- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
BUFFALO AT GEORGIA
Saturday, 12:21 p.m. ET
Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.
SEC Network/Watch ESPN
Last Season: Georgia 10-4 (7-1 SEC); Buffalo: 3-9 (2-6 MAC)
What’s the Story?: The stakes are considerably lower for No. 6 Georgia’s season opener than they were a year ago, when Boise State thumped the Bulldogs at the Georgia Dome. Georgia is a five-touchdown favorite against Buffalo and should cruise into next week’s showdown at SEC newcomer Missouri.
1. Special teams solutions: Georgia’s Achilles’ heel in 2011 was its spotty special teams play and now the Bulldogs must replace its primary kick returner, punter and place-kicker. The Bulldogs will trot out true freshmen to make their college debuts on Saturday in kicker Marshall Morgan and punter Collin Barber. Senior Branden Smith appears to be Georgia’s top option as a return man, particularly after Friday’s announcement that Malcolm Mitchell will miss the Buffalo game with a sprained ankle. And the Bulldogs are preparing to use more starters on the special teams units in an effort to eliminate some of their issues there. We’ll get a first look at all of the changes against Buffalo.
2. Tailback breakdown: Freshman Todd Gurley was the talk of Georgia’s preseason scrimmages, rushing 19 times for 199 yards and four touchdowns according to the team’s unofficial stats. He and fellow highly touted freshman tailback Keith Marshall will make their college debuts against Buffalo. Georgia’s coaching staff predicted that sophomore Ken Malcome will start and that the three tailbacks -- plus hybrid tailback-fullback Richard Samuel -- will split carries. But how the players perform in actual games will determine who receives the bulk of the carries as the season progresses.
3. Following the freshmen: The kickers and tailbacks are far from the only freshmen who will make their debuts today. Almost all of the Bulldogs’ 17 signees figure to contribute in some capacity, led by starting right tackle John Theus. Among the other true freshmen to keep a close eye on this season: outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Josh Dawson and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons.
Players to watch:
1. Damian Swann: The sophomore cornerback was already set to play a significant role as the Bulldogs’ nickelback, but he will have even greater responsibilities Saturday in Mitchell’s absence. Swann had a solid preseason and should be able to make a seamless transition into playing more regular downs at cornerback.
2. Corey Moore/Connor Norman: With All-America safety Bacarri Rambo expected to miss the Buffalo game, the Bulldogs appear to be short on depth at safety. Sophomores Moore and Norman might be the first two candidates to fill in, and with Missouri’s more explosive offense on deck in a week, the safeties need to be ready to perform capably.
3. Christian LeMay: If the Bulldogs take the commanding lead most expect, that will provide redshirt freshman LeMay with his first opportunity to play in college -- and for the first time in any actual game since the 2009 season. With backup quarterback Hutson Mason planning to take a conditional redshirt this fall, Georgia needs LeMay to prove that he can be a reliable No. 2 behind starter Aaron Murray.
1. Branden Oliver: Georgia’s defensive players know that shutting down Oliver is the key to stopping Buffalo’s offense. The junior tailback rushed for a school-record 1,395 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, earning first-team All-MAC honors in the process.
2. James Potts: Oliver is obviously the lead back, but Buffalo’s coaches are excited about what sophomore Potts can bring to the backfield. The speed burner hasn’t played in two seasons, but could provide a nice 1-2 rushing punch with Oliver this fall.
3. Lee Skinner: The Bulls will be without suspended linebacker Khalil Mack, who recorded 20.5 tackles for loss last season, so even more pressure will be on leading returning tackler Skinner. The sophomore linebacker made 80 stops last year, but his Bulls don’t have much defensive firepower with Mack out of the lineup.
Georgia’s offensive line vs. Buffalo’s defensive front
This is a battle Georgia’s offensive line should win easily, so we mention it not because of competitiveness. The Bulldogs are replacing three starters and have no starting experience at center or tackle, so it’s worth watching how center David Andrews, left tackle Kenarious Gates and Theus at right tackle fare in their starting debuts. The linemen realize that Georgia’s high hopes for the season largely rest on their ability to hold their own once SEC play begins.
By the Numbers
1. 82 percent. An emphasis for Georgia’s offense this season will be to improve its productivity inside an opponent’s 20-yard line. The Bulldogs tied for 60th nationally in red-zone offense a season ago, scoring 45 times in 55 red-zone possessions (82 percent). A stronger effort against Buffalo would get the season off on the right foot.
2. 1-2. Georgia won its first eight season openers under Coach Mark Richt, but has dropped two of the last three. However, the Buffalo game does not appear to be particularly dangerous for the Bulldogs -- particularly given Richt’s record in non-conference home games. The Bulldogs are 30-1 in such matchups under Richt, with the lone loss coming in 2008 against Georgia Tech.
3. Three. Buffalo blocked three punts last season, so Barber must handle his duties quickly or he might find a Bulls defender bearing down on him on Saturday.
On Deck: College football pundits have circled next Saturday’s visit to Missouri as a potential trap game for the No. 6-ranked Bulldogs. Mizzou’s fan base is hyped up about its first game as a member of the SEC and Georgia has not handled long trips particularly well in recent seasons -- dropping the 2009 season opener at Oklahoma State and a visit to Colorado in 2010. Georgia last faced Missouri in the 1960 Orange Bowl and loss in the 2012 return game with the Tigers could derail the Bulldogs’ chances of returning to Miami for the BCS championship appearance they desire.
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough