ATHENS — Georgia has plenty of crucial games left on its schedule: LSU, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech.
But first, there’s a showdown for first place in the Southeastern Conference East against ... Vanderbilt?
Yep, the No. 22 Commodores, those guys who usually bring up the rear in the mighty SEC, are tied for the top spot with Florida, actually looking down on the 10th-ranked Georgia a half-game back.
"We were predicted to win two games at the beginning of the year, so we’ve exceeded that," Vandy defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone said proudly.
There’s a sense that order is about to be restored in the conference hierarchy. The Commodores (5-1, 3-1 SEC) are coming off their first loss, at Mississippi State, and will take the field today as a hefty 14«-point underdog on Georgia’s homecoming.
The Bulldogs, who began the season No. 1, certainly can’t afford another slip-up if they want to climb back into the national championship race.
"The head-to-head battles are the ones that count the most when it comes to deciding who is going to play for the Eastern Division championship," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "It’s one we absolutely need to win if we are going to keep pace. It should be exciting."
The past two meetings have sure been exciting.
In 2006, Bryant Hahnfeldt kicked a field goal with two seconds remaining to give Vandy a shocking 24-22 upset at Sanford Stadium. Last season, the Bulldogs forced a turnover deep in their own territory, then drove the other way for Brandon Coutu’s winning field goal on the final play.
"It does breed some confidence," Greenstone said. "We’ve been playing them pretty close and giving them a good ballgame the past few years."
The Bulldogs (5-1, 2-1) know they can’t afford to look past the Commodores, even with games looming against No. 13 LSU and No. 5 Florida the next two weeks.
"They are very similar to last year," said linebacker Darryl Gamble, who forced the crucial fumble that set up Georgia’s victory in Nashville. "I believe this game will be pretty close, too. They are very athletic at a lot of key positions."
But the Commodores have some big problems on offense, which is why coach Bobby Johnson decided to switch quarterbacks this week.
Junior Mackenzi Adams takes over for senior Chris Nickson, who was benched early in the fourth quarter of the ugly 17-14 loss to Mississippi State. Vandy managed just 107 yards in total offense and threw a couple of interceptions — one by each quarterback.
Nickson is the better runner, carrying for 317 yards and six touchdowns, but he’s completed barely half of his throws. Adams is a bit more polished in the pocket, though no one believes he will turn the offense into Air Commodore. Johnson was likely influenced by Georgia’s leaky pass defense, ranked next-to-last in the SEC.
"Chris Nickson and Mackenzi are different people, and there is a little difference in their play," said Vandy center Bradley Vierling, one of the team captains. "We’ll see how it goes. Mackenzi always has a very great attitude during the game."
Richt doesn’t think it will make much difference who starts at quarterback. He expects the Commodores to use both Adams and Nickson.
"Chris Nickson started the season well. He got banged up a little bit, and Mackenzi Adams came in and won a game for them against Auburn and did a beautiful job," Richt said. "I guess they are going to start Mackenzi, but I’m sure we will see Chris in the game too."
Georgia has no such uncertainty over its quarterback. Matthew Stafford leads the SEC in passing yards with an average of 251 yards, while run-oriented Vandy is far behind anyone else in the conference with a throwing game that checks in at just 90 yards a game.
Led by Knowshon Moreno, the Bulldogs have put up virtually the same amount of rushing yards as Vanderbilt while averaging more per carry (4.7-4.1) and scoring more touchdowns (13-12). Those numbers would appear to give Georgia a huge edge on the offensive side of the line.
That’s not the only statistical mismatch. Georgia has traditionally been one of the top teams in the country against the run, and this year is no different — the Bulldogs are second in the SEC and fourth nationally, giving up an average of 52.2 yards. Vandy is 10th in the conference (128.8) and 51st nationally.
So, what can the Commodores hang their hat on? They are the SEC’s least-penalized team and rank near the top with a plus-seven turnover rating. Georgia, on the other hand, has spent a good deal of time beating itself, getting flagged more than any other team in the country (64 times for an average 85.5 yards each game). Vandy also ranks high in punting, punt returns, red-zone offense, red-zone defense and sacks.
"How can a team that is near the bottom of the league statistically be leading their division?" Richt asked rhetorically.
"They are not beating themselves with penalties and turnovers, and they are winning the field-position battle because their punt and punt return teams are outstanding. When they get in the red zone, they are scoring. There have been a lot of key sacks at the right time for them. They have done all those things extremely well, and that is why they are sitting where they are."