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Post What it means to replace Nick and Sony

Tuesday August 14, 2018

Football Study Hall has a piece looking at the most well-rounded tailbacks from 2017. To determine how well-rounded a back is, they looked at the combination of efficiency and explosiveness. For efficiency, they looked at a back’s success rate relative to the expected success rate for a play, and explosiveness compared actual vs. expected IsoPP. All of that is defined much better in the post.

There were only 22 backs in 2017 with at least 150 carries “who rated in the 50th percentile in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness.” It should come as no surprise that Georgia had two of those 22. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel weren’t just productive in terms of yardage. They were both among the best in the nation at being efficient and explosive, and they accomplished that sharing carries in a tailback rotation that went five-deep. Michel was in the 80th percentile in both categories.

That’s what Georgia is attempting to replace at tailback. It’s not just 2,600 yards and 31 TD. It’s generating that production with a consistency of both efficiency and explosiveness.

One point the FSH piece makes is how running the ball is a tough way to get ahead.

First things first: it must be noted that, of these 83 players, only 28 produced a marginal efficiency above zero percent. As with what people have begun to firmly establish on the pro side…running is a reasonably lower-ceilinged endeavor. It’s lower-risk, too, and some teams have certainly figured out how to run more than others, but for a majority of feature backs, handing them the ball was likely to put you behind schedule. It was also far less likely to produce big plays — only 18 of these 83 produced a marginal explosiveness above plus-0.0 points per successful run.

Georgia was able to buck that trend and produce a dominant running game in 2017 largely because they had an unusual concentration of backs who could stay ahead of the chains (efficient success rate) and possessed a better-than-most threat to rip off an explosive run. It would be an accomplishment for Georgia to have one such back in 2018 – it was nearly unstoppable to have two. That alone suggests a larger role for the passing game for Georgia’s offense in 2018.

Another interesting thing from that post: Georgia faced six of the 19 rushing quarterbacks (60+ attempts, not including sacks) who rated in the 50th percentile or better in both rushing efficiency and explosiveness. The results?

  • Taylor Lamb (App St.): 10 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD, 32 long
  • Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame): 16 carries, 1 yard, 1 TD, 8 long
  • Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State): 10 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 14 long
  • Stephen Johnson (Kentucky): 8 carries, 4 yards, 0 TD, 7 long
  • Jalen Hurts (Alabama): 6 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 31 long
  • Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma): 12 carries, 1 yard, 0 TD, 22 long

Yes, those yardage totals include sack yardage, but the few explosive runs Georgia gave up to rushing quarterbacks were more or less inconsequential. Considering that the scrambling QB was considered an Achilles heel of the defense entering the season, those are some fairly impressive results against a half-dozen of the nation’s most well-rounded rushing quarterbacks.


Post Matchups that keep you up at night

Tuesday August 14, 2018

The stars have aligned to bring several Missouri previews across the wire this week. We’ve all circled the South Carolina trip as an early battle in the SEC East, but there’s another September trip to another Columbia that will test Georgia’s reloaded defense.

Missouri of course got Georgia’s attention last season with a competitive first half and tallied the most points scored on Georgia until the Auburn game. They’re replacing a creative offensive coordinator (with Derek Dooley) and lose productive receiver J’Mon Moore. But talented quarterback Drew Lock returns after considering a jump to the NFL, and deep threat Emanuel Hall will remain a favorite target. In 2017 Hall got behind the Georgia defense for 141 yards and two long scores on just four receptions.

But the Missouri player I find myself dwelling on is sophomore TE Albert Okwuegbunam. Georgia fans will be glad to see South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst gone, but “Albert O” might be in a position to take Hurst’s place as a nightmare matchup. As a freshman Okwuegbunam caught 29 passes for 415 yards and an impressive 11 touchdowns. Better than 1 out of every 3 catches went for a score. Only Ole Miss’s A.J. Brown, considered the SEC’s top returning wide receiver, had as many receiving touchdowns.

Okwuegbunam caught a four-yard shovel pass for Missouri’s first touchdown in Athens last year, but he’s most dangerous releasing down the seam. He’s a favorite target on pop passes where interior defenders must pay attention to the run and also follow the imposing tight end releasing right past them. At a solid 6’5″ and 260 lbs., he’s a load for most defensive backs and elusive enough to get open against slower linebackers.

Modern offenses love to feature the Gronkowski-style receiver exactly because of that speed vs. size conundrum, and Missouri seems to have found their Gronk in Okwuegbunam. It’s something Georgia is looking for in its fleet of tight ends, and it’s why Georgia fans ask about the position every offseason. There’s a trade-off in a power running game when the TE must often stay in to block, but we know that hasn’t been Missouri’s identity.

Other than the shovel pass on which Okwuegbunam sliced through Georgia’s interior defense, he had just one other reception in the game. The matchup interests me more this year because of what Georgia lost on the interior of the defense. The Dawgs will miss Roquan Smith for many reasons, and his pass coverage ability is near the top of the list. That had been a big weakness of Georgia’s middle linebackers prior to Smith, and it’s not an easy job even for the best. Georgia also loses ball-hawking defensive back Dominick Sanders. Sanders worked at both safety and star – positions that might be asked to pick up a releasing tight end down the seam. We’ll find out in September if Georgia’s replacements at both ILB and safety/star can be as effective containing one of the SEC’s most prolific scorers.


Post I have been in the revenge business so long…I do not know what to do

Wednesday August 1, 2018

Whether it was an actual motivator of the 2017 team or or just a fan meme, the “Revenge Tour” theme took on a life of its own as the Bulldogs plowed through their 2017 schedule. When you lose five games the previous season, there are ample opportunities for revenge. Georgia throttled by an average of 41.5-7 the four teams they played last season that beat the Bulldogs in 2016. Facing Auburn in the SEC title game gave the Dawgs one more chance to avenge a loss, and that turned out pretty well too.

So with winning streaks over all scheduled 2018 opponents, where should the Bulldogs turn for motivation? It will be the other team more often than not looking for payback against Georgia. Georgia will be hunted each week as a highly-ranked target. No, a team in Georgia’s position shouldn’t need anything special to prepare for each game, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it to them. We might have to dig a little deeper, but there are still some scores to settle for the 2018 team.

1) Tech. Let’s put it this way: Tech hasn’t won three straight in Athens since The Streak. They retired the jersey of the Georgia player that ended that dark era. Georgia was in a good position to win each of the last two Athens games, and most of us surely have sour memories of the squib kick in 2014 or the collapse in 2016 – both resulting in an excruciating last-second loss. Georgia should be heavily favored to get the home win, but another home loss would be devastating both in terms of the rivalry and also any postseason hopes Georgia might hold at that point.

2) Florida. Last season’s win was thoroughly enjoyable, and it was even more enjoyable to sit back and revel in the final 3+ quarters with the game well in hand. It was only one win though, and that’s just a small step towards righting the lopsided series record since 1990. Prior to last season’s breakthrough Georgia had lost three straight in the series, and surely you don’t forget Florida winning in 2014 with 400+ rushing yards and completing just three passes. We’re only a couple of seasons removed from the quarterback experiment in 2015 that toppled a coaching staff. No, the 2017 win was nice, but it’s just a start. The Dawgs haven’t had consecutive double-digit margins of victory in Jacksonville since 1987-88.

3) Tennessee. Forget 41-0. Forget the Pruitt storylines. We know any network worth its salt will lead its coverage of this game with the Hail Mary. Tennessee last left the Sanford Stadium field with a win after 15 of the most wild seconds of football you’ll ever see. Some key contributors in that game are long gone, but enough remain who want to erase that memory. Riley Ridley was a hero for all of ten seconds. It didn’t help that the Dawgs blew a 17-0 lead too. Mad yet?

4) Auburn. So the SEC championship was a measure of revenge. Fine. Auburn still spoiled Georgia’s undefeated regular season. If the season goes the way we expect, Georgia might come into this game in an identical position. It’s bad enough to give Auburn that satisfaction once. Two seasons in a row would be a black mark. For a time about 20 years ago, the road team had the upper hand in this series. Mark Richt changed that, and the Dawgs haven’t lost a home game to Auburn since 2005. Let’s keep it that way.

5) Vanderbilt. Yes, poor, hapless Vanderbilt – specialists at ruining Homecoming. As with Tech and the Vols, this game is more about what happened on Vanderbilt’s last trip to Sanford Stadium. The last time we saw them in Athens, a Georgia team with Chubb and Michel decided to run tiny Isaiah McKenzie on a decisive 4th and 1. Derek Mason got his signature SEC win at Georgia’s expense and on Georgia’s field. I’m still not over it, and I hope the players who were around then aren’t. Never underestimate an opportunity to stomp Vanderbilt, because nothing defines an underachieving season like losing to the Commodores.

6) South Carolina. You might be able to find a redshirt senior or two who were around for the 2014 loss in Columbia, but this isn’t really about revenge. It’s more about Georgia claiming what’s theirs and reinforcing the accomplishment of last season. This is the first title defense against the mouthy challenger. The talk from the east has already started, and a handful of pundits think this could be an early stumble for Georgia. A loss here could put serious pressure on Georgia’s chances to repeat in the SEC East. I expect Georgia to be locked in for this one.

7) UMass. Because screw those guys, right?


Post Successful recruiting weekend has space getting tight in the 2019 class

Tuesday July 31, 2018

It was a special weekend for football recruiting in Athens as the 2019 class picked up pledges from top targets at tailback, athlete, and linebacker. The announcements came after “The Reveal” – an event to show off the new west endzone project and locker room to some of Georgia’s top recruiting prospects. The Reveal had its intended effect, and Kirby Smart was quick to thank the donors who contributed to the project.

The weekend’s haul raised Georgia’s commitment total for the 2019 class to 16. The Dawgs have added six commitments since mid-July. That’s turned a solid core of a class into one that’s suddenly close to filling up. The thing is that the 2019 class isn’t expected to be a large one. The current senior class is fairly small (around 16 players), and even normal amounts of attrition along with an early NFL entry or two only get you so much flexibility. Jeff Sentell projected the size of the 2019 class at 21.

The number might shift one way or the other – they always seem to find the room to sign just one more, don’t they? Say it’s somewhere between 20-23. But the exact number isn’t the point. It’s a safe bet that Georgia’s class will come in under the limit of 25. Space in this class is beginning to become tight. If we use Sentell’s number, that means we head into August with only five spots available. Some thoughts on the next four months of recruiting with single-digit spots remaining:

  • Recruiting news will probably slow down. There could be one or two more decisions before the season, but Georgia’s targets also include some waiting until Signing Day or at least the end of the high school season. Journalists covering recruiting will find angles to keep readers engaged, but we’re not going to see things proceed at the same pace with six commitments in two weeks. Other schools might appear in the recruiting news more than Georgia. That’s OK.
  • The staff knows who their remaining targets are. They’ll focus on those few while keeping other options alive. Managing those few remaining spots will be the job until the class is full, and the staff can afford to be very, very picky.
  • Will there be even less Georgia drama in this year’s late signing period? Georgia had a few but impressive additions in February to put the 2018 class over the top. With only five or so scholarships left to fill for 2019, how many will remain available after December?
  • Are all of the current commitments firm? When you’re dealing with such elite prospects, they’ll be prime targets of other programs until the moment they sign. Georgia will spend plenty of time re-recruiting each commitment.
  • Along those lines, will the list change for other reasons? We saw attrition from last year’s class right from the beginning. Whether or not Georgia encouraged those prospects to look elsewhere in order to make room for interest from a “must-take” player, it’s not unheard of.
  • We know that even after the class is done and full this staff won’t stop looking for ways to improve it. Graduate transfers, regular transfers, walk-ons, and unsigned JUCOs will all be in play once we get a better understanding of the needs of the team after the 2018 season. The pursuit of those late additions will have to be as much a part of the roster management as the size of the 2019 recruiting class.

Post Commitment as catharsis

Tuesday July 31, 2018

Blutarsky wrote last week that “what this reminds you most of is one of (Mark) Richt’s glaring issues, the ability to fix one thing and have something else crop up to bedevil him.” He was discussing an autopsy of the 2015 season, but the painful truth of that statement is that it applied across many areas of the program during Richt’s 15 years. In this context it had to do with the composition of the coaching staff. Other times it could have been special teams or oven who called the plays. Often it had to do with recruiting and roster management.

It became a maddening characteristic of Richt’s teams to be out of phase. If you only looked at individual talent, you’d rightly say that the team was loaded with blue-chips. That was enough for a very good 15-year run with occasional divisional titles and even two conference championships. But many times the best talent was clustered on one side of the ball or the other. Rarely did a strong offense and defense come together. The 2003 team had one of the best defenses in the nation, but the offense was middle of the pack in the SEC. A decade ago Georgia had high draft picks at quarterback, tailback, and receiver, but the defense was in the twilight of the Willie Martinez years. Things did come together in 2012, but they got right back out of sync.

Few teams are ever going to be completely well-rounded, but it’s beyond frustrating in those rare seasons with legitimate title aspirations and generational talent at certain positions knowing that inconsistent recruiting over a period of years at other positions could blow the whole thing up. It’s even more frustrating when you can identify the prospect or two who might keep a position from becoming a weakness down the road (or even turn it into a strength) and just can’t land them. We’ve seen that too.

Every year there are always a couple of prospects who emerge as touchstones for a successful signing class. It’s the nature of following recruiting to place undue importance on those decisions, but once in a while there really are such things as must-sign prospects. The ones that get away can sting for a while – recruitniks still talk about the trio that left Georgia in 1997 to fuel Tennessee’s run. But Kirby Smart has begun to add more than his share of these key prospects. Jacob Eason was an immediate boon for Smart. Not only did Georgia need an upgrade at quarterback, but Eason’s decision to stick with his commitment gave instant legitimacy to a risky hire dealing with a divided fan base. Richard LeCounte helped to pull together an impressive class following a 2016 lukewarm season. Zamir White kickstarted last season’s class after a sluggish start, but many fans considered Jamaree Salyer the make-or-break commitment that would define a successful class.

Travon Walker became one of those prospects for the 2019 class. To begin with, an in-state 5* defensive lineman is always going to be a priority. But Walker’s decision carried with it an unusual amount of angst that seemed out of step with the current boom in Georgia recruiting. As well as Kirby Smart and his staff had recruited, elite defensive line talent proved elusive. Derrick Brown was an early disappointment. Rick Sandidge would have made a nice addition to the nation’s top class. These decisions weren’t devastating because Georgia had decent depth along the line in the short term, and the arrival of Jay Hayes made things a little less dire in 2018. But those misses did mean that incoming players like Jordan Davis would have a little more pressure to produce, and they also increased the urgency for the 2019 class.

The relative difficulty recruiting the defensive line also increased the spotlight on defensive line coach Tray Scott. Fair or not, Scott was beginning to feel some heat as the defensive line became one of the few position groups not to sign a 5* prospect. As well as Georgia was stocking talent at other positions, the defensive line lagged. Georgia already had a couple of quality defensive end 2019 commitments in Bill Norton and Zion Logue, but Walker would be the tell: could Georgia land an elite defensive linemen with so much in its favor: in-state, a solid long-term relationship, and playing time at a position of need? They could and did.

Walker’s commitment checks all of the boxes in terms of what the team needs from a defensive lineman. Beyond that, it calms the nerves of those who think about things like the two-deep a year or two down the road. Could Smart and his staff avoid a pitfall with which the previous staff struggled? Neuroses of the Georgia fan base die hard, and the looming possibility of a key position once again holding back an otherwise loaded team was all too fresh of a memory. Walker assuaged that concern for now. He’s just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a big piece that moves Georgia a little closer to the well-rounded roster they’ll need to remain on top.


Post Incentives part 2 – the shrinking visitor’s section

Tuesday July 17, 2018

I wrote earlier that SEC fans are still attending games, and that’s true in most cases. One area in which there seems to be a little softening is in the time-honored tradition of the visitor’s section. Of course with rabid SEC fans there will always be plenty of loyal opposition in the stands, and the one or two best games on the schedule will always be a tough ticket, but the phrase “tickets returned from visiting teams” seems to be showing up a lot more often.

Variable ticket pricing isn’t a new development – it’s been around in some form in the SEC for most of this decade. Teams have figured out the mechanics of charging more for premium (or just conference) games. Neither is supply-and-demand a revelation. When the prices of tickets rise, we’ll see less demand for them. For home fans, it’s somewhat more difficult to turn away. There are other things at stake beyond the ticket price – maintaining a location held for generations and the ritual of tailgating and a fall weekend in Athens make it tempting to swallow each subsequent price increase.

With the introduction of variable pricing for its home games in 2018, Georgia’s had enough tickets returned this year from opponents to offer a five-game pack to the general public for all home games except Tennessee and Auburn. Georgia’s not having a problem selling season tickets to its own fans (new season tickets require nearly 24,000 points), but many are simply holding their spot for the Notre Dame game in 2019. Visiting fans don’t care about our future schedule, and it will be telling to see if these packages will be met with as much interest by Georgia fans since they’re 1) not sold at a discount and 2) aren’t renewable.

It’s not just Georgia of course. Alabama is offering single-game tickets based on returns from opponents. We’re not talking cupcakes – divisional foes Mississippi State and Texas A&M returned tickets. We can joke about fans just not wanting to witness a blowout in person, but Alabama didn’t just become dominant. Alabama’s lowest ticket prices for nonconference games is $40. Prices for conference games are more than twice that, and the A&M game costs nearly three times as much. A sizable number of visiting fans are just staying home.

A related casualty of variable pricing is the visiting band. With equipment and larger instruments, a 350-person band can use well over 500 seats. Since most of the higher-prices games are likely to be conference matchups, the cost to bring a full band has skyrocketed. You’ll see fewer full bands and more 40-100 person pep bands in the visitor’s section across the conference. There will be exceptions for high-profile games (think Notre Dame or Georgia-Florida), but each exception will require a difficult decision by an athletic department to write the check.

Most of us would prefer to never see the color orange or yellow in Sanford Stadium, but a large and vocal block of opposing fans is a fairly unique element of college football. You know it’s a big game when you start to see the other team’s fans arriving in town. On the flip side, following the Dawgs on the road can produce some of the best experiences you’ll have as a fan. Still, the decision whether to attend a road game is often a financial one, and higher ticket prices on top of other travel expenses can make it an easy decision to stay home. If the seats end up filled by home fans, is pricing visiting fans out of the stadium a bug or a feature?


Post Incentives part 1 – SEC scheduling

Tuesday July 17, 2018

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey discussed the conference schedule on Monday, and I expect his honesty won’t sit well.

Schools and coaches still prefer the eight-game, 6-1-1 model for football conference scheduling. He does not expect a move to a nine-game schedule anytime soon. He cited the SEC having 10 teams play in postseason bowls for four straight years and four teams winning nine of the last 12 national championships as evidence the current formula works.

He’s correct, of course. The SEC has the luxury of using the schedule as a tool – a means to ends. Those ends are playoff appearances, bowl bids, and revenue. The top teams SEC aren’t penalized for their nonconference schedules, and they likely won’t be. The other teams jockeying for bowl bids (and the bonuses that come with them) don’t want seven extra losses distributed across the conference. Nick Saban wouldn’t mind an extra conference game, but he’s not particularly worried about a bowl bid or a regular season loss keeping him out of the playoff.

The schools aren’t going to be leading the charge on this. It’s against their interests to do so. Fans could vote with their dollars, but SEC attendance is strong and demand is fairly inelastic (though not completely so.) It was possible that the expansion of television coverage would prompt the conference to increase its inventory of interesting games, but that hasn’t happened either – yet. If SEC revenue lags relative to new Big Ten deals, the networks can always ask the SEC to bring more to the table.

The schools will need better incentives than the ones they have now to get on board adding another conference game. In the meantime, enjoy that trip to College Station in six years.


Post Next in the facilities arms race – when and where?

Wednesday July 11, 2018

A big issue in the planning and construction of the magnificent IPF was site selection. The administration had to weigh several possible locations with pros and cons for each. A location out on South Milledge would have allowed for a sprawling complex with plenty of room for growth, but as we saw in 2016 it was no fun moving daily practice miles from the rest of the training facilities. Potential locations on campus eliminated logistical problems, but cramped real estate required the loss of practice fields or even campus buildings.

Georgia eventually settled on an on-campus location adjacent to the Butts-Mehre building. It cost the football program some outdoor practice space and some headaches with temporary practice fields during construction, but in the end it seems to have been a successful project that benefits the entire athletic department. We moved on to the next project, the west endzone of Sanford Stadium, to bring recruiting and locker room facilities up to par. That’s just about wrapped up, so what’s next?

Seth Emerson’s recent Mailbag (subscription required) gets us thinking again about the room available for future athletics projects. Emerson identifies several football-related projects that might go on a facilities master plan. There’s a need for a larger weight room that can accomodate the entire team. There’s no training table facility. Office space for an expanded staff is also tight. The location of the IPF worked well for its purpose, but it means that the Butts-Mehre building can’t really expand outward. Could it grow vertically? Probably not, but you’d have to ask the structural engineers.

Emerson mentions the possibility of an annex near Stegeman Coliseum, and that might be a location he brought up three years ago. When locations for the IPF were kicked around, the land containing the Hoke Smith buildings and parking lot was one of the options. That’s roughly the rectangle bordered by Lumpkin Street, the Georgia Center Hotel, Stegeman Coliseum, and the existing practice fields. The trick with using that area remains the same: you’d incur the additional costs of relocating those academic facilities and have some additional political wrangling to do since those buildings house state 4-H and CES services.

If that location does become available, it’s certainly a sizeable and centrally-located plot of land that could house an impressive training facility with a large weight room, dining, and medical training areas. Alabama is opening its own new “sports and nutrition” facility soon. At Georgia, office and conference space could be included as part of a comprehensive “football building”, or you could repurpose space in Butts-Mehre once the weight room is relocated. If you’d prefer to keep all football activites attached to the IPF, you could use the Hoke Smith land to build a new facility just for athletics administration while completely refurbishing the Butts-Mehre site for football. It’s just money, right?

While we’re thinking about football facilities, Seth reminds us that any master plan should seek input from every sport. The indoor tennis facility is already slated to be replaced. Can much more be done to Stegeman Coliseum? The Coliseum Training Facility was state-of-the-art when it opened, but that opening was 11 years ago. Foley Field received a minor upgrade within the past couple of years, but significant expansion is constrained by its location. Those are just a handful of Georgia’s sports programs, but what they have in common is competition for space within the Vince Dooley Athletic Complex on campus. The scarcity of land within that area only strengthens Emerson’s point that development within this area has to be approached strategically with a master plan. The haphazard planning that led UGA to scrap Butts-Mehre improvements five years after completion won’t cut it.


Post Rules changes and redshirt what-ifs

Thursday July 5, 2018

Two big administrative rule changes last month. As of October 15, a player may transfer without permission from his/her coach, and the player will be added to a national transfer database making him or her eligible to be contacted by any other coach (again without the need for approval from the current coach.) It’s not “free agency” in football – there’s still the requirement to sit out a year – but the rules are now a little more favorable for prospective transfers. One thing to watch – conferences can still make rules that are more restrictive than the national rule. Will they?

The other change allows players to see action in as many as four games while still preserving a redshirt season. We’ll be able to see true freshmen get valuable game experience, and it won’t cost them as in the past. It will also give coaches some flexibility with the roster in the event of injuries that might keep a veteran player out a couple of games but not an entire season. You’d also expect redshirt freshmen to be more prepared to play in their first full season after getting their feet wet as true freshmen.

Many of us went to the same place when this news came out: how might this rule have played out in the past? Would playing a redshirting freshman in a couple of games have mattered enough to change outcomes?

Chip Towers spent some time talking about one of the what-ifs: Knowshon Moreno in 2006. Aaron Murray in 2009 came to mind. The decision to redshirt Murray was made less complicated by injuries, but some playing time late in 2009 might have prepared him better for taking over in 2010 (a season that started 1-4.) Selfishly, how about more opportunities to see Murray throwing to A.J. Green? Their time together was cut short by Green’s 2010 suspension. In their first game together, we got this pass.

The redshirt what-if scenario that stuck with me was David Greene in 2000. This one might’ve changed Georgia football history.

The 2000 season famously fell apart, and it led to a coaching change. The South Carolina game was a debacle, but it was the only contest Georgia dropped until midseason, and Georgia remained in a position to compete for the SEC East title. The quarterback position began to unravel midseason. Quincy Carter hadn’t been impressive: there were the five interceptions at South Carolina, but even in wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt he completed a combined 20-of-37. Carter missed the Kentucky game with an injury, and Georgia turned to Cory Phillips. Phillips was stellar at Kentucky, but he gave way to the return of Carter against Florida. That game was going well, and Georgia was poised to go up by double-digits at halftime. A Lito Sheppard interception of Carter changed the game, the score was tied at halftime, and Florida pulled away in the second half.

The Florida game was also the last Carter would play for Georgia. A thumb ligament injury suffered in the Florida loss ended Carter’s season, and Phillips would start the rest of the way. Terrence Edwards even saw some snaps in a proto-wildcat look. Unfortunately Phillips wasn’t as effective as he had been in Lexington, and Georgia dropped three of its last four games. From the Florida collapse to the horrifying Tech game, fan sentiment began to turn in a big way. It didn’t take long for an announcement to be made after the regular season.

Greene was redshirting in 2000, and there was some rumbling midseason (if not after the South Carolina game) whether it was time to play the true freshman. Donnan, to his credit, put the interests of Greene first and preserved the redshirt. It’s something I’ve seen Donnan asked about over the years, and there’s always the second-guessing about what might have gone differently had Greene played. Quarterback wasn’t the only deficiency with that team. A two-loss season without an SEC East title still wouldn’t have met the high expectations for the 2000 season, and we might still be talking about a coaching change. It’s possible though that a better finish to the season with the promise of Greene under center for the next several seasons would have been enough to stem the full-on revolt that made a coaching change a done deal.

Then again, imagine the idea of a full-blown Greene/Carter QB controversy heading into 2001 with all of the baggage of the 2000 season in tow.


Post Dawgs ruling the diamonds

Thursday May 31, 2018

Springtime in Athens can be almost as good as the fall, and it’s that much more enjoyable when the Dawgs are playing well. An afternoon basking in the sun at the Magill Tennis Complex, the Jack, or Foley Field should be high on everyone’s to-do list.

This year has been especially exciting with both the baseball and softball teams playing at a high level. Georgia is one of three schools (Florida, FSU) to earn top 8 national seeds in both sports. The softball team has already hosted a regional and super regional and used the homefield advantage to advance to the Women’s College World Series. Now the Diamond Dawgs have the opportunity to host all the way to Omaha.

It’s been a long time coming for Georgia baseball. The even-odd successes and struggles of the 2000s were frustrating at times, but at least there were four CWS trips to enjoy. The program hadn’t returned to the postseason since 2011 and hadn’t hosted a regional since the national runner-up season in 2008. Coach Scott Stricklin entered his fifth season without a postseason trip, and there was a good bit of pressure on Stricklin and the team to have a breakthrough season.

It’s safe to say that the breakthrough season came. The Diamond Dawgs had the second-best record in the SEC and finished 37-19 against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. They’ve swept Clemson and Georgia Tech and have impressive series wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M.

Georgia turned things around largely with pitching. The program has its “lowest team ERA in 50 years.” There’s been solid weekend pitching, the emergence of Aaron Schunk as a closer, and the development of freshmen Ryan Webb and C.J. Smith. Kevin Smith lost his starting role midseason but has rebounded with a string of strong outings highlighted by a win at Florida.

Certainly there’s been some improvement on offense too. Senior Keegan McGovern leads the team in both average and power with significant year-over-year improvements in both areas. His 15 HR have him among the SEC’s top five sluggers, but his team-best .325 batting average doesn’t crack the SEC’s top 15. Beyond McGovern there aren’t many batters setting the league on fire. Instead there have been occasional and timely contributions up and down the lineup. When combined with solid pitching, it’s been enough offense to get the job done.

The baseball team has already achieved its primary goal of reaching the postseason, but now they’re within reach of the program’s seventh trip to Omaha. Hopefully they can enjoy the same success on their home field that their softball counterparts enjoyed a little ways down Milledge.

Softball has had more recent success, reaching the WCWS by upsetting Florida in Gainesville in the 2016 super regional. But the softball Dawgs hadn’t hosted a super regional since 2014, and they hadn’t celebrated a super regional win on their home field since 2010. They dropped to the bottom of a brutal SEC only a year ago, but they’ve bounced back in spectacular fashion.

It’s been a remarkable season for the softball team. They started out on fire, losing only to current #1 Oregon. The loss of ace pitcher Brittany Gray in April (with her ridiculous 0.48 ERA) was a blow, but the team managed to hang on in the top 10. It wasn’t until the final weekend of the season that the team dropped an SEC series. Georgia dropped 4 of 5 games heading into the NCAA tournament, and that slump raised questions about Georgia’s vulnerability and status as a top 8 national seed. An ESPN analyst even picked Georgia as a team likely to be upset in the regional round.

Georgia picked a great time to bounce back. They’ve looked anything but vulnerable in the NCAA tournament, sweeping through both the regional and super regional rounds with five straight wins. Unlike the baseball team, Georgia softball earned its national seed with offense. They lead the SEC in most offensive categories, and they have five of the SEC’s top ten players in batting average. The top third of the order features the blistering speed of Cortni Emanuel, the power of Alyssa DiCarlo, and the versatility of Justice Milz. With such strong team stats, there’s been plenty of production throughout the rest of the lineup.

Replacing the dominant Gray in the pitching circle hasn’t been easy, and Georgia’s turned to a committee approach. Mary Wilson Avant has seen much of the work with Kylie Bass getting her share of starts. It wouldn’t be unheard of for Amanda Ablan to get a start in a pinch. The team’s biggest weakness has been fielding, especially in the infield. Some key mistakes have led to big innings. Pitching has had its shaky moments as well, and that’s to be expected when the ace is sidelined. Coach Lu Harris-Champer hasn’t hesitated to make a change. When Bass and Avant are on, as they were in the super regional against Tennessee, the team has the firepower to advance far in Oklahoma City.


Post Crean’s recruited the fans – now for the hard part

Thursday May 31, 2018

If fans suited up, Tom Crean would have a pretty formidable squad next season. Georgia’s new basketball coach has been relentless in introducing himself to a Georgia fan base preoccupied with spring football and seemingly everything else but a sport that’s over six months away. He’s reached out to students, fired up the massive G-Day crowd, and taken advantage of nearly every opportunity to spread his enthusiasm for the future of Georgia basketball. It’s been impressive to watch him work, and I think he’s been fairly successful.

As every Georgia coach has discovered, recruiting players to Athens can be as difficult – perhaps moreso – than getting Georgia fans to think basketball in April and May. The elite signings have been few and far between (Jumaine Jones, Trey Thompkins, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and coaches more often have had to rely on sleeper prospects who overachieved: Gaines, Hayes, Maten, and Frazier. Sometimes it’s worked, but we know that it hasn’t been a consistent winning formula to get the team into the NCAA Tournament or to keep coaches around for very long.

Crean, like Mark Fox and the rest of his predecessors, will sink or swim based on his ability to bring in players. First things first: we’ll worry about things like player development and in-game strategy when the basic raw materials are in place. That hasn’t happened often at Georgia. If you go by the composite class rankings on 24/7, Fox never had a class rated higher than 6th in the SEC. Over half were 9th or worse. (Think football recruiting rankings are unpredictable? Fox’s highest-rated recruiting class in 2016 contained Crump, Harris, and Diatta. His lowest-rated class, the 2014 group that was rated dead-last in the SEC, featured a guy named Maten.)

That’s not really a knock on Fox – it’s not as if Georgia recruiting fell off a cliff. It was never strong to begin with. Fox, like those before him, just wasn’t able to overcome that legacy. Can Crean?

Turning around Georgia’s recruiting fortunes starts with the head coach, and Crean has both the energy and track record to at least have a shot. He has high name recognition and can point to some high-profile protégés in the NBA. Crean has pulled recruits from the Atlanta area before, but, as with Fox, Georgia is not exactly his home turf. For real local impact, coaches rely on their staff. Fox brought in Yasir Rosemond and later Jonas Hayes for that impact. Hayes in particular began to show some results, and Georgia finally landed a series of blue-chip commitments – just in time to change coaches.

Crean’s assembled an impressive staff with local recruiting in mind. Chad Dollar is an Atlanta native with a family legacy in Atlanta basketball. He’s coached in the SEC and at Tech. Amir Abdur-Rahim is cut from the same cloth: an Atlanta native with SEC (and, yes, Tech) experience. Enticing Abdur-Rahim to leave Texas A&M was considered a nice little coup, and he became the program’s highest-paid assistant in the process. Crean augmented those hires with Joe Scott who has Division I head coaching experience and is considered a solid tactician.

It’s going to take a while to gain some traction now that the staff is in place. Two blue-chip local prospects who considered Georgia, E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans (a former Georgia/Fox commitment), are headed to Kentucky. Crean did notch his first recruiting win – combo guard Tye Fagan chose Georgia in the spring signing period over Ole Miss and others. Fagan will be looked to right away to bolster an offense that Crean expects to be more aggressive from outside.

Fagan aside, the new staff’s recruiting efforts will largely turn to 2019 and beyond. There’s a lot of ground to make up as relationships with prospects, schools, and communities can take years to develop. Crean’s name recognition and the familiarity of Abdur-Rahim and Dollar should help to speed that process along. His message will be a common one for programs without much recent success: come start something. “There’s plenty of room for statues,” as Crean put it. That challenge doesn’t always resonate, but when it does, the results can transform a program.


Post “If you win 20 in the show…the press’ll think you’re colorful.”

Thursday May 17, 2018

Good piece from Bill King on Georgia’s kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. King reminds us that while Blankenship has his oddities, he’s developed into a damn fine kicker whose 2017 season deserves to be mentioned among Georgia’s best placekicking performances. He made pressure-packed game-winning kicks against Notre Dame and Oklahoma, and his 51-yarder in overtime against Alabama would have been, with apologies to Butler and Munson, the most significant kick in Georgia history had the Dawgs held on.

It’s not too long ago that Blankenship was the goofy guy with glasses and the meddlesome father. Blankenship was after a scholarship, but we forget that he was fighting for the starting role right up to the start of the 2017 season. The scholarship came soon after.

The transformation of Blankenship from a walk-on with a tenuous hold on the starting job to a clutch weapon who coolly nailed field goals from 50+ yards in each playoff game is easy to overlook when we had so many good things going on. The barrage of touchbacks throughout the season was a welcome bonus. Blankenship’s quirks might have made him stand out at first, but his steady production is ensuring that he’ll be remembered for a long time for his kicking.


Post 2017 leaders rewarded in NFL Draft

Sunday April 29, 2018

It’s fitting that the leaders from such a memorable and special season would make a little more history on their way out. An unprecedented three Bulldog players were selected in the first round, and Bulldogs ended up as four of the first 35 picks.

  • Who had Georgia’s offense ending up with more drafted players than the defense?
  • If you look at a sample 2017 mock draft at the end of the 2016 season before the juniors made their monumental decision to return, it’s not hard to see that everyone made the right call to return. Certainly those decisions in early 2017 were a huge shot in the arm for the program, but realistically Georgia didn’t have any can’t-miss juniors on the 2016 team along the lines of Roquan Smith. Michel and Chubb were on that 2017 list of course, and each improved his position. Isaiah Wynn and Lorenzo Carter weren’t even on the draft radar after their junior seasons. It’s safe to say that all six of the drafted Bulldogs improved their standing during the 2017 season with some, like Wynn, making huge moves. That speaks very well of Georgia’s player development. It also speaks well of those players to accept what coming back meant and put in the work to improve.
  • Roquan Smith was the headliner of course, and his selection was met with near-universal acclaim. The first round drama was all about quarterbacks and Bradley Chubb dropping a pick or two. Smith’s pick passed without any controversy or debate, and that’s a little unusual at that stage of the draft. He became about the closest thing to a sure thing in the draft. It made sense for last season’s juniors to return, but Smith left at the right time even if he did feel a tug to stay for his senior season.
  • It’s cool to see Wynn and Michel end up on the same team, and it was entertaining to see Georgia fans struggle with kind words for the Patriots (despite Andrews and Mitchell already on the roster.) Wynn’s outstanding season at left tackle and his eye-opening performance during Senior Bowl preparations turned him from a marginal prospect into a solid first round pick and the sixth offensive lineman taken. Was his fast rise a flash in the pan? It’s hard to imagine New England taking a flyer on a first round pick to protect Tom Brady.
  • Michel and Chubb went in the order most expected. Michel was the slightly more versatile player, and he’s on a team that knows how to be creative with its personnel. Chubb, on the other hand, is headed into a more muddled situation in Cleveland. The Browns believe they’ve found the key to their turnaround in Baker Mayfield, and they do have some nice pieces on paper. They signed Carlos Hyde at tailback (replacing Isaiah Crowell!) to a three year deal, though some of Hyde’s guarantees don’t kick in until the 2019 season. Chubb is a good hedge then against that contract. Nick shouldn’t have a tough time making the team as a second round pick, though he will have to compete for playing time against Hyde and former Miami tailback Duke Johnson. Any concerns about Chubb post-knee injury are long gone, and we know he will bring a tireless determination to the Browns.
  • Entering the season I doubt anyone expected Javon Wims to be drafted over players like Thompson and Bellamy. I also doubt many fans expected a junior coming off a season with 17 receptions and one TD to become such a crucial contributor on a national title contender. But he emerged in a big way and became Jake Fromm’s favorite and most reliable target. Godwin’s circus catch at Notre Dame was a highlight of the season, but Wims made the key reception on Georgia’s final drive to move the offense into comfortable field goal range. Wims’ steady ownership of the sideline made sure Fromm was successful as the Bulldogs brought along their young quarterback.
  • Lorenzo Carter was yet another player who took a big leap forward in 2017. Carter was always going to be a pro prospect solely on size and speed, but it’s not a sure thing that he would have been drafted as a junior. As recently as the 2016 Ole Miss game, he looked lost and had yet to apply his amazing talent in any kind of consistent and productive way. Carter’s senior season was different, and it showed right away at Notre Dame. He fell on the game-clinching fumble of course, but an earlier strip-sack of his own showed the potential turning into production. Carter’s FG block and his role in the Rose Bowl win will be his legacy, and that’s a much better ending for him than we might have imagined a year ago.
  • Did Thompson make a mistake entering the draft? It seems so, though there’s not much difference between a late-round pick and an undrafted free agent. He signed with a team and will have his shot to earn a spot. Thompson was hardly a bust at Georgia, though his setback in early 2017 surely slowed the progress he showed in his dominant performance against TCU. That setback obviously remained a concern for NFL front offices, and it might’ve remained a concern even if Thompson returned for another season.
  • The snubs of Thompson and Bellamy might be mild surprises – Bellamy moreso. He showed a knack for the big play, but perhaps teams were looking for more consistency. He’ll have his shot in Houston where they know a thing or two about good pass rushers.
  • Were you surprised to see NC State with seven draft picks? They had a decent season with a 9-4 record and a top 25 finish wich was right around where LSU finished (who also had seven players drafted.) Dave Doeren wasn’t a popular head coaching candidate at Tennessee, but you have to go back to 2003 to find at least seven Vols in a single draft class.
  • Let’s give Mark Richt his due – this draft class is more or less the payoff of his final years at Georgia. After the disaster that was the 2013 signing class, Richt’s next two classes would provide the raw materials for a very special 2017 season. Of course those players had to be coached up, but you have to start with something.
  • Richt also had some of his more successful draft classes early in his Georgia career. That success faded a bit towards the end of the decade as early-round picks became later-round picks. Richt’s final few classes were inconsistent. Only two players were taken in 2014; 2015 was much better. Kirby Smart is hoping for a little more consistency in the coming years.

Speaking of the coming years, we’ll see whether multiple first round picks and 6+ total picks becomes the norm in Athens. The 2017 draft was an improvement over recent Georgia results, but we know Georgia (and Smart) will be measured against Alabama as they are in most things. Alabama’s ridiculous 12 draft picks blew away the rest of the field, but that’s the expectation with such a streak of top recruiting classes. It’s not a one-year blip, and it will take more than one top-rated signing class to begin to see Georgia meeting and surpassing its 2018 draft class.


Post Fans disappointing coaches, a continuing series

Monday April 23, 2018

Georgia’s final spring practice of the 2000 season was just another chilly day on the practice fields with slightly relaxed security. That setting was an exception, but G-Day has taken many forms over the years – it’s been optional, off-campus, an open scrimmage, and even a show for the fans with celebrity guest coaches. But what it’s always been is casual, inconsequential, and little more than a way for the more obsessive fans to scratch that football itch right around the midpoint between seasons.

I was in Athens on Saturday, mainly to see some good friends I hadn’t met up with since that dark night in early January. That alone was worth it, and you couldn’t ask for a better day to spend more than a few hours outside in our favorite city. It seems most of the 82,000+ who showed up felt that way. With a scintillating 7-6 halftime score on the board, a good number of those who heeded Kirby Smart’s call headed for the exits.

Now G-Day is an obligation – an ongoing challenge of our loyalty to the program. I don’t begrudge Coach Smart or any team’s coach for reevaluating every activity, interaction, and minute spent running the program as an opportunity to further the program’s own interests. He recognized the spring game as a chance to sell the program, and the crowd is part of the product he’s selling. You can’t argue the man doesn’t know what he’s doing in recruiting. And just as it gets a little distasteful to have your role in this boiled down to a prop for recruiting, a well-produced video is dropped to get you right in the feels.

Attending this year’s G-Day wasn’t much of a burden. Georgia fans had more than enough reasons to file into Sanford Stadium on Saturday, and they responded – again. Happy fans, happy coach. That’s not necessarily the case at Tennessee. The team hasn’t tasted a title in years, the latest coaching search was a public fiasco, and you’re still not quite sure who’s pulling the strings. Tennessee fans can be excused for keeping the enthusiasm in check until the new first-time coach starts to show a little something. That coach disagrees.

“The ones that were here, I’m proud they were here,” said Jeremy Pruitt. “They’re fired up and ready to get going. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that had legitimate reasons they couldn’t be here, all right. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that, why wasn’t they here? It’s kind of like our football team…I think we all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.”

Legitimate reasons to miss a spring game? Did they have to show a note?

Pruitt’s tone is very much in character for him. He has his expectations, and he’s not really interested in the toes he steps on. It’s how he ran his defense at FSU, Georgia, and Alabama. It’s arguably why Georgia enjoys a nice indoor facility now. Is it the smartest thing to do after the first public showing of your new team? That’s not our problem anymore.

Pruitt does have a point though. “We all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.” Georgia fans made that choice two years ago. We’ll fill the stadium in the off chance of impressing a decent prospect on the fence. We’ll pay more for a lesser home schedule. It’s eased some of the friction to see the program become exactly what we decided we wanted it to be. I can’t imagine Tennessee fans being as amenable if Pruitt’s trajectory falls short of Smart’s. Who knew being the customer came with so many expectations on us?

(This post was just an excuse to post this Steve Harvey clip – it’s become the first thing I think of when coaches start to challenge the fans. “I paid $38.50…*you* scream.” (NSFW clip below.))


Post 2018 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday February 28, 2018

Mississippi State is second no longer. The Bulldogs reached new program heights a year ago by reaching the Final Four, shocking UConn in a thriller, and playing for the national championship. They led the SEC until the final week of the season. But when it came title time, Vic Schaefer’s squad came up just short as South Carolina swept the regular season SEC title, the SEC Tournament title, and of course the national title.

South Carolina’s reign at the top was brief. Schaefer’s team left no doubt this year – the Bulldogs rolled through the conference with a perfect 16-0 mark and an overall undefeated record. Mississippi State are the SEC champs for the first time and won the league by a four-game margin. They roll into this week’s tournament in Nashville as the #2 team in the nation and the odds-on favorite to add a tournament championship to the trophy case.

Though the Bulldogs were dominant and in a class by themselves, it was a particularly interesting and competitive season among the top half of the conference. Teams 2 through 7 are all within a game of each other. The standings are unusually stratified: half the conference is 11-5 or better, and the other half all have losing records. There were only a handful of games in which the lower half beat a team from the top half. Alabama continued its bizarre success over Tennessee. LSU dropped a pair to Auburn and Alabama. But that’s pretty much it. The top teams feasted on the bottom half with an occasional loss to another top team. The bottom teams found no success against the top half and got their few wins against each other.

The strength of the top half of the conference is evident in the rankings. All seven were ranked in the latest AP poll. ESPN’s bracketology has SEC members hosting five of the sixteen NCAA subregionals meaning they would be at least 4-seeds or better.

What this all should mean for the 2018 SEC Women’s Tournament is fairly predictable early rounds setting up some collosal matchups from the quarterfinals on. Ordinarily we’d expect at least one or two upsets with lower-seeded teams advancing to Friday. This year, though, the top seven should be strong favorites to reach the quarterfinals, and fans should be treated to some fantastic competitive matchups.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: Bye
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs TBD (likely Missouri): ~9:30 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 4:30 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

1) Mississippi State (16-0, 30-0) (LY-2, PS-2): It’s hard to be better than perfect. MSU built on their breakthrough season of 2017 to win the elusive conference title, and they did so without a blemish. If there’s a knock against this team, it’s that the nonconference schedule wasn’t especially challenging with a win over Oregon standing out. They’ve had a couple of close calls: Oklahoma State and Missouri took MSU to the final minute. But that’s reaching – the Bulldogs didn’t slip up and beat every team that tooko the court. If anything, they’ve finished the season even stronger. Since surviving a scare at Missouri, they’ve won games by an average of 29 points with no win closer than 14 points.

Senior forward Victoria Vivians has long been a star in the SEC, and she’s even improved her range and consistency this year, hitting nearly 40% from outside and 50% overall from the floor. She made her team competitive right away as a freshman, but MSU took off because of the supporting cast built around Vivians. Junior center Teaira McCowan has developed from a raw freshman into a dominant presence inside capable of holding her own against any post player. McCowan is putting up 18.7 PPG and has pulled down an astounding 405 rebounds this year, good for 13.5 per game. Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer are each shooting over 40% from outside and have combined for 143 three-pointers. Morgan William returns as the hero of the UConn win, and she’s been an effective point guard with an assist/turnover ratio better than 4.

Schaefer has tightened his rotation a bit. In 2017 the Bulldogs had ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. That’s down to seven this year, and the team might play about eight or occasionally nine on a given night. No one outside the starting five is averaging over 5 PPG, and they lean on Vivians and McCowan for about half of their points. That formula hasn’t let them down yet. It’s a devastating inside-outside combo that few teams can match when combined with Schaefer’s typically tough defense.

2) South Carolina (12-4, 23-6) (LY-1, PS-1): When you win the national title, you get everyone’s best shot. South Carolina hasn’t fallen far during their title defense, but enough cracks showed to knock them off the top line. They’ve struggled at times to replace a pair of guards now playing professionally, and a season-ending injury to Bianca Cuevas-Moore left the team thin at that key position. Another season-ending injury to grad transfer Lindsey Spann left the team without its best outside option. There’s still more than enough talent to get past most teams, but this isn’t the invincible squad from a year ago that cut down the nets.

The college career of A’ja Wilson is winding down, and it’s not to soon to consider her one of the conference’s all-time greats. It’s not hyperbole to say that her signing four years ago altered the course of the South Carolina program and changed the SEC. Now the Gamecocks, along with Mississippi State, are the standard-bearers of the SEC and the conference’s best hopes to advance deep in the NCAA tournament. With a less-potent lineup at guard this year, Wilson’s been asked to carry more of the load. Often she’s up to the job, but she’s showed signs of wear this year with a couple of missed games. Wilson’s absence was key in three of the team’s four SEC losses: she missed both losses to Tennessee for medical reasons, and foul trouble limited her minutes and production in an upset loss at Missouri. For South Carolina to have much success in this tournament and beyond, they need Wilson in top form.

Wilson is averaging nearly 23 PPG – almost a third of the team’s production. No other player is averaging over 12 PPG. Wilson and fellow post player Alexis Jennings are the focal point of the offense with Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan providing depth off the bench. Backcourt production without Cuevas-Moore and Spann comes from sophomore Tyasha Harris, Doniyah Cliney, and Bianca Jackson, but there’s not a ton of depth. Wilson is dominant on both ends. She leads the league in scoring but also leads in blocks and is third in rebounds.

South Carolina is still a strong favorite to reach the finals, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they took the tournament. The Gamecocks lost to Mississippi State after a late collapse in front of a record-setting frenzied crowd in Starkville, but both programs should have strong support in Nashville. South Carolina should have Wilson back for a likely quarterfinal rematch against Tennessee, and hopefully we’ll finally get to see a Wilson vs. Mercedes Russell battle.

3) Georgia (12-4, 24-5) (LY-8, PS-8): Joni Taylor’s first two teams exceeded expectations, and her third squad continued that trend in a big way. The Lady Dogs were projected to equal their eighth-place finish of last season. They ended the season tied for second, and it’s the best finish for the program since 2007. The team posted its best overall and SEC records since the Elite Eight season of 2013. Explaining how it happened would be incomplete without mentioning the schedule. Georgia faced only one ranked team, Texas, in nonconference play and lost badly. They also had a bit of luck in conference: the three SEC teams Georgia faced twice all finished at the bottom of the league. Georgia earned their finish and postseason possibilities by avoiding bad losses. Their “worst” loss of the season was at LSU. Each of the five teams that beat Georgia are now ranked, and four of them are in the top 12.

Even with a favorable schedule, you can’t finish 24-5 without racking up some quality wins along the way. Georgia was an impressive 10-2 away from home. They have some respectable nonconference wins over BYU, Mercer, Virginia, and Georgia Tech. Georgia started conference play strong with an undefeated January that featured an overtime win at Texas A&M and a home win over Missouri. The Lady Dogs moved into second place, but they dropped three of their next five. Georgia closed the season with three straight wins that separated themselves from the four-team tie just below them. The Lady Dogs ended up tied only with South Carolina, and that’s not bad company to keep.

Georgia replaced much of their backcourt production from a year ago, but they knew they’d be strong in the frontcourt. Junior Caliya Robinson and senior Mackenzie Engram stepped up to lead the team in scoring, and both earned all-SEC honors. Though senior guard Haley Clark returned, much of the backcourt minutes would have to be logged by newcomers. Georgia welcomed Louisville transfer Taja Cole and a top ten recruiting class, but there’s always some uncertainty plugging so many newcomers into an established system. Fortunately for the Lady Dogs, the additions were up to the job. Cole stepped in as point guard. Que Morrison earned a starting role out of the gate and was named to the SEC all-freshmen team. Gabby Connally and Maya Caldwell were called on for significant minutes off the bench, and that depth paid off several times. Clark was able to be more of a role player as a senior, and she often drew Georgia’s toughest defensive assignment.

Though the Lady Dogs have more firepower than they have in recent years, they still have periods in which they struggle to score. They thrive on sound defense that often creates turnovers and transition chances, but even those fastbreaks have been adventures at times. Often the things holding Georgia back are self-inflicted: turnovers, free-throw shooting, and unnecessary foul trouble have all been issues at times. But when Robinson and Engram are firing inside and Georgia can get some production on the perimeter, the consistent Georgia defense makes this a tough team to beat. They’ll return to the NCAA tournament and should be a host for the first and second rounds. Their stock could rise higher with a semifinal appearance, and they’d be playing with house money at that point.

4) LSU (11-5, 19-8) (LY-7, PS-7): LSU kind of came under the radar this year to wind up with the #4 seed. They began the season with few notable nonconference wins and were 12-6 overall and 4-3 in the SEC after a loss at Texas A&M. At this point of the season, just over a month ago, they were considered a bubble team. They closed the season winning 7 of 9 including wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and a rematch with A&M. They had some shaky games down the stretch but survived well enough to enter the four-team tie for fourth. With a 3-1 record against the other tied teams, they came out on top of the logjam.

The trick to LSU’s success has been an 11-1 home record. The Tigers are just 7-6 on the road. Their biggest wins – Tennessee, Georgia, A&M – came in Baton Rouge. They did manage to knock off Missouri on the road, but Mizzou was without Sophie Cunningham. LSU and A&M split home and home during the season, and they’ll likely face each other in the quarterfinals. The Tigers are a tournament lock now, but another win over the Aggies could be a big boost to their seed.

They win with a suffocating matchup zone defense that has its origins in Nikki Fargas’ Tennessee roots. LSU has been one of the league’s lowest-scoring teams over the past couple of seasons, and that continues this year. They’ve won more this year because they’ve been more effective on offense and have scored at least 70 points in six of their last nine games, but they’re still at the bottom of the SEC’s scoring stats. They won’t shoot many three-pointers and will hit under 30% of them. They’ll rely on defense and offensive rebounding to create much of their scoring.

5) Texas A&M (11-5, 22-8) (LY-6, PS-4): The Aggies have perfected putting together above-average seasons and putting a product on the court that can compete with almost anyone. You know that Gary Blair’s teams will play sound defense, won’t attempt many outside shots, and won’t help you out with many mistakes. This year’s A&M team handled most unranked opponents inside and outside of the conference, but they struggled with ranked teams. They have two wins in eight attempts against ranked teams – an overtime home win over Tennessee, and a dismantling of Missouri in the season finale. They were a solid 15-3 at home but an ordinary 7-5 away from College Station.

The Aggies feature the SEC’s freshman of the year, Chennedy Carter. Carter has emerged as a dynamic scorer putting up 21.6 PPG, second only to A’ja Wilson. Carter is supported by some experienced veterans: center Khaalia Hillsman is a tough matchup inside. Danni Williams is a streaky shooter who can put up big numbers. Anriel Howard is a capable scorer inside the arc who can draw contact and get to the line. This isn’t a deep team – only seven players see more than seven minutes per game. That lack of depth could prove to be an issue in a tournament setting.

6) Missouri (11-5, 23-6) (LY-3, PS-3): Sophie Cunningham needs no introduction, but the past two seasons have seen Missouri develop into much more than a one-woman team. The Tigers have defeated South Carolina in consecutive seasons, and they came closer than anyone to knocking off Mississippi State. They were strong at home, losing only to LSU (with Cunningham out injured) and MSU. They hit a rough patch with losses to Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, but they closed the regular season 6-1.

Missouri used to shoot more three-pointers than anyone in the league by a wide margin, but they’re a more reasonable third now. They still hit outside shots at a 38.4% clip, good for second behind only MSU. The Tigers are more effective inside the arc for two reasons: Cunningham is just as comfortable going to the basket as shooting jumpers, and Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter have emerged as the team’s second and third-leading scorers. Frericks and Porter make teams pay for overplaying perimeter shooters. Make no mistake – Missouri will still launch bombs from outside. Four players have attempted more than 100 three-pointers, and nine players shoot better than 30% from outside. Their halfcourt offense is deliberate and moves the ball well. They average over 16 assists per game. It makes sense that they don’t get to the line often, but they hit free throws when they get them.

7) Tennessee (11-5, 23-6) (LY-5, PS-5): Lady Vol fans have been frustrated with the inconsistency of their team over the past couple of seasons, and that continued this year. They swept South Carolina and beat Texas but were only 1-3 against the four teams tied for fourth in the SEC. They led Notre Dame by 20 but collapsed late and lost. The Lady Vols came out on the wrong end of the tiebreakers, and so they’ll finish tied for fourth but seeded seventh. That upset home loss against Alabama kept them from a second place finish.

Like Georgia, Tennessee has paired an experienced core with an outstanding freshman class – rated the best incoming class in the nation. Their top two seniors need little introduction to SEC fans. Center Mercedes Russell chose to come back for her senior season and has improved her game. She’s now capable of dominant post play and has avoided the mistakes that took her out of games earlier in her career. Jaime Nared, already established as a valuable do-everything player, has taken over the mantle of leading scorer. You don’t have to go far down the stat sheet to see the impact of the freshmen. Wing Rennia Davis is averaging over 11 PPG and 7.6 rebounds. The next two leading scorers are also freshmen, and Evina Westbrook has been impressive handling point guard duties as a true freshman.

The Lady Vols have two weaknesses: depth and turnovers. Only about eight players see more than 10 minutes per game, and they rely quite a bit on Nared and Russell. Tennessee is second only to Vanderbilt in turnovers allowed, and the Commodores and Lady Vols have something in common: inexperienced players handling the ball. That issue came up against their first round opponent, Auburn. Tennessee eventually pulled away, but 28 turnovers kept Auburn in that game. Should the Lady Vols advance, they expect to see South Carolina. Tennessee won both meetings with the Gamecocks but have yet to face a South Carolina team at full strength. It has to be one of the more anticipated potential quarterfinal matchups.

8) Alabama (7-9, 17-12) (LY-12, PS-9): Alabama earned their best result in some time with an experienced team heavy on upperclassmen. The roster features six seniors, nine upperclassmen, and just one freshman. They started conference play 4-7, but a three-game winning streak had them in position for the program’s first winning SEC season since 1998 and revived talk of the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1999. The Crimson Tide dropped a pair of overtime heartbreakers in the final week of the season to settle at 7-9, and the WNIT is their likely postseason destination. Impressive wins over Tennessee (in Knoxville!) and LSU elevated the Tide over the rest of the bottom half. Guard Hannah Cook and forward Ashley Williams are the only scorers in double-figures, and it’s not an especially high-scoring team. Alabama plays solid defense, and it’s noteworthy that they have six players across all positions with over 100 rebounds this season. Alabama took a bad loss at Kentucky earlier in the season as they had few answers for the Wildcat backcourt. They should be more competitive in the rematch, but their NCAA hopes won’t survive beyond the quarterfinals.

9) Kentucky (6-10, 14-16) (LY-4, PS-6): It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Cats this low in the standings. Kentucky has finished lower than fourth only once under Matthew Mitchell – a ninth place finish in 2009. The team has struggled to replace the production of Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, and it’s a bit of a rebuilding year with only three seniors on the team. Only two players, guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, average over 7 PPG. They’ve had to lean on a trio of freshmen at forward to join senior Alyssa Rice, and that frontcourt inexperience has cost them at times. The backcourt, especially Morris, can shoot them past lesser teams, but they don’t look to advance deep into the tournament.

10) Auburn (5-11, 14-14) (LY-9, PS-11): Auburn took a step backward after sneaking into the NCAA tournament last season. There’s not a lot they do well statistically. A lack of rebounds and blocks hit at frontcourt issues. They are at the bottom of the SEC in three-pointers. There is one stat at which Auburn excels. They lead the conference in steals, and that speaks to Auburn’s suffocating trap and matchup zone defense. The Tigers feast on turnovers and transition points. They’ve forced 641 turnovers this season, nearly 23 per game, and they have 369 steals. Everyone is active on defense – eight Auburn players have at least 29 steals. They’ll struggle if forced into a halfcourt game, and opponents can find easy scoring opportunities if they can beat the press. Guards Janiah McKay and Daisa Alexander provide much of the scoring, and freshman forward Unique Thompson has been a good addition. No other player scores over 6 PPG. Auburn forced 28 Tennessee turnovers and were tied with the Lady Vols after three quarters in a loss in Knoxville. They’ll have to have a similar defensive effort and finish better to have a chance at an early upset.

11) Florida (3-13, 11-18) (LY-11, PS-13): New coach Cameron Newbauer took his lumps in his debut season, but there were occasionally glimpses of progress. There was an early-season win over Oklahoma and consecutive wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss in January, but the Gators have been unable to sustain much success. There were several close calls. They’ve lost by 3 to Ole Miss, 3 to Kentucky, 7 to LSU and South Carolina, 5 to A&M, and 2 to Missouri. They led Georgia for the better part of a game in Gainesville before the Lady Dogs took over in the fourth quarter. You’d expect some of those games to turn into wins next season, but three of Florida’s top five scorers are seniors. Haley Lorenzen and Paulina Hersler are senior stretch forwards capable of scoring inside or out. Transfer Funda Nakkasoglu had immediate impact as the team’s leading scorer and three-point shooter. No team attempted more three-pointers this season, and even Hersler, a 6’3″ forward, attempted 127. The team shoots over 30% from outside, and that perimeter firepower has kept them in some of those closer games. If they can get past Ole Miss, Florida will face Missouri – just a two-point road loss in early February for the Gators. That could end up as an unexpectedly competitive second-round game on Thursday if Florida has anything left in the tank.

12) Vanderbilt (3-13, 7-23) (LY-13, PS-10): Stephanie White’s team didn’t make much progress in her second season. A young but promising 2016 recruiting class is still coming into its own, and the Commodores must rely on several young players for significant minutes. Seniors Christa Reed and Rachel Bell provide the experienced leadership, but the team’s leading scorer is freshman Chelsie Hall. Vandy’s inexperience really shows in the frontcourt where nearly every regular player is an underclassman. White continues to recruit well, but you’d expect her team to begin to show results soon. Vanderbilt narrowly defeated first-round opponent Arkansas in Nashville last week, and the rematch should be another close game. The difference in that Vanderbilt win was the Commodores’ advantage in the frontcourt. Sophomore Kayla Overbeck was dominant and will have to come up big again.

13) Arkansas (3-13, 12-17) (LY-14, PS-14): Arkansas has big hopes for first-year coach Mike Neighbors, but it won’t happen overnight. Neighbors took Washington to the Final Four in 2016 and coached 2017 national player of the year Kelsey Plum. Arkansas hasn’t had that kind of success since their own Final Four trip in 1998. Neighbors imposed his preferred up-tempo, gunning identity this year with a roster not quite built for that style. The Razorbacks attempted 760 three-pointers this season – more than Missouri and second only to Florida – but only hit 29% of them. We have a pretty good idea what future Arkansas teams will look like. Three guards – Malica Monk, Devin Cosper, and Jailyn Mason – lead the attack and are the only players averaging over 10 PPG. Monk and Mason will return and be a capable backcourt next season, but they’ll need some help in the frontcourt. It’s been a tall order to replace Jessica Jackson.

14) Ole Miss (1-15, 11-18) (LY-10, PS-12): Mississippi’s slide this year can more or less be explained by an early-season injury to standout senior guard Shandricka Sessom. Sessom was averaging around 17 PPG at the time of her injury, and that’s an impossible loss to absorb for a team without much depth. Whether Sessom’s presence would have raised the team out of the bottom four is speculation, but it surely would have made the team more competitive and likely led to a couple of more wins. As it is, Madinah Muhammad and Alissa Alston have stepped up at guard to help shoulder some of the burden. Forward Shelby Gibson can be a handful against undersized opponents, and freshman Promise Taylor has been an effective addition to the frontcourt. With Sessom set to return to an experienced team next year, there should be brighter days ahead for the Rebels.