2009 Independence Bowl Preview
Texas A&M (6-6, 3-5; Big XII) vs. Georgia (7-5, 4-4; SEC)
December 28th, 2009 @ 5:00 PM (EST) – ESPN2 – Shreveport, Louisiana
First played on the anniversary of the American Bicentennial, the Independence Bowl is now entering its 34 th year of existence. This will be the final year of the bowl’s existing tie-ins with the SEC and Big XII and will instead feature a Mountain West vs. ACC matchup beginning in 2010. The Independence Bowl has the misfortune of being the titular bowl when fans derisively refer to a team playing in the Weedwhacker Bowl, as Weed Eater was a sponsor until 1996. Generally, fans refer to playing in the Weedwhacker Bowl when their team falls short of expectations and that would seem to apply to both of this year’s participants.
Georgia came into the season with a top 15 ranking but quickly fell from elite status with an opening day loss at Oklahoma State. While the Bulldogs played one of the country’s toughest non-conference schedules, finishing 2-1 against BCS conference opponents, they struggled mightily in the SEC and barely pulled out a 4-4 record. The one bright spot was that the Dawgs did beat four bowl-bound teams. Their biggest problems were discipline and turnovers and Mark Richt was forced to fire his defensive staff after the regular season ended. Richt is in his 9th season in Athens and this year has been the worst of his mostly illustrious tenure. Richt is 89-27 with four SEC East titles, two SEC Championships and a 6-2 bowl record and is generally considered one of the country’s best coaches to have never won a National Championship.
Georgia’s offense struggled at times this season, finishing 58th in the country in scoring at 27.7 points per game. Considering that their passing offense fell to 77th, their rushing game was only 54th, and they were the nation’s 8th most penalized team, nearly four touchdowns per game is actually a pretty decent output. One big explanation for their struggles was a major issue running the football in the first half: Leading rusher Washaun Ealey didn’t see any major action until the 2nd half of the season, where he rushed for 588 yards over the final six games. Their other major issue was turnovers, as the Bulldogs gave a couple of games away thanks to 27 turnovers on the year. This is a talented but flawed group.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were nothing special and their numbers got worse for the 4th consecutive season. Georgia gave up 26.4 points per game and finished 70th nationally. Yardage wise, Georgia wasn’t terrible, finishing 33rd against the pass and 41st against the run but were often put in poor position by their offense. Turnovers were truly the driving force behind their weak season as they only forced 10 takeaways, fewest in the country and their -17 turnover margin was the 2nd worst in America. When that is taken into consideration, it isn’t a surprise that the Bulldog defensive staff was let go.
Texas A&M qualified for the postseason for the first time under Mike Sherman. However, the Aggies have not held up well against strong opposition and finished a lowly 1-4 against bowl-bound teams. Sherman spent five years in the 1990s coaching the Aggie O-Line but is largely a career NFL coach. He is in his 2 nd season in charge of the Aggies and his career record is only 10-14. Texas A&M stumbled to the finish line with a 3-6 close to the year, thought they did manage to score 39 points against archrival Texas on Thanksgiving.
The Aggie offense is built around the dual-threat abilities of quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who threw for 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions while rushing for an additional 455 yards and 8 scores. With such an accomplished signal caller, it is no surprise that A&M was the 15th most productive offense in the country at 33.9 points per game. The Aggies were extremely balanced, finishing 25th in rushing and 22nd in passing and over the final half of the year they scored nearly 37 points per game.
As successful as their offense was, their defense was equally bad. The Aggies allowed 32.7 points per game, including four opponents who scored more than 47 points, to finish 104th in scoring defense. They were porous against the run at 87th and a sieve against the pass with the 9th worst aerial defense in the country! The only positives were their decent ability to force turnovers and a powerful pass rush that finished 8 th in the country with 35 sacks.
Both teams have suffered from sloppy play this year as both are among the country’s worst in penalty yardage. In terms of motivation, Georgia hasn’t played in a non-major bowl since Richt’s first season, so A&M will probably be much more excited to play this game.
How will the Independence Bowl play out? Georgia has put together a solid offensive attack based around their running game while Texas A&M is very strong throwing and passing. While no one can argue that Georgia’s defense is statistically better, their fired defensive coaches aren’t taking part in bowl preparation and that doesn’t seem to bode well in their preparations for one of the nation’s best offenses. Expect Texas A&M to score plenty of points against an underprepared and disinterested Bulldog defense.
In the end, I think that Texas A&M is more excited to be part of this game and will enjoy the benefits of a full coaching staff in their preparations. The Aggie attack is going to continue operating at a high level and Georgia’s already toothless defense isn’t going to have an answer. Meanwhile, Texas A&M isn’t very good defensively but the Dawgs turn the ball over far too often and A&M will take advantage of a Bulldog team that has the 2nd worst turnover margin in the nation. Expect Texas A&M to beat Georgia in a shootout thanks to a big day from Jerrod Johnson.
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