Three Teams Standing in the Way of the Three-peat

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Three Teams Standing in the Way of the Three-peat

A lot has been made of Georgia’s 2023 schedule. After the SEC canceled Georgia’s trip to Norman, where the Bulldogs were scheduled to take on the Oklahoma Sooners, the Bulldogs’ non-conference schedule became a lot less daunting. Regardless, there are a plethora of football programs the Bulldogs will have to face that are just itching to knock the king of college football off its throne. As we know, in the SEC, you cannot afford to take a week off. And as a new breed of Bulldogs awaits the first kickoff of the 2023 season, where they aim for a historic third national championship in the same number of years, there are three teams in particular who look to derail UGA’s title hopes.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Shane Beamer has made his presence known in the landscape of college football. His South Carolina program has become a bit of an anomaly. Last year, the Gamecocks were blown out on the road against an underachieving Florida team but then found a way to secure back-to-back upset wins against a top 5 Tennessee team as well as a top 10 Clemson team.

At the helm of Carolina’s offense stands Spencer Rattler. Rattler’s play last year was a microcosm of the program’s inconsistent outings. Rattler is gunslinger who is capable of throwing for 438 yards and 6 touchdowns, like he did against Tennessee, as well as throwing for 118 yards and 2 interceptions, as he did against Georgia.

The Gamecocks’ offensive supporting cast suffered multiple key losses with Marshawn Lloyd off to the real USC and do-it-all tight end Jaheim Bell electing to transfer to Florida State. However, Juice Wells Jr. is one of the top receivers in the SEC, and Xavier Legette showed his potential after recording seven catches and two touchdowns against Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains should prove beneficial to a Gamecock offense that turned the football over 27 times last season.

Defensively, the Gamecocks look to strengthen their rush defense, which finished 13th out of 14 teams in the SEC last season. They return both Jordan Strachan and Mohamed Kaba from ACL injuries, both of whom are expected to be critical pieces of South Carolina’s defense. Carolina’s defensive strength, though, lies with their defensive backs. Nick Emmanwori and DQ Smith are the pair of sophomore safeties that will form one of the better duos in the SEC, and cornerbacks O’Donnell Fortune and Macellas Dial look to build off their excellent finish to the 2022 campaign.

The Dawgs square off against the Gamecocks in the third week of the season after clashes with UT Martin and Ball State. It will be the first true test of the season, and Georgia will have 93,000 fans packed in Sanford Stadium to cheer on the back-to-back champions. While on paper, Georgia should cruise by the Gamecocks. South Carolina, however, has the players and coaching staff to put any team on upset alert.

How Georgia wins: As mentioned, South Carolina’s offensive strength comes from their explosive passing attack. Defensively, Georgia needs to limit South Carolina’s big-play ability and make the Gamecocks sustain drives to win. The Bulldogs will rely on their stout defensive line to eliminate the run and make the Gamecock offense one-dimensional. Spencer Rattler will want to hit the home run ball, so applying pressure to him and forcing him to rush progressions and throws is crucial.

As for the offensive side of the ball, establishing the run game is key. South Carolina’s rushing defense was abysmal last year, and they will be relying on multiple players who missed significant time last year due to injuries. Additionally, getting the tight ends involved is important. Georgia can create mismatches with Brock Bowers and Oscar Delp, who will look to wreak havoc on South Carolina’s defensive backs. Bowers torched the South Carolina defense last year and will be relied upon to do the same this year.

Ole Miss Rebels

Break out your popcorn because Lane Kiffin is finally bringing his Ole Miss Rebels to Athens for a late-season SEC clash. After a remarkable start to last season, where the Rebels won their first seven contests, things certainly took a turn in Oxford as Ole Miss only won just one of their final six games.

The Rebels return running back Quinshon Judkins, who enjoyed a remarkable 2022 season by rushing for 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns as a TRUE freshman. Judkins managed to shatter record after record for the Rebels and looks to build off his remarkable freshman campaign.

Accompanying him on the offensive side of the ball is junior quarterback Jaxon Dart. After a solid sophomore season where he threw for 20 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards, Kiffin elected to head to the transfer portal to grab two more quarterbacks in veteran Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders and youngster Walker Howard from LSU. Dart remains the favorite to line up under center to start the season, but the Bulldogs will have to wait and see if Dart still has the job come November.

Pete Golding comes over to Oxford from Tuscaloosa in hopes of bringing some life into an Ole Miss defense that has struggled significantly over the past few seasons. Ole Miss’s rushing defense ranked 89th in the country last year, and when the Rebels began to slide late in the season, a large factor was their inability to keep teams from running the football. However, poor rushing defense is not uncommon in a 3-2-6 system, which Ole Miss ran prior to Golding being appointed. Expect the Rebels to adopt the 3-4 system Golding ran at Alabama in an attempt to fix their defensive front.

Ole Miss’s defensive strength lies within their two defensive ends, Cedric Johnson and Jared Ivey. Johnson and Ivey are both savvy pass rushers who combined for 8.5 sacks last season. Defensive tackle JJ Pegues returns for his senior year, where he looks to clog the middle of the field. The Rebels have added plenty of transfers and many of those new faces are expected to start on a defense that could consist of all juniors or seniors.

Ole Miss, on paper, should be considered one of Georgia’s toughest games, and rightly so. Lane Kiffin’s play-calling ability poses a considerable threat to any team in the country, and the Rebels’ head coach is looking for a landmark victory to propel his football program into contenders for the Western Division title.

How Georgia wins: Lane Kiffin is known for his aggressive play-calling and explosive offense based on elaborate schemes run at a lightening pace. However, Ole Miss’s strength lies in getting the ball to Quinshon Judkins. The Bulldogs have to find a way to slow down Judkins’ production and make Ole Miss win through the arm of Jaxon Dart. Force Ole Miss into fourth-down situations because, as Lane Kiffin has shown in the past, he will go for it without hesitation on his side of the field. Against Texas Tech in the TaxAct Texas Bowl, the Rebels failed five times on fourth down, decimating their chances of winning the ball game.

Offensively, Georgia should force Ole Miss to stop their run game. As mentioned, the Rebels have been ranked at the bottom of the SEC in rush defense. Even with a new defensive coordinator and new system that will likely improve the Rebels’ rush defense, Georgia should be able to rely on their veteran offensive line to open up gaps in the run game. If the Bulldogs can effectively do this, Mike Bobo will look to dive deep into his playbook and open up the Ole Miss defense through the use of the play-action pass.

Tennessee Volunteers

Josh Heupel has ignited a spark in Knoxville, and the orange checkered-overall people in the Smokies are screaming from the mountaintops that Tennessee football is back and here to stay. While, from a recruiting standpoint, the Volunteers have a way to go to catch Georgia and Alabama, their elite offensive system and homefield advantage have the potential to keep UTK in any game against any opponent.

Last year’s Georgia vs. Tennessee game was the most anticipated contest of the season. Tennessee had been handed the number one ranking over the defending National Champions in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. When the two teams stepped onto the field in Athens, however, it became clear that Georgia was far superior to the visitors, dominating for four quarters.

This year, Tennessee will have to do without star quarterback Hendon Hooker. The Virginia Tech transfer was a perfect fit for Heupel’s system, which relies on a strong-armed quarterback capable of stretching the field. Joe Milton will take the reins from Hooker, who offers plenty of game experience. Milton was the starter over Hooker in 2021 before losing the job and played the remainder of the 2022 season after Hooker’s ACL injury. Milton has every physical attribute you could want in a quarterback, standing at 6’5″ and weighing 243 lbs. He is capable of making plays with his legs but also has effortless velocity and undeniably the strongest arm in college football.

Supporting Milton on the offensive side of the football are familiar faces in senior receivers Bru McCoy and Ramel Keyton. McCoy finished second on the team last year in yards with 667, while Keyton averaged an impressive 18.1 yards per catch. Jabari Small also returns for his senior campaign after racking up 734 rushing yards last season. Tennessee’s offensive line is filled with seniors and juniors who have plenty of football experience.

As for the defensive side of the football, the Vols look to continue their improvement under DC Tim Banks. There was noticeable statistical improvement in points per game from 2021 to 2022 for Tennessee, who averaged just over a touchdown less per game than the prior season. The Volunteers’ rushing defense was terrific last season, ranking second in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game. However, Tennessee will need to make drastic improvement in their passing defense, which was a major weakness in 2022. The Volunteers return senior safeties Doneiko Slaughter and Jaylen McCollough, who will prove pivotal to whether UTK can improve their aerial defense. Tennessee lost its best pass rusher to the NFL in Byron Young and will depend on Roman Harrison and Tyler Baron to make up his production off the edge. Omari Thomas poses a problem in the middle of the field and could earn All-SEC honors by the end of the season, while Aaron Beasley looks to continue his 2022 production as the Volunteers’ leading tackler.

How Georgia wins: The Volunteers will look to replicate the hostile atmosphere the Bulldogs created last year in Athens. It is vital that Georgia starts fast, as taking away the rowdy Knoxville crowd is an absolute necessity. Last year, Georgia’s defense generated success by not allowing Tennessee’s offense to beat them over the top on the deep throw. The Dawgs gave Tennessee the underneath throws, but they forced the Vols to try to win by sustaining drives. However, Tennessee doesn’t operate like that. They want to go up-tempo, run the ball several times, and take their deep shot in one-on-one man coverage. The Dawgs must win their one-on-one battles and force Joe Milton to make multiple reads – something that he has struggled with both early in his career at Michigan and Tennessee.

As for the offensive side of the football, Georgia should look to establish their playmakers early, test that weak Tennessee secondary, and do everything possible to silence the UTK crowd. Wide receivers Dominic Lovett and Ladd McConkey will both have favorable matchups against Tennessee cornerbacks, so getting the ball into their hands is crucial. It doesn’t have to be a deep shot every time, but hitting these two weapons in space should cause serious problems for a secondary that ranked near the bottom of the SEC in 2022. In terms of quick strike ability down the field, Arian Smith is virtually unstoppable when healthy. Pick your moments and don’t be afraid to take your shot.

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