After Georgia’s significant 20-19 victory over Notre Dame last week, and with FCS Samford next on the docket in Athens, the 13th-ranked Bulldogs find themselves in an eerily similar situation as a year ago.
To begin the 2016 campaign, Georgia had an impressive win over a non-conference Power Five foe, North Carolina, propelling the team into the nation’s top 10. Next up was Nicholls State, an FCS opponent, and a 53-point underdog. Nevertheless, instead of the small school from Louisiana serving as an early season tune-up, the Bulldogs were nearly defeated, barely escaping what would have been considered perhaps the biggest upset in college football history with a 26-24 win.
This season, head coach Kirby Smart and his players are cognizant of the fact that no opponent can be taken lightly, particularly 34-point underdog Samford. The visiting Bulldogs, which enter with a 2-0 record and ranked No. 17 in both major FCS national polls, feature a high-powered, up-tempo offense, the likes of which is fairly uncommon to Georgia’s defenders.
“You got to be careful with these guys (Samford’s offense),” Smart stated earlier this week. “If you come after them on every play, they’re going to get rid of the ball pretty quick and you got less [defenders] to defend screens and things.”
The primary reason for Samford’s 7-5 winning campaign in 2016, which included an at-large bid in the FCS playoffs, was the Bulldog offense, which ranked 12th in the FCS in Scoring Offense (35.1), 14th in Total Offense (446.2), and 3rd in Passing Offense (349.4). In addition, it ranked first in the Southern Conference in yards per play (6.2) last year. Speaking of plays, on three occasions Samford totaled more than 90 offensive plays, including a school-record 104 at Mississippi State—its lone FBS opponent. It was in Starkville, Miss., where the visiting Bulldogs totaled a staggering 627 yards and trailed Mississippi State by only eight points late in the game before finally succumbing, 56-41.
Averaging 375.0 yards and 5.5 yards per play through two games this season, Samford’s offensive output has dropped off somewhat from last year. Still, in victories over Kennesaw State and West Alabama, the Bulldogs have scored a combined 77 points due in large part to their customary up-tempo style.
“Tempo—more tempo,” replied John Atkins when asked how Samford’s offense differed from that of Georgia’s first two opponents. “It’s like, see a call, do a call,” the senior nose added, referring to how quickly he and his fellow defenders will need to execute what is called from their sideline.
Natrez Patrick couldn’t agree more with his teammate.
“Tempo—we expect them to go really fast,” Patrick said. The junior inside linebacker added that more “fast-ball” periods were implemented this week. During practice, the Georgia defense was given time restrictions—in fact, “unrealistic times,” according to Patrick—to get lined up, its play called, and ready for the quick snap of the ball.
Receiving the snap this Saturday for Samford will be standout dual-threat Devlin Hodges. According to Smart, Hodges is not only as athletic as the quarterback Georgia faced last week, Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush, but the Bulldog signal-caller is even more so accurate.
“[Hodges] is very similar to the guy last week (Wimbush) because he can run—do all the same things,” Smart said. “He’s just probably more accurate. He throws the RPOs (run-pass option plays) just as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Hodges, a two-star recruit in 2014 from Kimberly, Ala., turned down a number of offers from FBS schools, including Southern Miss and UAB, to attend Samford. Since he redshirted as a true freshman, the numbers he has produced in just over two seasons are eye-popping, to say the least. In 23 games, including 19 starts, Hodges’ 7,486 yards of total offense (6,876 passing, 610 rushing) are already second-most in school history. He has been responsible for 62 touchdowns (55 passing, seven rushing) while throwing just 16 interceptions. Perhaps most striking, Hodges has completed 69.9 percent of his passes while, if his career was to end today, his 151.6 passing efficiency rating for his tenure would rank as the 20th-best in FCS history.
“He was all-conference, and has started pretty much the whole time he has been [at Samford],” Atkins said of Hodges, who was also a third-team All-American and the Southern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year last season. “He controls the offense and can get you from coming off the ball [quickly].”
As Hodges goes, so does the Samford offense—the key to whether the visiting Bulldogs can accomplish in Athens what Nicholls State fell just short of achieving a year ago, pulling off an upset of epic proportions. Yet, because of this threat, targeted Georgia is treating Samford like any other opponent—which, apparently wasn’t the case last season—and evidently will be ready for the upset-minded visitor.
“It’s a very big game,” Patrick concluded. “We got that target on our backs. Samford is really trying to get at us, so we’re full go. We’ll be ready.”