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Previewing Michigan vs. Georgia with a Bulldog insider

Clayton Sayfie12/27/21
Article written by:On3 imageClayton Sayfie

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Georgia Bulldogs football linebacker Nakobe Dean was named a 2021 All-American. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

TheWolverine.com caught up with Palmer Thombs of DawgsHQ to preview the Georgia Bulldogs’ matchup with the Michigan Wolverines in the Orange Bowl.

The insider broke down strengths and weaknesses of the Bulldogs, predicted the final score of the College Football Playoff semifinal and more.

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Georgia Projected Starters On Offense

• Fifth-year senior QB Stetson Bennett — He’s completed 148 of his 231 pass attempts (64.1 percent) for 2,325 yards and 24 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He started 10 of the team’s 13 games, with JT Daniels, who battled an injury but didn’t win his job back, earning the nod in the other three. Daniels has missed practice time leading up to the game with an illness.

• Redshirt junior RB Zamir White — He leads the team with 718 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and 55.3 yards per game.

• Sophomore WR Jermaine Burton — He’s recorded 23 catches for 412 yards (third on team) and four touchdowns, while lining up out wide on 81.7 percent of his snaps.

• Freshman WR Adonai Mitchell — He lines up on the outside on over 95 percent of his plays. The rookie has racked up 25 catches for 342 yards and two scores.

• Redshirt freshman WR Ladd McConkey — He’s second on the team with 430 receiving yards on 28 catches, with five touchdowns, while lining up in the slot on 50.7 percent of his snaps.

• Freshman TE Brock Bowers — The second-team All-American and SEC Newcomer of the Year leads the Bulldogs with 791 receiving yards and 47 catches with a team-high 11 touchdowns. He leads the way with 12 contested catches, per Pro Football Focus (PFF). His 70.9 PFF run-blocking rating is considered good.

• Senior LT Jamaree Salyer — He missed the final four regular-season games with an injury but returned and started in the SEC championship. The 6-4, 325-pounder has started 21 career contests. His 86.9 PFF pass-blocking grade leads the team, and he’s given up just two pressures and one sack this season.

• Fifth-year senior LG Justin Shaffer — The 6-4, 330-pounder was named second-team All-SEC. He has opened 25 career games. His 77.1 PFF run-blocking rating tops the team’s starting offensive linemen, though he’s allowed four sacks and 14 pressures in pass protection.

• Redshirt freshman C Sedrick Van Pran — The 6-4, 310-pounder has started every game this season and ranks fifth among the Bulldogs’ starting offensive linemen with a 69.5 overall PFF rating. He’s second among that group in pass blocking, however, with a 76.5 mark, no sacks yielded and just seven pressures allowed.

• Redshirt junior RG Warren Ericson — The 6-4, 305-pounder has started 16 career outings. His 70.2 overall PFF grade slots fourth among the team’s starting offensive linemen, and he’s given up eight pressures and two sacks on the year.

• Redshirt sophomore RT Warren McClendon — The 6-4, 300-pounder has opened 22 collegiate tilts. His 74.7 overall PFF grade checks in second among the team’s starting offensive linemen. He’s yielded no sacks and only six pressures this year.

Georgia Projected Starters On Defense

• Senior DT Jordan Davis — The 6-6, 340-pounder was named a first-team All-American and earned the Bednarik Award for the nation’s top defensive player. He’s registered 28 tackles, 3.5 stops for loss, two sacks and nine quarterback hurries.

• Senior DT Devonte Wyatt — The second-team All-American has 34 tackles, including seven for loss, 2.5 sacks, 19 quarterback hurries, one pass breakup and two forced fumbles. His 22 pressures rank fourth on the team.

• Junior DL Travon Walker — He’s racked up 32 tackles, 5.5 stops for loss, four sacks, 21 quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and two pass breakups. His 23 pressures are tied for second on the unit.

• Junior OLB Nolan Smith — He’s fifth on the team with 41 tackles, while adding six tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception.

• Junior LB Nakobe Dean — The first-team All-American and Butkus Award winner is tied atop the team with 61 tackles and 8.5 stops for loss, while contributing five sacks, two interceptions, five pass breakups, 20 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. His 23 pressures are tied for second on the Bulldogs.

• Senior LB Quay Walker — He’s tallied 53 stops, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery, with 17 pressures.

• Senior STAR Latavious Brini — He’s totaled 38 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and eight passes defended, while yielding 24 receptions for 210 yards and one touchdown in 37 targets in coverage.

• Senior CB Derion Kendrick — The second-team All-SEC honoree has registered 33 tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage, two picks and three pass breakups. In 43 targets, he’s given up 22 catches for 318 yards and no touchdowns.

• Redshirt freshman CB Kelee Ringo — He’s accumulated 27 tackles, one sack, seven pass breakups, one interception and one quarterback hurry, while allowing just 15 receptions for 194 yards and three touchdowns on 42 challenges in coverage.

• Junior S Lewis Cine — The third-team All-American is tied for the team’s lead with 61 stops, including one tackle for loss, while adding eight pass breakups, one interception and one quarterback hurry. He’s given up 33 receptions for 334 yards and one touchdown on 51 targets.

• Senior S Christopher Smith — In 10 games, he’s racked up 27 tackles, two interceptions, two pass breakups and two quarterback hurries. He’s yielded 13 catches for 82 yards on 18 targets.

Georgia Specialists

• Junior K Jack Podlesny — He’s connected on 18 of his 22 field goal attempts, with a long of 46 yards and a 3-of-5 mark from beyond 40 yards.

• Senior K/P Jake Camarda — He’s averaging 47.1 yards per punt, with a long of 68 yards, 15 kicks of 50-plus yards and 15 pins inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He also handles kickoff duties, with 58 touchbacks on 88 boots.

Top Strength Of Bulldog Offense

Georgia’s best player on the offensive side of the ball is freshman tight end Brock Bowers, a second-team All-American. That poses a matchup problem for the Wolverines, whose linebackers have struggled in coverage this season. Redshirt junior Josh Ross has given up 29 receptions for 285 yards and one touchdown on 39 targets in coverage this year, for example, and he may have a tough time staying with Bowers if that’s his assignment.

“To me, the biggest strength of the Georgia offense is Brock Bowers,” Thombs said. “The freshman tight end is a weapon, and it goes hand-in-hand with the offense’s ability to take what’s given to it.

“If teams are going to try and make Georgia win a game by running the ball, Bowers has the ability to stay in and block. On the flip side of things, if teams want to make Georgia win a game by airing it out, Bowers is a threat in the passing game.

“Georgia has been able to use this versatility to its advantage, too, with the play action, hitting on several of its biggest plays this season by using it.”

Georgia fifth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett has seen 1,087 of his 2,324 passing yards and 14 of his 24 touchdown tosses come via play-action, according to PFF.

Biggest Weakness Of Bulldog Offense

Georgia averages 191.1 rushing yards per game, with 5.3 yards per carry (the latter mark ranks 15th in the country). But the Bulldogs’ 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, when they weren’t able to lean on the run game, may have exposed some warts. When forced to throw and attempt to come from behind, Bennett averaged just 7.1 yards per attempt and tossed two interceptions.

“While Georgia takes what is given to it by the defense, that also means that the Bulldogs don’t really have an offensive identity: one thing that when push comes to shove, [head coach] Kirby Smart knows he can count on,” Thombs said.

“It really showed when the Bulldogs were forced to play from behind against Alabama. Stetson Bennett didn’t play his best, but at least to this point in his career, his best has never come out while having his hand forced to air it out each and every play in order to come from behind.”

Top Strength Of Bulldog Defense

Georgia is extremely strong at the line of scrimmage, with a rushing defense that ranks second nationally (81.7 yards per game allowed) and a unit that includes 17 players who have recorded at least a half-sack and nine athletes with more than 10 quarterback hurries.

“This one is easy, and it’s the front seven,” Thombs said of the defense’s biggest strength. “The depth of this group is insane, and it’s been incredibly helpful in its effort to stop the run and make teams one-dimensional. And even then, they’ve come up big by getting pressure on quarterbacks in obvious passing situations.

“Georgia wasn’t able to do that against Alabama, and it showed, but in every other game this season, the front seven has been strong. Now it’s time to see whether that SEC championship game was a fluke or Georgia hadn’t played competition that could hold its own against the talented players that Kirby Smart has in the front seven.”

Biggest Weakness Of Bulldog Defense

Georgia slots third nationally with 171.5 passing yards per game allowed, but the Bulldogs were exposed against the Crimson Tide, yielding 421 yards and three touchdowns through the air in their lone loss of the year.

“The biggest weakness of the defense definitely comes on the back end,” Thombs revealed. “It was a concern for Georgia coming into the season, losing a total of eight defensive backs from last year’s roster, and for the majority of the season, things seemed fine. Then the Alabama game happened, and it felt like the floodgates were opened.

“Now, we’ll have to see if Michigan can put the pressure on Georgia in the secondary in the same way that the Crimson Tide were able to. My feeling is that most teams in the country aren’t able to do that because they don’t have [Alabama quarterback] Bryce Young and [Alabama wide receiver] Jameson Williams to throw at you. However, if Georgia isn’t able to get pressure on the quarterback from the front-seven, like it wasn’t able to do against Alabama, the back end of the defense is susceptible to giving up big plays through the air.”

Thombs’ Final Score Prediction

“I have a really hard time seeing Georgia losing two games in a row, so you can probably tell where this prediction is going,” Thombs began. “UGA looked like the most dominant team in the country for most of the season leading up to the SEC championship game. And while that performance certainly gives reason to question them, I don’t see a similar showing here.

“Instead, I think they’ll come out with something to prove after the poor performance against Alabama. However, these are two football teams that want to win games the same way: physically. Because of that, I think it’ll be close, but I’ll give the edge to Kirby Smart and company based on the athletes that they have trying to win in that way.”

Prediction: Georgia 24, Michigan 17