches in Bulldog history, Vince Dooley and Wally Butts. By percentage, Richt finished his career ahead of both. He won ten games more othan any other coach in school history by a healthy margin. The odds of catching that sort of lightning in a bottle twice in a row are pretty slim in my mind. That being said, if Smart is able to get Georgia over the hump and into the college football playoff in the next couple of years, he could really build something special. Georgia fans want a national title. That’s plan A. There is no plan B. That’s both exciting and a little frightening for those who realize that to be every team’s goal, one at which the vast majority will fail.
BSD: Is this game viewed as something important or are people looking at it as "just get through this and let’s begin the Kirby Smart era"?
DS: Fans are ready to move on. Again, the Richt firing really split this fanbase. It angered players, fans, and boosters. There is a very real chance that if the Smart hire doesn’t pan out that Athletic Director Greg McGarity will pay with his job. There is more uncertainty surrounding Georgia football now than at any time in the past twenty years, and that’s taking up a lot of psychic energy for the fanbase. Certainly Georgia fans don’t want to lose this one. But there’s not a sense that the game will tell us much of anything about 2016 or the long term direction of the program.
BSD: Bryan McClendon is going to coach the Dawgs in the bowl. What are the expectations out of him? Are there any?
DS: Not really. There was some indication early that McClendon might stay in Athens, but now that he’s heading to South Carolina to join Will Muschamp’s staff, it just adds that much more to the feel that this game is a sort of pigskin purgatory for all involved. That being said, McClendon is a former Bulldog player, the son of one of the all-time great Bulldogs running back Willie McClendon, and a really great coach and motivator in his own right. If there’s anyone on what’s left of the Georgia staff who I’d entrust this game to, it’s him.
BSD: Georgia began the year as a top-10 team but went 9-3 and was viewed as a bit of a disappointment by some. How much of that can be attributed to losing Nick Chubb for the year?
DS: An awful lot. When Chubb went down offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was left making adjustments to the offense that rarely worked. In the end, Chubb seems to have hidden Schottenheimer’s deficiencies as a college offensive coordinator. Having lost a veteran quarterback and a bevy of veteran wide receivers the Bulldogs were always going to have to lean heavily on the running game this season. Sadly, being a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest is even tougher when your one leg gets knocked out from under you.
BSD: Sticking with Chubb, how has the offense changed its style of play after he went down for the season?
DS: Mike Tyson once famously noted that everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth. It appeared that Georgia’s plan this season was to run the ball with Nick Chubb to set up the play-action pass and to force defenses to keep 7 guys in the box, allowing Greyson Lambert some easier throwing conditions. And it was a fine plan. It worked splendidly early, like when Georgia hung 52 points on South Carolina. But when Chubb went down it was obvious that Schottenheimer and Richt, punched in the teeth, were struggling to find something that would work consistently. Only late in the year did things start to gel a little. What happened was that Schottenheimer started getting tailback Sony Michel out in space, where he’s a very effective back. He also started getting the ball in the hands of speedy receiver Isaiah McKenzie, and kept senior wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell involved. But the whole thing has really felt like it’s held together with duct tape and baling wire. Tight ends coach John Lilly will call the plays for the TaxSlayer Bowl, the second bowl in a row in which he’s fulfilled those duties. The Bulldog offense put up 37 points against Louisville in last year’s Belk Bowl before Lilly handed the keys over to Schottenheimer. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. Have I mentioned that yet? Hiring Brian Schottenheimer may have been an error.
BSD: The quarterback position has featured a few guys, but Greyson Lambert has been the starter for most of the year. How concerned should Penn State fans be about the Virginia transfer’s ability to throw the ball?
DS: Given time and open receivers Greyson Lambert is as effective as any quarterback in the nation. Just ask South Carolina, against whom he completed 24 of 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns. But much like Christian Hackenberg he’s struggled against pressure. If the Nittany Lions can get to him early Georgia will struggle. However if Lambert’s able to sit back and work the screen and short/intermediate passing game he may be trouble in this game. Georgia is in the top 10 in the country for fewest sacks allowed this season, and you can just about track Lambert’s performance based on how upright he remained in any given game.
BSD: Per usual, Georgia’s defense has been pretty great this year. There are playmakers all over the place, who are the guys who are the biggest difference makers, and where are the weak spots that the Nittany Lions should target?
DS: Georgia has a veteran front seven backed up by a young but talented secondary. I expect you’ll see a lot of outside linebackers Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, and Leonard Floyd. All are excellent pass rushers, but Floyd in particular has a knack for taking control of the game. He’s a junior who’ll be leaving for the NFL following this game, so he may have some additional incentive to put on a show.
BSD: Out of curiosity, it seems like a lot of Georgia fans really dislike James Franklin. What’s the reason for that?
DS: You don’t have enough time for the full story. Generally speaking, Franklin was known at Vanderbilt for running his mouth on the recruiting trail in a way his win totals never backed up. There were also a lot of rumors of recruiting impropriety. His Vanderbilt teams also earned a solid reputation for questionable play. Finally, there was the 2013 loss to Vanderbilt in which Georgia was popped with two very, very questionable targeting calls at critical points in the game (afterwards Franklin, as was his fashion at Vandy, crowed like a bantam rooster about the win without ever acknowledging those calls). I’ve actually admired the guy’s coaching acumen for years, and I think Vanderbilt fans will tell you they wish they could have him back. I do however harbor the suspicion that James Franklin isn’t as good a football coach as James Franklin thinks he is. But again, that’s just me.
BSD: How does Penn State beat Georgia?
DS: Get to Greyson Lambert, don’t turn the ball over, and create plays on special teams. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense at Georgia was excellent at creating turnovers, a skill which came in really handy this year when the Bulldog offense put them in a lot of bad spots. And when Georgia really played criminally bad this season, it seemed that a special teams miscue was usually close to the scene of the crime.
BSD: Let’s get a pick – who wins?
DS: I want to believe that Georgia’s players rally around the coaches who are sticking around to coach this game. But my head isn’t letting my heart do the picking. Georgia is missing several significant contributors due to injury (fullback Quayvon Hicks and wide receiver Kenneth Towns were recently announced out for the game). And it’s a little difficult to imagine that a cohesive game plan has emerged from the coaching chaos of the last month. I expect Penn State to prove slightly more competent in this one, 27-17.
Make sure you read Dawg Sports for Georgia's perspective on the TaxSlayer Bowl.