The Georgia Bulldogs come into their season opener against the Buffalo Bulls favored big, and rightly so. Playing out of the MAC, the Bulls only managed three wins last season.
Buffalo is breaking in a new starting quarterback, junior Alex Zordich, who served as a backup last season. And the Bulls will be without arguably their best defensive player, linebacker Khalil Mack, who will be serving a one-game suspension for violation of team rules.
Make no mistake; this is a tune-up game for the Dawgs. But there’s more to winning this game than just being ahead on the scoreboard when the clock hits all zeros.
The Bulldogs travel to Columbia in Week 2 to take on a very good Missouri team. Georgia needs to take full advantage of the Buffalo game to prepare for its SEC opener with the Tigers.
Here are seven keys for Georgia to “win” this game and take away as much from it as possible headed into 2012.
The one bright spot for Buffalo is running back Brandon Oliver. Oliver rushed for 1,395 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Look for the Bulldogs to focus on stopping the run and make Zordich try to beat them with his arm.
This should be a good test for the UGA secondary, especially some of the players filling in for cornerback Sanders Commings and safety Bacarri Rambo, both of whom will be serving suspensions for at least the first two games.
Malcolm Mitchell, last season’s freshman sensation at wide receiver, practiced the entire spring and fall at cornerback but will see his first live action on defense against Buffalo. Coaches and players have high praise for Mitchell on defense, but he will need this game to get some live action experience before heading to Missouri.
Listed second on the depth chart behind Branden Smith, Damian Swann is another player expected to step in and help out at cornerback and should see some significant playing time in the first two games. Swann saw little action last season as a freshman, posting five tackles with two assists. The Bulldogs will be relying on him more in the first two games, so it’s important for him to play well and gain some confidence against the Bulls.
Also, expect to see highly-touted freshmen Josh Harvey-Clemons and Sheldon Dawson see some action against the Bulls in his first game with the Dawgs. Though he played linebacker in high school, Harvey-Clemons is still a little undersized and, according to OnlineAthens.com, spent the fall learning the safety and nickel cornerback positions. That same article reports that Dawson has put on 20 pounds since arriving in Athens and has impressed coaches in practices and scrimmages.
Limiting the Bulls to under 200 yards passing and no big plays should be considered a win for the Georgia secondary.
Clearly the biggest question mark coming into 2012 for the Bulldogs is how well the offensive line can perform. They won’t have much of a test against a Buffalo defense that was, according to CFBStats.com, 86th in the nation defending the rush and tied for 95th nationally with only 17 sacks in 2011.
But it will be important for this unit to get some game experience working together. There is some experience on this line, but positions have changed and this group needs gel quick. Beating up on a smaller, less talented front seven from Buffalo should give this unit some confidence headed into the rest of the season.
Georgia is also breaking in a new center in 2012 in David Andrews, who replaces four-year starter and team captain Ben Jones. With a new center come concerns as simple as the quarterback/center exchange. This will be a good game for Andrews to get some live action experience before Georgia’s SEC opener.
Not allowing any sacks and less than five tackles for loss should be considered a win for the offensive line.
Although untested, Georgia looks to be loaded at running back in 2012. Redshirt sophomore Ken Malcome will likely get the start, but expect to see Richard Samuel and true freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to get plenty of carries as well against the Bulls.
Especially considering the suspension of linebacker Khalil Mack, expect the Buffalo defense to have a very hard time stopping Georgia’s rushing attack. This will be the Bulldog Nation’s much-anticipated first look at Gurley and Marshall and it is unlikely they will disappoint.
At least one 100-yard rusher and over 250 rushing yards as a team should be considered a win for the running back committee.
Freshman Marshall Morgan in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl
After losing both place kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler to the NFL, Georgia lists freshmen Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber, respectively, as the starters on the depth chart to replace them.
Morgan has looked solid during practice and scrimmages, but it’s tough to gauge a pressure position like that until it’s in a game situation. With senior James Lindley competing for playing time, Morgan needs to have a solid game if he wants to stay on top of the depth chart.
Collin Barber is also a question mark as a freshman and similarly has competition with sophomore Adam Erickson for punting duties. Don’t be surprised to see both appear in this game, assuming Georgia punts enough to give each a chance.
No missed extra points, no missed field goals under 50 yards and at least a 40-yard punt average should be considered a win for the kickers.
Despite throwing for 35 touchdowns last season, Murray also threw 14 interceptions. That number has got to come down in 2012. Murray needs to improve his decision-making and stop trying to force the ball when the play is not there.
According to CFBStats.com, Georgia was plus-11 in turnovers in their 10 wins and minus-4 in its four losses. That’s a telling statistic. The Bulldogs have got to protect the ball better in big games.
No interceptions or lost fumbles, or any fumbles for that matter, should be considered a win for the Bulldogs concerning turnovers.
In 2011, Georgia played two teams from non-BCS conferences, Coastal Carolina and New Mexico State. The offense put up 59 and 63 points, respectively, in those games.
Look for that trend to continue against Buffalo.
The Bulldogs offense needs to come out swinging and hang at least a half a hundred on the Bulls to set the tone for the rest of the season.
Scoring at least 50 points should be considered a win for the Bulldogs.
Georgia returns nine starters from a defense that ranked in the top five in the nation in 2011, so expect an even better season in Defensive Coordinator Todd Grantham’s third year with his 3-4 scheme.
The defense needs to come out firing on all cylinders, despite the aforementioned suspension, and set the tone for the rest of the season. This unit held LSU to zero first downs and 12 total yards in the first half of the 2011 SEC Championship Game, so there’s no reason for the first team defense to let the Bulls offense onto the Georgia side of the field in the first half.
As the Dawgs sub in second team players in the second half, the defense may bend a little but shouldn’t break at all.
No touchdowns and less than 10 points should be considered a win for the Bulldogs’ defense.