Getting Back to Atlanta

ATHENS – As fans left Sanford Stadium on Saturday all seemed loss, and that's typical after losses.

We saw the worst that Georgia could be all wrapped up into one game – a game against a legitimate opponent… one in Georgia's division no less. It was the worst kind of loss possible.

But the season is far from over, and the reality is that the goal of getting back to Atlanta is certainly still possible given Georgia's closing SEC schedule of at Vanderbilt, vs. Florida, at Auburn and vs. Kentucky.

Simply put: the game with the Gators is the end-all-be-all game for Georgia (what else is new?). Win that game, and the Bulldogs will probably play for the SEC Championship in Atlanta. Lose it, and the path seems too difficult to navigate.

Either Florida and South Carolina will have at least two losses after their contest in Columbia, SC in November. Both still have to travel to Columbia, MO, too, but they should both handle that game.

With all of that said, Georgia needs to improve on a few different things no matter what is going on around the SEC. Improvement in these areas will broaden the margin for error on the scoreboard, which is the name of the game.

1. Start forcing field goals - Saying: "Just play better defense" is a no brainer, but that's not going to happen with this group – at least it has not shown the ability to turn things around the way last year's defense did going into the Florida game. That group cut the points per game they allowed from 24 ppg in the first seven games of the season to only 15 ppg in the last seven games of the year – a heck of a turn around.

The problem with this defense is three-fold, but the biggest is not forcing field goals in favor of touchdowns. Obviously there is a four-point difference in the two, and that makes for a big difference at the end of the day.

Georgia has allowed 12 passing touchdowns and 11 rushing touchdowns, but the problem really comes in the red zone where Georgia is allowing scores 91% of the time – and touchdowns 76% of the time an opponent gets into the red zone.

Last year? Georgia allowed scores 74% of the time - only 50% of the time... a huge difference between this year and last.

Only twice this season have the Bulldogs forced a turnover inside of the red zone – and those were game-changing plays against South Carolina and Tennessee.

Georgia's defense needs to start forcing field goals instead of allowing touchdowns. It seems to be asking too much of this defense to get a turnover – they've only managed five the entire season – so one must be practical when it comes to these sorts of things.

But in order to force field goals the defense must stop a team on third down, which is going horribly of late.

That gets to my next point.

2. Leave the field on third down - Georgia is in 13th place in the SEC in opponents' third-down conversion, which is way too low. 43.7% of the time a team is on the field against Georgia in a third-down situation it converts against the Bulldogs.

Georgia, quite frankly, is playing OK on first and second down. But third down, the money down, is where the Bulldogs are going to have to improve. Georgia is tied for third in the conference in sacks – so pressure really isn't an issue. The Bulldogs are fourth best in the conference against the run. So what could the problem be on third down?

Oh, Georgia's pretty horrible against the pass… I knew it was something, which gets me to #3.

3. Georgia's train-wreck secondary - There are a host of problems with the secondary. Georgia has only forced one interception. The Bulldogs are 12th in pass defense – which is the worst unit total the Bulldogs have in SEC rankings… all of the other unit rankings have Georgia ranked no worse than 8th (Rushing offense 8th; Rushing defense 4th, Passing offense #2 and Passing defense #12).

Last year Georgia finished ranked #2 in the SEC against the pass. Again, this team has gone from #2 to #12 in pass defense. That can't be ignored. That group – which now dots NFL rosters – forced as many interceptions as they allowed touchdowns last year: 13. The screaming and yelling at coaches is something that comes with losing a game, but we do need to live in reality and understand that the defense got a total overhaul in the off-season.

Simply put: one player, Damien Swann, returned from a unit that was quite good against the pass last year. But even Swann is struggling – even being picked on – now.

Another issue? Continuity. Mark Richt talked about wanting as much continuity as possible in his secondary this season (he knows a thing or two about that in a secondary as his program had the same basic group of defensive backs over the previous three seasons), but that's been an adventure as well.

At least eight players have started two games or more this season for the Bulldogs in the secondary – that's a lot of moving parts for an experienced bunch, and it has spelled disaster for this group.

My expectation is that Tray Matthews will return to the staring lineup for the Florida game. That will give the Bulldogs back their usual starters in the secondary. Good thing for Georgia that the next three of the next four teams on the SEC schedule – Kentucky Auburn and Florida – are struggling to throw the ball; LSU, South Carolina and Missouri certainly are not struggling to throw it.

This group must improve. Not sort of improve, but improve in getting interceptions, and getting off the field. There is no mistaking the problem with the defense. It is youth in the secondary compounded by Swann's loss of confidence or perhaps trying to do too much. This group must come together when the band is playing. As individuals there is nothing wrong with them – just inexperience. They have to start making at least a play a half from here on out. I don't necessarily mean interceptions for touchdowns… that's not happening. I mean batting a ball down or ripping it from the receiver. That alone will get Georgia off the field twice more a game, and back to Atlanta if the rest of the team does its part.

4. ILB making plays – not just tackles - No one can argue that Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson are doing anything other than what the 3-4 defense is designed to let them do – they are tackling machines. They have 116 tackles between them, and are #2 and #4 in the SEC in terms of total tackles. They have done a great job doing their jobs in that sense.

But neither is making as many plays as they could, which could be said for anyone in any sport. Still, it is noticeable. Where are the fumbles? Herrera forced an important one against South Carolina to be sure, but when an entire defense has only "forced" one fumble in six games is a problem. At this time last year the defense had seven forced fumbles – it adds up. Its one way to get off the field, its also a way to end games.

Georgia's two linebackers have been productive – no question, but they have to start making plays. They are making the tackles, which is the most important part, but they have to start making plays as well. Making plays wins games – and that's what the defense is missing right now.

5. Get everyone healthy - Todd Gurley is the key to the season. If he can't play the season, in my view, is gone. J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas are great kids… they are backup running backs in the SEC, and in my opinion you can't win the SEC or even a division of the SEC with backup running backs. Both have struggled mightily in pass protection, and you can tell because of the way Murray acts in the pocket with them back there for extended periods of time.

Getting Gurley back will scare the opposition. He's the best running back in the country, and him not playing makes a huge, huge difference. You can tell he's not on the field as he makes life easier for Murray and company. Converting third and four is much easier than converting third and seven – and that's why Gurley matters.

Jonathon Rumph, a commodity the likes of which no one really knows what to expect from, hasn't played this season. He must play at least to the level of Chris Conley. If he can do that the offense will continue to score at record pace.

The return of Michael Bennett can't be undersold. Bennett, Wooten and Conley have to form the basis of the receiving group for the rest of the season. Rumph and Reggie Davis can add a speed aspect to the receiving group that went missing as soon as Justin Scott-Wesley tore his ACL against the Vols. Using walk-ons and backups who have not proven themselves is a way to get to 8-4.

Timing routes are critical in this offense, and Aaron Murray doesn't have timing developed with anyone outside of the group mentioned above – you saw that on Saturday as well.

There are other issues as well – special teams has been quite an adventure at times this season – but Mark Richt can get this team back to Atlanta. Something less than that would be a pretty big disappointment.

The bulk of the burden will be on three – and two have done it before: Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and the defensive secondary. Murray and Gurley will do what needs to be done. The secondary simply needs to improve a small amount each week to get the Bulldogs back in the biggest game in college football this side of Los Angeles.

Saying it is one thing… doing it is another.

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