Good evening, Dawg fans. It's completely understandable if you have a heavy heart today, with the news about the serious injury Devon Gales suffered during the UGA/Southern game yesterday. I have to admit that my thoughts keep turning back to that young man from Southern and the long road to recovery he has ahead of him as I'm writing this article. As they say, though, the show must go on, and while we're wishing Devon and his family the best for his recovery, the Dawgs are also preparing for their biggest game of the season: a huge showdown this Saturday with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
I'm going to be brutally honest: This is the game I want to win more than any other this season. I never want to lose to Tech, of course, and I always want to beat the everloving 1942 outta Florida... but this is the game I need this season. If we can manage to avenge our 2008 embarrassment and beat Bama, we'll pretty much have a built-in faceplant cushion. It's unlikely that any other SEC East team will finish with only one conference loss, so we could perform our patented annual faceplant® against any one of them and still make it to Atlanta (and still probably be in the race for the playoff) if we can beat the Crimson Tide.
At this point in the season (which is already 1/3 over... can you believe that?), there's no doubt that Alabama is the best team we'll be playing during the regular season. The Red Elephants managed to DERP away a game at home two weeks ago to Ole Miss, but that performance doesn't make them any less solid of a team. Regardless of what the polls say, Bama is a top-ten-quality team, and they don't know the meaning of the word "quit." We're going to get their best shot 6 days from now in Athens, and we're going to have to play our best game of the season thus far to defeat them. Therefore, I'm letting the following people know that, for week 5, 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 has already secretly retired and played a round of golf with a major Bama booster's wife and Nick Saban's daughter.
2) Brian Schottenheimer - Coach Schotty's place in this list is not based on past performance, for which I commended him just last week. No, I'm putting our offensive coordinator on this list because he has to come up with a completely different game plan than that which we used to great effect against South Carolina. Why? Because Alabama's defense is much different, and much better, than Carolina's. Nick Saban and Kirby Smart know how to stop the run, and they know how to stop a pro-style play-action passing game. The one (well-documented) weakness in their armor is against teams that play a HUNH (hurry up, no huddle) offensive game.
Mind you, I'm not advocating that we change our offense completely and abandon the run. That would be crazy, and if you harbor any hopes of downing the Tide, you know that we're going to need to rely on Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Keith Marshall to have a great day between the hedges. But Schotty has to find a way to incorporate those schemes with which we know Bama's defense has trouble. How do you do that? Honestly, I have no idea. That's why I'm just a blogger and Schotty is the offensive coordinator. But we have to find a way to do it.
3) The offensive line - If our offensive line sleeps through the first half the way they did against Southern, we're going to lose. It's easy to chalk up the lackluster first half to simply "not caring" about the game or overlooking an overmatched FCS opponent, but the fact remains that our offensive line was capable of coming out of the gate and completely stinking up the place for a half.
We've got the best trio of running backs in the game this year, but even Chubb, Michel, and Marshall can't work miracles by themselves. They need effective blocking, and Greyson Lambert needs effective pass protection. We need our offensive line to have the best game they've had yet this season against the Crimson Tide. If they can accomplish that, we stand a good chance.
4) The kickers - After Collin Barber's 15-millionth shanked punt yesterday (ok, maybe it was just his 2nd or 3rd this season... whatever), I was ready to spit bile and venom at both him and Marshall Morgan, whose field goal kicking has also been decidedly less-than-reliable in our first 4 games. Then, I had this exchange on Twitter:
Our kickers, collectively, are going to cost us at least one win. And these damn guys aren't freshmen or anything.— VineyardDawg (@vineyarddawg) September 26, 2015
Keep saying this, but Barber hasn't been close to the same since his concussion. https://t.co/8JMbo1T1zs— C1em (@ClemsTweets) September 26, 2015
@ClemsTweets A disturbing, if, accurate, statement.— VineyardDawg (@vineyarddawg) September 26, 2015
@vineyarddawg As a former punter, its hard to just lose it. Seems to have done just that though. Though, it can be fickle like a golf swing— C1em (@ClemsTweets) September 26, 2015
I'm not saying that I think twitter user "@ClemsTweets" (who is a UGA fan, just to be clear, though I don't know about Clem's son) is right, but that's a disturbing thought. Especially since this past week at SB Nation included strongly thought-provoking articles by Jeremy Collins about (DGD) Paul Oliver and by Bill Connelly about the fact that we need to find a way to address concussions and the link to CTE in football. I'm just not sure what to make of that.
But Marshall Morgan doesn't even have that cloud hanging over his head. He is 4/6 on the year, true, but he missed a 43-yard FG attempt and a 37-yard attempt in the only close game we've had so far this season against Vanderbilt.
There is, of course, an easy solution to this problem: End every drive in a touchdown, so we don't have to punt or attempt a field goal. But let's be serious, we're playing Alabama. These issues will have to be addressed this week.
5) The tackling on special teams - Against South Carolina 2 weeks ago, our kick coverage unit gave up a 51-yard return at the end of the first half that allowed the Gamecocks to get 3 free points heading into halftime. We also gave up an average of 27 yards per kick return. We did a little better against Vandy, averaging 23 yards given up per return. But yesterday against Southern, we actually intentionally kicked it directly to the spot where their best player was standing almost every single time. Willie Quinn broke off one return for 32 yards as a result, though his average return was about 21 yards.
We cannot give up huge special teams plays against Alabama. One of the things that has gotten the Tide into so much trouble in the last couple of years is making special teams mistakes on their side. We have to take advantage of their mistakes... we cannot respond with mistakes of our own.
But here's the kicker (no pun intended): Marshall Morgan has shown several times that he's capable of putting the ball in the back on the endzone on kickoffs. More often than not, though, he's apparently told to place the ball directly on the goal line (which he does). We're already letting our opponents average about 25 yards per kick return, so why not just let Morgan kick the hell out of the ball and put it on the 25 for them? That, at least, precludes the possibility of giving up a huge special teams play that could completely swing the momentum of the game.
6) Our run defense - The 3 best starting running backs in the SEC this year are Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette, and Derrick Henry. Thankfully, Chubb is on our side, and we don't have to play Fournette's LSU team this year (in the regular season, anyway). So this week will provide the sternest test our run defense will see all season long. Jacob Coker hasn't exactly been lighting up the dial for Alabama in the passing game, but when you have to bring 8 or 9 guys into the box to stop the massive force that is Derrick Henry, any QB is going to get some opportunities to make big passing plays.
If we can find a way to neutralize Henry without selling out completely to the run, we could have a special game on defense. on the other hand, if we can barely stop Henry even while loading 9 guys in the box, it could be a long, looooooooong day. The play of our run defense could, quite literally, decide whether we will win this game by a little or lose by a lot.
7) Las Vegas - Dammit, oddsmakers. You had to make UGA the favorite for this game, didn't you? And not even a real favorite... we're just a 1-point favorite in the opening line. That's practically a pick 'em. This game will be the first time Alabama comes in as the underdog since the 2009 SEC Championship Game. Not only that, it will be the first regular-season game Alabama has entered as the underdog since... aw, hell naw. Just admit it, Vegas guys. Y'all are all Bama grads who just wanted to give your alma mater a little extra juice for this weekend, aren't you?
8) Every Georgia fan with a ticket to Saturday's game - Ok, Dawg fans. This is the premier home game of the year. CBS will be there. Uncle Verne will be there (and Gary, too, but it's hard to get hyped up about him). The Ala-damn-bama Crimson Tide will be there, looking to knock off our Georgia Bulldogs. Y'all were crazy-awesome for the South Carolina game, but we need to take it up even another notch this Saturday. Go to the Dawg Walk at 1:50 by the Tate Center. Head into Sanford Stadium as early as you can (gates open at 2:00). And cheer your got-dang fool heads off for our boys!
The general Las Vegas rule of thumb is that home field advantage is worth 3 points. When the opening lines came out today, we were favored over Alabama by 1 point. That means that even the soulless oddsmaking machines in the Nevada desert are counting on us to make the difference this Saturday. Show up, be loud, and let the Crimson Tide know that, in the immortal words of (Alabama alum) Rece Davis, you don't just stroll between the hedges into Sanford Stadium and expect to come out with a win!