ATHENS, Ga.—One would believe it’s unimaginable for a top-10 team from the Southeastern Conference, playing at home as more than a 30-point favorite—as is the case with Georgia this Saturday—to lose to Louisiana Monroe (ULM) of the lower-tiered Sun Belt Conference.
On the contrary, it’s certainly fathomable, just ask the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Just three seasons ago in Little Rock, Ark., the eighth-ranked Hogs were defeated 34-31 by ULM as 31-point favorites. The upset victory by the Warhawks came less than five years removed from when they toppled Alabama 21-14 in Tuscaloosa as nearly four-touchdown underdogs.
Yet, ULM’s ability to play with, or even conquer, the “big boys” did not end at Arkansas. Within the next 13 days after the epic upset to open their 2012 season, the Warhawks lost to Auburn on the road by only a field goal in overtime, followed by a 47-42 setback to high-powered Baylor. In addition and on a winning note, ULM faced Wake Forest in 2013 and 2014, and was a perfect 2 and 0.
“Last year, [ULM was] 4-8 (record), but when you look at the games…they lost five games by seven points or less,” head coach Mark Richt said earlier this week. “They could have easily been a nine-win team a year ago.”
The second of ULM’s five close calls last season which resulted in defeat was as a five-touchdown underdog at Texas A&M. In their 21-16 narrow escape against ULM, the Aggies were limited to 243 yards of total offense, or nearly 300 yards below their per-game average at the time.
Therefore, the question arises whether the ninth-ranked Bulldogs, who are currently 36-point favorites, enter this game with a different mindset considering the small-time Warhawks have given a number of big-time programs fits in recent years.
“Most definitely not,” replied senior defensive lineman Josh Dawson regarding if Georgia was preparing for ULM in a unique manner. “We treat every [opponent] the same. … They’re competitors as well, just like us. So, like every other game, we treat [ULM] like a championship game.”
Last season, the Warhawks’ strength was undoubtedly their defense, especially when pitted against upper-tier competition. ULM’s defense, which is aligned in the uncommon, aggressive 3-3-5 formation, remarkably yielded only 265.3 total yards per game in 2014 against the four Power 5 conference teams it faced: Wake Forest, LSU, Kentucky, and Texas A&M.
“ULM is a good team,” said junior Brandon Kublanow, who will confront the Warhawk defense as Georgia’s starting center. “They’ve come close [to winning] with a lot of big schools. … They’re returning a lot of players, and they’ll be ready for Saturday.”
ULM is especially returning a lot of players on defense; it’s essentially the same formidable unit as last year. The Warhawks return nine defenders with at least 10 career starts. Not only do they have most likely the top defense in the entire Sun Belt Conference, but ULM could very well have the best of all three defensive units—line, linebackers, and secondary—of all its conference members.
The Warhawks’ linebacking corps should be particularly skilled this season. Spearheaded by starters Hunter Kissinger, Michael Johnson, and Cody Robinson—all seniors and all-conference candidates—ULM’s linebackers as a group are arguably better than half of the teams in the SEC at the position. On a smaller scale, it’s just another example in recent years of the Warhawks getting the better of a team, or teams, belonging to the SEC.
“I may or may not bring it up, but I’m sure somebody along the way will,” Richt said yesterday regarding whether ULM’s historical upsets over Alabama and Arkansas will be reiterated to his team. “But, [more so], the thing I’m [stressing] is we really, truly need to focus on our assignments—our job.”
And, to avoid the heartbreak Alabama and Arkansas has endured at the hands of ULM, part of the Bulldogs’ “job” is to not treat the Warhawks like the giant killers they’ve been, but like every other opponent—like a championship game.