1. Zach Mettenberger's big return and match-up with Aaron Murray is obviously going to be the biggest storyline on Saturday. It raises a question that has always been on my mind, and one that I've heard multiple different answers from Georgia fans on before. What exactly was Mettenberger's status with the program when those events unfolded in Spring of 2010? How close were he and Murray in that quarterback battle? Clearly, Georgia fans are happy with how things have turned out, but what was the feeling among the faithful at the time?
It depends on who you ask probably. Mettenberger had just posted a solid spring game (6 of 10 for 150 yds and 2 TDs) and had that big arm that always gets attention. He was at the time, at least in my opinion, what he's ultimately proven to be, a big armed big kid that was extremely raw with loads of potential if/when he ever started to get the finer points of being a QB down. And I honestly doubt he'd have done that sitting behind Murray in Athens, because you need game action to make the improvements he's made. But the idea that he and Murray were ever in question as to who would start is not the impression I've ever had. In fact, if my memory serves correctly there were rumbling of Murray playing as a true freshman, and taking over for Joe Cox that season, but he suffered tendinitis in his throwing arm and had to take a month off early. That would have given Murray and Mettenberger some separation in class, and been a good plan.
But Murray was always the more advanced QB, and that shows in their stats. Mett has the higher potential, but he's always been a long term project. Most Georgia fans knew that, but of course you always have some who will argue for the backup QB (and we have it now with Hutson Mason in a vocal minority), so there was some guys unhappy at losing Mettenberger. He was a hometown kid out of neighboring Oconee County, and between a good spring game and his prototypical size and arm strength, he was always going to have people who'd call for him over the shorter, far-too-often-turnover-prone Murray.
2. Regardless of who was ahead of whom that spring, Murray has gone on to have one of the greatest careers any SEC quarterback has ever had. He should finish this season with multiple individual records, but a critic would argue that he doesn't have the championships or big-game wins that other legendary quarterbacks have had. Is that something that Georgia fans really think about, or is it just the typical sports radio #HOTSPROTSTAKE?
It's certainly something Georgia fans think about, and debate among themselves (see the aforementioned crowd that inexplicably wants to make an unproven Mason the starter). Some of that is a bit undeserved and due to the lack of rings or wins. But football is a team game, and QBs get far too much credit/blame for that sort of thing. What bothers me most with Murray is the occasional brain fart moments he has, often at the worst times. We saw it against Clemson with the delay of game to start the second half, burning another timeout in the second half of a tight game because he didn't keep an eye on the play clock almost getting a second delay of game penalty, and throwing an interception immediately after we benefited from a turnover. We saw it last weekend against North Texas when on the opening drive he rolled out and threw the ball to a wide open defender standing not close to any players in red and black. Even his first big win over a highly ranked team at last year's Cocktail Party against Florida was marred with a flurry of first half turnovers that would usually mean an ugly loss if Jarvis Jones and the rest of the 'Dawg defense weren't forcing countless turnovers themselves. Murray does so many great things, and puts up such great numbers, but there's always this feeling like something is missing. And to me, it's the repeated mental mistakes and horribly timed turnovers that you can somewhat understand out of a younger QB, but he's still making as a 5th year senior and 4 yr starter. Statistically, he'll go down as by far the best QB Georgia has ever had, if not the SEC. But the mistakes mean he'll likely never make the fanbase swoon at his memory like they do a David Greene, among others.
3. Murray's not the only star in this offense. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are as good a running back tandem as there is in the country. How can LSU try to slow these two down?
Exploit a suspect offensive line. Marshall hasn't been the big play threat he was last season (perhaps because he bulked up about 20 pounds this offseason, or perhaps just a sample size issue of the first 3 games and not a lot of carries). He's a danger either running or catching the ball out of the backfield, but he's also more of a hit or miss back. Gurley is the grinder who can also break a long one. He's got an easy stride, but eats up 4, 6, 12 yard gains and you barely realize it. He carries his weight well, and has one of the better stiff arms you'll see. He's got excellent vision, and does a great job changing gears, patiently setting up blocks before exploding for big gains. If he can get some momentum and has a clean backfield, there is no slowing him down until he nears the end zone.
But that clean backfield thing has been an issue for Georgia. It seems like we haven't had good LT play since Trinton Sturdivant was a true freshman in 2007. They had a good game against South Carolina, but we couldn't consistently run the ball against Clemson. North Texas sold out against the run often putting 8 or 9 guys in the box on a rain soaked day and did a pretty good job keeping them in check until Georgia broke away late. Like all runners, Georgia's backs are only as good as the holes they get, and despite returning a ton of experience and a bunch of beef, the Dawg OL struggles to push opposing defenders off the line. We're a bit of a finesse OL, and block angles more so than drive blocking, so we can be bullied up front.
4. Who is the passing game's top target with Malcolm Mitchell sidelined?
Michael Bennett and Arthur Lynch. Bennett was emerging as the go-to guy last year before suffering an ACL tear. He's healthy, and back working the short and intermediate routes with the best of 'em. Good size, and great hands, he's the man Murray looks for on 3rd down to move the chains. Lynch is the other one Murray often looks for on 3rd downs. He's a big tight end (6'5, 260), with soft hands and is really stepping up this year as being right there with the others in the long line of strong TEs Georgia has under Richt (Randy McMichael, Ben Watson, Leonard Pope, among others).
But don't focus too much on one guy. Murray is very good at spreading the ball around, and finding an open man. So our top target can often change from game to game or throughout a single game. Bennett and Lynch make plenty of plays, but also keep an eye out for Chris Conley, Justin Scott-Wesley, and freshman Reggie Davis to add a speedy deep threat to the mix. Conley torched the entire Nebraska D (which doesn't really look like much of an accomplishment these days) last year in the Citrus Bowl. Scott-Wesley was a track standout in high school and got behind the entire South Carolina D for an 85 yd TD. Davis was an elite track guy also coming out of Tallahassee, and the team gushed about him all summer and fall camp as the fastest guy on the roster, and showed it on a school record 98 yd TD catch last Saturday.
5. On defense, the Dawgs have kind of struggled as of late despite some big-time talents. Coordinator Todd Grantham was incredibly popular his first two years in Athens. Is the honeymoon over?
The honeymoon ended last year when a team loaded with now NFL players woefully underachieved. Grantham's first year we struggled, but most excused that as a team adapting from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and the need to get more 3-4 suited personnel at critical positions like NT. Last year, we struggled with suspensions and depth issues (if you take out rewarded walk-ons, Georgia's roster last year had fewer scholarship players than Southern Cal or Penn St had with their NCAA restrictions).
So far this season, it's hard to say what the problem has been. They did well against North Texas, limiting them to just 7 yards on the ground. And for the most part did well against South Carolina. We had several injuries in fall camp, and started a walk-on at SS due to a marijuana-related suspension of Josh Harvey-Clemons against Clemson, so tackling was a major issue there. They also did a good job of isolating and exposing that weak link at SS. Losing so much talent and experience, particularly at LB and DB, there was going to be some growing pains defensively this season. The question is how long that pain lasts. Georgia is much deeper defensively, and always has plenty of physical talent, but they need to grow up mentally, particularly at the CB spot opposite Damien Swann (which has been manned mostly by true freshmen Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins). Jordan Jenkins has the potential to be a game changer at OLB, but he's struggled a bit in the early going. Aside from North Texas, stopping the run has been a significant problem for Grantham's Ds, so that makes Georgia fans very worried going up against Hill, Blue, and the large, physical LSU OL.
6. What's been the problem, specifically, for this outfit through the first few games of 2013?
Against Clemson, the problem was getting off the field on 3rd down, and poorly timed mistakes (the aforementioned interception, a botched snap on a FG in a 3 pt loss, among a couple others). South Carolina was a win over a top 10 team, and North Texas looks a lot more like your typical payday game if the two special teams TDs don't happen.
I wouldn't say there's been a "problem" for them so far this season. They're 2-1, with a win over a top 15 ranked team, and the loss was by 3 points on the road against a top 5 team. If there is a problem, it's been Murray making a couple of mistakes he shouldn't, and a defense that had to be thrown into the deep end at a young age. After all, Grantham's unit returned little to no experience outside of one DL (Garrison Smith), one LB (Amarlo Herrera) and one DB (Swann).
7. Finally, how do you see things shaking out between the hedges on Saturday?
It's hard to say right now. I think Georgia's D has the ability to dominate some games, and will dominate some games before the season is over, but I'm not sure they're ready to do that yet. The offense can put up 40+ with ease. And I've noticed whether you're at home or on the road can make a world of difference in how well teams play on the lines, so it's easy to be a bit optimistic. But the matchups worry me. Georgia's special teams have been a disaster zone for a while now, and LSU has more than enough big play ability there for it to be the deciding factor in this one. Considering the defensive struggles, the Tigers should be able to run the ball at will. And while Chavis hasn't been able to get much from his DEs so far, I worry about Georgia being able to block on the edges against what are normally some terrific speed rushers at LSU. That, and while I don't see how it has any actual impact on the game, the record of these two schools when Gameday is on site speaks for itself.
Ultimately, I think it's going to be a great game with a lot of points that isn't decided until late, and whoever doesn't give the ball away between Murray or Mettenberger wins.