Welcome back, Dawg fans! The holidays have now been had, and we return to game week for the final time in the 2014 season! Of course, it's a very short week, since the game is on Tuesday... but that's still plenty of time to let the following people, places, and things know that, for the 2014 Belk Bowl, You're On Notice, Dawg!
In no particular order:
1) Steve Spurrier - Why Steve Spurrier? Because he hates us, we hate him, and because I have it from a very authoritative source inside the South Carolina administration that he's planning to apply for the soon-to-be-vacant Atlanta Falcons coaching position just so he can disappoint Georgia as many times as possible every football season.
2) Motivation - As is the case with most non-playoff bowl games, one of the biggest questions as to who will win comes down to which team is actually motivated to play the game. Even almighty, unstoppable Alabama has had issues with showing up to a bowl game with their give-a-damn completely exhausted, resulting in an embarrassing defeat to an inferior foe. And I do believe that, on paper, Georgia is the better team, though not vastly so.
Everybody says the right things when it comes to motivation (and they're saying them this week, as well), but Mark Richt's teams have a history of underperforming in less-prestigious bowl destinations. During Coach Richt's 14-year tenure, UGA has gone to either a BCS-level game or the Citrus (nee Capital One) Bowl, which is the #1 non-BCS bowl for the SEC, a total of 6 times. The Dawgs are 5-1 in those games (with the lone loss being against West Virginia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl that was played in the Georgia Dome due to Hurricane Katrina). In the remaining 7 bowl games, however, Mark Richt's record is 3-4 and includes losses to Boston College and Central Florida. Also, all 4 of those losses were games in which the Bulldogs were favored. Clearly, motivation can be a factor in a "lesser" bowl game for the Dawgs.
If we don't come in ready to play, Lousiville is the kind of team that could beat us 45-10, and of all the final impressions we might want to make on the 2014 season, that is exactly the wrong one. If we step up and play to the best of our abilities, we stand a good chance of winning. But if we come into Charlotte with the same mindset we took into Jacksonville this year... I'll be out mowing the lawn by halftime. (Yes, I know the lawn's not growing because it's winter. I don't care.)
3) John Lilly - Obviously, the biggest change from our final regular season game to this one is the fact that Mike Bobo is no longer patrolling the coaches' skybox as offensive coordinator. John Lilly will be taking over the in-game playcalling, though it's not clear whether or not this is, essentially, his interview for the full-time position. (Personally, I think it's not, though Richt might give Lilly some consideration if we have a huge offensive game.)
Regardless of his future job status, though, we need to hope that John Lilly is ready to make the tough decisions when the time arrives. It doesn't take a genius to give the ball to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel on first and second down until it stops working. It gets messier, though, if it stops working on the first drive of the game. And that's a distinct possibility, given the stoutness of Louisville's run defense (3rd in the nation against the run). Fortunately, since it's a single exhibition game, you can make some weird play-calls and pull some stuff that you wouldn't pull during the season, and it won't be the end of the world. But still... if John Lilly can dial up his best Mike Bobo impersonation for about 60 minutes on Tuesday, I wouldn't mind. (RUN THE DANG BALL LILLY.)
4) Hutson Mason - I haven't put our senior quarterback on notice since the middle of the season, and for good reason. He's really gotten into this rhythm as the season has rolled on, and he has turned into the "game manager" that we really needed him to be. Still, though, Mason will be facing one of the best defenses that he's seen all season, and though we mock Todd Grantham, the Cards' pass defense is rated 8th nationally in defensive pass efficiency. They've got consensus All-American and 2014 Jim Thorpe award-winner Gerod Holliman patrolling the defensive backfield, and Holliman tied a college football record by pulling in 14 interceptions this season. Yes, he averaged more than 1 INT per game.
Fortunately, Mason has made his bones this year on being smart with his passes, and if he keeps on making smart throws, hopefully we won't give up a bad turnover in exactly the wrong spot, as we have been prone to do in previous years. We'll need him to be as he was during his late-season run for the 5th-year senior to go out on a winning note.
5) The Offensive Line - As I said in a previous point, Louisville's run defense is currently sitting at 3rd in the country. Not the ACC... the country. The Card's overall defensive ranking is 6th in the country in total defense. Clearly, our offense is going to be facing one of the best defenses it's seen all year in this game. And since our offense is predicated on 2 things: stopping the run and giving the QB time to pass on passing downs, this means that our offensive line is going to need to step up and have one of their best games of the season. We need to be creating those running holes for Michel and Chubb, and we need to give Mason the time he needs when his number is called.
Now, our line has been one of the strongest parts of our offense all season, so I'm not saying I don't think they can do it. I'm just saying that if we want to score at all in the bowl game, we need them to do it. (Especially now that kick-returner-extraordinaire Isaiah McKenzie is out with a sprained cerebrum.)
6) Run defense - Just like every other stop he's taken on the old coaching
motorcycle carousel ride, Bobby Petrino's offense starts with the running game. He matches up his blockers to our defense's weak points and pounds at those spots until we start to overcommit... and that's when he chucks it over our heads to DeVante Parker, who is then standing in the endzone. It's really not a super-complicated strategy, but we've seen this season that it is very difficult to stop. Stopping the Cardinals starts with our run defense, and now that we know players like Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd are going to be back in 2015 (thank the college football gods), they could get a great start on next season's depth chart battle by stonewalling Louisville's running game and giving us the advantage on that side of the ball.
7) The guy (hopefully guys) assigned to cover DeVante Parker - Louisville's offense is run-first, like a typical Bobby Petrino offense, but they've got one of the best deep threats in the country at the WR position. DeVante Parker only played 5 games for Louisville this year due to a foot injury he picked up in the preseason, but he was still the team leader in both receptions and receiving yards, and he was still named to the First Team All-ACC team. That's how good he is. Without Parker on the field, Louisville averaged just over 25 points per game on offense. With Parker playing, the Cardinals averaged almost 35 points per game including a win over Notre Dame and a near-upset of Florida State. We've got to find a way to neutralize the threat Parker brings, or we're gonna regret it big-time.
8) Georgia fans at the game - As of last week, the UGA athletic department reported that it had only sold 5,900 of its 8,500 seat allotment for the Belk Bowl. Some folks might have picked up their tickets through venues other than the athletic department's website, but it's fair to say that our fans aren't nearly as excited to be attending this game as they would have been if we were playing, for example, in the Peach Bowl instead. But we're not, and the fans that are going to make the 3-hour trek up I-85 are going to have to make the best of the situation.
You're probably not going to be sitting in a sold-out stadium, and there will likely be more Louisville fans there than you. But that doesn't mean we can let them drown us out and make the Dawgs feel like they're playing an away game. You need to be just as raucous and just as pumped-up as you would be in Sanford Stadium. Heck, the UGA contingent at Arkansas was tiny, but I dare say that we out-cheered the Razorback fans pretty much all day, because everybody was having fun and getting loud. (Of course, it helped that we jumped out to a 1st-quarter lead, then made it a huge 2nd-quarter lead, so the game was over by halftime. I wouldn't mind that result here, either.)
The bottom line is that our players need to know that you're there, and need to know that you're 100% behind them all the way. Make Dawg Nation proud in the stands, just as we want the players to be doing on the field!
That's all for this season, Dawg fans! It hasn't always been as fun as I'd like, but I've always enjoyed bringing these articles to you, and I hope you've enjoyed reading them. I and the rest of the Dawg Sports editorial staff will still be around after football season, of course, covering every other UGA athletic sport, and we hope you'll stick around, too! Our basketball coverage is already underway, and I'll be picking up gymnastics when it starts in January (hopefully to make another strong run into the Super Six). And there's baseball, equestrian, swimming and diving, and softball, just to name a few. It'll be a full spring in Athens!
I'll leave you with just one more bit of trivia. At the end of the 2014 college football season, one team will still be lifting the crystal football, but it won't be the winner of the college football playoff. If you've seen the new Playoff trophy, you know it doesn't even have anything football-shaped on it. (Ok, maybe a few curvy lines or something. Whatever.) But one bowl game still had the great foresight to keep the tradition of the crystal football alive: