In past years, Georgia’s annual tilt with Vanderbilt has been regarded by fans and media as just one notch above one of the nonconference cupcakes on the schedule (a Twinkie?), elevated mainly by it being an SEC East game.
It’s been a low-key “rivalry” by any standards. Even on those rare occasions when Georgia had lost to the Commodores the previous year (only once out of the past 17 years), there wasn’t much of a build-up in terms of grudge factor and very little anticipation on the part of the Bulldog Nation. It was viewed as an aberration. “We lost to Vandy!”
That’s not to say that the Vandy game has always been an easy win for Georgia. The Dores have generally played with attitude and sometimes the Dawgs have barely eked out a victory against the school from Nashville. But even when they did there was still a sense that it was only Vandy. Remember the chagrin many UGA fans expressed over seeing Bulldog players celebrating at midfield after Brandon Coutu’s last-second field goal gave Georgia a much-needed win in 2007?
Last year’s game probably should have fallen into that category. Georgia won, but thanks to an implosion on the part of the Dawgs’ special teams, the game was much closer than it should have been. Plus it was more chippy than usual thanks to the Georgia players’ irritation over cut blocks and late hits. Three players (two from Georgia, one from Vandy) wound up serving half-game suspensions from the conference for their behavior in that game.
Ah, but what what has truly elevated the Georgia-Vanderbilt series from Little Debbie status in 2012 to something resembling full-on SEC rivalry (at least for this week) is last year’s postgame on-field confrontation between voluble Vandy head coach James Franklin and fiery Georgia defensive chief Todd Grantham.
Generally, nobody looks forward to the Vanderbilt game in the offseason, but there’s been a suprising amount of fan anticipation over this one. Richt was even asked about the rematch with the Commodores at one of those spring fan gatherings!
The Georgia coach and the rest of his staff, as well has the Vandy coach, have tried to downplay the Grantham-Franklin aspect of this year’s game, though the UGA players haven’t been shy about their feelings. “We’ll be charged up,” defensive back Sanders Commings said this week. “We’re going to remember last year. Vandy’s a good team, but they’re not us. We’re going to show them.”
For their part, the Commodores likely have a bit of a chip on their shoulders about last year as well. They no doubt feel they should have won last year’s game, and they nearly did.
Of course, having the Dawgs enter a game with a bit of fire and emotion against an opponent that, on paper, isn’t their equal generally would be considered a good thing, as opposed to the taking-a-win-for-granted sleepwalking we sometimes see early on in such matches.
But what Georgia’s players have to guard against is letting their emotions get away from them, as appeared to happen last year in Nashville, when Mark Richt’s team got called for 11 penalties (including three personal fouls), allowed its focus to waver in defending the run (letting a Vandy team ranked 100th in the nation in rushing gash them repeatedly), wound up having to try for too many field goals (only making four of six attempted) and turned even punting into something resembling Russian roulette.
As Richt said after the game: “I’m thankful for the victory … but I’m disappointed in how we played overall.”
As we approach this year’s game with Vandy, the anticipation is that the Dores will play the Dawgs tough, at least early on, but again are outmatched. Thus, a point spread of better than two touchdowns.
Franklin has upgraded his program’s personnel, but so far still with pretty much the same results. Does it really matter whether Jordan Rodgers or Austyn Carta-Samuels starts at quarterback? Probably not much. Vandy’s running game struggled against South Carolina and Northwestern (both losses for the Dores) and then got on track last week against Presbyterian, a Football Championship Subdivision school. But in the words of Vandy’s head coach, “Doing it against Presbyterian is one thing. Doing it against Georgia is another.”
As long as Georgia doesn’t make too many mistakes (turnovers, missed defensive assignments), the game shouldn’t be as challenging as the win over Missouri. Last year against Vandy, Georgia didn’t have much of a rushing game. That shouldn’t be the case this year. And Mike Bobo’s passing attack has been pretty impressive of late.
The main thing I’ll be watching is how Georgia’s still-not-full-strength defense opens, after another slow start last week against Florida Atlantic. Perhaps the ill will generated by last year’s fracas will be enough motivation to have Georgia’s much-vaunted defenders playing up to their capabilities from the very start instead of having to rely on Grantham’s admittedly effective halftime adjustments.
If that’s the case, the Georgia-Vandy series should be back to its normal boring self next year.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg