And it doesn't get any easier for the Bulldogs Saturday as they face a resurgent Mississippi team in a colossal Southeastern Conference clash. Jefferson-Pilot will televise regionally the game with kickoff set for 12:30 p.m. at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, MS. The game also will be broadcast on ESPN's Game Day package, available by calling 1-800-Get-Sports.
Mississippi used a welcome open date last week to recover physically and mentally from the longest-played game in NCAA history--a draining 58-56, seven-overtime loss to Arkansas on Nov. 3. The Rebels also will be trying to end a four-game losing streak to Georgia. The Bulldogs overcame an early 14-0 deficit behind Musa Smith's season-best 144 rushing yards and a defense that shut out Mississippi in the second half to post a 32-14 win a year ago. Mississippi last beat Georgia 31-27 in 1996 at Athens. The Rebels haven't beaten the Bulldogs in Oxford since 1995. Still, Georgia owns only a slim 7-5 advantage over the Rebels in games played in Oxford. Georgia leads the series, 26-12-1. The teams first met in 1940, but have played annually since 1966.
Georgia (5-3 overall, 4-3 conference) is still one win shy of being bowl eligible. The Bulldogs appear to need a win over Mississippi or Georgia Tech to secure one of the SEC's contracted bowl berths.
Mississippi was chosen by many to finish last in the SEC's Western Division. Instead, the Rebels (6-2 overall, 3-2 conference) have been the surprise team of the entire conference. Georgia is out of contention to play in the SEC Championship game, but Mississippi is not. However, Auburn controls a tiebreaker with Mississippi by virtue of the Tigers' victory over the Rebels earlier this season. That means Mississippi must win out and hope that both Alabama and LSU beat Auburn in order for the Rebels to play in the championship game. Mississippi could remain the only West school not to win at least a share of the division title since the SEC expanded to twelve teams in 1992.
Although the Rebels haven't been able to call themselves the West's best in a given year, Ole Miss has been the division's most consistent team the last six years in terms of victories and bowl appearances. The Rebels are 36-20 since 1997, amassing the most victories and highest winning percentage (.643) among all West teams during that span. Mississippi's streak of four consecutive bowl appearances also is the longest among Western Division teams, and the Rebels should extend that to five in a row this season.
Unfortunately for Coach Mark Richt's Bulldogs, this year's Mississippi team may be the school's best in more than a decade. And if No. 23 Georgia doesn't improve its execution Saturday, its deficiencies will be more glaring. The Rebels average 2.5 fewer yards per game than the Bulldogs, but they are seventh in the nation in scoring offense with 38.8 points per game. Georgia, on the other hand, ranks third in the conference and 22nd in the nation in total offense with 436.1 yards per game. However, the Bulldogs are just sixth in the league and 55th in the nation in scoring offense with 26.8 points per game.
Mississippi's biggest strength is its passing game. In only eight games, sophomore quarterback Eli Manning already has broken the school record with 23 touchdown passes. He ranks third in the SEC and ninth nationally with a 155.5 passer rating, completing 185 of 285 passes with only two interceptions. Manning's favorite target is sophomore Chris Collins, who has 40 catches and six touchdowns. Tight end Doug Ziegler has four touchdown catches. Running back Joe Gunn averages 77 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry. The line, anchored by senior tackle Terrence Metcalf, has allowed an SEC-low eight sacks.
Defensively, Coach David Cutliffe's Rebels rank second nationally in pass defense, but opponents are averaging better than 221 rushing yards per game. Linebacker Eddie Strong is the team's top defender with 78 tackles and two sacks. Defensive tackle Kenny Jackson has 71 tackles and a team-high 10 quarterback pressures. The Rebels have an SEC-low eight sacks, but opponents have thrown only seven touchdown passes, second lowest in the league.
Georgia also has a great quarterback in redshirt freshman David Greene, who has completed 164 of 269 passes for 2,276 yards. Greene has tossed 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Bulldogs have struggled defensively in recent games. They are led on this side of the ball by middle linebacker Tony Gilbert, who has tallied a team-best 80 tackles (48 solos; 32 assists), including six for a loss. Gilbert, a 6-foot-1, 246-pound junior, has also made one interception. Senior Jermaine Phillips, one of the team's top NFL prospects and biggest hitters, is also having a very productive season. The 6-foot-2, 211-pound Phillips is second on the team in tackles with 65, including 40 solo stops. He also has six pass breakups and two interceptions.
Junior free safety Terreal Bierria is Georgia's third leading tackler with 62 stops (46 solos; 16 assists). He has recovered three fumbles as well. Statistically, Georgia junior rush end Charles Grant had his finest game as a Bulldog against Auburn. Grant was credited with a career-high 13 tackles, including five for a loss. He also forced a fumble and recorded four sacks. Grant now has 13 career sacks, which ranks eighth in Georgia history. Senior Josh Mallard is the active leader with 15 while the record is 29 by Richard Tardits (1985-88), who hailed from Biarritz, France.
The Bulldogs' offensive line has nearly a thirty-pound advantage per player (287-258) over the Mississippi defensive line. But the Rebels' offensive line outweighs the Georgia defensive line an average of more than twenty pounds per player (293-272).
Musts Georgia needs to do to win follow.
* Pressure Eli Manning.
Georgia has to really mix it up and show Manning a lot of looks defensively. The Bulldogs have to GAMA--get after Manning's you-know-what. Georgia may find it difficult to rotate fresh linemen onto the field in order to keep the heat on Manning. The Rebels' sensation has been getting ample time from his offensive line to find receivers. Georgia needs to find some ways to have a fierce pass rush, but the Bulldogs also have to respect the running threat of Rebels' tailback Joe Gunn, who's averaging 77 yards a game.
* Have best game of season from secondary.
The Bulldogs can ill-afford to let Manning pick apart their secondary. If he has a field day, Mississippi may win by a fairly wide margin. Last season, cornerback Tim Wansley tied for the SEC lead with six interceptions. This year, he has only one. Bulldogs Brandon Williams, Decory Bryant and Dantra Clements need to turn up their level of play from their defensive backfield positions too. Georgia may need a couple interceptions to win.
* Run the ball.
The Bulldogs would greatly help themselves by getting their running game going this week. So far this season, the Bulldogs rank only 10th in the SEC and 76th in the country in rushing offense (134.2 yards per game). Georgia hasn't had a 100-yard rusher since Musa Smith gained 158 yards against Arkansas State in the season opener. Smith leads the team with 459 rushing yards, but he might miss the rest of the regular season with a chronic groin injury and will probably play only sparingly in the games in which he does play.
The lack of a running game vastly affects Georgia's passing efficiency. How successful the Bulldogs are at establishing a running game will likely reflect how effective Greene will be throwing the ball. Running backs Verron Haynes and Jasper Sanks need to step up with career games to help Georgia run the ball well enough to play ball control, win the time of possession battle and help Greene exploit the Rebels' defense. Greene is more than up to the challenge, but the Bulldogs' offensive line has to complement the running backs by keeping Jackson and the rest of the Rebel defense off him as much as possible. Expect Richt to abandon the no-huddle offense for most of this game.
* Score in the red zone.
Georgia is next-to-last in the SEC in red-zone offense, having scored just 65.6 percent of the time it gets inside its opponent's 20-yard line. In the Bulldogs' 24-17 loss to Auburn last week, Georgia was inside the Tigers' 40-yard line seven times and scored just three points. If the Bulldogs don't do any better in the red zone against Mississippi, they're will be in great peril of losing.
GAME PREDICTION - This game is a toss-up of toss-ups. It will probably take 30 points to win it. Whichever team commits the fewest number of turnovers will likely prevail. One big advantage for the Bulldogs: Greene has a better cast of receivers to throw to than Manning does. Georgia arguably has the best array of receivers of any school in the country with players such as wideouts Fred Gibson, Terrence Edwards and Damien Gary and tight ends Randy McMichael and Benjamin Watson.
Georgia has not proven it can run the ball consistently well. It will have its best chance in a long time against the Rebels. Still, Mississippi appears better defensively and is playing at home, so I'll go with the Rebels to win. Will Mississippi play consecutive seven overtime games? One chance in ten thousand. Could the Rebels play back-to-back overtime games? Very possibly. Mississippi 33, Georgia 27 (in regulation). Prove me wrong Bulldogs!
BOWL PREDICTION - Georgia will finish 7-4 in the regular season and play 7-5 North Carolina in the Peach Bowl. Remember you read it here first.