1. Georgia is off to an 0-2 start in SEC play for the first time in a long time. What does that mean to fans?
It's a very big deal. After wandering in the wilderness for 20 years following the successes of the early 1980s, and particularly after suffering through the consistent mediocrity of the mid-1990s, Georgia fans really felt that the Bulldogs had turned a corner under Mark Richt. The Red and Black won ten or more games six times in seven years between 2002 and 2008, while capturing two SEC titles, finishing no worse than tied for first place in the Eastern Division four times, and attending three Sugar Bowls in the process.
Since finishing the 2007 season ranked No. 2 and beginning the next season ranked No. 1, though, Georgia has stumbled, losing blowouts to eventual division champions Alabama and Florida in 2008, posting more than four losses for the first time since 1996 last year, and opening at 0-2 in SEC play this year. Three straight sub-par seasons would be a major disappointment for the Georgia faithful, and it would only increase the frequency with which the direction of the program is questioned. It's been about 15 years since the Bulldogs were in this position, and we're not anxious to go back to those dark days.
2. Is Mark Richt on the hot seat this season? Do most fans see this game as a must-win game for Richt to avoid more criticism about the state of the program?
It's definitely a must-win game for Georgia. The losses to South Carolina and Arkansas, while painful, were to teams which currently are undefeated and ranked in the top 15. Mississippi State, though, is in the same boat in which the Red and Black find themselves: 1-2 and winless in conference play. Another setback on Saturday would drop Georgia to 10-9 in the Classic City Canines' last 19 games, which could make the situation very uncomfortable in Athens.
That said, it's fair to say that Mark Richt is not on the hot seat this season. Any chance that 2010 would be a make-or-break year for the dean of SEC coaches was ended when Coach Richt cleaned house on the defensive side of the ball last fall. That bought him additional time, so that even a disappointing campaign this autumn would not keep him from returning to the Sanford Stadium sideline in 2011.
3. A.J. Green is serving a 4 game suspension imposed by the NCAA. Obviously his absence has been felt on the offensive side of the ball. Would he have made a difference in either of the 2 losses this season?
I don't believe so. Aaron Murray has exceeded expectations in the first three games of his redshirt freshman season, and other receivers such as Kris Durham and Tavarres King have stepped up in Green's absence. The Bulldogs' offensive woes have started with poor line play, so it's doubtful even the nation's best wide receiver could have made much of a difference.
More critical to last weekend's loss between the hedges were the injuries to tailback Caleb King and fullback Shaun Chapas. The absence of King's pass-blocking skills and Chapas's run-blocking skills directly contributed to the loss to Arkansas, so, while A.J. Green is Georgia's best player, he hasn't been the most important missing piece of the puzzle for the Red and Black.
4. Georgia fired defensive coordinator Willie Martinez after last year's 7-5 season. They replaced him with Todd Grantham, who was the defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys. How is the defense performing under Grantham?
Due to the transition to a 3-4 scheme, the Georgia defense remains a work in progress, as the players learn a new system and try to break bad habits (like poor tackling). Still, the early returns are encouraging. The Gamecocks and the Razorbacks both appear to be better offensively this year than last year, yet Todd Grantham's defense held both opponents to lower point totals in 2010 than the Bulldogs managed to do against South Carolina and Arkansas in 2009. Despite having faced Marcus Lattimore, Georgia ranks third in the conference against the run; despite having faced Ryan Mallett, Georgia is allowing just over 18 points per game. The Red and Black still have a long way to go, but there's no doubt the defense is heading in the right direction.
5. Give me your prediction for this game. MSU was actually a 2 point favorite at the beginning of the week. Do you see the game being that close?
I fully expect a close, low-scoring game. I have been impressed by what I have seen so far from Mississippi State's defense, which posted a second-half shutout against Auburn and held LSU to four first-half field goals. A night game on the road in SEC play is always a challenge, so I expect to see a traditional SEC defensive struggle in which the first team to 20 points wins. My head tells me to worry because it's been a while since a Georgia fan had cause for confidence, but my heart tells me the Eastern Division Bulldogs will escape from Starkville with a hard-fought victory by a three-point margin.