When Georgia takes on the MissourI Tigers on Saturday night they’ll see a new look offense that faces some of the same questions it stared down in 2015. Gone are the Gary Pinkel regime and Pinkel’s own productive attack. In at Columbia are first year head coach Barry Odom, a defense which should be able to hold its own, and an offense that might end up being pretty good once things fall into place. I’d just rather that happen after this Saturday.
Don’t Believe the Heup(el)
The Tiger offense is coordinated by former Oklahoma QB and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. Heupel spent 2015 at Utah State, where he worked with sophomore QB Kent Myers, a dual threat player who ultimately completed 61% of his passes on the year. The Aggies averaged 29.0 points per game in Heupel’s one season, rushing for over 2100 yards in the process.
Heupel spent 2014 as co-offensive coordinator and play caller at Oklahoma, but was let go after a painful 40-6 loss to Clemson. While there Heupel generally exhibited a great ability to pass it when he had great passers, and to run it when he had elite tailbacks and a stout offensive line. In short, he’s a lot like Georgia’s Jim Chaney, in that he tends to work with what he’s got, whatever that happens to be.
Lockin’ it down
One of the puzzle pieces Heupel will have to work with will be sophomore QB Drew Lock, who started eight games in 2015 in relief of the suspended Maty Mauk. Lock went 2-6 in those starts, completing 49% of his passes and tossing twice as many interceptions (8) as touchdowns. That's just awful.
His results this season have been harder to evaluate. After a rough outing in a loss to West Virginia Lock bounced back to throw five touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. On the one hand, it was EMU. On the other, that’s a sight more than any UGA quarterback did against Nicholls State. The real headline is that Lock is now 88 passing attempts into the season without throwing an interception. That’s a marked departure from 2015, when he could be counted on to give the ball away.
With apologies to Barney Stinson, sometimes older is better.
Lock’s stinginess with the ball becomes even more significant when you consider that Oklahoma running back transfer Alex Ross is a capable tailback, and backfield mate Ish Witter is a home run threat. Freshman Damarea Crockett is averaging 5.14 yards a carry as well. Heupel is going to want to establish the run if he can. If he can’t, and Lock is forced to go to the air, we’ll get to see exactly how much he’s really grown.
If Lock is forced to the air he’ll find lots of veteran receivers to help out. 7 different Tigers who caught 10+ passes in 2015 are back this season. That includes last year’s leading receiver J’Mon Moore and second leading receiver Nate Brown, a former North Gwinnett standout who I remain deeply hurt that Mark Richt’s staff never properly pursued.
But the leading receiver so far in 2016 is sophomore slot receiver Ray Wingo, who’s averaging an eye-popping 31.50 yards per catch on 4 receptions. As scary as that is, like Lock’s passing numbers, a small sample size skews things here. Wingo had 1 catch for 1 yard against the Mountaineers. He had 3 for 125 against Eastern Michigan. I think the Bulldogs have a better secondary than EMU. But we’ll know more in a few days.
Tight ends Jason Reese and Sean Culkin are big and they get open, though neither is the most explosive pass catcher you’ll see. And like the rest of the Mizzou skill players, they’re veterans. This group has played a lot of football, and that worries me a little.
What relaxes me a tad is that the Missouri offensive line came into 2016 with 3 combined starts worth of experience. Mizzou is leaning on some JUCO guys for depth, but this is a unit that has holes. They struggled to establish the run consistently against WVU (though Heupel stayed with the ground game, showing some impressive patience and commitment to his game plan). Trenton Thompson, Daquan Hawkins-Muckle, and the rest of the Bulldog defensive line should be able to control the point of attack in this one. If they don’t, boy howdy, could we be in for a rough stretch of football games.
The bottom line
Georgia’s best shot to pull out a road win on Saturday is to stop the run, force Drew Lock to throw it, and make him pay for doing so. The Bulldog defense should be the biggest test the sophomore has faced so far and Missouri’s deepest offensive unit, it’s 8-deep receiving corps, will find itself matched against the deepest part of the UGA defense, Mel Tucker’s veteran secondary. I’m not saying Georgia will hold Mizzou to the 6 points it did in 2015. But then I’m praying we’ll score more than 9 this year ourselves. Is that too much to ask? Until later . . .