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Georgia Bulldogs 2011 Season Preview: The Vanderbilt Game

I’ve been told that the Georgia Bulldogs have the most favorable conference schedule in the league, which I find hard to believe, because every one of the Red and Black’s first six games scares the crap out of me (albeit only relatively so, in the case of Coastal Carolina, as indicated in the pertinent preview linked to at the bottom of this posting). Nevertheless, even I am not overly worried by the Classic City Canines’ trip to Nashville on October 15 to tangle with the Vanderbilt Commodores (though, of course, your mileage may vary).

Even in these trying times, it is easy to be sanguine about the Red and Black’s chances against the Music City Mariners. The Bulldogs lead the all-time series with a 51-18-2 ledger, which is all the more impressive, in light of the fact that the Commodores held a 14-9-1 advantage in the standings through 1961.

Starting with Johnny Griffith’s second season at the Georgia helm, the Athenians have gone 42-4-1 versus Vanderbilt, marking the lone instance in which the Johnny Griffith era marked the start of any favorable trend other than the hiring of Vince Dooley. The ‘Dawgs hold a 23-7-1 edge on the ‘Dores inside the confines of Vanderbilt Stadium.

The Commodores, seemingly like every other team in the Eastern Division, have had a rough recent offseason, which led to a down year in 2010, even by Vandy’s standards, in which the ‘Dores fielded the worst offense of any team in an AQ conference. However, this misery has been followed by the best summer ever, featuring signs of the apocalypse. As a perpetual underdog, the Music City Mariners must create turnovers in order to win, but we don’t know much about the Commodores’ D outside of Chris Marve because a new staff is on hand in Nashville, co-coordinated by Brent Pry from Georgia Southern. In sum, Vanderbilt has a confidence-inspiring new coach, a rough schedule, and a bunch of quarterbacks.

Since this series of previews has focused largely on the prospects of an improved Georgia defensive front shutting down opponents’ rushing attacks, though, let’s look at the Vanderbilt running backs. They are Warren Norman, Zac Stacy, and Wesley Tate, each of whom was hampered in 2010 by injuries and an ineffective offensive line. Consequently, the Commies finished eleventh in the league in rushing offense with 138.8 yards per game on the ground---fewer even than the Bulldogs’ tenth-place 142.6 rushing yards per contest---and Vandy’s 13 rushing touchdowns were the fewest in the conference in 2010. In last year’s tussle between the hedges, the ‘Dores were limited to 58 rushing yards, of which Stacy accounted for 39. By way of comparison, Aaron Murray ran for 36 yards in last year’s tilt against Vanderbilt.

Naturally, Murray’s greatest contribution in last autumn’s outing against the Commies was made through the air. The first-year quarterback completed 15 of 24 attempts for 287 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions, and his understudy, Hutson Mason, went four for four for 28 yards. Unfortunately, nine of those receptions and 183 of those receiving yards were brought in by Kris Durham, Logan Gray, A.J. Green, and Fred Munzenmaier, none of whom will be donning silver britches between the hedges in 2011.

On the plus side, the secondary was the strength of the Vanderbilt defense in 2010. Last year, the Commodores finished a respectable seventh in the SEC against the pass, but they fielded the league’s worst run defense. The opposition averaged 193 rushing yards per contest against the Commies, and the 25 rushing touchdowns Vandy conceded were the second-most allowed by a Southeastern Conference squad. Four of Georgia’s top six rushers against the Commodores in 2010 do not return in 2011, including leading rusher Washaun Ealey, who accounted for 123 of the Bulldogs’ 232 rushing yards versus Vandy. Carlton Thomas, though, averaged ten yards per carry, and scored two rushing touchdowns, against the ‘Dores last fall. In short, run . . . the . . . ball!

Even Doug Gillett can’t bring himself to pick Vandy in the upset after the Commodores finished last in a depleted SEC East, but a relatively (or even actually) close contest wouldn’t represent a significant deviation from the norm. The Bulldogs have beaten the Commodores 15 times in the last 16 seasons, but nearly half of those contests have been fairly tight ballgames, as two out of 16 games were settled by 11 points, three by ten points, and two by single digits (including the lone Georgia loss in that span).

Those numbers offer at least some cause for concern, inasmuch as the series is snarled, 8-8-2, in games between Georgia and Vanderbilt decided by a touchdown or less. Ideally, of course, the Bulldogs will put on a show against the Commodores, whom they have outscored by a combined 77-10 margin in the last two meetings, but a blowout win over Vanderbilt sure wouldn’t hurt, even though it isn’t necessarily likely, nor is it a prerequisite for future success.

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

Go ‘Dawgs!