In recent postings, I have examined the defensive and offensive statistics of this weekend's Peach Bowl participants, so now I turn (with much trepidation) to such other matters as special teams, which is an area of considerable concern here in Bulldog Nation.
All right, I admit it . . . I'm nervous.
Nevertheless, despite my incessant fretting over the kicking game, I will not skimp on the requisite data, but will endeavor, as always, to provide you . . . Too Much Information!
There's just no getting around the fact that this is the area in which Virginia Tech enjoys a clear advantage over Georgia. This is the result of unfortunate timing, for, although Frank Beamer's squad routinely excels in all facets of the kicking game, special teams have been a strong point for Mark Richt's Georgia units, as well . . . until this year.
Coming into this fall, Coach Richt's Bulldogs were outstanding in the most underappreciated phase of the game. In 2005, Brandon Coutu connected on 10 of his 14 field goal attempts of longer than 40 yards, including a 58-yarder which was the longest field goal by a Southeastern Conference kicker since . . . well . . .
(Photograph from Athens Banner-Herald.)
. . . you know.
Also last season, Gordon Ely-Kelso's 38.7-yard net punting average was the eighth-best in the country and he pulled off a fake punt that went for 34 yards against Kentucky. Meanwhile, Coach Richt's first five Bulldog squads blocked a dozen punts, eight field goals, and a pair of extra points and accounted for eight special teams touchdowns.
This year, though, the bottom fell out for the 'Dawgs. Coutu's injury left the Red and Black's placekicking unsettled and uncertain. Although Andy Bailey is a perfect four-for-four on three-point tries of under 30 yards, his longest successful attempt covered 34 yards and his unreliability on P.A.T.s unquestionably has placed victory in jeopardy, and arguably contributed to at least one loss.
My kingdom for a kicker with a strange name and/or a bad haircut! (Photograph from Athens Banner-Herald.)
The Bulldogs have had their moments, scoring four touchdowns by running back punts and kickoffs, but injuries still have hampered the Georgia return game. The 'Dawgs have seen a pair of punts blocked and, partly as a result, the Classic City Canines rank eighth in the league in net yards per punt (34.2). The Red and Black are in the bottom third of the S.E.C. in kickoff coverage.
Meanwhile, in Blacksburg, it is business as usual. The Hokies' Brandon Pace missed a 47-yard field goal attempt against the Wahoos, marking his first miss of the 2006 season. V.P.I. has the A.C.C.'s second-best field goal percentage.
Virginia Tech also boasts the conference's top punt returner, Eddie Royal, who was an early entrant onto my MaxwellPundit ballot. The Hokies lead their league in kickoff coverage, having registered a whopping 39 touchbacks this autumn, and the Virginia Tech special teams have blocked three punts this season.
Still, there is hope. The Hokies average 21.8 yards per kickoff return, barely better than the Bulldogs' 21.3, and, while I had my doubts about the hiring of Tony Ball, those concerns were allayed quickly and now I am glad to have an assistant coach on the Georgia sideline who spent the previous eight seasons as a member of Coach Beamer's staff.
Tony could wind up contributing to more Georgia victories than all but one other Ball!
Hopefully, Coach Ball will have some insights into the Virginia Tech head coach's wily ways which will help the 'Dawgs to counteract some of things the Hokies do, because, frankly, special teams are an area in which V.P.I. flat scares me to death.
On that depressing note, I now turn to the highlight of every pregame breakdown. . . .
The Feel Good Stat of the Week
Frank Beamer brought Virginia Tech to national prominence. Isolated by geography and hampered by history, the school that counted Division I-AA V.M.I. and William & Mary as perennial rivals into the 1980s had little to show for its football heritage when the 1968 V.P.I. alum returned to campus in 1987. Prior to that point, the Hokies were sorely lacking in glory, having sent a 3-3-3 squad to the Sun Bowl at the end of the 1946 campaign for the first of five straight bowl losses before Bill Dooley's 1986 squad capped off a 9-2-1 regular season with a Peach Bowl victory.
Frank Beamer is a fine coach and all . . .
Now in his 20th season as the head coach at his alma mater, Frank Beamer has guided his teams to 14 straight postseason appearances, including five Gator Bowls, an Independence Bowl, an Insight Bowl, a Music City Bowl, an Orange Bowl, a San Francisco Bowl, three Sugar Bowls, and, now, a Peach Bowl.
During his first 13 bowl appearances, Coach Beamer compiled a 6-7 ledger . . . and he has never once led Virginia Tech to back-to-back bowl wins. For the record, the Hokies were victorious in last season's Gator Bowl.
Over the course of his highly successful coaching career, Frank Beamer has gone 3-7-1 against Southeastern Conference opponents, posting a 1-2 won-lost record in bowl games versus S.E.C. teams.
. . . but Mark Richt disciplines his players and beats Georgia Tech!
Mark Richt, on the other hand, has led the 'Dawgs into the Georgia Dome four times, for the 2002, 2003, and 2005 S.E.C. championship games and for the 2006 Sugar Bowl. In those contests, the Red and Black won, lost, won, and lost, respectively. That's not a tough pattern to figure out and it seems to me that it is once again time for a Bulldog win.
For what it's worth, Mark Richt is 9-0 against Atlantic Coast Conference competition.
The Bottom Line
My Prediction: Georgia 17, Virginia Tech 16.