Penn St.-Georgia Preview
Rather than releasing a depth chart of its players heading into the TaxSlayer Bowl, Georgia might want to come up with a similar outline to explain the current constitution of its coaching staff.
With Mark Richt and both coordinators gone and the program's next coach focused on a bigger stage, the Bulldogs themselves might be unclear who's in charge heading into their date with Penn State in Jacksonville on Saturday.
Richt was fired after Georgia's 9-3 season, his 15th at the helm in Athens that included 145 wins, seven top-10 finishes in the final AP Poll and two SEC championships. But neither of those came in the last decade, and the Bulldogs' hierarchy determined it had enough of being good but not quite good enough to win a national title.
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt are gone also, with Pruitt accepting that same gig at Alabama after learning he wouldn't be retained by the Bulldogs' new coach. That would be Kirby Smart, who is sticking around in Tuscaloosa to run the Crimson Tide's defense in the College Football Playoff before taking over in Athens. Linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is also out.
"It's been a whirlwind and a roller coaster," quarterback Greyson Lambert said. "Up and down and a lot of different types of ways. As a player you play the games and everything else just kind of happens around you and you don't really have any control over it. Our focus is on playing the games. I can't really speak to the other stuff that's happened."
So who's left to lead Georgia at EverBank Field?
The interim coach title falls to Bryan McClendon, who will step up from his job leading the receiving corps. McClendon spent four years playing that position under Richt from 2002-05, leading the Bulldogs with six touchdowns as a senior. It's unclear if he'll stay on Smart's staff or head elsewhere - possibly to reunite with Richt at Miami.
"It's kind of all about the kids. It's been about the kids," McClendon said. "That stuff will take care of itself a little later on, but right now everything is just geared toward this bowl game, getting the team ready for the bowl game so we can go out there and have a good showing."
After being known for stability for so long, Penn State can relate to having some uncertainty on the sidelines around this time of year. Tom Bradley served as the interim coach for the 2012 bowl game after Joe Paterno was fired, and Bill O'Brien and James Franklin were early January hires within the past four years.
Ineligible to go bowling under O'Brien, Penn State beat Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl in Franklin's first season but failed to take a real step forward while going 7-5 in 2015. Only San Diego State finished with a winning record among the teams the Nittany Lions beat, and they were outscored 171-73 in their losses.
Much of the struggles fell on an offense that finished 101st in scoring (23.7 points per game) and 106th overall (344.0 yards per game) despite being led by the talented Christian Hackenberg. The junior threw five interceptions - 10 fewer than he did last season - but his completion percentage dipped to 53.3 and he's been sacked 14 more times (82) the past two seasons than any other FBS quarterback.
All those issues led to the dismissal of offensive coordinator John Donovan, who was replaced by Fordham coach Joe Moorhead. Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne will run the offense against the Bulldogs in what could be Hackenberg's final game for the Nittany Lions. He's waiting to hear back from the NFL Draft Advisory Board to decide whether he'll return for his senior season or move on.
''I think it's obviously going to be a tool in that decision when that time comes. But again, right now I think it's really just going down and making sure we execute against Georgia,'' Hackenberg said.
That isn't going to be easy. The Bulldogs allowed the fewest passing yards per game (146.1) in the nation and the fewest by any major conference team since 2011.
That could open the door for plenty of Saquon Barkley, Penn State's freshman running back who averaged 6.1 yards per carry. He'll face a Georgia defense that won't have third-leading tackler Tim Kimbrough, who was suspended for an undisclosed reason.
"I think Saquon is just scratching the surface to be honest with you. He's still figuring things out. He's still growing," Franklin said. "Once he arrived (on campus), his demeanor and his approach and his attitude was he was going to do everything in his power to play as a freshman, and not just play but have an impact."
The Nittany Lions are 11th against the pass (174.5 ypg) and will be chasing down a quarterback who might also be making his final collegiate start for a very different reason. Lambert was benched for the Bulldogs' rivalry game with Florida in Jacksonville due to poor play and never really found a rhythm as a junior despite only throwing two interceptions.
Five-star recruit Jacob Eason is expected to push the Virginia transfer next season.
Penn State was tied for second in the nation with 44 sacks, 15 1/2 of which came from Lombardi Award winner Carl Nassib. The former walk-on will play against Georgia after missing nearly all of the Nittany Lions' losses to Michigan and Michigan State with an undisclosed injury.
"I just want to put the Penn State jersey on one last time," said the senior, who will be running into a Bulldogs team that allowed 2 1/2 sacks less than he produced. "I just want to get out there and hit someone really, really badly."
This is the second meeting between Penn State and Georgia, and the hype won't be quite as high for this one. The first ended with the Nittany Lions earning their first national championship by beating the top-ranked Bulldogs 27-23 in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.