Mississippi State welcomes the nation’s top team to Starkville this week.
MSU (6-3, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 1 Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC) at 6 p.m. Saturday.
For more on the defending national champions, The Dispatch spoke with Jordan D. Hill, who covers Georgia for Dawgs247 of the 247 Sports network.
Hill attended Georgia and returned to Athens this year after a stint covering Auburn.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were preseason expectations for Georgia after such a great 2021 season but also after losing so much talent? Do you think they’ve kind of exceeded those expectations right now, being 9-0?
Hill: I think that they have exceeded expectations, although I think a lot of people thought this was a team that had a chance to be a championship contender again. I speak for myself and I know I wasn’t alone on this: A lot of people saw this team as being capable of going 12-0 again in the regular season. I think the expectation coming into the year was they were probably the second-best team in the SEC behind Alabama, and obviously we’ve seen that’s not been the case. I think the biggest surprise with this team has been on defense — not that they’ve been as good as they have been, but I think everybody really believed that there would be some growing pains. You’re replacing eight starters from a defense that some might argue is the best in modern college football. Some people have made the argument that this team as a whole might be better than last year. I’m not sure if that’s the case. I think you can say the offense is better. They’ve done a good job. They’ve taken care of business. They’re in the driver’s seat to be the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff by the time we get to that. They have definitely exceeded expectations, especially in terms of the defense, how well they’ve played.
What did Georgia do so well on defense against Tennessee? How does that defense match up with the Air Raid and Mississippi State?
Hill: I think they counted on their secondary to make sure tackles. I think they said, ‘Look, we’re going to just play a whole lot of man and say that our defensive backs have got to make tackles, because if they don’t, there’s going to be a whole lot of open space.’ You look at that game in the aftermath and it winds up being only a two-touchdown difference, but it was never that close. Georgia just sort of wore down Tennessee in the second half. It started raining, and Georgia just leaned really heavily on running the clock and squeezing the life out of Tennessee, and they did a good job of that. I am intrigued to see what this secondary does against Mississippi State. We know how much they throw. I think that the way Georgia played against Tennessee — although these two offenses are not exactly the same — I think that puts Georgia’s secondary in good shape. To me, the biggest thing is they’ve just got to be diligent. The way I’ve always described the Air Raid is death by a thousand paper cuts. If you make a mistake, you can allow one big play that can change the momentum of things.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett has had a pretty strong season so far statistically. Have you seen Bennett take a step this year, or is he kind of the same guy?
Hill: I think he has taken a step, and he talked about that before the season ever started — the fact that this is his first offseason where he was QB1, where he knew the entire time that he was going to be the starting quarterback. During the 2021 season, at one point in fall camp, he was getting third-team reps behind JT Daniels and Carson Beck. This entire offseason, Stetson was the guy. He got to work with the first-string offense. He got to develop the timing with all the different receivers. He got a much better understanding of how to operate within the offense. There’s been some talk this week about, ‘Could he potentially be a Heisman Trophy candidate?’ I don’t think he’s going to win the award. We may hear some talk if he plays well on Saturday and if he finishes the regular season well. I do think he has taken a step forward. He’s made some big plays. He’s coming off probably his best game of the year in terms of throwing the deep ball. He did miss a couple, but he had some very, very on-point throws against Tennessee that sort of got the ball rolling for Georgia.
If you’re comfortable making a prediction, how do you think Saturday’s game will play out?
Hill: I’m picking Georgia, and I think I’m going to say 35-17. I think Georgia’s offense is going to travel well. I think that they’re riding pretty high after that Tennessee game but at the same time are understanding that they can’t really afford a letdown on the road in what I think is going to be a pretty raucous Mississippi State atmosphere, especially dealing with the cowbells. I think that Will Rogers is going to make some plays. I think that he is very capable in that system and knows how to get the ball downfield. I think Mississippi State will make some plays, but I think ultimately Georgia is going to get out of this one with a fairly comfortable road victory.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.
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