1. Any general advice for LSU fans that might be taking the trip up to Athens? Areas of campus to avoid, traffic tips, etc...?
TRAFFIC: Assuming that most folks are coming through Atlanta, the best way to get to Athens is straight up I-85 to the Highway 129 exit (Jefferson/Gainesville), take a right onto 129 and go straight into Athens. It's four-lane road all the way and you won't back up until you get inside the city limits. 129 turns into Prince Avenue and takes you straight downtown. Whatever you do and whomever else you listen to about directions, don't take Highway 316 to Athens. Post-game traffic is horrendous; you'll do best to tailgate or go somewhere to eat/drink after the game and wait for things to die down.
PARKING: Parking will probably run you $30 or so wherever you can find it downtown and you'll have a walk of a mile or so to the stadium. If you get to Athens really early, you may find some on-campus parking (more information on that can be found here.)
ON-CAMPUSTAILGATING: Ten years ago, I would have recommended North Campus without reservation. But there are restrictions in place now that put something of a damper on tailgating. It's still a nice place and it's the closest place to downtown Athens to tailgate, but keep in mind that your tailgate won't be allowed to be too elaborate (no grilling, no music, for example). There are other spots that aren't as restricted; basically anywhere you can park, you can probably find a spot to tailgate nearby.
PLACES TO AVOID: See #2.
2. How will the presence of the Gameday set affect things?
ESPN is setting up in the same spot it took for the 2008 'Bama game, a residential section on campus known as Myers Quad. Assuming you don't want to take part in the festivities, it'll be a minor inconvenience in that it will block off a couple of routes to the stadium. But there are plenty of other ways to get there.
3. For those taking a night out on the town, any restaurant/bar suggestions?
Downtown Athens is great, something a lot of us feared wouldn't be the case a couple of decades ago when the Athens Mall opened. There is a thriving bar scene. Rather than make specific recommendations, I'd suggest you go downtown and walk around until you find something that suits your fancy. Just keep in mind that there will be thousands of others doing the same thing. Oh, yeah, Athens' finest will be looking to separate you from the contents of your wallet, so carry ID and don't carry an open container around.
As far as eating goes, the general consensus is that the two best restaurants downtown are The Last Resort and The National. Both are excellent and both are likely to have long waits to get in. Copper Creek is a brew pub with good beers and food, if you like that sort of thing. If you're looking for convenience rather than going downtown, The Blind Pig is within walking distance of Sanford Stadium. It's your basic college town sports bar. There's decent food, beverage selections and plenty of flat-screen TV action if you want to watch the late games.
None of those are my favorite, though. That honor goes to Cali N Tito's (1427 S Lumpkin St), a Cuban joint that is as fabulous as it is funky. If you like that kind of food, I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Just keep in mind that they don't take credit cards and they don't serve booze (you can, however, pay a $2 fee and BYOB).
4. Georgia and LSU are fan bases that don't get to see that much of each other. If you could describe the average Bulldog fan to somebody making their first trip, what would you say?
If you can get past the red and the occasional barking, we're a pretty nice bunch of folks.
5. So how do you see things going on Saturday?
I like the spread if Georgia doesn't shoot itself in the foot.
Ed. Note: It's that time of the year where the good Senator is soliciting participants for his annual Mumme Poll. Anybody interested should absolutely go sign up.
What to Watch For On Saturday
Bright Lights, Green Hedges
What is it about playing Georgia? Maybe the perception is skewed by three SEC Champoinship game match-ups. Maybe by the general lack of times these two programs have met, but it just feels like a bigger game when LSU takes on Georgia. The kind of game these players come here to play in.
Mid-afternoon on CBS. Sure, it's the time that uneducated heathens think football should be played at, but it's still a big deal. Nevermind that it's behind the bushes in Sanford Stadium.
LSU has seen a big stage, but its conference play now -- the games that will determine whether the Tigers will be competing for the SEC championship. Expect a charged atmosphere and one geeked up gang of Bulldogs.
The way both teams' defenses are playing, this one has the potential to be an up-and-down shootout, so expect Georgia to try and find ways to steal a possession and grab momentum early. Onside kicks, trick plays, Mark Richt will do whatever he can to make sure that red crowd stays loud.
Poseur and Gin Rummy speak the truth, especially with regards to this LSU team. We don't know what we don't know yet. Is the defense truly bad? Maybe. LSU is currently outscoring teams 62-3 in the first quarter, so we know that they have at least been good enough to help LSU build some nice leads. But that margin drops to 41-34 in the second quarter, so we know it's also not the kind of dominating unit we've been used to seeing the last few years.
What's more, Georgia has the kind of offense that could score points on any defense, regardless of quality.
Likewise, as good as LSU's offense as looked, there's a Kent State and a UAB on that schedule. That has to be considered as well. Yes, the passing game has looked ruthlessly efficient, and the running game appears ready to blow up as Jeremy Hill rounds into midseason form. But we don't know yet. This game will tell us a lot, not only about team quality, but also the personality and mindset of these players. Are they ready to shake off the inconsistencies, learn from mistakes and raise their game to meet a quality opponent?
There are still personnel questions we to find out as well. Who is the No. 2 back on this team behind Hill? Is there another bonafied receiving target besides Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry? A playmaker in the front seven that can create havoc behind the line of scrimmage?
We're about to find out.
Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's had an interesting tenure in Athens. Came out like a house of fire with top-25 defenses in years one and two. But despite the best defensive player in the SEC and multiple NFL talents, the Dawgs really struggled last year and allowed 20 or more points a whopping eight times, including four games over 30.
Through three games, the 2013 returns are not good for a young group. A combined 921 yards allowed to Clemson and South Carolina, before holding North Texas to just 245 yards last week. The Bulldogs are allowing more than four yards per carry, and haven't held a single quarterback under a 60 percent completion rate.
The way LSU is executing in the run and passing game, it presents a very interesting choice for Grantham. His typical MO at Georgia has involved a lot of cover-two defense, with both safeties deep. It puts a premium on the front seven to handle the running game on its own, and this Bulldog front, which is a bit lighter compared to years past, hasn't always been up to the task. That's ratcheted up even more with LSU coming in with Jeremy Hill and a running game that's rushed for 535 yards combined the last two weeks.
But if you try to creep a safety down in the box, it puts cornerbacks Damian Swann and Brendan Langley in one-on-one matchups with ODB and Juice. And that's a clear mismatch. Georgia's corners are allowing an average of 10 yards per attempt on first-down passes, and LSU's top two wideouts have put on a clinic through four games this season. LSU is averaging 12.6 yards per passing attempt on first down, and converting more than half of their third-down attempts, with Landry catching 10 of his 24 passes in those situations.
Look for LSU to try and pound on the short and intermediate routes on early downs, particularly the slant and comeback route (which has been nearly indefensible this season), in order to set up some double-move routes later on that allow Beckham to attack down the field. Big plays are always the best way to shut up a crowd in an environment like this. And between the passing match-up and special teams -- an area in which Georgia has really struggled -- this has a chance to be a game that puts ODB on the national map.
Of course, if Grantham is determined to give his corners help, he risks allowing his front seven to get gashed by LSU's running game and Hill. I expect LSU's offense to take whatever is given to them at the line, be that the run or the pass. That could also extend to the tight end position in the middle of the field. For all the talk about finding that third target, the beauty of having a two wideouts playing as well as Beckham and Landry is that for a defense to try and take away both guys, they will almost certainly have to leave somebody else open. Travis Dickson is currently averaging about 30 yards per catch, and we might see his target rate go up on Saturday. DeSean Smith could also see some snaps as a pass-catching tight end. Travin Dural is yet to see a significant role as a down-field threat, and we know that Hill can be a dangerous receiver out of the backfield as well. This offense has done a great job, but as I've talked about, there are things we haven't seen yet.
First down, as usual, is the key. Get four yards or more, stay on schedule, and avoid third down and long yardage. Yeah, LSU's done a fantastic job of protecting Mettenberger so far, but you don't want to give Grantham too many chances to send some exotic blitzes out of that 3-4 front. Keep Georgia off balance, and this is a defense that the Tigers should be able to slice through for a lot of yardage.
On the other side of the ball, a lot of people think of the Georgia offense as one of the last bastions of the classic "pro-style" attack, similar to LSU's. It's easy to forget that Richt was a part of the OG fast-break, no-huddle spread at Florida State in the 1990s, and his Bulldogs have begun to move a bit more in that direction this season with a senior quarterback in Murray.
The Shallow Cross is a favorite concept, with the Richt concept incorporating a choice route to take advantage if the linebackers squat down on the cross. There's also a swing pass to the back if the defense loses track of the flat. The sail, or flood concept, is another Georgia favorite, but one that LSU should have seen a lot of in practice.
Murray's command of his offense jumps out in the same way that Zach Mettenberger's has this season. He handles the blitz really well when he recognizes it, and Georgia has a lot of built-in pressure devices that can be deadly. Both Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are really tough to deal with in space, and if Murray reads a blitz before the snap that's an easy check to him. Ditto on flanker screens to his receivers. He's great on his hot reads after the snap, and he's incredibly comfortable with all of his options -- four different receivers have at least 8 catches through three games.
But if there's one thing I do notice, it's that he doesn't handle unexpected pressure that well. Knock him around a bit and he gets very nervous in the pocket. Clemson did a fantastic job of this, and Georgia's offensive line has been very inconsistent at times. That goes ditto in run blocking, where Gurley and Marshall's big plays have, to a degree, covered for a lack of a consistent push.
Of course, like Hill, Gurley is the type of back that doesn't always need a big hole. He's a powerfully built runner with big-play speed. He reminds me of Trent Richardson in a lot of ways, but much more explosive. Linebackers will have to attack their gaps and tackle, less he get into the secondary.
John Chavis has his work cut out for him defending this outfit. Stack the box and man-up outside and Murray will attack down the field. Too much zone, and the Tiger back seven will be on their heels against the run. The defensive line is going to have to win their matchups as often as possible, especially on first down. Murray is insanely good at converting third downs (13 yards per attempt, 50 percent conversion rate), but if LSU can make those situations a little longer they'll have a better chance at disguising coverage a little bit. You don't beat a quarterback like Murray by doing one thing, so LSU will have to mix it up. If Jordan Allen, Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter can get some heat when LSU rushes four, that will go a long way.
Do NOT Expect
Everybody will be focusing on the Mettenberger vs. Murray duel and the whole "prodigal son comes home" angle, but I'm not so sure that I buy it as a huge factor this week.
Sure, this is a homecoming for Mettenberger, and there have to be some emotions involved there. But he's never struck me as the overly emotional type. I don't think there's any grudge towards UGA, and while I'm sure there will be a lot of things going through his mind once the game is over, pre-game, I'm not even sure he's thinking about it that much. His focus this season on what he and his wide receivers are doing has been outstanding. Mettenberger has consistently focused on doing the best job he can, even taking his teammates to task last week despite 400-plus yards and 35 points. I doubt that changes this week.
He wants to win this game because it's a huge game against a conference opponent that can set the tone for a special season. Not because of the history.
And on top of that, it would not surprise me at all if the running backs for these two teams steal the show from the quarterbacks anyway. Gurley and Hill are both as hot as any backs in the country right now. They're talented, explosive, workhorse runners that either offense in this game will be comfortable ridding early and often.
Besides that, with neither one of these defenses looking all that hot, both coordinators could be looking to grind out long drives that keep their opposite numbers off of the field.
I've been saying it for months -- this will be one of the best games of this college football season, and a high scoring, fun affair. But the stars we're talking about when it's over might not necessarily be the quarterbacks.