Saturday, December 26, 2009
Updated: December 27, 3:18 PM ET
Independence centers on the run
By Richard Durrett
In recent years, a question has lingered when it comes to the Big 12 and the SEC: Which conference is better?
Bowl games don't always provide a definitive answer. But they do provide clues. The biggest will come from the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7, when Texas tries to reverse the SEC's recent dominance against No. 1 Alabama.
Ten days before that game, though, the SEC and Big 12 face each other in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl. It's a big game for Texas A&M and Georgia. Both want to use a win as a springboard for a better 2010. It wouldn't hurt to claim bragging rights for their respective conferences, either.
Let's take a look at the five keys to the game:
Texas A&M's defense vs. Georgia's running game
Georgia's running game found its stride in the final game of the season, a 30-24 win over Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs rushed for 339 yards and two touchdowns, led by Washaun Ealey's 183 yards and Caleb King's 166. Both players averaged 9.2 yards per carry.
Texas A&M, meanwhile, allowed Texas quarterback Colt McCoy to rush for 175 yards and a touchdown in its 49-39 loss to the Longhorns on Thanksgiving night. Texas running back Tre' Newton had 107 net yards.
The Aggies' defense, ranked 87th in the country against the run, must find a way to contain Georgia's rushing attack. The Bulldogs kept the ball for more than 30 minutes, actually beating Georgia Tech's grind-it-out, triple-option attack on time of possession. The Aggies can't let Georgia do that to them and expect to win.
Can Texas A&M run the ball?
While stopping Georgia on the ground is the first key, rushing against the Bulldogs is also critical. A good running game opens things up for quarterback Jerrod Johnson, much like it did against the Longhorns.
Texas A&M managed to find space in the middle of the field against the Longhorns, wearing down the defense in the second half. Christine Michael finished with 83 yards against a stingy Texas defense that is No. 1 in the country against the run. Johnson added 99 net rushing yards.
Georgia's defense is third in the SEC against the run and 41st nationally, holding opponents to approximately 125 yards per game on the ground. The Aggies are averaging 190 yards rushing, 25th best in the nation.
Texas A&M will need to get physical and show Georgia it can run the ball and chew clock.
Converting third downs
It's something Texas A&M has done well all season. The Aggies are sixth in the nation and first in the Big 12 in converting third downs and are one of only six teams that are doing so at 50 percent or better.
By contrast, Georgia's defense is holding opponents to a 36 percent conversion rate, which puts them 36th in the country.
The Aggies have had success in this department because they put themselves in short third-down opportunities. They'll need to do that against a Georgia defense that is regrouping from a change in coordinators prior to the bowl game.
Keeping the chains moving on third down and keeping Georgia's offense on the sidelines has to be a major part of the game plan.
Few players have punted more consistently than Georgia sophomore Drew Butler. His 48.84-yard average leads the nation (by more than 3 yards). And the average isn't pumped up because he can't pin teams deep. Georgia is the top team when it comes to net punting too, at a 42.84-yard average.
But Georgia's special teams unit does give up return yards, though it has not allowed a touchdown. So finding field position off punts won't be easy for Dustin Harris or Jordan Pugh. Georgia punt returner Prince Miller has speed and is 21st in the nation in returns.
Neither team has put up great numbers on kickoff returns. But did Texas A&M find its kickoff returner in the Texas game? Freshman Ryan Swope had seven returns for 180 yards against the Longhorns and showed an ability to get upfield quickly and make people miss. Look for him to get some more chances in the Independence Bowl.
Dr. Phil would have a field day with these two teams. Texas A&M and Georgia have played inconsistently all season. They've looked like solid contenders one week and pretenders the next.
Texas A&M was crushed by Kansas State 62-14, then bounced back to beat Texas Tech by 22 the following week. They were blistered by Oklahoma 65-10 on Nov. 14 and less than two weeks later nearly beat No. 2 Texas.
Georgia beat Arkansas 52-41 and then lost to Tennessee 45-19 a few weeks later. The Bulldogs lost 34-27 to Kentucky but beat a top-10 Georgia Tech team the following week.
So which team shows up for each school? That's the big question. If it's the ones that have produced big victories, we should be in for a real show.
Both teams know it will take their best effort to beat the other. For the Aggies, it's a chance to beat a big-name school from the SEC and take serious momentum into the offseason as they build toward 2010.
Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.