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Georgia Bulldogs 2011 Season Preview: The Ole Miss Game

The Georgia Bulldogs are roughly 40 days away from kicking off their 2011 campaign, so we are in the process of working our way through the schedule, one game at a time. We are up to the Red and Black’s road trip to Oxford on September 24, when the Classic City Canines will cross a state line for the first time this autumn in order to tussle with the Mississippi Rebels.

The Bulldogs and the Rebels share a curious history. The series temporarily survived the SEC divisional split, as Georgia and Ole Miss faced one another annually from 1966 to 2002, yet the two had squared off infrequently before, and have done so since. Only four meetings antedated Vince Dooley’s arrival in Athens, and only two contests have taken place in the last eight years.

Even so, 37 consecutive clashes spanning all or part of the tenures of four Bulldog coaches ought to have built up some animosity between the two schools, right? At one point, that may have been so---Georgia went 0-2 in Oxford in 1975 and 1976, years in which the ‘Dawgs went 19-3 against everyone else---but the Red and Black have gotten the better of every decade since the ‘60s against the Rebels:

Decade Georgia W Ole Miss W
1970s 7 3
1980s 9 1
1990s 6 4
2000s 5 0

Of course, neither that history nor Mark Richt’s 4-0 record against Mississippi guarantees a Georgia win, particularly in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Though the Bulldogs have won four of the last five series meetings by at least two touchdowns, the Athenians’ last six trips to Oxford have produced a pair of losses and a trio of wins by seven or fewer points. Are the ‘Dawgs in for another close call against Ole Miss?

Because my vacation and the ongoing depletion of Georgia’s stable of running backs intervened, I have not yet had the opportunity to ask of SB Nation’s Ole Miss bloggers the sort of questions they put to me, but, fortunately, they have provided us with some insights on the Rebels already; viz., Mississippi will field its usual massive offensive line and run-first offense. Once again, the ability, vel non, of the Bulldogs’ front seven to shut down the ground game likely will be the difference between victory and defeat. (I’ll tell you what; if we get to a game where that won’t be the case, I’ll be sure to let you know; otherwise, just assume it’s so, all right? Thanks.)

Senior Brandon Bolden will run it between the tackles, while underclassman Jeff Scott figures to be a factor in the running game, as well. As I noted in the Maple Street Press annual opponent preview section, nine first-stringers return from an Ole Miss offense that finished third in the conference in rushing, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that Houston Nutt’s pre-existing penchant for grinding it out on the ground, coupled with the losses of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and wide receiver Markeith Summers, essentially ensures that the Rebs will run, run, and run some more. Accordingly, if Georgia can bottle up the middle of the field, the Bulldogs will win; if the Classic City Canines can’t, they won’t. Once again, it will be a long season if Todd Grantham’s defense continues to run in place, and the schedule is set up in such a way that feast or famine against the run virtually is assured from the autumn’s opening gun.

Fortunately, the ‘Dawgs won’t be the only ones in this fight who have a recent history of not stopping . . . well, anyone at anything, really. On defense, Ole Miss fields a combination of inexperience and bad experience, returning only five starters from a unit that surrendered an SEC-worst 35.2 points per game . . . four points per outing more than were conceded by the Vanderbilt Commodores, who ranked eleventh in the league.

Nose tackle Jerrell Powe is gone from a line that enters the autumn without a single returning defensive tackle who has played a down of Division I-A football. The newcomers on the Rebel defensive front hope to improve upon an outfit that ended up ninth in the SEC against the run last year. While the Oxonians are unlikely to upgrade either significantly or soon, their defensive ends are hard-charging pass-rushers, making them susceptible to misdirection plays that take advantage of their over-pursuit yet adept at corralling ballcarriers in the backfield. This is the game in which Mike Bobo should get the ball into the hands of Branden Smith.

Given the cloud that hangs over this season for the Bulldogs, it must be admitted in all candor that this is the first truly loseable game for Georgia in which a loss would be unforgivable. For the ‘Dawgs to go down to defeat against the Broncos or the Gamecocks would be regrettable but understandable; for the ‘Dawgs to go down to defeat against the Chanticleers would be unthinkable. I liken it to last year; while we all were displeased by the 1-2 start, it was not until an unexpected and embarrassing loss in the Magnolia State in the campaign’s fourth game that the wheels truly began falling off the wagon.

That unpleasant bit of history could be repeated in Oxford this autumn, as well. As disheartening as some of the Bulldogs’ losses have been, particularly in recent seasons, it was not until 2010 that the Red and Black began suffering setbacks at the hands of teams they clearly should have beaten under Mark Richt’s stewardship. This, with all due respect to the Rebels, is such a game, and, if Georgia arrives at the Grove sporting anything less than a 3-0 record, a loss to Mississippi could start the countdown clocks ticking down to Kirby Smart’s introductory press conference . . . or, if you prefer, as well you might, in light of the venue, a loss to Mississippi might cause the last ding-dong of doom to clang and fade from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening.

The ‘Dawgs, like Oxford’s most famous son, should decline to accept that end, and should not merely endure; they must, for the 31st time in 44 series meetings with the Rebels, prevail. If, while they were at it, they could prevail by more than the five points by which they won on their last trip here, that’d be cool, too.

Also on Dawg Sports: Boise State game preview . . . South Carolina game preview . . . Coastal Carolina game preview . . . Maple Street Press annual!

Go ‘Dawgs!