Believe it or not, the Belk Bowl has existed, in one sponsorship form or another, since 2002. Belk, the regional, mid-range department store -- in which you may have found yourself returning those awful wool socks that one aunt bought you for Christmas -- timed its sponsorship at the perfect juncture for this bowl game.
The Belk Bowl matches a pooled ACC team with a pooled SEC team after the College Football Playoff. That guarantees this bowl annually becomes a must-watch, at least until the current contract runs out. The two teams matched this season definitely warrant some hype.
This year's game shouldn't disappoint, as it matches the 9-3 Louisville Cardinals against the 9-3 Georgia Bulldogs, but the two teams share more than records. As you are no doubt aware if you're reading this, Louisville's defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, held the same position at Georgia last season. His departure did not exactly lead to wailing and gnashing of teeth by Dawg fans. Yet, Grantham's UofL defense this season was truly elite and would pose a challenge for any offense.
The teams also shared two common opponents: Clemson and Kentucky. Georgia ran away from Clemson in the second half in this season's opening week, while UofL was not able to pull out a victory in Death Valley. Georgia easily dispatched Kentucky, but UofL had a tougher time while keeping in mind that rivalry games often play out in funky ways. The "common opponents" metric suggests Georgia has an edge.
|F+ Overall||7th (27.6%)||16th (19.9%)|
|F+ Offense||8th (14.4%)||42nd (4.2%)|
|F+ Defense||22nd (10%)||5th (16.1%)|
|F+ Special Teams||11 (3.2%)||88th (-0.9%)|
The advanced stats also appear to indicate a close Georgia victory. Georgia's special teams and defense out-match the Louisville special teams and offense, according to these stats. If Georgia clearly wins those match-ups will it be enough to overcome UofL's stellar defense?
1Louisville's quarterback situation. UofL starting quarterback Reggie Bonnafon suffered a knee injury in the regular season final against Kentucky, but his replacement, Kyle Bolin, entered the game and surprised many by throwing for 380 yards and 3 touchdowns. The natural result is a mini-quarterback controversy. Bonnafon has been expected all along to be ready for the Belk Bowl, since his knee had no structural damage. Whether he'll be healthy enough to run the read option, and be his typical mobile self remains to be seen. Bonnafon is more battle-hardened than Bolin, but Bolin may be the better passer based off anecdotal evidence. Both quarterbacks probably see playing time, and presumably UGA's coaches have been preparing for both.
2Georgia's Offense vs. Louisville Defense. This will be a heavyweight match-up. It's rare that in a non-playoff game there are two Top 10 units squaring off against one another. Georgia's offense sports a balanced attack, but will be challenged by the tremendous athletes on Lousville's defense. Keith Kelsey may lose gap discipline occasionally, but he is a tackle machine along with comrade James Sample. Sheldon Rankins and Lorenzo Mauldin are very good pass rushers, and Gerod Holliman tied the NCAA record for most interceptions in a season with 14, and he won the Jim Thorpe award. There's definitely NFL talent on the Cardinals defense. A big unknown will be the play-calling of Georgia interim offensive coordinator John Lilly. UofL has a season's worth of tape on UGA's offense, but Lilly could alter the Dawgs' tendencies, or not at all. As long as Lilly remembers to get the ball to his most reliable play-makers he'll give his team a chance.
3Turnovers. Something will have to give between a Cardinals team adept at creating turnovers, and a Dawgs offense that protects the ball. Georgia only lost 11 turnovers this season, which was the best in the SEC. Louisville forced 28 turnovers, overwhelmingly due to their ball-hawking secondary. If Louisville can't force turnovers, it may have a harder time keeping UGA out of the end zone, and simultaneously not give its offense more total possessions.
4Special Teams. The stats above show the wide disparity between the two units. If UGA wants to break the game open, this is probably the quickest path. UofL is at the bottom of the ACC in terms of opponent punt returns and kickoff returns allowing on average 105 yards combined per game. Georgia will be missing its excellent return man in Isaiah McKenzie for disciplinary reasons, and Todd Gurley is obviously injured. The next man up looks to be Reggie Davis who has averaged 16 yards per kickoff return in three attempts this season. He could have a break out game given Louisville's special teams, and deliver good field position which is required to beat Louisville's defense.
5Louisville's offensive line. UofL was one of the worst teams in the ACC this season in sacks allowed as they averaged three per game. The Cardinals returned three starters and have struggled most of the season, but the run-blocking has improved as the season has progressed. Guard Jake Smith is an excellent interior lineman, but UofL's weakness remains on the edge. Georgia is solid pass-rushing team that averages two sacks per game, but the Dawgs will be without leading sack artist Leonard Floyd for the Belk Bowl. If UofL's offensive line is able to give their quarterbacks the time to deliver the ball to Parker, well, the Cardinals will be putting up points.
THREE TO WATCH
Nick Chubb, Running Back, Georgia: Since taking over for Todd Gurley, Chubb rattled off seven straight games of at least 100 yards rushing. He finished the regular season with over 1200 yards rushing, and was arguably the best freshman in the SEC this season. Now he'll face his toughest test of the season against UofL's third best rushing defense in the country. UGA has to successfully run the ball to later beat UofL through the air, because their defense hasn't been susceptible to unbalanced offenses this season. Third down-and-manageable is also needed to consistently extend drives against UofL's secondary.
Hutson Mason QB, Georgia: The UGA quarterback has had a good year statistically, throwing for over 2,000 yards along with 20 touchdowns and only 4 interceptions. He probably faces his toughest challenge yet against a UofL secondary that forced 25 interceptions this season, led by Jim Thorpe award-winner Gerod Holliman. Mason will have to protect the ball and deliver on third downs as UofL's defense will be very strong on obvious running downs. Receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, and Jeb Blazevich among others will have to do their part and find ways to get open. What may help Mason is the UGA defensive staff's familiarity with Grantham's base 3-4 defense, which may in turn help him check out of bad plays and predict where the blitz is coming. Grantham likewise has had a month to prepare and tweak as needed.
DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville: If you are unfamiliar with Parker the simplest way to describe him is think of Amari Cooper in a Louisville uniform. He's tall, physical, and runs away from defensive backs with verve and panache. In only six games, Parker had 35 receptions for five touchdowns, and averaged a whopping 21 yards per catch. He's a surefire first-round draft pick, but Parker will face the best secondary in the SEC. UofL may have a bit of an over-reliance on Parker, but if he is able to be successful enough against UGA to draw double teams, Parker could open up opportunities for Eli Rogers, James Quick, and Gerald Christian among others. Parker has to earn that extra attention first.
Georgia's offense and Louisville's defense are both so good that they deserve each other, and I mean that as a compliment to them both. Unless Louisville is able to force multiple turnovers, the UGA offense vs. UofL defense match-up likely ends in more or less a stalemate. Therefore, the overall difference in the game will likely come from UGA exploiting its advantages in the defensive and special teams realms, especially if they are successful in quarantining Parker. This game should be entertaining and competitive to the very end. Georgia 21, Louisville 17