Georgia (9-2) at Georgia Tech (8-3)
Noon Saturday, Nov. 26, Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta
If ever there was a time for Georgia's defense to perform well on third down, this is it.
The Bulldogs (9-2) have made massive improvements in that area this season -- they are second in the nation, allowing opponents to convert for a first down only 28 percent of the time after allowing 42 percent last year -- and their newfound ability to stand firm on third down has helped them rank among the nation's top overall defenses.
But Georgia's impressive defensive rankings will face a mighty test this weekend when the Bulldogs visit a Georgia Tech team (8-3) whose triple option offense is not only second in the nation in rushing (324 yards per game), but second in third-down conversions (56 percent).
Georgia coach Mark Richt said the Yellow Jackets' success in those two areas is intertwined.
"The thing about this game is, every possession really is pretty crucial," Richt said. "Georgia Tech's offense, because they run the ball so much and reduce yardage throughout and get to those third-and-shorts, that's why they are one of the best third-down percentage teams in America. If you keep converting third downs, you keep controlling the ball, you move the ball, you move the field position, you get more points."
That means the Bulldogs would benefit from taking care of the football as well. Georgia's plus-nine turnover margin ranks 16th in the nation, and the Bulldogs have not committed more turnovers in a game since losing to South Carolina on Sept. 10.
"We've been fortunate to win or at least tie the turnover battle the last nine ballgames," Richt said. "I would say it's more crucial this week than any week of the season."
1. Defending the option: Georgia had major difficulty defending the Yellow Jackets' triple option offense last year, surrendering 512 total yards on 92 plays -- including 77 rushes for 411 yards. The Bulldogs have made huge strides on defense this season, but they haven't seen anything like the Yellow Jackets' attack.
2. Task at hand: The Bulldogs play their biggest game of the season next weekend in Atlanta in the SEC championship game -- the first time Georgia has made it to the Georgia Dome since 2005. This is no time to think ahead to that game, however, as dangerous Georgia Tech would love nothing better than to snap the Bulldogs' nine-game wining streak.
3. Who runs the rock? Georgia coach Mark Richt maintained publicly that he was unsure which tailbacks would be available this weekend. Isaiah Crowell missed nearly all of last week's game against Kentucky with an ankle injury, and backup Carlton Thomas sat out while serving a last-minute suspension. Richt said this week that he was unsure whether they would play or how much. Brandon Harton and Ken Malcome are the alternatives.
Players to watch
1. Tailbacks: The Bulldogs survived last weekend with Harton and Malcome getting most of the carries against Kentucky, but Richt's staff would no doubt prefer to have leading rushers Crowell and Thomas available for Georgia Tech.
2. LB Jarvis Jones: Named a Butkus Award finalist this week, Jones is one of the most impactful players on Georgia's defense in years. He leads the SEC in sacks (12.5) and tackles for loss (18.5) and always seems to be around the ball. The Bulldogs might need another difference-making performance from Jones against Tech's unusual offensive scheme.
3. LB Alec Ogletree: Since returning to play against Florida after suffering a broken foot in the opener against Boise State, Ogletree showed what the Bulldogs were missing in his six-game absence. In four games, the sophomore linebacker has forced a team-high three fumbles and posted 22 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
1. QB Tevin Washington: The quarterback is the guy who makes Georgia Tech's option offense go, and Washington is an excellent dual-threat weapon. Against Clemson, his 176 rushing yards were the most by a Yellow Jackets quarterback, and his 2011 numbers rank in the school's all-time top five in several categories, including rushing yards by a QB (849), rushing touchdowns (14) and pass efficiency (164.3)
2. CB Jemea Thomas: Thomas picked good times to notch the first three interceptions of his career. Last week his fourth-quarter interception helped halt a Duke drive and preserve Tech's seven-point win. He intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter of Tech's upset win against then-No. 6 Clemson -- in his first career start, no less.
3. RB Roddy Jones: The senior A-back is on the verge of breaking Georgia Tech's record for career starts. He is tied with former Yellow Jackets linebacker Recardo Wimbush. Georgia fans remember Jones as the star in Tech's 2008 win at Georgia, when he ran for 214 yards in the comeback victory.
Georgia defensive front vs. Georgia Tech offensive line
Defending Georgia Tech's option will require each member of Georgia's defense to carry out his duties effectively. It all starts up front, where the defensive linemen and linebackers will try to set the tone, but they'll have to make good decisions on the option runs and fight off frequent cut blocks to get the job done.
By the numbers
1. 30.7: Georgia Tech doesn't throw the ball often, but when it does watch out for Stephen Hill. The junior receiver has caught 23 passes for 707 yards -- averaging a whopping 30.7 yards per reception. That average leads the nation and is 10 yards better than the next receiver on the list.
2. 426.7: In three previous games against Georgia as Georgia Tech's head coach, Paul Johnson led the Yellow Jackets to 426.7 yards of offense per game. That included 512 yards on 92 plays last season. Georgia has won two of the three games, however.
3. 100. The Yellow Jackets have three players -- Washington, Orwin Smith and Embry Peeples -- who have each rushed for at least 100 yards in a game this season and three more who have each rushed for at least 70. Crowell, Thomas and Brandon Harton have all rushed for 100 yards in a game this season for Georgia, but Brandon Boykin (80 yards on one run vs. Boise State) is the only other Bulldog to have rushed for more than 70 in a game.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.