Athens, Georgia is home to one of the most prestigious college football programs in the Southeastern Conference – the University of Georgia. Most native Georgians are die-hard Bulldogs fans, watching their team completely overshadow in-state rival Georgia Tech annually in the gridiron battle dubbed, “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.” Although Georgia Tech has four national championships compared to UGA’s two, UGA has been the more dominant team over time, posting a 64-39-5 record against Tech throughout the rivalry’s history. Unfortunately for the Dawgs, the past doesn’t mean a whole lot.
Heading into week seven of the season, No. 22 Georgia Tech will host a much-improved Duke program (4-1) at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. Tech, currently one of only ten teams to remain undefeated, has garnished respect not only within the Atlantic Coast Conference but from a national audience as well. Seventh-year head coach Paul Johnson’s triple option rushing attack has had defensive coordinators around the country baffled all season; the Yellow Jackets currently sit 12th in the FBS in team rushing yards.
The key to their success in the triple option has been using a myriad of workhorses capable of shouldering the load. Justin Thomas has thrown for almost 700 yards in addition to rushing for 470, totaling 10 TDs. The team has five running backs that have all scored at least one touchdown, as well as back up quarterback, Tim Byerly who has rushed for three scores as well. Wide receiver DeAndre Smelter has also made a name for himself despite the focus on the ground game, hauling in 339 receiving yards and four TDs on the year.
UGA fans are likely turning their noses up at the Tech running game, rallying behind their Heisman-hopeful tailback Todd Gurley. The frightening truth, or at least how it seems halfway through the season, is that Gurley is the Dawgs’ only threat. Think about it; if Gurley were to go down, Georgia’s Playoff hopes would instantly vanish. Quite literally, Gurley is the entire offense: he holds the team’s longest pass (50 yards), rush (51 yards), and kick-off return (100 yards) of the season. Quarterback Hutson Mason has done a subpar job filling NFL draft pick Aaron Murray’s cleats, leading Georgia with a very sub-par 687 passing yards, seven TDs and three INTs. Chris Conley leads all receivers with 200 yards and two TDs; he certainly won’t be catching up to AJ Green in any categories at that pace (except for credits required to graduate). As such, teams will continue to dial in on Gurley as the season wears on, forcing the inexperienced Hutson to make some big time decisions in crucial games down the stretch.
The “Gurley Effect” aside, talks of SEC competition being much stiffer than the ACC will be another point of defense for most Bulldogs fans. But the SEC East is nothing to brag about this season, despite its historical dominance. UGA’s previous opponents this year have a combined record of 9-18, while Georgia Tech’s opponents boast a 15-13 record comparatively.
With a slow, almost meticulous start to the season, the Yellow Jackets have managed to improve and get better week by week. With nearly 300 yards rushing per game, Tech now ranks No. 1 nationally in third-down conversions at 58.1%; No. 4 in turnovers lost at four; and No. 14 in the nation in time of possession at about 33 minutes per game.
Given all their momentum, it will come as a huge surprise if the Yellow Jackets fall from the ranks of the unbeaten in October. They have beaten Duke in 10 straight contests; next up is the University of North Carolina, who they’ve beaten eight out of their last nine face-offs, and following that game they play Pittsburgh, who has struggled all season against the run. One thing certainly looks clear: the Tech ground attack will march into Athens on November 29 ready to reclaim the title as the Peach State’s best football team.
*Section Photo credit to Michael Shroyer, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Hyosub Shin, Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT