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Georgia Bulldogs 2011 Season Preview: The New Mexico State Game

The New Mexico St. Aggies, who will visit Sanford Stadium to play the Georgia Bulldogs on November 5, ranked 103rd nationally in passing defense, 110th in rushing defense, 112th in total defense, and 115th in scoring defense in 2010. Both by land and by air, the Red and Black ought to be able to move the ball, and score, on these guys at will.

This will be the case, without regard to how well or poorly Georgia performs over the course of the campaign. In the history of this short-lived series, the Bulldogs have been markedly better than the Aggies, irrespective of whether the Athenians were good (Georgia beat NMSU, 41-10, while going 13-1 in 2002), mediocre (Georgia beat NMSU, 37-0, while going 8-4 in 2000), or bad (Georgia beat NMSU, 40-13, while going 6-6 in 1995).

The earliest of those three games, incidentally, marked the occasion of my wife’s first trip inside Sanford Stadium as a spectator. (She had been between the hedges the previous spring at commencement.) On the contest’s first play from scrimmage, Aggie quarterback Cory Ledbetter saw his opening pass tipped, caught, and returned 21 yards for a touchdown by Bulldog defensive end Phillip Daniels. Georgia led, 7-0, after just 14 seconds had elapsed; to this day, Susan considers it anticlimactic if the Classic City Canines do not score within the first 15 seconds.

The only issue for the ‘Dawgs against NMSU will be, well, the home team’s will. One week after an exhilarating win or a crushing defeat in Jacksonville, Georgia is not apt to be overly focused on New Mexico State straight out of the gate. This tendency is reflected in the series’ history; in 2002, for instance, the Bulldogs and the Aggies were tied at seven after the opening period, but the Classic City Canines proceeded to rack up 27 unanswered points in the second quarter, and the Red and Black held NMSU to just three points in the final 45 minutes of play. Likewise, Georgia carried a 7-0 edge into the second stanza in 2000 before tallying 23 total points in the second and third quarters combined. A slow start is to be anticipated, but should not be considered worrisome.

Statistically, though the news for Georgia is bad, the news for New Mexico State is even worse. The Aggies haven’t won a game outside the borders of the Land of Enchantment since 2008, haven’t won a game after Halloween since 2006, haven’t beaten a team from an AQ conference since 1999, have had just four winning seasons in my lifetime, and haven’t been ranked since the year Mark Richt was born. Those trends aren’t likely to be reversed anytime soon, as NMSU went 4-8 in 2006 . . . and has had a worse record than the year before every year since.

As The Daily Gopher noted, the Aggies reportedly employ the "Air Raid" offense and a 3-3-5 defense, though, really, what possible difference could it make? The NMSU attack is directed by quarterback Matt Christian, an eight-game starter from a year ago who threw for 1,372 yards, eight touchdowns, and one interception. Despite the then-junior signal caller’s heroics, New Mexico State barely cracked the top 100 in Division I-A in passing offense, managing just over 150 yards per game over the top against non-conference competition.

Bear in mind that this was a team that lost nine games by 20 or more points in 2010; the Aggies played from behind a lot, yet they managed only 167.4 passing yards per contest overall. When you’re flinging it around all over the place in an effort to catch up, and you still can’t crack 170 yards an outing up top, you’re bad at passing the football. Given the aggressive style of Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense, and the fact that the Aggies’ anemic aerial assault is led by a quarterback who lost four games to injury last year, the visitors may be throwing Christian to the lions. (Sorry.)

In theory, the Bulldogs’ front seven should not be severely tested by an NMSU ground game that barely cracked the top 90 nationally last fall and scored a total of four rushing touchdowns in six road games a year ago. However, New Mexico State does return leading rusher Kenny Turner, along with four of five starters on the offensive line. In Phil Steele’s estimation, center Sioeli Fakalata and right tackle Aundre McGaskey, both seniors, earned first- and second-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors, respectively . . . though, really, I mention that fact just because it amuses me to describe opposing players as "All-WAC." No New Mexico State student-athlete made Steele’s first-team all-conference squad on defense, but three other NMSU seniors---defensive end Donte Savage and cornerbacks Donyae Coleman and Jonte Green---made Steele’s second-team All-WAC defensive unit.

As I noted in the Maple Street Press annual, the Aggies’ best chance against the Bulldogs will come on special teams, where wide receiver Taveon Rogers racked up 1,410 yards on 52 kickoff returns last year. Rogers could be a real threat, seeing as how the ‘Dawgs should be kicking off quite a bit, but, even though he averaged 117.5 return yards per game last autumn, Rogers never took one to the house.

One other thing you need to know about New Mexico State athletics is that, frankly, the school lacks all originality. The Aggies share their nickname with Texas A&M, their fight song with Ohio State, and their "Pistol Pete" mascot with Oklahoma State . . . that is, at least until Pistol Pete was transformed into Lasso Larry by the same sorts of folks who turned the guns into walkie-talkies in "E.T."

Georgia’s goals for this game should be to (i) score at least 40 points, (ii) hold New Mexico State to ten or fewer points, (iii) keep everyone healthy, and (iv) empty the bench. We’ll know before kickoff what sort of season the Bulldogs are having, and the first Saturday in November can do nothing to change the Athenians’ situation for the better. The most we may hope to see accomplished between the hedges is that the ‘Dawgs swiftly will dispatch the Aggies into body baggies and ship them back to Las Cruces without undue fanfare. An uneventful afternoon in Sanford Stadium is the objective, and what ought to be expected.

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 . . . Vanderbilt game preview . . . bye week preview . . . Florida game preview . . . Maple Street Press annual!

Go ‘Dawgs!