Hello again, Dawg fans! In case you hadn't noticed (and judging by the ticket sales, you haven't), Georgia's 2015 season isn't over yet! The Georgia Bulldogs have one more game to play, and on Saturday, we'll be taking the field in Jacksonville for the second time this season to take on a Big Ten team we've only ever played once before, and never since they actually joined the B1G: the Penn State Nittany Lions.
The only previous matchup between Georgia and Penn State was the 1983 Sugar Bowl. That game was notable for a couple of reasons: first, it was a #1 vs. #2 bowl game matchup, which was one of the rarest of beasts at the time, but it was also Herschel's final college game (though no one knew it then). On that New Year's Day in 1983, QB Todd Blackledge led his #2 Lions out to a commanding 20-3 lead in the second quarter, and went on to hand the #1 Bulldogs their first defeat of the season, winning Joe Paterno his first national championship in the process.
And in virtually any other season, that "national championship game rematch" angle would be getting the top billing. Instead, however, the lead story is about who won't be on the sidelines. For the Nittany Lions, they'll be without offensive coordinator John Donovan, who was fired after the end of the regular season. And for the Dawgs... well, it might be easier to list the coaches who will be on the sidelines for UGA rather than who won't. In fact, Georgia might be the first team to attend a bowl game without their former head coach, OC, or DC coaching the game. (I haven't been able to verify this fact, but I also haven't found another instance where this was the case.) And the man who is serving as the interim head coach, Bryan McClendon, has already accepted a job as the co-OC and WR coach at South Carolina. And to top it all off, the quarterback that started the last game UGA played at Everbank Field just 2 months ago (Faton Bauta) has already transferred to another school.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the air surrounding this program over the last month has been to "figure out a way to hold it together for a few weeks until the bowl game, then scatter to the wind." And that's not been typical of most coaching change situations, when at least one coordinator and a substantial portion of the staff sticks around for the final game... but then again, this isn't typical of most coaching change situations, I suppose.
At any rate, most of the players will still be there, and that's what really counts when the ball is kicked off. And win or lose, this game will still go down in the record books as a W or a L just like every other game, so despite whatever adversity the team has experienced in the last month, we'd better come ready to play against a Big Ten team that's probably better than its 7-5 record reflects. As a result, I'm letting the following people know that, for the
TaxGatorSlayer Bowl, You're On Notice, Dawg!
In no particular order:
1) (Vacant) - I'm going to call an audible here. I know I've previously promised that the new holder of the honorary #1 spot in the list would be Greg McGarity, for as long as he continues to be employed at the University of Georgia, but I can't deny the fact that since this spot has been vacant, the Dawgs have gone 4-0. When the new season rolls around, we'll put the new Public Enemy #1 at the top of the list where he belongs, but for now, I'm going to stick with the lucky charm just one more time. In the words of the late, great Yogi Berra, "I'm not a superstitious man, but I am a little stitious."
2) Apathy - After all the turmoil of the last month, I don't blame a single person who's ready to just see the season be over. We've seen the surprise firing of Mark Richt, the mass departure of the coaching staff as they've gotten picked off one by one, and the perceived slight at the fact that Alabama's defensive coordinator couldn't come to UGA full time after he accepted the job, but UGA's defensive coordinator apparently could do just that when he accepted the Alabama DC job. (And apparently Schotty was just straight-up told not to bother coming back by the AD or something, since he's not coaching the bowl, and he doesn't even have another job yet. Not that anybody has been particularly complaining about that fact, but still.)
I might be projecting my personal reaction to all of these things onto the rest of the fanbase, but it looks to me like not many people outside of the players themselves care one lick about the bowl game. And if the coaches and administration don't really care, why should I?
The reason why I and the rest of the Bulldog Nation should care, of course, is because they're still the Georgia damn Bulldogs, and they're still my team. They'll be taking the field to play a game, and so I care because they're playing. But is that enough for most fans? I don't know, but I guess we'll see.
Even more important than the fans, however, are the players themselves. We haven't really seen any reactions from players since the first days after Mark Richt was fired. How have they reacted since then? Have they stayed focused, and allowed all of the adversity to pull them tighter together as unit? Or have all of the coaching upheavals caused them to lose a little of their edge, especially on the hyper-intense defensive side of the ball, without their head man? We won't know that until the Saturday afternoon, but in a game between what is, on paper, two relatively-evenly-matched teams, focus and intensity will mean a lot. If the Dawgs come out lackadaisical and not really wanting to be there, they could get waylaid by the banks of the St. Johns River for the second time this season. Finding their motivation is the key for this team.
3) The Defense - Penn State isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut: the Lions averaged just 344 yards per game this year, which was good for 13th in the 14-team B1G. But PSU does have a 1,000-yard freshman running back, Saquon Barkley, who could cause problems for our D if we don't tackle and wrap-up like we should. And QB Christian Hackenberg hasn't exactly blown anybody away even though he was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school, but he's still at least as capable as any signal-caller we'll be putting on the field, and he figures to be declaring for the NFL draft after this game. The bottom line is if our defense doesn't play with exactly the same intensity and fire that they've shown all year, the Nittany Lions have the weapons to make us pay dearly.
4) John Lilly - (Note: This is in keeping with the pattern of putting the offensive coordinator on notice pretty much every week this season) If one were looking for a silver lining in all the upheaval of the last month, it would be in the fact that all of the game film that UGA has racked up over the past year now has much less predictive value than that you'll see of any other team in the country. Which is not to say John Lilly doesn't have a record... Lilly called the shots last year during the Belk Bowl as the interim OC after Mike Bobo left for Colorado State. But Bobo reportedly set the entire gameplan in place before he left for Fort Collins, so who knows what Lilly will do with the role now that he's basically in charge of the entire operation.
Of course, we still have the same team we've had all year, pretty much, and you're not going to completely change the character of the offense in just a handful of practices. So we'll still see pretty much the same lineups that we've seen all year. But how will Lilly call the situational plays differently than Schotty did? And will they work out better or worse than they did for Schotty? (Well, I should probably say, "better or the same," since it's hard to get much worse.)
One word to the wise, though, for Coach Lilly: you've got this kid riding the bench that's pretty damn good, and he couldn't seem to break into the lineup at all for some reason during the season, despite the lack of a (publicly announced) struggle with injury. If I were you, I'd alter my game plan to include a steady dose of Keith Marshall. But that's just me.
5) Injuries - And speaking of injuries, ol' Lady Luck has been literally adding injury to insult over the past few weeks. Brendan Douglas has been officially ruled out because of injury, so we won't see him barreling into a wall of defenders for 2 yards over and over. And Quayvon Hicks was on crutches last night at the team hotel, so he's apparently not healthy, either. So, hell, Keith Marshall is practically assured of getting more touches, simply because there's almost nobody left. (This also means Jeb Blazevich will get more playing time, with Hicks hurt.)
And it's not an injury, but starting ILB Tim Kimbrough has been suspended for the bowl game, so that's a hole that will need to be filled on the defense.
The more you look at it, the more this feels like a ragtag bunch of Junkyard Dawgs heading down into a game they have no business winning. Call me crazy, but that almost makes me feel optimistic. (Almost.)
6) Special Teams - Aside from the fact that our special teams units have been vital for us all year, both in their successes and their failures, there's an extra reason they'll be crucial for this game. Penn State's punting unit has been serviceable, but their kickoff return unit was last in the B1G this year. The PSU kickoff team gave up an average return of almost 25 yards per kick, and they also allowed 2 TD's. Given how rare our offensive scoring opportunities are likely to be (especially against PSU's better-than-average defense), it's imperative that our return units play an exceptional game and at least put us in positive field position, if not scoring 7 for us by themselves.
7) James Franklin - It's not often I call out the opposing team's head coach in the "on notice" article, but I had to make an exception for this
jerk guy. Most of y'all should still remember Franklin for his whiny antics at Vanderbilt, when he overplayed the "disrespected and dishonored" angle so much that even Rodney Dangerfield would have told him to tone it down a little bit. While I can't say whether or not his demeanor has changed with the Nittany Lions, I feel certain that the enmity he earned while in Nashville still resonates in the minds of many SEC fans, not just those of Bulldog Nation. If we can find some way to win this game, it'll be hilarious to watch him tap-dance afterwards and make excuses for why his team couldn't beat a group of kids from the SEC that practically had no coaching staff left at all. In fact, if you're struggling to find a reason to really care whether or not the Dawgs win, there's your motivation right there.
8) Caring too much about this game - This might stand in odd counterpoint to my point #2 above, where I cautioned against apathy, but we also have to be honest about the situation. This team is going to be coached by a skeleton crew "rump" of a coaching staff that basically already has both feet out the door. If we win, well, then, chalk it up to overcoming a mountain of adversity. But if we lose, it pretty much means absolutely nothing.
We're cheering on the Dawgs this Saturday, because... well, because they're the Dawgs, dammit. But if we get torched, there's no need to gnash your teeth. Pretty much nobody on the coaching staff is coming back, anyway. And if we blow the Nittany Lions away, well, it'll feel good, and we'll get to watch James Franklin bitch and moan about (whatever), but that's about it. This is pretty much as meaningless as a game ever gets for a program like ours.
As I've said, though, it's still a game that will go down as a W or a L, and our Dawgs will be playing on national TV. So if you're not going to be joining the hundreds and hundreds of UGA fans on the banks of the St. John's River, make sure to tune in on ESPN at noon on Saturday, and for the last time in the 2015 season, let's cheer on our boys!