By Scott Crumbly
Twitter: @Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
Coming into this season, there probably weren’t many Georgia fans circling their team’s Sept. 22 date with Vanderbilt as a crucial game in the Bulldogs’ mission to repeat as Eastern division champions in the Southeastern Conference. After all, the No. 5 Dawgs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) have controlled the all-time series with the Commodores, winning 52 of the 72 meetings between the schools dating back to 1893.
But recent history shows that overlooking a James Franklin-led Vanderbilt team would not be wise.
Since Franklin took the reigns as head coach in Nashville a season ago, Vandy has given their SEC counterparts all they can handle. The Commodores pushed UGA to the brink last season in Nashville, with the Bulldogs holding off two shots at the end zone in the closing seconds to escape with a 33-28 win. The ’Dores also tested Arkansas in a 3-point Razorbacks win and came within a touchdown of road wins at Florida and Tennessee.
Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1) kicked off 2012 with another near miss, this time in a 4-point loss to No. 7 South Carolina. Franklin has succeeded in changing the culture at Vanderbilt, and his program is now looking to take the transformation a step further.
“There’s been programs in this conference winning and recruiting for a very, very long time and that’s what we’re trying to build,” Franklin said Wednesday. “If you just look at season ticket sales, if you look at how well we’ve been recruiting, you look at how competitive we’ve been over the last year-and-a-half on the field week-in and week-out, that competitive aspect is great. We’ve got to figure out how to take the next step now as a program and be able to win some of these games.”
Franklin’s team will find itself in hostile territory “Between the Hedges” at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night against a Georgia team fresh off three straight victories of 20-plus points. Quarterback Aaron Murray has been sharp for UGA, completing almost 64 percent of his passes thus far for 842 yards.
Murray’s eight touchdown passes this season have boosted his career total to 67, moving him into second place in Georgia history. The junior needs only five more touchdowns to tie David Greene’s school record and it won’t take him long if he continues at the same early season clip.
Murray’s big numbers are no wonder for coach Mark Richt, but the success of two freshmen running backs from the state of North Carolina has been a pleasant surprise for the Dawgs. Todd Gurley, a 218-pound runner out of Tarboro, N.C., and 216-pounder Keith Marshall from Raleigh have exploded onto the scene in Athens with 458 combined yards on the ground. Both backs crossed the century mark last week in a 56-20 win over Florida Atlanic with only 10 carries apiece (Gurley averaged 11.1 yards per carry and Marshal 10.4).
“They’re both guys that can make you miss and go 80 [yards] but they have size,” Franklin said of the versatile duo. “They’re not small backs.”
Vanderbilt’s defense comes in ranked No. 11 in the country in total defense and No. 3 in the SEC, and it has been effective in defending the pass. They’ve only allowed 40 points in three games, but the Commodores have struggled against the run in their two losses, surrendering 205 rushing yards to South Carolina and 191 to Northwestern.
The run defense did play better in last week’s 58-0 demolition of Presbyterian, but continued improvement in that facet will be important for Vandy in Athens.
The Bulldogs have had their own issues against the run, allowing 145 yards per game to this point. The Dawgs have given up over 100 yards on the ground in each of their three games, including 199 to Buffalo and 135 to FAU. Vandy will look to run Saturday after Zac Stacy busted out for 174 yards last week on only eight carries as part of 410 total rushing yards. The run game was ineffective in their first conference tilt, but that was due in large part to the Gamecocks’ tough run defense, which is No. 6 in the nation.
The biggest question for Vanderbilt heading into Saturday remains to be answered: Who will start at quarterback?
As of Wednesday, the Commodores had not named a starter. Jordan Rodgers, who started the first two games of the year, is battling with last week’s starter, Austyn Carta-Samuels. Rodgers led Vandy to a bowl game in 2011, but Carta-Samuels looked strong running the offense last week. Franklin said that both signal-callers are preparing well, but the coaching staff wanted to evaluate further before naming a starter.
No matter who gets the start under center for Vanderbilt, Murray will have the edge in experience as he makes his 31st consecutive start.
A win this week would be big for both teams, but perhaps for different reasons. For Georgia, it’s the beginning of a critical stretch of SEC games that will include showdowns with Tennessee, South Carolina and No. 14 Florida in a four-week span. A win would represent another building block in the foundation for a run to Atlanta.
“I think the East has some very outstanding teams in it, and we’re about to play seven SEC games in a row,” Richt said on Wednesday’s conference call. “We’re about to find out what everybody is about and they’re going to find out what we’re about.”
For Vanderbilt, it is a chance to notch the first signature win of the Franklin era in front of over 92,000 fans in primetime. It could be the kind of win that catches the eyes of recruits across the country and jump starts Franklin’s vision for the program.
“It’s a tremendous challenge for us,” Franklin says, “but that’s why we’re here in the SEC.”
Kickoff is slated for 7:45 p.m. Eastern.