- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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No. 9 Georgia's grueling first month of the season ends today, but not before the Bulldogs (2-1, 1-0 SEC) host No. 6 LSU (4-0, 1-0) at Sanford Stadium – Georgia's third matchup against a top-10 team in its first four games. Let's take a look at five things to watch today, with a statistical assist from ESPN's Stats and Information group:
Special teams impact: After at least one special teams blunder in its first three games – including two that led to touchdowns last week against North Texas – Georgia can't feel good about its matchup this week. LSU has had the nation's best special teams units for the past five years, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Between 2008 to 2012, LSU's special teams were responsible for 3.2 expected points added per game – the best in the nation and well ahead of second-place Florida State's 2.6 EPA. After failing to contain Tyrann Mathieu in the teams' last meeting, Georgia must keep explosive Tigers return man Odell Beckham Jr. under wraps today.
Getting after Mettenberger: LSU's second-year quarterback Zach Mettenberger has been more than impressive thus far, with his 49-point increase in Total QBR (from 39.3 to an SEC-high 88.3) helping him rank as the nation's most improved quarterback this season. Georgia will no doubt try to pressure Mettenberger – a former Bulldog who was dismissed during the 2010 offseason following an arrest – into mistakes in his first true road game of the season. Last fall, Mettenberger never posted an above average (above 50) QBR in any of his four conference road games, was sacked at least twice in each game and never completed more than 56 percent of his passes.
Can Dawgs get deep?: Over the past two seasons, Georgia's offense has been as good as any at generating explosive plays. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray has averaged an FBS-high 10.5 yards per pass attempt since the start of last season, with the most touchdowns (24) and second-most completions (78) of at least 20 yards during that period. He's 12-for-19 on throws of 15 yards or more this season, including a 98-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Davis last week. But LSU's defense has been outstanding against the long ball thus far. Tigers opponents are just 6-for-25 on passes of 15 yards or more and no opponent has completed more than two such passes in a game thus far. Auburn went 2-for-10 with two interceptions on throws of 15-plus last week against LSU.
Handling Tigers' run: LSU's running game has started to find its stride in recent weeks, rolling up 307 yards against Kent State and 228 last week against Auburn. Tigers tailback Jeremy Hill led the way against Auburn with 183 yards and three touchdowns and will be the most physical test yet for a rebuilt Georgia run defense that allowed 132 yards to Clemson's Rod McDowell and 149 to South Carolina's Mike Davis the next week. The Bulldogs improved significantly against the run versus North Texas, surrendering just 7 yards on 25 carries – a total that is tied for the second-best in an FBS game this season, trailing only Louisville's performance last week against Florida International (3 yards on 34 attempts). But how will defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's young Bulldogs fare against a physical LSU ground game?
Young defenses adjusting: Both defenses have replaced a ton of key players from last season and John Chavis' LSU defense has been the statistically superior group thus far, tying for third in the SEC in total defense (310 ypg) compared to Georgia's 11th (388.7). In fact, the Tigers are allowing just 2.4 yards per game more than last season, when they ranked eighth in the FBS in total defense. Granted, they haven't faced the level of competition – TCU, UAB, Kent State and Auburn – that they will face today from a Georgia offense that is averaging 40.3 points and 574 yards per game. The Tigers took a commanding lead and then allowed Auburn to make things interesting with 333 yards in the second half last week. Such letdowns against the Bulldogs could produce devastating results.
16hAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
4dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf