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Post Curating a day of classic Georgia football

Wednesday June 10, 2020

Our sports networks are digging into the archives for content, and for that we’re grateful. It’s just about all we have for now in the way of sports programming. The Georgia Bulldogs Radio Network even got into the act during the month of May with radio calls featuring Larry Munson on Saturday afternoons.

The thing is that when the TV networks do a classic Georgia game, it’s often from the same pool of 4 or 5 games. I love the Rose Bowl win like a family member, but by now I can recite it by heart. So let’s create a day of wall-to-wall Georgia football viewing with some memorable games from the past 30 years that aren’t in heavy rotation.

(Most of these are on YouTube – links included where possible.)

Midnight-3am: 2000 Tennessee. It wasn’t a particularly thrilling game (Georgia won completing 8 of 18 passes for 134 yards,) but it was a significant win. Georgia ended the decade-long losing streak to the Vols. It took a fourth down stand by, as Larry Munson called them, the “beautiful defense.” It featured the ground game and arguably launched the fan-favorite status of Musa Smith. Then there was the bizarre ending with Georgia fans rushing the field with time left on the clock…

3am-6am: 2009 Georgia Tech. “We Run This State” has been in the Georgia fan’s lexicon for over a decade now. See the game that started it. It’s not often that Georgia Tech and Georgia are in a position for a Bulldog win to be a big upset, but this outcome surprised even me.

6am-9am: 1997 Florida. Let’s end another streak. Georgia entered as 20-point underdogs to the defending champs, but Georgia came out firing and built a 14-3 halftime lead. This wasn’t the cakewalk indicated by the 37-17 final score. Florida came back and took the lead in the third quarter. It wasn’t over until Robert Edwards tightroped down the sideline with less than six minutes remaining. Olandis Gary put the cherry on top minutes later. It was an entertaining back-and-forth game with great performances by Edwards, Bobo, Ward, and you even get to watch Kirby Smart notch two interceptions.

9am-noon: 2002 Alabama. Are you man enough to watch this game? The start of the 2002 season featured several close calls. Four of Georgia’s first six wins had a margin of no more than six points. We could feature the Clemson game with the Tiger field goal that came up just short. There’s the “Pollack game” at South Carolina. But for the 2002 team to prove its worth, it had to win in Tuscaloosa. Pat Dye didn’t think they had it in them. Georgia fans who made the trip remember this game for the heat, but from the comforts of home it was an extremely entertaining watch. Enjoy some spectacular Fred Gibson catches, tense up during the Alabama comeback, wince at the pick six that put Bama on top, and exult as Billy Bennett’s game-winning field goal established Georgia as an SEC and national contender.

Noon-3pm: 1991 Clemson. Take the charged atmosphere of the 2013 LSU game. Make it at night. Add the excitement of the worst-to-first Braves clinching the division (yes, fans of both teams joined in the tomahawk chop during pregame.) Top it off with a convincing upset of a rival who happened to be the #6 team in the nation. A deep pass and score just before halftime put Georgia out in front, and things only got better in the second half. Eric Zeier put an end to the quarterback controversy of the early 1991 season, and we began to see the shape of the team that would have a pretty nice run from 1991-1992. Bonus: you get the classic ’90s broadcasting duo of Franklin and Gottfried.

3pm-6pm: 2007 Florida. A genuninely fun game in which Georgia’s offense outperformed the eventual Heisman winner. It started strong with Georgia’s bench-emptying celebration, but this game had four quarters of high-scoring action. Florida even led in the second quarter, and Georgia managed to claw back on top by halftime. The second half was back-and-forth with Georgia extending its lead and Florida fighting back to stay within a score. It wasn’t over until a late Tebow fumble within striking distance of Georgia’s endzone allowed Georgia’s fans to enjoy their second win of the Mark Richt era over Florida. Knowshon Moreno was brilliant, Stafford threw two long touchdown passes, and the 2007 team that seemed dead in the water turned the corner to become a national title contender.

6pm-9pm: 1998 LSU. Ease into the evening with a great game from Baton Rouge. Georgia and its “freshman” quarterback faced a night game in Death Valley against #6 LSU. It looked as if we were headed for a shootout: the teams traded blows en route to a 21-21 halftime tie. Georgia broke the tie in the third quarter and held on for dear life as LSU inched closer and closer with a pair of field goals. They sealed the win with a perfect over-the-shoulder catch by Champ Bailey on a risky third down pass. The Dawgs were able to run out the clock and earn the upset win that set up the program’s first visit by ESPN Gameday a week later.

9pm-midnight: 2002 Auburn. As important as this game is in the history of Georgia football, you don’t see it very often – if at all. Without this win and the miracle Greene-to-Johnson pass, there is no breakthrough SEC championship for Mark Richt. 2002 becomes just another nice 10-2 season. How we look at that entire early-2000s run changes. Greene and Pollack are never champions. Georgia, without some of its top receivers, had to find a way to manufacture offense against a good Auburn team. The Dawgs trailed throughout the game and only managed a field goal in the first half. The offense came to life in the third quarter sparked by a long run by Musa Smith after Georgia found itself pinned against its own goal line. Georgia pulled to within four points, and the teams traded fourth quarter possessions as the clock ran down. A deep sideline pass to Fred Gibson set Georgia up in Auburn territory, and you know how this one ends.

Honorable Mention / Day Two: 2007 Auburn, 2002 Arkansas, 1997 Tech, 1999/2000 Purdue, 2006 Auburn, 2006 Virginia Tech, 2016 UNC, 2017 Mississippi State, 1992/3 Ohio State


Post Testing, safety protocols welcome Dawgs back to Athens

Monday June 8, 2020

Georgia’s players and staffers have made their way back to Athens in time to begin voluntary workouts on June 8th. Before the workouts, everyone received a SARS-CoV-2 test regardless of symptoms. There’s a protocol for positive tests, and players will be divided into smaller groups during workouts to minimize exposure. There’s always a risk in any group activity during a pandemic, but Georgia’s staff and administrators have clearly put thought and effort into minimizing the risk.

Georgia’s policy to test everyone is in line with many programs seeking to resume activity, but there is no universal policy or requirement to test across college football. Conferences will try to establish some loose frameworks, but member schools are still governed by state and local orders.

It shouldn’t be alarming or surprising to discover that some players test positive. We’ve seen confirmed cases in just about every sport that has resumed activity. European soccer teams, MLS teams, and Japanese baseball teams have all reported positive tests. We shouldn’t expect college football to be different, and it would be no surprise to learn that Georgia’s testing discovered a couple of cases.

Several college teams (Marshall, Oklahoma State, Arkansas State, and Alabama) have already identified new cases through their initial testing. Tellingly, the majority of these cases are described as asymptomatic. It’s possible that the infections would have gone undetected had the players remained at home. It’s also realistic that these hidden infections would have been unknowingly transmitted to teammates had all players not been tested. Programs that only test symptomatic individuals risk that scenario.

Another consideration for universal testing is the communities to which these players are returning.

Clarke County has had just over 300 confirmed cases, and there have only been two COVID-19 deaths reported since April 16. With the University largely shuttered and the students sent home, Athens is smaller and more isolated than we’re used to. Athens isn’t a waypoint on major trade and travel routes; the closest interstate highway is 20 miles away. You have to want to go to Athens. Ordinarily that’s not an issue. Now the events, concerts, and culture that draw us to Athens are canceled or limited in capacity.

That isolation left Athens to serve primarily its full-time residents as well as the surrounding counties. The healthcare system in Athens is the hub of a 17-county system, and several of those counties don’t even have a hospital bed. The concern early in the pandemic was that outbreaks in those counties would overwhelm the hospital capacity in Athens, but that hasn’t happened. Larger northeast Georgia outbreaks in Hall and Habersham counties were handled within other systems, and the Athens area has dodged, for now, the fate of southwest Georgia.

Now student-athletes from across the state (and out of state) will descend on Athens. Isolating any who test positive right away will help prevent the possibility of a larger outbreak in an area that has avoided them. The positive cases can be isolated, monitored, and safely returned to activity without risk to teammates, staffers, or others out in the community with whom they’ll come in contact. These cases can be cleared or treated now – three months before the season is scheduled to start.

Of course a positive or negative test this week is just a snapshot in time. Players will begin to interact with each other, staff, and people around Athens – each with their own contact history. If the University reopens for on-campus instruction, you’ll have the same issue of importing cases on a much larger scale. It’s not realistic for a similar testing protocol to cover the entire UGA community. Players will need to continue to be tested throughout the summer. As the season approaches there will need to be more formal standards as teams begin to travel and compete. A positive test at any time brings the same risks as it does now. That volume and frequency of testing is necessary but expensive.

Summer workouts aren’t practice, and policies for that phase are still to be determined. Certainly the experiences of schools during this first phase will inform what comes next. The preseason period might even be lengthened to allow for re-acclimation after the long downtime. For now, the Dawgs are all back on campus and doing a modified form of what they’d usually be doing this time of year. It’s a necessary and positive small step towards a season this fall, and we’re glad to see this milestone.


Post Decent – not great – draft for Georgia

Tuesday April 28, 2020

This year’s unusual NFL Draft was a welcome gulp of water while we are parched for live sports. It was hardly a return to normalcy, but it did give us a reason to look ahead to a time when sports and football would be back. I kind of liked the virtual format. Seeing all of the prospects in their homes surrounded by family gave the event a more raw and humanizing touch relative to the slick production the league had prepared in Las Vegas.

The Bulldogs had seven players drafted including two first-rounders. The seven players selected matched 2019’s total, and Georgia had one more player selected in the first three rounds this year than a year ago. Georgia’s draft showing could be called…fine.

A second straight season with seven draft picks seems like good news, but at the same time expectations might have been a little higher. The hype factory at the AJC speculated about a record draft, tying or surpassing the program-best eight picks. Instead it was a tough night for some of Georgia’s higher-profile draft entrants. Jake Fromm slid from high-round projections to the fifth round. He won’t be a lock to make the Buffalo squad. The lack of scouting opportunities outside of the combine due to the pandemic surely hurt Fromm as well as injured players like Lawrence Cager. Fan favorite and Lou Groza award winner Rodrigo Blankenship seemed like a lock to sneak into the late rounds, but he remained undrafted as other specialists came off the board. Defensive leader J.R. Reed also went undrafted.

Georgia’s defense might have relished the “no-name” label applied to the squad that led the nation despite no superstar standouts, but that anonymity also continued into the draft. Tae Crowder, selected with the draft’s final pick, was the only member of the productive defense to be drafted. In fact, let this sink in: Georgia has had more offensive linemen (4) drafted in the past two seasons than defensive players (3).

(How fantastic and improbable was it to see Crowder drafted? He was a converted tailback best known for his recovery of a squib kick in the Rose Bowl, earned a starting job at inside linebacker, and held off several 4* and 5* prospects as he became a Butkus Award semifinalist. Now he’s the only player drafted from the nation’s top defense. Kindley is a similar story. He didn’t switch positions, but as Georgia got better and better at recruiting offensive linemen, it was always assumed that the 3* Kindley would give way. He didn’t, and his left guard spot was one of the more stable positions on the offensive line.)

If there was a sure winner based on Georgia’s 2020 draft results, it was someone no longer associated with the program: three of Sam Pittman’s offensive linemen were among Georgia’s draft crop. Four of the five starting offensive linemen on the 2018 team have been drafted. That’s a testament to what everyone saw with their own eyes: Pittman was able to harness the resources available at Georgia to elevate the program’s offensive line recruiting. Kirby Smart identified that as a need from his opening press conferences, and the draft results speak to Pittman’s and Smart’s success. It also sets a bar going forward for Matt Luke.

When a program leans as heavily as Georgia does on its production of NFL players as a selling point for recruiting, the draft is the scoreboard. Numbers will be scrutinized especially relative to Georgia’s peers. National champion LSU had a record-tying 14 picks. Alabama, after a “disappointing” season that left them out of the playoff, produced nine picks – all in the first three rounds. Georgia’s seven selections placed fifth among all schools, tied with Clemson, Florida, and Utah.

The drafts of the past two seasons saw a large drain of talent from the offense at all positions. The pendulum should swing back towards the other side of the ball in 2021 as the offense retools and younger players from the 2018 and 2019 defenses become draft-eligible. Georgia has had three consecutive recruiting classes rated #1 by Rivals, and they’ll begin to become draft-eligible in 2021. Fans expect to see that influx of talent pay off in wins and titles, but it’s also important for Kirby Smart to see those top-rated classes turn into not just draft picks but *high* draft picks.

Georgia’s 2020 NFL Draft Picks

  • Andrew Thomas (1st – NY Giants)
  • Isaiah Wilson (1st – Tennessee)
  • D’Andre Swift (2nd – Detroit)
  • Solomon Kindley (4th – Miami)
  • Jake Fromm (5th – Buffalo)
  • Charlie Woerner (6th – San Francisco)
  • Tae Crowder (7th – NY Giants)

Post Deciding to renew

Friday April 24, 2020

Marc Weiszer wrote a piece last week about season ticket renewals during these times, and I was happy to contribute my perspective. I was surprised to see renewal rates so high, and I expect Greg McGarity is also (pleasantly so). As I shared with Weiszer, our decision to go ahead and renew came down to a couple of points:

  • We considered ordering tickets as a moderate-risk bet that there would be football this fall.
  • The possibility of a refund if the season were canceled (or played without fans) lessened the risk.
  • We like our location(s) in the stadium and didn’t want to be displaced after 20+ years.
  • We are grateful to be able to place that kind of a bet right now.

The last point is difficult – I know so many are struggling right now either with immediate needs or with crippling uncertainty hanging over them. That renders any other consideration meaningless. Georgia has been flexible with dates and payment options, but in the end season tickets are an expense that’s suddenly become an extravagance for many people. Even if the season is canceled and refunds issued, many can’t tie up money for that long.

There’s one scenario for which we had to accept some risk: what if they decide to open the stadiums and we aren’t comfortable returning?

There’s no question that things are going to be muddy for a while even after this first wave of infection passes. There will be no clean break and no “over”. Until there is a vaccine, the job will be playing whack-a-mole against isolated outbreaks of an easily-transmitted virus. Meanwhile, much of the nation is under intense pressure to reopen. Sports will be a big part of that reopening. There’s a symbolism to the return of sports, but there are also real financial considerations. We’ve seen the panic of schools faced with the loss of the football season that funds the whole operation. We’ve heard about the campaigns to support arena and stadium staff. We know what kind of economic impact sports has on small towns like Athens.

I don’t suggest (Mike Gundy aside) that leagues would willingly put athletes or fans at risk, but their standards and risk aversion will necessarily be colored by the pressures they face to play ball. Gabe DeArmond pointed out that it’s not news that coaches want to play. It will be news when someone with a financial stake in the game says that we shouldn’t play. Blutarsky recently touched on a question I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks. Coaches and administrators want business as usual – or at least to get back out there as soon as possible. Fans sorely miss sports. The real question though is much more personal: when will you be comfortable being packed shoulder-to-shoulder with 92,000 random fans who have traveled in from across the southeast?

The change of the past month has been swift. In early March, I was sat among fans from Tennessee to South Carolina to Mississippi at the SEC women’s basketball tournament. Sure, we knew to wash hands a little more carefully and be suspicious of coughs and fevers, but the games went on. A little over a month ago Georgia played a men’s basketball game in Nashville. It all ended abruptly that week: first the NBA pulled the plug. (Rudy Gobert was irresponsible, but how many lives did his recklessness indirectly save?) College conference tournaments began postponing and then finally cancelling games. The NCAA tournament wasn’t going to take place. Within a week the SEC had ended spring sports. Now we’re separated from friends and loved ones, and a simple trip to the grocery store is fraught with peril. That’s a severe and sudden psychological and behavioral shock, and it’s not easily reversed.

I told Weiszer that I wouldn’t attend games under current conditions. That implies limited testing and an unproven toolkit of therapeutic responses. The hope (and the assumption) is that we’ll be working under a different paradigm later this year. That means more widespread testing to identify and contain outbreaks, contact tracing, and more proven therapeutics that will reduce the risk of mortality or even severe illness for those who are infected. Most every plan forward outlines those elements as requirements along the long road from shelter-in-place to a vaccine. The extent and effectiveness of those remedies will determine which pieces of society can safely resume and at what level.

The “how” of sports returning doesn’t concern me so much. It’s something I’d like to see very much, but it’s not really under my control. Whether it’s an abbreviated schedule, a delayed start, a season without fans in the stands – those are all just ideas based on our current understanding of how things might work. It’s good to think about those things now, and you’d expect any decent organization to have an array of plans available in order to be flexible when the time comes to reopen. Certain administrators and pundits have taken heat for pessimism about playing this year, but a lost year is a possibility that can’t catch anyone off-guard. Time (and the virus) will help to instruct us about under which circumstances sports may return. The same applies to travel, retail, tourism, entertainment – any activity that brings people into shared spaces.

What I can control is my participation. That’s the agency any of us has in whatever comes next. You’ve likely seen the survey that found that over 60% of fans wouldn’t be comfortable returning to the stands until a vaccine is available. It’s possible that many respondents were spooked by the sudden onset of the pandemic and might moderate their views as time goes on. It’s still very likely that fans will be slow to return in person even as games get underway. I expect we’ll see the same in other areas of life as things are allowed to reopen.

Public health regulations might allow games to occur. Students might return to campus, and other necessary conditions might be met. Each of us will still have our say in whether we feel safe enough to attend. At most I’ll lose the cost of a ticket. It would hurt to miss something I love dearly. Fortunately I don’t have to make that decision right now. As Weiszer writes, we’ll “now have the months ahead to see what a Bulldogs football season might look like in 2020.” It’s foolish now to make forecasts whether or not there will be a football season and what form it might take. Renewing season tickets now bought me time to watch and wait and make a more informed decision months from now. I hope progress is such that there’s an easy decision to make.


Post Not spring football – football in the spring

Friday April 17, 2020

While most public statements are optimistic about a normal college football season in the fall, we also know that most every sport is kicking around alternative plans. There’s too much money at stake; games will be played in some form if authorities give the go-ahead. That might mean games with no fans in the stands. It might mean a delayed start to the season. Coaches have raised alarms and proposed solutions to the amount of time necessary to prepare for the season. One suggestion even moves the season to the spring of 2021.

That idea does raise plenty of questions and issues, but, again, there will be desperation to fill the coffers. The implications of a “season-ending injury” are certainly worth thinking about. I wonder what a roster for a spring season might look like:

  • How many top seniors and draft-eligible underclassmen will skip all or part of a season that extends into spring semester? Unless the NFL also delays its 2021 draft date, the first three months of the year are dedicated to focused draft preparation once the college season ends. Workouts, combines, all-star games for draft-bound players, pro days – all of these pre-draft activities occur early in the year. Basketball (especially women’s basketball), baseball, and softball have drafts much closer to the end of the season – sometimes even before the college postseason is over. Those players play complete seasons, but we know that the physical demands of football make it a different animal. Who will want to go from the grind of a college season straight into NFL OTAs if the lack of a recuperation and conditioning period hurts their chances of making a roster spot?
  • Would early enrollees be eligible to play in spring games? Currently they may participate in bowl practices before classes begin, but they can’t play in bowl games. If they’re enrolled and taking classes at the start of the season, what would distinguish them from any other member of the team?

Post Adjusting to the new normal

Wednesday March 25, 2020

Interesting piece from Seth Emerson about the resources (and limitations) of keeping Georgia’s football program up and running while we are all asked to be at home. Athletes, along with all other students, must rapidly adapt to online courses. They won’t have access to on-campus facilities for meals and conditioning (unless they are rehabbing an injury.) Communication between staff and players is governed, and detail-obsessed coaches won’t have the kind of oversight they’re used to. At this time of year before spring practice the contact with players is primarily done by the strength and conditioning staff. Even that contact is regulated.

There are some exceptions, as (Georgia compliance director Will) Lawler explained: “If they ask and say: ‘Hey, I’m here at my house, I don’t want to go to a gym, can you give me some body-weight workouts?’ or something like that. You could provide it to them. But you can’t require it. There’s no reporting back. There’s no any of that. There’s some flexibility. This thing kind of moves pretty quickly.”

My first thought on reading that quote: it sure is nice to have not one but two experienced strength coaches on staff now. Both Scott Sinclair and Scott Cochran have years of experience developing individualized offseason workouts for football teams. Now that’s all Georgia, or any team, is allowed in terms of player development. With gym equipment likely limited or unavailable altogether, creativity will be tested. I know Cochran was brought in to be an on-field coach, but I would expect him to be a valuable resource for Sinclair in this unusual time.

Cochran’s expertise could be valuable in another way. The offseason program requires steady monitoring and accountability even for the most self-disciplined athletes. Now at home and isolated from that support structure, it’s easy for things to slide and bad habits to form. Cochran hasn’t had much time to get to know the team, but one of his key roles at Alabama was as the motivator and the guy that kept players pushing past their limits. His energy and constant reinforcement will help keep things moving in the right direction.

Did you see the video featuring several coaches encouraging students to finish out the spring semester? An appropriate and necessary message for the student body of course, but there’s a self interest too. The NCAA might come up with all sorts of waivers and exceptions by the time students return to campus, but for now they’ll have to be in good academic standing and on track. With the spring and summer semesters moving online, much of the academic calendar will have passed by the time football players report back. Without on-campus tutoring, class checks, counseling, and other academic resources, the need for academic discipline and self-motivation while in isolation will be as great as it is for player development.


Post 2020 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 4, 2020

A familiar name is back on top of SEC women’s basketball. South Carolina took a small step backwards in 2019 after a dominant four-year period, but they’ve come roaring back in 2020 with an undefeated conference record. As much as 2017 was the breakthrough season for Dawn Staley and her Gamecocks, this year’s edition might be more well-rounded with few weaknesses. South Carolina enters this year’s SEC tournament in Greenville as the overwhelming favorite. It would be a shock if they didn’t reach the finals. If there’s to be much drama this weekend, it’s likely to come in the early rounds as teams jockey to become South Carolina’s championship game opponent. Four teams tied for third place with 10-6 records, and they could all be involved in head-to-head knockout games in Friday’s quarterfinals.

The SEC might not have many of the nation’s best teams, but some of the nation’s best individual talent will be on display in Greenville. Rhyne Howard and Chennedy Carter are among the nation’s top five in scoring. Rennia Davis has a flair for the dramatic big play. Chelsea Dungee, and really any Arkansas guard, can take over a game. Unfortunately teams have had to deal with injuries to many of those same star players. Howard and Carter missed significant time during conference play, forcing Kentucky and Texas A&M to lean on their supporting casts to remain near the top of the standings. LSU’s Ayana Mitchell was lost for the season, and the Tigers have had mixed results since. The good news is that Carter and Howard are back in form, and SEC fans will get to see Carter in postseason action for the first time in two seasons.

It’s also been a year of youth. It’s not just top teams South Carolina and Mississippi State showcasing impact freshmen (though they certainly did.) Teams from Missouri to Florida to Vanderbilt introduced players who will be handfuls for the next three seasons. Only one of the league’s top ten scorers is a senior, and three of the top 11 are true freshmen. That’s a positive for the future of the league, but it’s also meant that most teams don’t have the seasoned depth to make much noise outside of the conference. The SEC could get as few as six or as many as eight NCAA tournament bids this year, though only South Carolina and Mississippi State look to be first round hosts. Much of the spotlight in NCAA women’s basketball has shifted west this year. UConn isn’t as dominant outside of their conference. Notre Dame will miss the NCAA tournament. The Pac 12 though has been wild with a pair of national title contenders and enough good teams to cause chaos. Baylor is just cooling their heels waiting to defend their 2019 national title. The SEC hasn’t made many waves nationally this year – except for the powerhouse in Columbia.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. #8 Alabama: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

(LY – last year’s finish, PS – coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (7-22, 16-0) (LY-2nd, PS-2nd): We warned last year that if you couldn’t beat South Carolina in 2019, it might be a while. The Gamecocks still finished second in the league, but they were upset by Arkansas in the SEC tournament and “only” reached the Sweet 16. They’ve added the nation’s top signing class and quickly find themselves back on top of the SEC and the nation. They recorded the program’s first win over UConn and beat both the Huskies and Baylor by double figures. They’ve had only a couple of stumbles with an early loss to Indiana and a close call at home against Mississippi State, but this is a complete team that’s improved over the season.

Dawn Staley has done a wonderful job of mixing the young infusion of talent with her two senior leaders. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan spent her first two seasons in the shadow of A’ja Wilson, but she’s developed into a well-rounded senior who can score inside or outside, rebound, pass, and defend. The offense flows through point guard Tyasha Harris. Harris can create offense and scores 12 points per game, and she set the program record for assists.

Staley augmented that senior duo with four ESPN top 100 5* freshmen. Three of them have started all 30 games for the Gamecocks. Relying on that many freshmen in key roles might have been the reason why the coaches didn’t project the Gamecocks to win the league, but this group has been up to the job. Guard Zia Cooke might eventually replace the senior Harris as the floor general, but with Harris running the show Cooke has been free to do damage as a combo guard. Cooke leads the team in three point attempts and makes, but she also leads in free throw attempts. Cooke isn’t afraid to drive to the rim and draw contact. Forward Aliyah Boston was both the SEC Freshman of the Year and Defender of the Year. She was an imposing figure inside right out of the gate and has the most blocks in the conference. Boston isn’t just a defender; she’s even with Herbert Harrigan as the team’s leading scorer and shoots an efficient 61% from the floor. Brea Beal is what you want from a wing: someone who can play on the perimeter but is also at home posting up inside to take advantage of her size.

So South Carolina has perimeter offense, interior offense, a rim protector, the league’s best distributor, good wing play, depth, and one of the game’s best coaches. That’s why they enter the tournament perfect in the league and the odds-on favorite to beat the field for their fifth tournament title in six seasons.

2) Mississippi State (25-5, 13-3) (LY-1st, PS-3rd): A step back was inevitable. The final pieces of a core group that played for two straight national titles broke through to win an SEC tournament title last season. The roster has all but completely turned over since that incredible three-year run. It says something about the foundation Vic Schaefer built that the Bulldogs could lose so much talent over two seasons and only fall back to a solid second place finish in the SEC and a borderline top ten national ranking. MSU hasn’t been as dominant as they’ve been in recent years, but they’ve had more than enough on most nights. A narrow loss to Stanford was their only non-conference blemish. They came within two points and a controversial call of beating South Carolina in Columbia. A rematch with the Gamecocks on a neutral court (as much as Greenville, SC can be “neutral” for South Carolina) might be interesting, but the Bulldogs have shown that they’re not a lock to reach the finals.

Jordan Danberry is the link to those historic MSU teams. She was granted a fifth year of eligibility after an NCAA appeal and is a graduate student. Danberry is second in the SEC in steals and chips in 12.5 PPG. She’s the lone senior though, and the team’s top two MSU scorers are underclassmen. Jessika Carter emerged as a worthy heir to Teaira McCowan at center. The sophomore leads the team in rebounding and blocks and scores nearly 14 PPG. MSU also has an impact freshman: forward Rickea Jackson is the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Bulldogs. Much like former star Victoria Vivians, Jackson is a long athletic forward who can score anywhere on the court. Also like Vivians, Jackson led the team in scoring as a freshman and will be one of the SEC’s top players years to come.

The Bulldogs lost three conference games including a two-point heartbreaker at South Carolina. Other teams have pushed them, and the Bulldogs can go through droughts in the halfcourt offense. They were 1-8 from outside in an upset loss to Alabama, and the team’s perimeter scoring usually depends on the streaky shooting of Chloe Bibby. As one of the league’s top teams in generating turnovers, they rely on transition for explosive offense. More often than not, they get it. They’re set up for another finals clash against South Carolina, but this Bulldog team has shown just enough vulnerability that you can’t quite pencil in that rematch just yet.

3) Kentucky (21-7, 10-6) (LY-4th, PS-4th): Matthew Mitchell’s team has only finished out of the top four twice since he took over the program. SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard’s midseason fractured finger raised the difficulty level of another top four finish. Thanks to a win over Mississippi State, the Wildcats were able to emerge from a four-team tie with the highest seed. It’s tough to say that Howard’s absence cost Kentucky a shot at a higher finish. Losses to Florida and Arkansas were certainly winnable games, but Kentucky fell to LSU and Vanderbilt with Howard in the lineup.

An upside to losing a star like Howard is that other players have no choice but to step up. Kentucky has six players shooting at least 33% from outside. Only Arkansas shoots better from outside. The team as a whole takes care of the ball, and Kentucky is third nationally in turnover margin. Howard also leads the team in rebounds, but four players have pulled down at least 100 boards. There’s no question that Howard is the star, but this is still very much a team that’s better than the sum of its parts. Forward Keke McKinney has become an emotional leader of the team after battling her own injuries. Sabrina Haines is shooting 40% from outside, and senior point guard Jaida Roper has been the veteran hand guiding the whole operation.

The Cats are fun to watch just to see so many moving parts working together, but occasionally this year the system has ground to a halt. Kentucky will have to avoid those lapses in order to advance through a fairly difficult bracket. Mississippi State would love to get another shot at a Kentucky team that beat them earlier in the season, but a quarterfinal against a very desperate Tennessee team might come first. The Wildcats just edged the Lady Vols thanks to a career-high 37 points from Howard. Does Howard have it in her to carry this team deep into the weekend?

4) Texas A&M (22-7, 10-6) (LY-3rd, PS-1st): The Aggies were preseason favorites due in large part to the return of Player of the Year candidate Chennedy Carter. Carter had an excellent junior season and finished second in the SEC in scoring, but she missed seven games during conference play with an ankle injury. A&M lost the game in which Carter was injured and went only 4-3 during her absence. Carter returned in a big way with 37 points in a win at Tennessee, and it seemed as if the Aggies were back on solid footing. They fell to Alabama and South Carolina in the final week, and that stumble means a much more difficult path to the finals relative to a third place finish. They still earned the double-bye and will advance to Friday, but they’ll be challenged right away in the quarterfinals. Arkansas upset the Aggies in the SEC semifinals a year ago, and the clash of styles between Gary Blair’s deliberate inside-the-paint squad and Arkansas’s bombs-away approach is always interesting.

Fortunately for the Aggies the players behind Carter were experienced and capable enough to prevent complete collapse without their star. N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson are among the SEC’s top ten in rebounding. Kayla Wells remains another strong scoring option at guard. This is very much a Gary Blair team: they don’t shoot a ton from outside, but they hit a decent percentage. They win with defense, protecting the rim, and owning the glass on both ends of the court. Throw in a typical night from Carter, and it’s a very successful formula. If Carter is out or having a poor night, as she did in the loss to Alabama, A&M will struggle to keep pace with teams in the top half of the league.

5) Arkansas (22-7, 10-6) (LY-10th, PS-5th): The Razorbacks were the surprise story of the 2019 tournament. They began as the #10 seed and pulled three upsets en route to the championship game. The offensive firepower of Arkansas was never in doubt, and they were able to put it all together for a deep run. Mike Neighbors’s team built on last season’s strong finish for a very respectable 2020 season that represents the program’s highest SEC win total. They didn’t vault to the top of the standings, but they have remained a borderline ranked team all season and proved that last year’s tournament run was no fluke. A couple of surprise losses to Georgia and Florida kept them just on the outside of the top four. As devastating as their offense can be, defense has been shaky at times and can have them on the wrong side of an up-tempo game if the offense isn’t in top form.

Chelsea Dungee continues to be one of the more dangerous scorers in the SEC, but she hasn’t had to match the ridiculous productivity she had a year ago. Arkansas spreads the scoring around and has three of the top eight scorers in the league. Any of the “Splash Sisters” (Dungee, Amber Ramirez, and Alexis Tolefree) can lead the team on a given night, and it’s a defensive nightmare to find and cover all three in Arkansas’s fast-paced offense. The Hogs lead even South Carolina with 84.4 PPG, and they lead the SEC in three pointers made and attempted as well as three point percentage. They can score inside off of rebounds or transition, but Arkansas will live or die with the outside shot.

6) Tennessee (20-9, 10-6) (LY-8th, PS-7th): With one former Lady Vol standout ousted after last season, Tennessee turned to another former Pat Summitt point guard to turn the program around. Kellie Harper survived the usual attrition after a coaching change and held on to a good signing class. The Lady Vols started strong with a 17-4 record and a 7-1 mark in the SEC. That record was a bit of a mirage as quality wins were few and far between. Tennessee dropped five straight in February as the conference schedule became more difficult. They righted the ship and closed the regular season with three straight wins, but even those wins featured a couple of too-close-for-comfort games against Vanderbilt and Auburn. The Lady Vols enter the postseason with 20 wins, but they’re still not on solid footing for the NCAA tournament. LSU is the lone quality win in their pocket and their only success against the top half of the league. A Friday matchup with Kentucky presents a great opportunity to enhance their credentials, but a loss on Thursday could be devastating.

Rennia Davis has had a productive junior campaign and leads the team in scoring. The Lady Vols are another team that leans on impact freshmen. Tamari Key’s 78 blocks lead the SEC. All-Freshman guard Jordan Horston is a matchup nightmare at 6’2″. But aside from Davis’s 18.3 PPG, there’s not a lot of punch to this team. There are a lot of good, if not great, pieces, and only three players average over 10 PPG. It’s no surprise that a Summitt pupil would continue Tennessee’s long tradition of relentless rebounding and matchup zone defense. The Lady Vols are the SEC’s tallest team, and they use their length to their advantage to disrupt passing lanes, alter shots, and secure rebounds on both ends. It’s become a broken record though – you’re not sure what you’re going to get with Tennessee, and their annual Bubble Watch is still very much a thing.

7) LSU (19-9, 9-7) (LY-9th, PS-6th): The Tigers lost star forward Ayana Mitchell in an early February game against Texas A&M. They were able to hang on for the upset win, but it’s been tough going since. LSU is 3-4 in games without Mitchell, and they’ve dropped four of their last five heading into the postseason. LSU has had some big wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and a sweep of Texas A&M, and those wins should be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament. They’ve also fallen to Missouri, Georgia, and Auburn and could be vulnerable to an athletic Florida team in their SEC tournament opener. LSU was a low-scoring team even with Mitchell, and they rely on good defense and slow tempo to grind out wins. Forward Faustine Aifuwa has had to become the primary interior presence. Without Mitchell’s scoring, the backcourt has had to take on a larger role. Awa Trasi came on near the end of the season. Leading scorer Khayla Pointer is a classic penetrating guard. In typical LSU fashion, this isn’t a great team shooting the ball from outside, but they’ll generate offense with defense, score inside of 15 feet, and make an opponent earn everything they get.

8) Alabama (18-11, 8-8) (LY-11th, PS-11th): At the end of January Alabama was near the bottom of the conference at 2-6. They eeked out a one-point win at winless Ole Miss, avoiding a loss that might have sunk their season. That escape at Ole Miss was a turning point. Alabama went 6-2 in the second half of the conference schedule, losing only road games at Kentucky and Georgia by a total of five points. They enter the SEC tournament as one of the league’s hottest teams and are on a four-game winning streak that includes upset wins on the road against Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Even at 2-6 they had some very close losses including a buzzer-beating heartbreaker at Tennessee. This is a much-improved team, and they’ve gained confidence now that they’ve put a few wins together. The month of February took the Tide from a Wednesday play-in game to the precipice of the NCAA tournament. Alabama is one of the mythical “first four out” according to ESPN’s bracketology, and that leaves them with some very clear motivation in Greenville.

The Tide are led by a fleet of athletic wings and guards who can attack the basket or hit from outside. The offense runs through point guard Jordan Lewis who returns after a season-ending injury a year ago. Lewis is the team’s leading scorer but has also dished out 113 assists. Even at 5’7″, Lewis ins’t afraid to go to the rim. She’s the team’s third-leading rebounder and has attempted 150 free throws – almost twice as many as any other Alabama player. Forward Jasmine Walker is a dynamic wing who leads the team in three-point shooting but also rebounding. Cierra Johnson hasn’t been the force she was in 2019, but she’s still a capable scoring guard. The Tide also have a physical inside presence with Ariyah Copeland who can make teams pay for extending their defense.

9) Georgia (16-13, 7-9) (LY-7th, PS-10th): The Lady Dogs are right about where they were expected to be. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a topic for a separate post. For the second straight season, the Lady Dogs will need to win the tournament to continue their season. If that doesn’t happen, it will be the first time in program history that Georgia has missed consecutive NCAA tournaments. Georgia has been capable of high-level wins in games at Arkansas and LSU, but home losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, along with unremarkable nonconference results, all but ended Georgia’s hopes of an at-large bid.

Joni Taylor’s team is led by its large junior class. A lone senior, Stephanie Paul, contributes but is limited by chronic knee pain. A top 15 freshman class hasn’t really developed as hoped. The team usually needs a good night from three of its juniors to have a shot. Gabby Connally has been the team’s leading scorer, but she’s had to play out of position all season at point guard. All-SEC defender Que Morrison was lost for the season in late February. The story of the season has been the February emergence of center Jenna Stati. The Maryland transfer is scoring 11.5 PPG, but she’s averaged over 20 PPG in the last seven games and scored at least 15 points in 8 of the last 9 games. Her contribution has led the Lady Dogs to a 4-2 record to end the season even with Morrison sidelined.

There are some wildcards who could carry Georgia into the quarterfinals. Shaniya Jones is a streaky shooter who could put up double figures in a matter of minutes. Wing Maya Caldwell often has the opportunity for open jumpers. The team has been playing well enough to cool off a hot Alabama team and will almost always play with great effort defensively, but Georgia must do the little things to advance: hit layups, manage their foul load, and value possession without turnovers. Those haven’t been sure things this season, and that’s why the Lady Dogs are in the position of having to win the tournament.

10) Florida (15-14, 6-10) (LY-13th, PS-14th): Florida made measured progress this year and escaped the bottom four. Wins over Arkansas and Kentucky (minus Rhyne Howard) helped the team surpass meager preseason expectations and avoid a game on Wednesday. Much of the team’s progress has to do with the emergence of freshman wing Lavender Briggs. Briggs leads the team in scoring with nearly 15 PPG and is second on the team in rebounding. Fellow freshman Nina Rickards gives Florida another perimeter weapon. Forward Zada Williams is capable of a big game, but Florida has several quick players with good size who can cause matchup problems. Their issue this year has been putting the ball in the basket as they lag in shooting, free throw, and 3pt percentage. The Gators were 4-4 in February and could present a challenge to a reeling LSU team on Thursday.

11) Missouri (8-21, 5-11) (LY-5th, PS-9th): The Tigers lost a strong senior class that featured Sophie Cunningham and Cierra Porter, and their rebuilding year has been much tougher than expected. A win over LSU in January was the bright spot of the season, and they looked to be turning a corner in early February with a close loss against Arkansas and a win over Georgia. Losses in four of their last six leave them among the four teams playing on Wednesday. They should be able to get past Ole Miss, a team they swept during the regular season, but their season will likely end against Tennessee. Amber Smith was poised to take over as team leader following Cunningham and Porter, and she has had a solid season. But it’s been a pair of freshmen, Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank, who lead the team in scoring. That bodes well for the future, but it also helps to explain the slide this year.

12) Vanderbilt (14-15, 4-12) (LY-14th, PS-12th): This is progress, right? Vanderbilt doubled both their conference and overall win totals from a year ago. That still leaves them near the bottom of the standings, but they’re out of last place and will be wearing their home whites in an SEC tournament game. The Commodores raised a few eyebrows with a 10-3 nonconference mark that included a win over Washington and respectable losses to Rutgers and UConn. They started 2-1 in the SEC with convincing wins over Auburn and Georgia, and Stephanie White’s fourth season began to look much different from her first three. Reality set in over the rest of the conference slate: Ole Miss was their only other win for almost two months. Vandy has been playing better of late though. They had close single-digit losses at both Tennessee and LSU, and a fourth quarter outbust powered them to an upset of Kentucky on the final day of the season. Freshman forward Koi Love has been a great find and forms a productive frontcourt with Mariella Fasoula, but the team has struggled outside the arc. Jordyn Cambridge leads the conference in steals.

13) Auburn (10-17, 4-12) (LY-6th, PS-8th): It’s been a disappointing season for Auburn after a trip to the NCAA tournament a year ago. Junior Unique Thompson is a first team All-SEC selection and averages a double-double, but the Tigers have struggled to find her much help. Thompson and lone senior Daisa Alexander are the only upperclassmen on a team with 11 freshmen and sophomores, and Terri Williams-Flournoy’s squad took it on the chin during this rebuilding year. There are signs of improvement: in February the Tigers took Mississippi State to overtime, beat LSU, and lost to Tennessee by a point in the season finale. They won’t be afraid of a quarterfinal game against Arkansas if they can get past Vanderbilt, a team with which they split the season series.

14) Ole Miss (7-22, 0-16) (LY-12th, PS-13th): Coach Yo struggled to find a breakthrough win this season, and it’s unfortunate that the team’s most newsworthy moment came from scoring two points in the first half against South Carolina. To their credit, the team has continued to fight and has come close to several wins. They’ve lost to Georgia by seven, Florida by two, and Alabama by just one point. Ole Miss will welcome a solid recruiting class to Oxford next season and should soon be a much more competitive team.


Post How other sports handle one-time transfers

Friday February 28, 2020

I’ve been waiting for a piece like this for a while. The one-time transfer exception seemed like a good idea a year ago when everyone was up in arms about the transfer portal. Since most sports operate that way already, I thought it was reasonable to ask how they managed.

It would be interesting to see coaches interviewed from other sports who have had to deal with unrestricted transfers for years…These coaches live in this world already and could provide some good insight on how to manage a program.

Nicole Auerbach did just that. It’s at The Athletic and behind the paywall, but what she finds shouldn’t surprise anyone. Recommended reading.

The key takeaway is that these coaches have adapted to their transfer process, and there are just as many ways to stretch a different set of rules. Coaches don’t explicitly recruit players who haven’t announced an intent to transfer. Instead the backchannel work is done with a club coach or other third party, and the player magically has a destination not long after they announce their intent to transfer. The transfer market will have to be considered as another source for improving the roster even more than it is today. Coaches will have to balance a full recruiting class with the flexibility of keeping a few scholarships in reserve for transfers. Yes, adjustments will be required, but “none of these coaches are turning over huge portions of their roster each year.”

One scenario I hadn’t considered was suggested by a soccer coach. He “can absolutely envision a world where high-major or elite Power 5 football coaches tell a recruit that he’s not quite good enough to play at School X right now, but he could be after a good season at School Y. Those coaches could maintain the relationship with the recruit and circle back a year later, eventually adding him as an up-transfer.”

Is that not the next evolution of blue/grayshirting?


Post Change is gonna do me good

Friday January 17, 2020

Major news today as Georgia announced the addition of Todd Monken to the coaching staff. Monken was named offensive coordinator which means that James Coley is no longer calling plays. Coley has the opportunity to remain on staff though as assistant head coach, and I’m glad to see that. Coley contributed to Georgia’s success over the past couple of seasons and was responsible for recruiting several high-profile members of Georgia’s team, and I think he can continue to have a positive impact in a modified role.(*) Know this – Kirby Smart wants Coley to remain with the program.

Coley’s reassignment does remind us that the staff dynamic is something worth watching in the year(s) ahead. The LSU experiment only worked because Brady and Ensminger meshed and complemented each other well. Georgia’s bringing in two coaches for 2020 with college head coaching experience, and they’re being added to a staff with a reassigned offensive coordinator. That’s a lot of experience and perspective to offer the program, but it’s also an opportunity for pride and egos to clash when several guys are used to calling the shots. You want coaches to challenge and question each other, and passive get-along types usually don’t last long in the pressure cooker environment. It’s easy though for things to get out of hand and factions to form that undermine other assistants or even the head coach.

Kirby Smart has taken on the challenge of managing those personalities because the payoff can be immense. I wrote before the season about Smart growing into the head coaching role – there are still only four SEC coaches who have been at their programs longer. Dealing with staff turnover is part of any head coach’s job, and he’s had to replace several coaches and both coordinators. Some decisions were home runs: Dan Lanning replaced Mel Tucker and produced the #1-rated defense in SP+. Coley’s experience didn’t go as well, but he wasn’t a failure. The Dawgs finished slightly better in 2019 than in 2018, but that’s only part of the story.

The bigger point was this: “if our faith in the new coordinators lies largely in the belief that they’re instruments of Kirby Smart’s preferences, Smart’s own role in decisions deserves greater scrutiny.” That’s been the question ever since it became clear that things weren’t quite right with the offense in 2019. What does Kirby Smart want from an offense? We’ve seen the “manball” perjorative used – not unfairly – but that can’t be all of it. Georgia had explosive and productive offenses with a similar approach in 2017 and 2018. After three years of teams that were great-but-not-great-enough, it was again time to ask what was holding Georgia back. It’s not facilities. It’s no longer recruiting. It’s fair to ask whether the coaching was at the level of players they did so well to bring in. The departure of Scott Fountain gave Smart the opening to evaluate in which areas Georgia came up short. The explosive plays that defined the 2017 and 2018 offenses dwindled in 2019, and one of the most efficient passers to play at Georgia could barely complete 50% of his attempts by the end. Smart recognized the need for change, and Monken definitely represents a different direction.

Todd Monken is a familiar name to longtime college football fans. He grew the Oklahoma State program with Les Miles and made the jump to LSU when Miles did. In a second stint at Oklahoma State, he orchestrated a productive offense with Mike Gundy that went 12-1 in 2011. That offense was #1 in S&P+ in 2011 and #7 in 2012 despite injuries to the top two quarterbacks. That success earned him the head coaching job at Southern Miss where he had to rebuild a shambles of a program. Southern Miss improved from 0-11 in 2012 to 9–5 in 2015 while the offense improved from #117 in S&P+ to #53. He made the jump to the NFL in 2016 and has worked with both Tampa Bay and Cleveland.

Yes, bringing in someone fresh off an unsuccessful NFL job might initially give off “2015 Part II: The Schottening” vibes. Monken isn’t Schottenheimer. He has far more experience in the college game with previous gigs as a college offensive coordinator and head coach and did very well in them. We try to be optimistic about any change, but Schottenheimer took a lot more convincing. Maybe that had to do with the circumstances of the change (Bobo leaving versus Coley being reassigned.) I wrote at the time that “there seems to be a lot more wait-and-see” with Schottenheimer relative to the addition of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator a year earlier. There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of that this time, especially among people who have followed the college game closely enough to be familiar with Monken’s work at earlier stops.

Bill Connelly’s 2012 Oklahoma State preview illustrates how Monken attacked defenses with his top-rated 2011 offense:

Monken’s 2011 play-calling was a picture-perfect case study in taking what the defense gives you. Opponents are forming a cloud around Justin Blackmon? That’s fine; we’ll throw to Josh Cooper 15 times. Opponents are selling out to prevent the deep ball? Okay, then we’ll fire quick slants to Blackmon, or we’ll swing the ball from sideline to sideline until they change their tactics. (This was the entire comeback strategy against Texas A&M. Hubert Anyiam, the No. 3 receiver in 2011 until he got hurt, caught 10 of 13 passes for 92 yards versus A&M, and most of that came from snap-and-throw passes to him on the line of scrimmage.) Ignoring the line of scrimmage a bit too much? Then we’ll run, and run, and run, and run.

Not a bad way to run a railroad. Monken will have a similar buffet of options with his Georgia offense beginning with Jamie Newman at quarterback. He’ll have more talent at tailback than he’s used to having on any of his college teams. He’ll be asked to bring along what might be the nation’s best incoming receiver class while getting the most out of George Pickens and the returning group of receivers. Those are a lot of moving parts to get on the same page in a short amount of time, especially with a trip to Tuscaloosa looming in September. Of course it will all ultimately serve Kirby Smart’s preferences, so Georgia won’t be going full Air Raid. Monken won’t be constrained though by the head man in playcalling as he was in Cleveland and even Tampa.

We’re excited that Smart made a change, but that in itself is no guarantee that it will work. Comparisons with LSU’s overhaul will be inevitable, and neither Smart or Monken can let that drive their approach in 2020. Monken was part of a successful OC/HC team with Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, but he reportedly clashed with Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland. There’s always a risk things could blow up with such sweeping changes to both the roster and offensive coaching staff. We don’t know how well Monken can recruit his side of the ball and how much Georgia will continue to rely on Coley to bring in elite talent. All that said, Monken isn’t a reach. He’s proven at this level and one of the first names you’d consider to help an offense evolve. It will be extremely impressive if he can put all of these new pieces together and show immediate results in 2020.

* – There’s no point in re-litigating Coley’s performance as coordinator in 2019. He’s taking the fall here, but many of us still don’t appreciate the drain of talent at receiver and tight end. Georgia became almost completely reliant on a graduate transfer receiver from Miami (and thank goodness for Lawrence Cager), but this would have been a completely different offense regardless of coordinator with Ridley, Hardman, Nauta, and Ford.


Post Watching and waiting

Tuesday January 14, 2020

While Burrow, Brady, and the offense deserve the spotlight, LSU became a scary machine when the defense rounded into form late in the season. The book on LSU had been “great offense, but there are points to be had against them.” They survived a shootout with Texas, got lit up by an Alabama team with a hobbled quarterback, and how many Georgia fans hung their hopes on the 38 points scored by Vanderbilt or the rushing yardage LSU surrendered to Ole Miss?

The 2018 LSU defense was a juggernaut that finished ranked 5th by SP+. Devin White and Greedy Williams left for the NFL. Some important pieces returned, especially Chaisson and Delpit, but the Tigers would be counting on several inexperienced newcomers to fill in the gaps and come along quickly. LSU’s defense was ranked 37th by SP+ after week 7, and the inexperience was compounded by some early injuries. Injured players began to return to the team, and young players like Derek Stingley Jr. began to emerge. There wasn’t a sudden turnaround, but the defensive SP+ rating improved into the 20s and cracked the top 20 by the beginning of the postseason.

The Tigers held Texas A&M, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Clemson to 7, 10, 28, and 25 points to close out the season. That list includes three of the top five teams in the final playoff rankings. The LSU offense went supernova, and they were aided by an improved defense that began to keep the offense well-supplied with possessions, turnovers, and field position. You can even credit the offense with providing the defense plenty of cover to improve. Keeping up with LSU’s output put tremendous pressure on opponents, and the best-laid plans to control the ball and keep Burrow on the sideline went out the window as the Tiger offense went scorched-earth. Opponents were jarred out of their comfort zones, and gameplans went out the window. The LSU defense could key on pass plays, and an inexperienced and banged-up unit still finished second in the SEC in sacks and first in interceptions.

I’m happy for LSU – to an extent. They were a fun team to watch with exceptional players, and there’s no denying the greatness of this year’s team. In Georgia terms, this was their 2017 – except that they finished. They’re still the competition, especially on the recruiting trail. Will Georgia now be chasing two teams in the SEC instead of just Alabama? Has LSU supplanted Alabama? Alabama and Clemson were able to survive wholesale turnovers of talent and win multiple national titles within a couple of years of each other. LSU will also face a big drain of talent from its roster and perhaps also its coaching staff. They’re not going to disappear from relevance like Washington or FSU. But will they be able to remain part of the title discussion like Clemson or Alabama, or will they take a step back to the next tier of teams?

Georgia fans know all about that next tier. We’ve taken up residence there for two seasons now. As much as we might have enjoyed LSU’s win as SEC sympaticos with their likeable cast of characters, it was a little bittersweet. Georgia was supposed to be next. 2019 was set up as a test of whether Georgia could finally get over the Alabama hump an on to bigger things. Instead it was LSU that blew past the rest of the SEC, Georgia included, en route to a national title. LSU proved that our vision for Georgia was possible; it was just put into practice somewhere else.

It’s still not too late for Georgia. The Bulldog program isn’t fading away, and top-rated talent continues to arrive. We’ll see whether LSU’s success is enough of a shock to the system to force Kirby Smart to reconsider the offense he chooses to pair with his top-rated defense. The approach so far was good enough to beat just about any team on a typical regular season schedule, but the Georgia program is in a position now where it is judged against a higher class of competition.


Post Hello, Newman

Saturday January 11, 2020

(obligatory headline)

Georgia has added Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Jamie Newman to the program. He enrolled at UGA last week and will be available for spring practice as the Dawgs begin the process of finding Jake Fromm’s successor. Oregon was considered to be Georgia’s top competition, but Newman drew interest from several major P5 programs who were losing their starting quarterback.

With Newman at the helm Wake Forest rose as high as #19 in the 2019 AP poll before the bottom fell out at the end of the season. He finished 2019 with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Like most of us trying to get an idea of what Newman brings to the team, I’ve watched more Wake Forest football in the past few days than I did during all of the 2010s. I have very little idea what to expect. Wake’s coach is Dave Clawson, so Newman ran an offense with a heavy dose of RPOs. The stats tell us a couple of things:

  • His stature (6’4″, 230 lbs) is roughly comparable to Justin Fields (6’3″, 223 lbs).
  • Newman’s 574 rushing yards and 6 rushing TDs in 2019 would have rated second on Georgia’s team behind only D’Andre Swift. His 3.19 yards per carry on the other hand wouldn’t have cracked the top 10 among Georgia ballcarriers.
  • He was a high-volume ballcarrier with at least 10 rushing attempts in all but three games, but there were few explosive runs: Newman had only three games with a run longer than 10 yards.
  • Newman threw an interception in all but four games. Better decision-making is surely going to be an area of early emphasis by his coaches.
  • Newman’s 2019 completion percentage followed a very Fromm-like trajectory: the year started strong, but he was over 50% in just one of Wake’s last five games. The Deacons had some key injuries at receiver during the year at the same time that they faced a couple of the ACC’s tougher defenses.

I doubt Newman would have transferred in without an expectation to start, but it’s not a done deal yet. He’ll compete for the job with the three scholarship quarterbacks already on the roster: Carson Beck, D’Wan Mathis, and Stetson Bennett. Newman’s odds to start seem good – Mathis still hasn’t been cleared for full contact, and Beck will be a true freshman. A lot could happen before August, and there’s no need for Kirby Smart to name a starter. (In fact, it would be completely on-brand for Kirby Smart to put off naming a starter well into preseason leading to dozens of repetitive dead-end questions and speculative articles. Isn’t that what the offseason is for?)

Does Newman’s arrival hint at a change in Georgia’s approach on offense? Not necessarily. His rushing stats draw your eye, but he’s a passer first and will look to develop his throwing in a pro-style offense ahead of entering the 2021 draft. In fact, he might be the best downfield passer Georgia has had in a while. His running ability helps in three ways. First, he’ll have the freedom to salvage busted passing plays just as any quarterback, including Fromm, can. Newman might be able to get a few more yards out of those scrambles and help Georgia sustain more drives. Second is as a credible threat to keep the ball on read option plays. Georgia’s inside and outside zone reads were more or less single-option running plays, and opposing defensive fronts could key on the tailback. Fromm wasn’t going to run the ball himself, and Georgia used play-action less in 2019, so odds were that the tailback was getting the ball. Newman has experience running read option plays, and the threat of him keeping the ball could open things up for Georgia’s fleet of tailbacks. Along those lines, Newman’s experience running an RPO-based offense could help with what Georgia is trying to do with its own RPOs. A running threat at quarterback turns any RPO into a triple option: hand off, pass, or keep. Georgia will have better weapons at the skill positions than Newman had at Wake Forest, and explosive threats at receiver and tailback could present headaches if the quarterback also has to be accounted for.

Again, what we know of Newman is the sum of the highlights we’ve hastily queued up since his name appeared on Georgia’s radar. National pundits (even Mark Richt!) seem to like the move. There seems to be univeral acclaim that Newman was the best prospect available from the pool of graduate transfers or unsigned true freshmen. Most illuminating might be this piece from Pro Football Focus that named Newman the third best returning quarterback in college football behind only Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. The money line: “Joe Burrow is far and away the highest-graded quarterback throwing to a tight window, but Newman is second — and third isn’t anywhere near him. He also limited his uncatchable pass rate to the fourth lowest.” Those attributes will be important in bringing along a talented but inexperienced group of receivers.

That’s fairly high praise – the PFF list didn’t include any returning SEC quarterbacks (including Trask, Nix, or Hilinski, and Mac Jones looked more than capable when pressed into service at Alabama). Georgia fans might be wary that a transfer from Wake Forest could become one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks in short order even if someone like Kyle Trask isn’t Joe Burrow. It’s especially tough to project Newman’s prospects at Georgia when the 2019 season ended with such dysfunction in the passing game. Mobile quarterback or not, a vacancy on the staff leaves unanswered questions about the direction of Georgia’s offense in 2020. Those questions weren’t enough to keep Newman from identifying Georgia as the best destination for his senior season, but who designs the offense will be something Georgia fans watch during the offseason as much as who ends up executing the offense. For now Kirby Smart did what he had to do and landed the best available solution to replenish his quarterback depth chart for another season.


Post Fromm moves on – Georgia must also

Thursday January 9, 2020

Jake Fromm has decided to turn pro – the first Georgia quarterback to forego his senior season since Matthew Stafford in 2009. Fromm’s accomplishments at Georgia began in his very first game when he led Georgia to its first win by more than 14 points in almost two years. His freshman season was out of a storybook: he stepped in for an injured Jacob Eason, led a dramatic comeback win at Notre Dame, held on to the starting job, won the SEC championship and Rose Bowl, and played for the national title. He leaves with three SEC East titles and a near-spotless record against Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, and Georgia Tech. He was a winner, a leader, and will be extremely difficult to replace.

After dealing with the initial shock though, Georgia only finds itself in the same position as LSU and Alabama: having to replace a special multi-year starting quarterback. As Jeff Schultz concludes, if those programs are better positioned to survive the transition and Georgia takes a big step back as a result of losing Fromm then “(Kirby) Smart hasn’t built nearly the program many thought he had.” Life, and Georgia football, moves on.

I don’t think things are that dire even if Georgia’s total losses on offense might be more comprehensive than at other top programs. Georgia has recruited at an elite level going on three or four seasons, and there are plausible, if not proven, answers at most every position. Lack of experience is a concern, but these days all teams are young teams. Smart gets to do now what he’s done several times in his four seasons as head coach: find creative and effective solutions to fill out his roster.

You’ll see dozens of pieces this week about the names Georgia might consider now at quarterback. The names will generally reduce down to one of these three groups:

The current roster: The guys already in the program will get the first look, and there’s talent there that was wanted by Ohio State, Alabama, and Florida. Stetson Bennett has been biding his time as Fromm’s backup. D’Wan Mathis hasn’t been fully cleared after brain surgery last summer, but he was able to do some scout team work towards the end of the season and continues to progress. Carson Beck has joined the program as a true freshman and early enrollee and will go through spring practice. Beck is kind of a forgotten man in the current signing class since he committed in early 2019, but he was a former Alabama commitment whom Florida hoped to land. It’s tough and rare for a true freshman to have Fromm’s level of success, but Beck is cut from similar cloth and might be the favorite to win the job from among those on the roster.

A graduate transfer: Several P5 quarterbacks have entered the transfer portal as graduates, and the Dawgs have had an impact graduate transfer at varying positions in just about every season since 2015 – yes, even Grayson Lambert counts. Georgia lacks a returning starting quarterback, and the top competition is arguably an incoming freshman. Georgia will be replacing many of its offensive skill players, but the Dawgs have top prospects in place or incoming at TE, WR, and RB. Georgia would seem like a good landing spot for a talented and experienced quarterback looking to go out with some hardware. Finding the right match will depend on the direction in which Kirby Smart wants to take the offense.

An underclassman transfer: Really any college quarterback short of Trevor Lawrence falls into this category. Justin Fields wasn’t on the Ohio State roster after the 2018 season, he certainly wasn’t a grad transfer, but he was able to find an opportunity that fit him and transfer in immediately. Georgia has been on the departure end of some high-profile quarterback transfers recently, and it could just as easily be a destination. The NCAA is unpredictable with its transfer waiver criteria and adjusted its waiver criteria last summer after the transfer frenzy in early 2019 that included Fields. Still, Smart never stops looking for ways to improve the roster, and he wouldn’t hesitate to bring in a transfer that could help right away. Though this is the least likely scenario we’d be wrong to completely dismiss it given the modern college football landscape and Smart’s track record of surprising us with some of his roster moves.

One other thing: The aftermath of Fromm’s decision could cast a longer shadow. Georgia is currently after some of the top QB prospects in the 2021 class. What will the depth chart look like entering that season? If Georgia does go the graduate transfer route in 2020, there would be an open competition in 2021 just as there would be had Fromm stayed. But if Beck, Mathis, or Bennett earn the job in 2020, there will be a returning starter in place heading into 2021. It’s the same story if Georgia is able to find an underclassman transfer to play in 2020. While it’s possible for a successful starter to give way (see Clemson and even Alabama), a smoother transition from a one-year starter would seem more attractive to a prospective QB than the challenge of having to unseat an established starter. That’s a situation that Kirby Smart can’t afford to consider right now; he has to find the best starter for 2020. It will be interesting to watch the recruitment of Brock Vandagriff and Caleb Williams over the next few months to see how they respond to Georgia’s evolving quarterback situation.


Post Georgia 26 – Baylor 14: That’s more like it

Friday January 3, 2020

Georgia’s depleted roster was the story leading up to the game, so we’ll start there. Nearly a quarter of the scholarship roster was unavailable due to some combination of academics, disciplinary action, and NFL Draft preparation. The Bulldogs were able to field a respectable and competent team capable of a fairly decisive win over a highly-motivated top 10 opponent. This is the payoff of three straight top 3 signing classes. Georgia’s depth was severely tested by this Sugar Bowl, but it held together and showed plenty of reasons to be excited about the players returning for 2020.

It wasn’t without its shaky moments. Holly Rowe made an important point on the broadcast after halftime: conditioning played a larger role in this game than it had in most games this year. During the season Georgia would be able to rotate in players specialized for certain roles, but in many cases the players on the field in the Sugar Bowl were the ones who would otherwise be rotating in. During his halftime interview Kirby Smart hinted at fatigue setting in (for both teams), and we saw both teams fighting through that fatigue in the second half. Georgia’s pass defense struggled as Baylor got into a rhythm in the third quarter. Georgia’s defensive front began getting deeper penetration into the Baylor backfield. That development turned out to be key in slowing down and eventually choking off the Baylor comeback.

The offensive line was another area where it would have been easy for fatigue to take a toll. Georgia played the same five offensive linemen for the entire game. OL wasn’t a position of heavy rotation during the season, but there was still some flexibility using about 7 or 8 players. It’s not that there weren’t other players available; I was curious to see if someone like Xavier Truss might earn some time. I think two things led the offensive staff to stick with a core group of five: the coaching change and the loss of three starters. It was enough to ask of Matt Luke to get five linemen who hadn’t played together working as a cohesive unit. Luke really didn’t have time to evaluate his depth chart and know when and where to work players in. Now he’ll have the offseason to get to know the whole group, bring in another talented group of newcomers, and develop the next wave of depth.

Georgia’s offense wasn’t going to reinvent itself during the break, especially without starters at tailback, receiver, and tackle. This wasn’t a breakout offensive performance, though it was more open and successful than we’ve seen in a while thanks in large part to Baylor’s passive coverage against George Pickens. Let’s tap the brakes a little though: the second quarter was the only period in which Georgia had a success rate better than 38%. Bolstered by that strong second quarter Georgia had a 46% success rate in the game which is slightly better than the national average (42%.) That’s not bad against a top 20 SP+ defense. Excluding the scrimmage that was Tech game, this was one of Georgia’s better offensive profiles (51% standard down success rate / 33% standard down success rate / 46% overall) since early in the season. The Bulldogs didn’t light up the scoreboard, though Robinson’s dropped touchdown pass would have made things much more decisive. Still, this performance might have been this offense’s best version of itself.

The defense was again the star, and its young talent shone at almost every position. We saw Lewis Cine more involved than usual in the LSU gameplan, and he showed again that he’s ready to step in for Reed at safety. Walker, Dean, and Nolan Smith continue to look like the core of a special group that we’ll get to enjoy for another two years. A defense that made “havoc” a goal for the season finished strong: Georgia recorded three sacks, seven tackles for loss, four pass breakups, and two big interceptions by Richard LeCounte. Baylor had a success rate under 30% in all but the third quarter.

The formula was familiar: Georgia limited Baylor to 61 yards rushing (2.2 YPA) and settled in against the pass (4.7 YPA). Baylor did have some success, especially in the third quarter, as their receivers became more physical against Georgia’s defensive backs. DJ Daniel was picked on, but he didn’t give up many big plays and ended up as the team’s leading tackler. There was a little bend to Georgia’s defense as they gave up eight third down conversions, allowed 21 first downs, and saw Baylor run eight more plays. The defense came up big though with LeCounte’s interception to stop Baylor’s first scoring opportunity, and the Dawgs denied Baylor on all three fourth down attempts. Even with fatigue and missing some key players Georgia’s defense did well to protect the lead. We’ve had to sweat more than a few leads this year that were whittled down to a single possession late in the fourth quarter, but both offense and defense played their role in holding off any comeback in this game.

  • Malik Herring has had a few standout moments in his career – the biggest (to me) was his role in ending Tech’s option era in 2018. His performance in the Sugar Bowl reminded me how much of a consistent force he’s become at defensive end. Tyler Clark had the kind of senior season we hoped he would, but Herring’s development has been a nice understated subplot. Now Herring is poised for his own standout senior campaign, and he’ll be an important anchor of a young but talented defensive line that loses five seniors.
  • Travon Walker’s hit on Charlie Brewer was borderline, but there’s no question that any shot of a Baylor comeback ended when Brewer left the game. Things were tough enough with the starter in there (and Baylor would have had to punt before the flag on Walker.)
  • Georgia had an important series early in the fourth quarter that all but put the game away. A punt pinned Georgia on their own one yard line. Zamir White was able to create some breathing room on second down, but Georgia had failed to convert any third downs in the second half. Fromm was able to find Tyler Simmons wide open on the right side for a 24-yard gain. Georgia didn’t score on that drive, but they ended up running ten plays and chewing up five minutes of valuable fourth quarter clock.
  • Pickens stole the show, but Tyler Simmons matched his own season high with four receptions. Simmons finished his senior campaign strong with ten receptions for 139 yards in his last three games. Roughly half of his 2019 production came since the Tech game.
  • That fourth quarter series featured Pickens’s only reception of the second half, but it was an impressive one that showed both agility and toughness. Pickens caught a short receiver screen, shifted back inside past a number of tacklers, and twisted and stretched for the final few yards to earn 10 yards and a first down on a play that could have easily been stopped for a very short gain.
  • I noted Georgia didn’t score on that drive, but what a missed opportunity by Fromm and Robertson to put the game away. Much of the preseason talk will be about Pickens and the newcomers, but Robertson could have a huge role himself in 2020 if Pickens draws as much attention as we expect.
  • Zamir White performed well in his first significant action and came up just short of 100 yards. We saw the jump Nick Chubb took from 2016 to 2017 after his return from knee surgery, and I hope Zeus can take a similar leap in 2020.
  • If there was one shortcoming with the makeshift running game and offensive line, it was relatively few longer runs. 27% of runs were stuffed at or behind the line. Georgia got their big plays in the passing game.
  • Swift only had a single carry, but he was a heck of a decoy. His mere presence caused a Baylor penalty. Swift was also open on the failed two-point conversion, but Fromm was slow to pull the trigger. Credit to Swift for playing at all with the injured shoulder in what was likely his last game as a Bulldog.
  • What a fake field goal! Excellent execution by Camarda who might’ve even scored on the play. We’re more than familiar with the failed trick plays of 2018, so it was nice to see one work and to see Zeus finish it off with a score on the next play. It was a good day overall for special teams. Blankenship was perfect in his final game. Camarda punted decently, and the successful fake field goal makes this a much better memory than last year’s Sugar Bowl.

Of course a win is a much better way to end the season than a loss, but the bigger story is how well Kirby Smart and the team handled a month of distractions and disappointment. It wasn’t perfect, but even the imperfection was cleaner than the turnovers and mistakes like the botched punt in last season’s Sugar Bowl. Baylor, supposedly the more dialed-in and complete team, committed more turnovers and penalties than the team that was in disarray. The unavailable players meant that we got to see many of the younger players who will continue on in those same roles in 2020. This outcome against a very good opponent suggests that those young players will be up to the job and able to sustain Georgia’s status as a playoff contender.


Post Georgia 10 – LSU 37: Passed by

Monday December 9, 2019

We started the season wondering if 2019 would be the year in which Georgia finally solved its Alabama problem. We never got the chance to find out, and we’ll be able to recycle those stories for another offseason. But while we were waiting to measure ourselves against a team not on the schedule, LSU actually went out and solved their own Alabama problem. The combination of a reconstituted offensive scheme and the talent to run that scheme got the Tigers over the hump as SEC champions and into their first CFB playoff.

Georgia started the year with one problem. Now it has two.

LSU realized that its offense, plenty good enough to upset a good team like Georgia in 2018 and get to a New Year’s Six bowl, wasn’t making the most of its talent and wasn’t going to be enough to make LSU a national contender. They made changes, brought in outside help, and dramatically improved production with many of the same core players. They made the moves Georgia was supposed to make to get over the top. They’ll lose Burrow and some other pieces, but they’ve recruited well and have another top class coming in next year. Despite the predictable “is Alabama’s dynasty ending?” pieces after the Iron Bowl, the Tide will return a maturing defense and will welcome yet another loaded signing class. Neither of these programs will go away on their own.

Yes, of course Georgia needs to improve and open up the offense. Kirby Smart isn’t adverse to a productive and explosive offense and passing game; S&P+ ranked the offense #7 in 2017 and #3 in 2018. The emergence of LSU this season makes the need for change more urgent. Is Alabama still the target and the model? Certainly pre-2013 Alabama isn’t what we’re after, but both Alabama and LSU have transitioned to an offense that features its quarterback and a fleet of playmaking receivers. Even their tailbacks would be among Georgia’s top four receivers. If Georgia is able to stay atop the SEC East for another year, it will be interesting to see who will be waiting for them in next season’s championship game. The Alabama-LSU discussion will suck most of the air out of the preseason, but Georgia is going to have an important offseason making sure it can remain part of the conversation.

This year’s SEC championship game was decisive enough that it’s not worth breaking down. You sensed it wouldn’t be Georgia’s day when Burrow was able to catch his own deflected pass and turn it into a first down gain. Burrow, given ridiculous amounts of time by Georgia’s three-man rush, then found an open receiver in the endzone. This followed Georgia’s opening series on which an open receiver dropped a pass and another open receiver was missed. That possession ended on a shanked punt. So there you had it – Georgia’s offense, special teams, and even defense came up short the first time they stepped on the field, and it didn’t get much better.

One of the side effects of Georgia’s problems on offense is that they ended up in a lot of close games. While the Dawgs used a lot of players, especially on defense, in even the tightest of games, there weren’t many opportunities to do much of anything in those games but hold on and get the win. So when it came time to build a credible running game with D’Andre Swift severely limited, Georgia’s tailback depth became a mirage. Zamir White had a total of 17 regular season carries after the South Carolina game. James Cook had 12. On defense, Lewis Cine got his first start in the SEC Championship and figured to be a big part of the plan to defend LSU. He played wonderfully, and he’ll be a fixture in Georgia’s secondary for the next couple of seasons. But safety was a rare defensive position that didn’t see a lot of rotation during the season, and Cine didn’t see nearly the playing time that other freshmen like Travon Walker or Nakobe Dean.

That applies on a macro level too. It was welcome and probably even a good idea to open up passing the ball downfield. We’ve seen several of these concepts all season. It might have been better to break out a more open offense before the biggest game of the season though. James Coley was in a tough spot – the plan made sense, but the execution was lacking. The job of the coordinator isn’t just playcalling; it’s also preparation and crafting a scheme that plays to the strengths of the unit. Without Swift, Georgia’s biggest strength and identity – its large and talented offensive line – was neutered. The line generally blocked well in pass protection, but the inability to run the ball left an inconsistent Fromm throwing to a depleted receiving corps. The Dawgs were going to have to execute well and get touchdowns from its scoring opportunities, and that didn’t happen.

Georgia’s defensive plan was also new and made sense, but it, too, lacked execution. Rushing three and dropping extra defensive backs like Cine was modeled after Auburn’s successful approach to limit the LSU offense. It required one of two things though: either coverage has to be stout to limit explosive plays, or the front three must generate pressure on their own. Neither happened. Georgia had a productive and deep defensive front this season, but it doesn’t have someone like Derrick Brown who can consistently generate a push by himself. Given plenty of time, even as much as eight seconds on the first touchdown pass, even the best coverage will usually break down. Georgia eventually brought more pressure, but Burrow got himself out of enough tough spots to make devastating plays that put the game away in the second half.

Payment due

The Texas A&M game marked the end of a tough four-game stretch against some of the better defenses in the SEC. Over that span Georgia wrapped up their third straight SEC East title, closed out the decade with wins over their biggest rivals, and managed to defeat both regular season SEC West opponents for the first time under Kirby Smart. Three of Georgia’s four November SEC opponents were ranked, and two of them were ranked among the top 15.

When the 2019 schedule came out, most of us went right to the Notre Dame game. It didn’t take long though for eyes to wander down to the end of the schedule and notice what was in store for November. There were four SEC games in November, and the two most difficult would be away from home. Even the two home games weren’t gimmes: Missouri was a darkhorse in the SEC East, and Texas A&M would be tougher than its record against an impossible schedule indicated. I wrote after the A&M win that “Georgia was supposed to be tested by its November schedule, and even the harshest critic must admit that Georgia passed that test.”

The Dawgs might’ve passed that test and emerged from the regular season in playoff position, but like a student wiped out at the end of exams, there wasn’t much left in the tank. The season, and especially November, took its toll on the team. Lawrence Cager, the team’s leading and most reliable receiver, was lost for the year. D’Andre Swift was knocked out of the Tech game. Injuries to key players, not to mention the physical and mental toll of the grind itself, left Georgia in a suboptimal position for the postseason. The bill for a successful November came due just in time to face LSU. That’s no excuse – few teams are in prime condition after 12 games. But no one can say that the Dawgs were a team peaking and building towards a postseason run.

Never want to be the underdog

Underdogs and favorites are in those roles for a reason. Maybe it was rationalization, but how many of your friends and fellow fans did you hear leading up to the game relishing the underdog role? “No one is giving Georgia a chance – perfect!” Well, we saw why. Sure, sometimes teams can find a little extra motivation from being told they’re not the favorite – Alabama took exception when they were slight ‘dogs at Georgia in 2015. Upsets happen. More often than not, though, underdogs lose. I would hope we’re beyond that mentality now as a program and fan base. It’s two-faced: you can’t claim to aspire to be a playoff-quality team from year to year and at the same time shy away from the spotlight.

It’s especially silly given the tremendous respect for the Georgia program and brand that’s out there. Even after South Carolina, Georgia was the top-ranked one-loss team. Even after the beating at the hands of LSU, Georgia remained the top-ranked two-loss team and even gave the playoff committee something to think about against one-loss conference champion Oklahoma. Georgia was a touchdown underdog to LSU because the Tigers were that much better this year. That’s something we should aim to correct and reverse rather than embrace.


Post Adjusting to the adjustment

Wednesday December 4, 2019

If you’ve read any SEC Championship preview this week, you know all about the matchup of Georgia’s defense against LSU’s offense. Two of the best units in the nation will go head-to-head, and it’s exciting to think about. Any time you face an offense as productive as LSU’s, it puts added pressure on your own offense. Even with an outstanding defense Georgia knows it will have to put points on the board at a higher clip than it has in a while. Execution must be crisper, and coaches must have the gameplan and playcalling down. As against Florida, the offense doesn’t just need to score points. An offense that is able to maintain possession, convert third downs, and convert scoring opportunities can help the defense by keeping LSU’s scoring threats on the bench.

The Bulldog offense will have to perform better than it did in Baton Rouge a year ago. LSU held Georgia to its lowest point total of the 2018 season, and even that total was inflated by a fairly meaningless score with six minutes to go. Georgia’s defense did what it could to keep the team in the game by holding LSU to field goal attempts, but even a 19-9 deficit after the third quarter seemed nearly hopeless because very little was working for Georgia’s explosive offense. What happened? You can start with turnovers – Georgia turned the ball over four times. Jake Fromm threw two interceptions, Mecole Hardman fumbled a kick return, and the less said about the fake field goal attempt, the better.

Beyond the turnovers, LSU was able to alter Georgia’s identity on offense. The Tigers limited Georgia to 113 rushing yards on 30 attempts – 3.8 yards per carry. 71 of those yards came on Georgia’s second possession which ended in the fake field goal attempt (I swear we’re done talking about that.) Georgia managed fewer than 50 yards rushing over the final three quarters of the game. Yes, much of that time was spent playing from behind, but even in the first half 11 of Georgia’s final 15 plays were passes. The 34 passes Jake Fromm attempted in the game were not just a regular season high; he didn’t attempt more than 24 passes in any other regular season game.

So did Georgia abandon the run, or did LSU do something to force Georgia out of their comfort zone? Kirby Smart thinks it was the latter. “We kind of stayed with (running the ball) the next drive. We went back to it. They changed some things up and it wasn’t working as well.”

LSU did indeed change some things up. Ed Orgeron explained that “the key adjustment involved changing up the defensive fronts, creating different angles, with (DC Dave) Aranda expertly mixing in different personnel to create problems for the Bulldogs.” Once LSU adjusted, Smart noticed that “We weren’t getting the same movement. They were making the ball bounce out.” It’s fair to ask if Georgia still went away from the run too quickly, but LSU’s adjustments along the defensive front didn’t only affect Georgia’s run; Fromm was sacked three times in the game.

This LSU defense isn’t that LSU defense. The 2018 Tigers finished 5th in defensive S&P+. The current unit is 22nd. That’s not bad at all, and they’ve been playing well lately, but it’s not the elite unit they enjoyed a year ago. It’s still an extremely talented group, and Dave Aranda is still calling the shots.

We know that Georgia isn’t going anywhere in the SEC Championship if its running game is stymied. LSU knows that too, and getting Georgia into long passing downs will be as important for LSU as it’s been for any Georgia opponent. Georgia could have some initial success on the ground even with its bread-and-butter plays, but we can expect Aranda to have a counter prepared. It’s not as simple as throwing bodies into the box to stop the run. As Aranda (and later Texas) showed, scheme and creative use of personnel can be just as effective against the larger Georgia offensive line.

Can Sam Pittman and the offensive staff have the line better prepared this time for LSU’s Plan B? We’ve seen the line struggle at times with various stunts and twists from opposing defensive fronts. That’s why those techniques are in the playbook – they work, and sometimes they even work against an elite offensive line. There’s no question that this is an opportunity for Georgia’s heralded offensive line to shine, and it’s a must if Georgia has a chance to stay in the game. But as we saw last year, it’s not just about the gameplan. It’s just as important to be able to adjust on the fly based on the counter-punches shown by the opponent.