DawgsOnline
Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Daring to look forward to an almost-normal spring

Wednesday March 17, 2021

Georgia’s 2021 spring practice began this week. A full spring practice is the first sign of a return to normalcy for the 2021 season, and we hope the team is able to see it through until G-Day. As with any normal spring we’re excited to get a look at the newcomers and how the team will take shape. Georgia should again be favored to take the SEC East, and the schedule sets itself up for the team to be in the playoff discussion. Here are a couple of areas worth watching through the spring and summer as we see if the program can take a step forward.

Keeping the band together. Even before the Sugar Bowl win over Baylor, the program knew that a significant transition was underway. By the time the dust cleared, just about every element of the offense would change from 2019 to 2020. Then came the pandemic. A new coordinator would have to install his offense with a new quarterback (himself new to the program), and it would have to happen without spring practice, over Zoom calls, and then during the limited contact allowed after June. Then shortly before the season, that quarterback opted out. The process started over again, and just one game into the season it started yet again.

Fans welcomed the changes after 2019, but the hope for 2021 is continuity. Georgia has already survived two big challenges to that continuity. First, key draft-eligible players on the offense – among them Daniels, White, Salyer, and Cook – chose to remain in the program. Second, the offensive coaching staff remains intact. It wouldn’t have been unprecedented for Todd Monken to jump back to the NFL after one season (see Joe Brady.) Dell McGee heads up the successful Georgia running game and can recruit with the best. Matt Luke could be tempted at another head coaching offer. Any assistant – offense, defense, or special teams – with experience at a top-level program like Georgia is going to be considered when openings come up. Georgia did well to keep these assistants happy and on board for another season.

So Georgia’s offensive overhaul gets what it didn’t have in 2020: the opportunity for a spring and offseason of work with stable personnel and coaching. There are still threats to that stability: the transfer portal never closes, and injuries could disrupt reps and conditioning work or even cost a season. But those are realities for any team, and Georgia is as well-positioned as any to make the most of a full offseason. We should expect a benefit, but will it show up soon enough to make a difference against Clemson?

How will the defense evolve? For the second straight season, Georgia’s defense finished the season #1 in Bill Connelly’s (ESPN) SP+ metric. But for the second straight season, elite offenses that went on to the postseason gave Georgia plenty of trouble. Is there a defensive response to the explosive offenses that now dominate the top of college football? Focusing in on one position – outside linebacker – might tell us which way that wind is blowing.

The outside linebacker has been the glamour position in the 3-4 defense since Lawrence Taylor terrorized NFL quarterbacks in the 1980s. Since Georgia switched to a 3-4 look in 2010 under Todd Grantham, outside linebackers from Justin Houston to Azeez Ojulari have been some of the standouts of the Bulldog defense and some of its higher draft picks. The position has also been the highlight of Georgia’s top-rated signing classes under Kirby Smart. The question now though is how to get them on the field.

Nolan Smith was considered a top five prospect in the nation two years ago. Adam Anderson was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle between Georgia and LSU. Against Mississippi State, Anderson played on 23% of possible plays. Smith played on 18%. Against South Carolina, it was 17% for Smith and 15% for Anderson. That’s not meant as a criticism of Smart’s scheme or substitution patterns; depth allows you to use players in situations that play to their strengths. It’s tough to argue with the results: Georgia was again at the top of the SP+ defensive rankings in 2020.

As Seth Emerson wrote in December (via Blutarsky), “the snaps have in fact gone down for outside linebackers because of the prevalence of passing attacks in the SEC, necessitating more nickel and dime formations by Georgia.” Georgia’s base defense even on standard downs might only have one outside linebacker on the field. Obvious passing situations allow for a sub package with multiple OLBs, but that comes with its own tradeoffs and isn’t a three-down strategy.

Of course attention will be on the secondary due to uncertain personnel and numbers. But the secondary and OLB questions go hand-in-hand. The trend might be towards more nickel and dime at the expense of outside linebackers, but that might not suit Georgia’s strengths. If tight numbers strain Georgia’s secondary, how might it dip in to its deep pool of talent at other positions? Can the pass rush help to compensate for inexperience at other levels? While the offense will use the spring to reinforce the changes introduced last season, the defense will try to find its best groups of personnel to adapt to modern offenses.

Who will be available? Not many people expected the 2020 quarterback situation to play out as it did. We knew about J.T. Daniels’ knee injury but assumed a normal recovery timetable. As the season wore on, impatient fans questioned why each week came and went without Daniels making his debut. The answer, as much as we didn’t like it, was that he just wasn’t ready yet. The starting quarterback is the highest-profile position on the team, so a constant Daniels Watch was unavoidable. Other positions receive less scrutiny. Players simply don’t see the field – or see it much less than we might expect. Arian Smith flew under the radar until his own November debut. Players like Monty Rice played as much as they could through lingering injuries that never quite healed up.

Anthony Dasher counts about 10 Bulldogs who will miss or be limited during spring including a few starters like Nakobe Dean. Most of these injuries will clear up, and some might even clear up during spring. Coaches might favor caution and keep others out of contact until preseason practice. And still others will linger on into the season, disrespecting the calendar of the season. Every so often these injuries become chronic, like Jonathan Ledbetter’s Achilles, and hamper the player for several seasons.

With the questions surrounding the secondary this offseason, the defense is counting on Kelee Ringo to provide some answers. Ringo was a gem in the 2020 signing class but missed the season due to preseason labrum surgery. He’s not quite cleared for spring practice, though he’s among those who might make it back before G-Day. Ringo might or might not have an immediate impact, but right now his availability for the season could be as important for the secondary as Daniels’ availability was for the offense last year. It’s not just what Ringo brings to the position. Ringo’s availability will determine what happens with the other unsettled positions in the secondary. If his recovery drags beyond spring and closer to preseason camp, it could begin to affect the outlook for the season.


Post Lady Dogs return to the NCAA tournament

Tuesday March 16, 2021

The #10-ranked Lady Dogs earned a #3 seed for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament – the program’s highest seed since 2007. Georgia returns to the tournament for the first time since 2018 and for the 34th time in program history. It’s coach Joni Taylor’s third trip to the tournament in six seasons at the helm, and the program is seeking its first Sweet 16 appearance under Taylor and its first deep tournament run since 2013. Usually a top-4 seed means that Georgia would be hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, but NCAA pandemic protocols have moved the entire tournament to the San Antonio, TX area. Georgia will head to Texas and remain in isolation there for the duration of their stay in the tournament.

Georgia received their high seed after a 20-6 season and a fourth-place SEC finish. They defeated eight teams in the NCAA tournament field and have won seven of their last nine games with losses coming to ranked Kentucky and South Carolina teams. Georgia beat Texas A&M and pushed South Carolina to the final minute in the SEC tournament, and they look very much like a team peaking at the right time. As you’d hope, the experienced senior class of four players leads the team and is largely responsible for the team’s success and better-than-expected results. Even with the strong starting lineup, Taylor will play a deep bench and has relied on bench contributions in big wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Team health is generally good, though guard Gabby Connally injured an ankle in practice recently.

The Lady Dogs will open the tournament on Monday at noon on ESPN2 against 14-seed Drexel. The Dragons won the CAA automatic bid by winning their conference tournament and upsetting top-seeded Delaware. Georgia should have a significant size advantage against Drexel. The Dragons have no player taller than 6’2″ on their roster. Jenna Stati and the other posts should be able to feast if they can stay clear of foul trouble, and Maya Caldwell could also have a big game around the basket in her newer role at the 4 spot. Drexel’s offense is led by guards Keishana Washington and Hannah Nihill. Washington had back-to-back 30-point games to lead Drexel to a CAA conference tournament title. Drexel, like Georgia, will look to be disruptive on defense. Opponents average over 18 turnovers per game against the Dragons, and Drexel gets nearly 17 points per game off those turnovers. Georgia has been turnover-prone this season, and unforced errors could keep the score down and keep an outmatched opponent hanging around. Georgia ideally will use their own stingy defense to create transition opportunities and not allow the Drexel defense to set up.

If Georgia advances, they’ll face the winner of 6-seed Oregon and 11-seed South Dakota on Wednesday. Oregon was a national contender a year ago behind national player of the year Sabrina Ionescu. The Ducks ended up with three of the top eight draft picks in the 2020 WNBA draft. The remaining cast played a tough shortened Pac-12 schedule this year and have a trio of single-digit losses to very good UCLA and Stanford teams. Injuries, especially to point guard Te-Hina Paopao, have seen the Ducks fall in the polls, but they’re a different team with everyone available. South Dakota is no pushover – they hung with South Carolina and Gonzaga and have won nine straight entering the tournament. Down the road Georgia could face national powers Louisville and Stanford.

SEC teams received seven of the 64 bids. They’ve had more bids in the past, but the seeding this year shows how top-heavy the SEC was. No SEC team is lower than a 7-seed, and six SEC teams earned a 4-seed or better. If chalk holds, the conference would have over a third of the Sweet 16 teams.


Post 2021 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 3, 2021

The 2020 women’s conference tournaments were among the last pre-pandemic events to be completed. There was an awareness and even a suspicion of COVID-19 in Greenville, but there wasn’t a fear or much change in behavior. We still packed into the arena next to fans from around the conference, enjoyed the restaurants and bars of downtown Greenville, and loudly supported our teams without much thought to the droplets and aerosols we were contributing to the air around us. In the two weeks between the end of the conference tournament and the scheduled start of the NCAA tournament, the pandemic hit in full force. The wholesale cancellation of the NCAA tournament was unthinkable, but a lot of unthinkable things became unpleasant truths as the end of March ushered in our present reality.

For teams like South Carolina, the sudden end of the season meant that an outstanding year ended with no national title. The Gamecocks concluded the season as the consensus #1 team and would have been the overall top seed and a favorite in the NCAA tournament. Deprived of the opportunity to earn a title on the court, the Gamecocks hung a banner for finishing the season ranked on top. That was good enough for football teams until the BCS, and not many teams had a better case than South Carolina as the nation’s best squad last season. For Georgia, the cancellation of the NCAA tournament was a reprieve. The program had never missed consecutive NCAA tournaments, and that fate was all but assured after another lackluster season. The program faced the humbling decision of accepting a WNIT bid and reconsidering their prideful policy of NCAA-or-nothing. LSU was likely headed for its first NCAA tournament since 2017, and that would have been an important turnaround for Nikki Fargas.

A 2021 season wasn’t always a given, and getting back to Greenville has been a bumpy ride for several programs. Some won’t make it at all – Vanderbilt opted out of the season in January. The standings show a range of 12 to 16 conference games played by each team with COVID and weather-related cancellations affecting nearly everyone’s schedule. That’s raised questions about everything from NCAA tournament eligibility to conference tournament seeding, and of course that’s not only an SEC problem. Even when games could be played, depleted rosters and the occasional absence of key players led to some unpredictable results that affected the standings.

What was normal and predictable was the 2021 regular season coming down to the final day. All four of the top seeds and the conference title were undecided entering Sunday. Texas A&M beat South Carolina in a battle of national top 5 programs to earn their first SEC regular season title. Tennessee easily handled Auburn to claim the #3 seed. While Georgia pulled away from pesky Florida, Kentucky lost its second game of the season to an improving Ole Miss team. The Kentucky loss knocked them out of the top four and moved Ole Miss safely out of Wednesday’s play-in game. Arkansas out-scored Alabama to settle the #6 and #7 seeds. Much of this season has been that competitive, and that could make for one of the more entertaining tournaments in years even if attendance will be limited.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday: Bye
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. FLA/AUB/UK: ~1:15 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 4:00 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) Texas A&M (22-1, 13-1) (LY-4th, PS-3rd): It’s not quite another example of the Ewing Theory: few expected A&M to drop that far without Chennedy Carter. An experienced and successful group of players returned, and they were selected third in the preseason poll. The 2021 Aggies have proven to be a well-rounded team with strengths at most positions, and they don’t have to rely on a prolific scorer like Carter. Gary Blair’s stamp is all over this team. They’re fundamentally sound, rebound and defend well, and attack the basket rather than stand around the three-point line. A&M has earned a reputation, like their coach, for not being flashy or exciting, but that’s only if style points matter more to you than winning. The Aggies understand what they do well, play to their strengths, and have few weaknesses to exploit. That style allowed them to remain in the background for much of the season both in the SEC and nationally, but that’s over. They enter the postseason under a glaring spotlight as SEC champs and a likely NCAA #1 seed.

A&M’s stat sheet is a study in balance and roles. Five players average between 9.2 and 13.2 points per game. Rebounds and assists are shared. The Aggies shoot almost half the three-pointers that their opponents attempt, but with a percentage over 39% they make those outside attempts count. Leading scorer Aaliyah Wilson has had a long journey coming back from a season-ending injury in 2019. She was primarily a reserve a year ago and has stepped up as a senior to be among the team’s top three in scoring, rebounding, assists, steal, and blocks. N’dea Jones averages a double-double and has pulled down 71 offensive rebounds this year. Guard Kayla Wells has only hit 13 three-pointers this year but is much more dangerous attacking the basket. Ciera Johnson is a true post who can do a lot of the dirty work inside on both ends. Jordan Nixon is the lone non-senior starter but is still an on-court leader. Destiny Pitts comes off the bench and has hit over 40% of the team’s three-pointers. Everyone brings something to the table, and the pieces fit together.

The Aggies have been in enough close games to look like a possible upset candidate in Greenville, but they’ve been dealing with that disrespect all season. They continue to find ways to win. A quarterfinal rematch against LSU, their sole loss, could be interesting, and everyone is anticipating a finals rematch with South Carolina. Will things be different now that the Aggies are the hunted? A lot can happen before we get to Sunday, but A&M has already done more than enough to earn respect as the SEC regular season champion and one of the best teams in the nation.

2) South Carolina (19-4, 14-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): The Gamecocks became the national title favorite a year ago by blending two senior leaders with the nation’s top recruiting class. Those freshmen are now veterans and form the core of the Gamecock team. Aliyah Boston averages a double-double and is a force on both ends of the court whether shooting, rebounding, or blocking shots. She’s extended her range beyond the arc and can deftly pass out of a double-team. Guard Zia Cooke leads the team in scoring and can hit from anywhere on the court. Speedy junior Destanni Henderson brought frenzied energy to the point guard position. Dawn Staley often sticks to a rotation of seven with Laeticia Amihere and Lele Grissett providing most of the depth.

But South Carolina hasn’t been as dominant as they were a season ago. Boston can have moments of dominance but rarely carries games from end to end. They’re extremely good at getting transition baskets, but they are prone to scoring droughts if forced to play extended stretches in their halfcourt offense. They’ve scored an average of 57 points in their four losses, and even layups can be tough to come by. Tennessee was able to match South Carolina’s length and physicality, and Texas A&M was able to control tempo and halt the South Carolina transition offense. The Gamecocks have had to replace key players several times during their time atop the conference, but the departure of point guard Ty Harris has been underrated both from a production and leadership standpoint.

Still, this is a team with a championship pedigree loaded with talent. With the tournament in their home state, it’s tempting to consider the Gamecocks the favorites to win the tournament. To do so, they’ll likely have to face the two teams that handed them their SEC losses. Those losses were no flukes and exposed some very real issues with this South Carolina team.

3) Tennessee (15-6, 9-4) (LY-6th, PS-6th): The Lady Vols haven’t reached the SEC semifinals since 2016. The Lady Vols haven’t played for an SEC tournament title or been a top four seed since 2015. Kellie Harper’s second season has the program back in more familiar territory. Tennessee ended South Carolina’s 31-game SEC winning streak and handled a very good Indiana team. They took UConn down to the final minute. They did drop four SEC games, but all of those losses were to top five seeds. The Lady Vols avoided the inexplicable losses to teams closer to the bottom of the standings that marked the past couple of seasons. With a double-bye and a win over South Carolina already on the books, no one would be surprised to see Tennessee make a run into Sunday.

The Lady Vols have impressive size across the board and use that length to their advantage rebounding and on the defensive end. Senior guard Rennia Davis is a classic Lady Vol leader who can take over a game. The story of the season though might be the emergence of wing Rae Burrell as the team’s leading scorer. Burrell played well in the tournament last season and now commands as much defensive attention as Davis. But Davis and Burrell are the only two Lady Vols averaging double-figures. Tamari Key and Kasiyahna Kushkituah give Tennessee an inside presence but are stronger on the defensive end and on the glass. Jordan Horston has built on a nice freshman season but has struggled with consistency. Tennessee has to get good production from a third player as they did when Horston scored 12 in the upset of South Carolina. Four Lady Vols scored in double figures when they knocked off Arkansas earlier in the year, and they’ll need that kind of output if the teams meet again in the quarterfinals.

4) Georgia (18-5, 10-5) (LY-9th, PS-9th): As a highly-rated 2017 signing class matured into this year’s senior class, it was reasonable to expect a payoff season. But the pieces hadn’t quite come together after three years, and a repeat of last season’s ninth-place finish was the preseason prediction. Exceeding that expectation was critical for Joni Taylor as the program sought its first NCAA tournament bid since 2018. Fortunately the program did blow past those expectations, and Georgia has the second top-four finish in Taylor’s six seasons at the helm. The improvement has been marginal: Georgia’s three wins over ranked opponents came by a total of five points, and another win came in overtime at Alabama. A few points the other way would have Georgia down around that #9 seed, but you can play that game with the record of many teams. Georgia made the plays to win those close games, and they overcame decades of futility in doing so. Georgia’s win at Tennessee was their first since the 1996, and their season sweep of the Lady Vols was their first since 1985.

The improvement goes hand-in-hand with the health of guard Que Morrison. Morrison has struggled with injuries since her sophomore season, but she’s managed a full season as one of the SEC’s best defenders. With increased stamina and confidence, Morrison’s offense has come along also. Fellow seniors Gabby Connally, Jenna Staiti, and Maya Caldwell have all had important roles and contributions to Georgia’s success. Staiti is among the SEC’s leader in blocks, and any of the four seniors are capable of scoring 20+. UConn transfer Mikayla Coombs and freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker have been sparks off the bench. Depth has been a strength this year, and Taylor has reached far down the bench for big minutes in key games.

Georgia remains one of the league’s top defenses. Morrison can often lock down the opponent’s best scorer, Staiti can protect the rim, and Coombs resembles a defensive back taking errant passes back the other way. Georgia is excellent at creating turnovers and transition offense. Halfcourt offense has been more inconsistent, and the team is often its worst enemy. Even the seniors have struggled with turnovers, many of them unforced. Four or five players can do damage from outside, but there have been games in which perimeter production has been ice-cold. Georgia is at its best with Connally and at least one other player scoring from outside. With the defense extended, Staiti has often been unstoppable inside. Foul trouble has sometimes disrupted Taylor’s substitution patterns. Morrison can be aggressive with her defense, and Staiti has to be careful going for blocked shots or hedging high ball screens.

To avoid an early exit, Georgia will likely have to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats won in Athens less than a week ago. The Lady Dogs had 17 turnovers, shot 3-18 from outside, got just 5 bench points, and Staiti and Morrison both sat during the first half with foul trouble. Kentucky star Rhyne Howard went off for 27 points on 10-16 shooting. Georgia should relish the thought of a rematch, but they’ll need a much better effort on both ends of the court. The Lady Dogs are looking for their first semifinal appearance since 2018, and a high NCAA tournament seed might depend on it.

5) Kentucky (16-7, 9-6) (LY-3rd, PS-2nd): The Wildcats were rocked by the sudden retirement of successful coach Matthew Mitchell in November. Assistant Kyra Elzy, since promoted to head coach, has done a fine job holding things together and maintaining Kentucky’s usual position among the top half of the SEC. Her job is made easier by the presence of player-of-the-year candidate Rhyne Howard. Howard has been the defensive focus of opponents for three seasons, but it hasn’t mattered. She remains the league’s best and most consistent scorer and has frequently put the team on her back. But the attention paid to Howard has opened things up for teammates. Explosive 5’5″ point guard Chasity Patterson averages around 13 PPG, and forward Dre’una Edwards cleans up inside. Elzy’s team continues to play the tight press defense that became Mitchell’s trademark, and that approach has led to wins over Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee. A season sweep by Ole Miss showed that the Cats need production from more than just Howard and Patterson, and those contributions from the rest of the roster will determine how far Kentucky can advance.

6) Arkansas (19-7, 9-6) (LY-5th, PS-4th): After a strong 2020 season and deep run in the 2019 SEC tournament, Arkansas won’t catch anyone sleeping anymore. That might be to their detriment. The fearless Hogs scheduled – and won! – high-profile nonconference games against Baylor and UConn, but SEC teams have been more prepared for the up-tempo offensive onslaught of the Razorbacks that we’ve seen for the past three seasons. Seven seniors enter their final postseason leading a team confident that it can out-score anyone. Chelsea Dungee leads the team in scoring at 22.2 PPG, but this is a multi-pronged attack. Dungee, Amber Ramirez, Destiny Slocum, and Makayla Daniels have each attempted at least 113 three-pointers, and all four hit at least 37% of those attempts. Interior play has been a tag-team of Taylah Thomas and Erynn Barnum, but there’s no mistake that the offense flows through its guards. Arkansas took it on the chin early in the SEC season with a 2-5 start, but they enter the SEC tournament winners of 7 of their last 8 with the sole loss a 2-point setback at Texas A&M. They’ve been mortal away from home with a 7-6 record outside of the state. Teams that have been able to beat Arkansas have found a way to slow down an offense that prefers to be scoring around 90 points per game. A possible quarterfinal showdown with Tennessee could be one of Friday’s most anticipated games.

7) Alabama (15-8, 8-8) (LY-8th, PS-8th): A 7th-place finish on the heels of an 8th-place finish a year ago establishes Alabama firmly in the middle of the pack. That’s a step up from a couple of years ago, and this year it should be enough to get the program back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. They’re lead by a trio of accomplished seniors. Jasmine Walker, Jordan Lewis, and Ariyah Copeland account for 68% of the team’s scoring. A sweep of Mississippi State and a win over LSU highlight their accomplishments, but they’ve dropped two in a row to end the regular season. Copeland and Walker are formidable inside players capable of scoring and rebounding, but they need more consistent outside play and ballhandling to advance. Missouri’s new-found outside shooting success could tax Alabama’s ability to keep up.

8) LSU (8-12, 6-8) (LY-7th, PS-7th): LSU seemed to be a lock for the lost NCAA tournament of 2020, but they’re likely back on the outside this year. That’s disappointing for a team, like Georgia, that was counting on a strong senior class to pay off. Khayla Pointer leads the team with over 16 PPG. Faustine Aifuwa and Awa Trasi are physical post players, and Jailin Cherry has become a dangerous scorer later in the season. The Tigers had a very poor nonconference showing as they were slow to find an identity. Things improved as soon as the Tigers started SEC play, but they have been on the wrong end of some very close games. The month of January shows how tight things have been for LSU: a 5-3 record with two overtime games and the rest decided by no more than 8 points. LSU has wins over Texas A&M and Georgia and lost to Tennessee and South Carolina by a combined 5 points. A bad loss to Florida might have put the Tigers in a position to have to win the tournament or at least reach the finals in order to have a postseason. This is a team that has the experience, poise, and talent to do that, but it’s a very tall order.

9) Mississippi State (10-8, 5-7) (LY-2nd, PS-5th): The Bulldogs had a rougher transition with their new coach than Kentucky. Vic Schaefer departed for Texas, and Nikki McCray-Penson inherited a team with some talent but which was also on the backside of the program’s glory years. Few programs (other than Vanderbilt of course) were disrupted as much as MSU this year. The Bulldogs only played 18 games overall and just 12 SEC games. The dearth of games left them few opportunities to notch quality wins. They defeated Georgia, LSU, and…not many other teams of note. MSU is just 2-3 since the beginning of February, but the latest bracket projections still have them in the field. Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter return to provide an impressive 1-2 punch, but the supporting cast hasn’t been as strong as it’s been in recent seasons. The Bulldogs can be dangerous if they get outside production from Aliyah Matharu or Myah Taylor.

10) Missouri (9-10, 5-9) (LY-11th, PS-10th): During their peak years in the mid-2010s, Missouri lapped the field in the number of three-pointers attempted. That identity changed last year as the program began to build around forward Aijha Blackwell. Blackwell remains a force, but the Tigers began to reestablish their dominance from outside towards the end of this year. They’ve attempted at least 20 three-pointers in four of their last five games and at least 28 three-pointers in each of their final three games. Five Tigers have attempted at least 50 three-pointers this year, and all five are hitting at least 30% from outside. Blackwell’s sophomore classmate Hayley Frank leads the charge shooting almost 45% on 78 three-point attempts. You still need a post presence, and LaDazhia Wilson has thrived as defenses are forced to extend beyond the arc. Mizzou is a dangerous offensive team that, like Arkansas, can simply shoot an opponent out of the building as they did at Mississippi State in the regular season finale. They’re not quite at Arkansas’s level though, and more athletic teams have found ways to outscore them.

11) Ole Miss (10-10, 4-10) (LY-14th, PS-11th): It might seem odd to highlight a four-win team as one of the SEC’s most improved, but Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s squad has taken a step forward. Ole Miss was winless in the SEC a year ago but had several close losses. Coach Yo hit the recruiting trail, enticed a McDonald’s All-American to come to Oxford, and Ole Miss now packs a punch. They got a breakthrough win against Kentucky and beat a good Alabama team on the road, and they’ve been competitive in many more games than not. They proved the win over Kentucky was no fluke by beating the Wildcats again on the last day of the season to avoid the play-in game. Shakira Austin has emerged as a tough inside presence who has scored 20+ points against some of the SEC’s best defenses. Georgia transfer Donnetta Johnson has become the team’s second-leading scorer. Freshman Madison Scott is averaging over 10 PPG and is a legitimate freshman of the year candidate. There are still holes, and they’re still gaining experience as one of the nation’s youngest teams. You get a sense though that things are headed in the right direction, and it should be fun watching this team grow over the next few seasons.

12) Florida (10-12, 3-11) (LY-10th, PS-12th): Florida took a step back this year but were still competitive in most SEC games thanks to a productive offense. A solid win at LSU looked to be a breakthrough, but a day later they announced the loss of their leading scorer. Lavender Briggs built on an impressive freshman campaign and was challenging for the conference scoring title before a nagging injury ended her season. To their credit, Florida responded with tough games against Kentucky and Alabama and led Georgia at halftime, but there wasn’t enough in the tank to come away with wins. Guard Kiki Smith has stepped up to lead the offensive attack and isn’t far off Briggs’ average, and the rest of the Nina Rickards and Danielle Rainey are capable of big nights.

13) Auburn (5-18, 0-15) (LY-13th, PS-14th): The Tigers languish near the bottom of the standings for the second year in a row, and that can’t be good news for coach Terri Williams-Flournoy. This once-proud program went winless in conference play, but they feature one of the SEC’s best players. Senior Unique Thompson easily averages a double-double and is among the nation’s best rebounders. She is the kind of consistent high-producer that should have a long pro career. Unfortunately the surrounding cast hasn’t been up to par. Baylor transfer Honesty Scott-Grayson has been a nice addition and quickly became the team’s second-leading scorer. After that duo production has been spotty. Auburn’s trapping defense causes opponents to turn it over around 18 times per game, but Auburn has struggled to turn those turnovers into points. Thompson deserves a moment of glory as her Auburn career comes to an end. Can it come in the tournament?

14) Vanderbilt (4-4, 0-3) (LY-12th, PS-13th): We hardly knew them. Vandy’s first three games were canceled, and two more around Christmas were canceled. The Commodores managed five nonconference games and three SEC games before deciding to opt out of the rest of the season. COVID issues made it impossible to get much of a read on this team, but they saved their best for last: what was left of their roster nearly upset Kentucky. Vanderbilt made the smallest bit of progress last year with four SEC wins, but not much was expected of them this year. This would have been Stephanie White’s fifth season at the helm with the program still firmly in the SEC basement.


Post Georgia football’s Long Span

Monday February 15, 2021

Every so often we see a story that reminds us how events that seem well in the distant past are connected by only a lifetime or two. John Tyler, born in 1790 and president from 1841 to 1845 still has a living grandchild. The last person collecting a Civil War pension from the United States government passed away only last year.

Georgia football might have its own “Great Span” frame of reference: entering Kirby Smart’s sixth season, there are still players on the roster who were recruited by and even committed to Mark Richt. The program confirmed on Wednesday that receiver Demetris Robertson and defensive lineman Julian Rochester will return for a sixth season of eligibility.

Due to the pandemic, the NCAA offered seniors a one-time waiver that allows them to essentially replay their senior season. Four core senior members of the UGA softball team, which begins its 2021 season this weekend, elected to return and will provide a big lift to that team. Georgia football also had several seniors who hadn’t announced their future plans and were candidates to return. Robertson and Rochester are the two from that group who will remain with the program for an additional season.

Robertson was rated as the nation’s #8 prospect by Rivals for the 2016 class. The Savannah native was recruited by both Richt and Kirby Smart and most every other program. He signed with Cal in February 2016. Robertson played one full season at Cal, but he received a medical redshirt in 2017 after an injury early in the season. He announced his decision to transfer home to Georgia before the 2018 season and was immediately eligible.

Rochester’s story goes back even further. The McEachern standout committed to Georgia on May 29, 2015, making him the last remaining player on the roster who committed to Mark Richt. The assistant coaches credited with his recruitment were Kevin Sherrer and Tracy Rocker. Kirby Smart honored Rochester’s offer, and Rochester signed as part of Smart’s first class in 2016. He will enter his sixth season at 24 years of age. Rochester earned playing time early at Georgia, but injuries have slowed his rise up the depth chart. A healthy Rochester could provide some quality depth along the interior of Georgia’s defensive line.


Post 2021 SEC schedule released – hopefully for the last time

Friday January 29, 2021

With much fanfare, the SEC released its 2021 football schedule on Wednesday. We already knew the opponents, and just the dates were left to be filled in. Unfortunately the SEC is reverting to the eight-game conference slate, so this is a return to a fairly typical schedule and the previous SEC West rotation. After the scheduling chaos of last season, it has to be said that we’re still not out of the pandemic woods. We hope things are to a point where all games get played as scheduled, but a lot has to happen over the next six months. We can feel pretty certain about the SEC’s readiness, but playing a complete schedule depends on a stable enough situation that teams across the country, including FCS schools like Charleston Southern, can field and travel full squads. So here’s the schedule – as it is now:

Sept. 4: Clemson (Charlotte)
Sept. 11: vs. UAB
Sept. 18: vs. South Carolina
Sept. 25: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 2: vs. Arkansas
Oct. 9: at Auburn
Oct. 16: vs. Kentucky
Oct. 23: BYE
Oct. 30: Florida (Jacksonville)
Nov. 6: vs. Missouri
Nov. 13: at Tennessee
Nov. 20: vs. Charleston Southern
Nov. 27: at Georgia Tech

The opener against Clemson will be one of the bigger nonconference games in the nation in 2021. There will be no shortage of hype or analysis of that game, and it will set the tone for both programs. A win by either team arguably sets them up as a playoff favorite, and a loss means they’ll have to run the table. There will be plenty more to say over the next seven months.

What stands out about the rest of the schedule is how many new coaches Georgia will face. Six of Georgia’s eight SEC opponents will have first- or second-year head coaches. All three of Georgia’s SEC road games will be against first-year coaches. That doesn’t mean the games are gimmes – they’re still SEC road games, and while these coaches might be new at their current gig they’re not inexperienced nor new to big-time football.

It’s also glaring that the best games on the schedule are away from Athens. There are two neutral site games, and Auburn, Tennessee, and Tech are all on the road. It says a lot about the quality of the home schedule when the highlights are the return of Sam Pittman and Shane Beamer, the whole Muschamp storyline in week 3, and a possible trap game against a decent Missouri team. I’m doubtful that this year turns into 2017 when a lightweight home schedule became a little interesting. We’re in that home scheduling lull between Notre Dame in 2019 and some fun home-and-homes later this decade.

After Clemson, the biggest tests left on the schedule are anyone’s guess. At this point it looks as if Georgia will be favored in every game after the opener, but there’s often a team or two that surprises and becomes a much more difficult challenge than we expected. It’s tough to imagine South Carolina or Vanderbilt getting their acts together that early in the season. Tennessee might have some things figured out by November, but there’s so much to rebuild there. It’s possible that Bo Nix thrives under new management, and a trip to Auburn is rarely routine. Missouri was respectable with a first-year coach and QB, and they will be a popular pick to finish in the top half of the SEC East. Georgia won’t have much time to dwell on whatever happens in Jacksonville. Of course we underestimate Florida at our peril. They probably won’t be the team they were last season, but you can’t imagine Georgia being an SEC or national contender without winning that game.


Post Nature, nurture, and elite production

Friday January 15, 2021

As I watched Alabama dominate the 2020 college football season, what stuck with me was how consistently they got peak performance from their best players. What’s relevant to Georgia isn’t that Alabama had good players. Georgia does as well. It’s how Alabama was able to get Heisman-quality performance out of those players. Waddle, Smith, Harris, and Jones were all 4* and 5* Rivals prospects, but only Harris was a top 10 prospect. We shouldn’t be surprised that a highly-rated prospect became a future top draft pick, but how were so many able to do it at one place? Is there anything we can take from that to see if Georgia can do something similar with their own group of highly-rated skill players?

We know that the Georgia offense will be loaded with really good players. J.T. Daniels made an obvious impact and raised Georgia’s offensive SP+ ranking from around 40 to a final ranking of #21 in the span of four games. The tailback room will be five-deep with unique skill sets that will allow Georgia to do everything from pound between the tackles to exploit mismatches with receivers coming out of the backfield. Capable receivers emerged to make defenses pay for keying on George Pickens, and all of them will return plus Dominick Blaylock. The entire offensive line that started the Peach Bowl is back, and there is enough promising talent in the pipeline that any of those starters could be pushed.

All of that returning talent with a full (and hopefully somewhat-normal) offseason absorbing Todd Monken’s system should have us excited. But is this talent enough for UGA to be the next team whose offense becomes the talk of college football en route to the playoffs? We know that success is the combination of talent, player development, and scheme. Georgia addressed its deficient scheme after the 2019 season, and we saw some progress during the 2020 season even without the benefit of a typical offseason installation. It’s reasonable to expect continued progress with so many key pieces slated to return in 2021. Talent also deserves some scrutiny though.

When we look at the LSU and Alabama success stories, we see the union of modern pass-favoring schemes and great and even elite talent. We’ve seen the last two titles won by outrageously productive offenses that featured first-round talent at just about every position. The distinction between “great”, “elite”, and “really good” might seem like meaningless mush, but there is a difference. Does Georgia’s talent really stack up with those LSU and Alabama teams? Not many will match Alabama. There were three Heisman contenders with another injured midseason. Those skill players were aided by the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. LSU had a similar spread of talent. They had the Heisman winner at QB, a first-round pick at tailback and WR and another receiver who will be a 2021 first rounder. Three offensive linemen were drafted in the first four rounds with another two signing free agent deals.

None of Georgia returning offensive players for 2021 were named to the 2020 All-SEC teams. That doesn’t mean they stink; we know better than that. It also doesn’t mean they can’t make the leap during the offseason. You could make the case that J.T. Daniels is held in higher regard now than Joe Burrow was before his final season. You can argue that postseason honors are partially the product of system, team success, or reputation, but that’s a tougher argument with draft picks. And as much as we fans appreciate the notion of unfinished business for the returning players, we recognize that the expectation of a first or second round pick would have ended the business at Georgia for just about any player.

Being shut out of the All-SEC teams isn’t a sign of overrated talent or poor prospects for 2021. Georgia was also without a player on the 2016 postseason All-SEC teams. The following season – the second year in a new offensive system – produced multiple draft picks at tailback, receiver, and offensive line and a top 5 offense despite a true freshman at quarterback.

The expectations for the offense rise from a more general impatience: Georgia has recruited as well as just about anyone over the past four years, and we’re anxious to see the payoff. The talent level is enough to overwhelm most opponents and just about ensure a top 10 finish – something we shouldn’t take for granted. While we learned this season to appreciate the hard work that goes into even winning the division, the outlook for the program is still focused on SEC titles, playoff appearances, and the national title. If Georgia’s talent is what we claim it is, those objectives should be within reach.


Post That’s a wrap

Wednesday December 16, 2020

Georgia’s 2020 regular season is over. Vanderbilt announced on Monday that they’d be unable to field a team on Saturday, and Georgia’s attempts to find a replacement game came up empty.

“While we conducted our due diligence in finding a replacement game, we were unable to make it happen,” said UGA J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics Greg McGarity. “We now focus on our upcoming Bowl game. We are also working on alternative ways to honor our senior class, who deserve the opportunity to be celebrated as one of the most prolific classes in University of Georgia history.”

It’s frustrating – Georgia is one of a handful of SEC schools who won’t complete their 10-game schedule, and at no time did the program have to shut down or pull itself out of a game. But it’s 2020, and we’ve been aware from the start that nothing was guaranteed and that every game played should be cherished. It’s especially tough for Georgia as a team that was just hitting a good stride. Without a conference title game to play, the Vanderbilt game would have been one more showcase for a revitalized offense. Other teams aren’t in such a good position right now, and more than a few are just ready to call it quits on this difficult year. It’s tough to blame them.

Of course the biggest consequence of this cancellation is that Georgia won’t be able to honor its seniors in a final home game. Bulldog fans will have only seen three home games in 2020 and just one since early October. McGarity promises to “work on alternative ways to honor our senior class,” but it’s going to be difficult to gather them all back inside Sanford Stadium once NFL draft preparations begin. Perhaps something can be worked out at the bowl, especially if Georgia plays in Atlanta. (It being 2020 and all, I guess we should add a qualifier for the bowl game being played too.)

This development should come as a warning for Georgia’s winter sports that are underway or preparing to play. It’s not a given that we’ll see a complete basketball or gymnastics season. Several basketball programs have already canceled games or eliminated the rest of their nonconference slates altogether. Those programs should make plans to honor seniors and do other traditional end-of-year activities early in the season.


Post Georgia 49 – Missouri 14: Balance and force

Tuesday December 15, 2020

I’m sure it’s happened before, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen a game in which the Georgia offense produced:

  • A 300-yard passer
  • A 100-yard receiver
  • Two 100-yard tailbacks
  • Four different tailbacks with touchdowns

To be fair, J.T. Daniels didn’t exactly get to 300 yards – 299 will have to do. Since J.T. Daniels took over at quarterback, we’ve seen a game in which the passing attack thrived while the rushing output didn’t break double-digits. We’ve seen the running game come to life at the expense of a less-prolific passing game. Observers maybe still not quite sure of the offense’s transformation wanted to see it all put together. This game was what they were waiting to see. Georgia’s full arsenal of passing and rushing weapons was on display, and a playcaller that knew how to make the most of those weapons unleashed them. Mississippi State and South Carolina were depleted defenses, and it could be argued that Georgia took advantage of some exceptional absences. Missouri was a more respectable defense with a top 40 SP+ ranking and a rush defense comparable to a team like Auburn.

I mentioned before the season that one of the biggest challenges in 2020 was “getting their ass ready to play,” to use Kirby Smart’s warning before the 2019 South Carolina loss. With an early road kickoff, bad weather, and the season’s goals out of reach, many previews of the game questioned Georgia’s mindset against a motivated Missouri team on a bit of a roll. That doubt seemed to be put to rest early as Georgia jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. But Missouri tested Georgia’s composure with a scoring drive of their own and then capitalized on a rare Georgia special teams miscue.

Georgia’s quick start was halted as Missouri’s defense turned up the pressure in the second quarter. This pressure suffocated the Georgia running game and began to affect Daniels. Following Missouri’s first touchdown, Daniels went on a 3-for-10 stretch and was sacked twice (and nearly a third time). The pivotal play came on a 3rd and 10 with just over a minute left in the half. Rather than continue with a stationary pocket, Daniels was rolled out to the right, giving him time he hadn’t had in a while. He found Kearis Jackson along the sideline for a first down, and that completion was the first of four straight to end the half which allowed the Dawgs to retake the lead going into the half.

That drive to end the half reignited the Georgia offense, and it began a 17-minute stretch of game during which Georgia scored a total of 35 unanswered points on five consecutive drives. Better protection and offensive line play in the third quarter led to explosive running and passing plays. On those five drives alone, Georgia had four runs of 10+ yards and five completions longer than 20 yards, and the first three touchdowns came on plays of 36, 31, and 43 yards. By the start of the 4th quarter the game was in hand, and there was ample time to empty the bench.

The offense’s explosive game shouldn’t overshadow the most complete game by the Georgia defense since the Auburn game. Missouri came into the game on a hot streak with 91 points over their past two games. The Tigers had settled on young but effective quarterback and had found success with an effective, if not explosive, short passing game. The backfield featured Larry Rountree, one of the most prolific and versatile backs in program history. Rountree had rushed for 345 yards in the past two games. Georgia has faced better offenses this year, but maybe only Alabama has done a better job of testing defenses with both the run and the pass.

Unlike Georgia, Missouri was unable to use their balance to strain the defense. Thanks in part to the return of Jordan Davis, Georgia was able to limit Rountree to an inconsequential 16 yards on 14 carries. That success against the run didn’t open up many receivers for Connor Bazelak. Without a credible downfield threat, Bazelak only managed 5 yards per attempt. Mizzou had no runs longer than 9 yards and only three completions longer than 20 yards including the receiver pass. Without many explosive plays, the Tigers weren’t able to sustain drives and generate many scoring chances, and they had just one drive longer than 30 yards. While the Georgia offense was stretching its legs, Missouri managed just 69 yards of second half offense.

It wasn’t a great day for special teams – there was a punt blocked, a punt muffed, and a missed field goal. Those were some of the bigger blemishes on a game that was nearly complete in other phases. The team emphatically answered any questions and doubts about its focus, desire, and preparation, and it heads back home on as big of a late-season roll as we’ve seen since 2012 or even 2007. It’s unfortunate that it took most of the season before the offense began to realize the payoffs from the offseason moves and additions, but it’s a much better place to be in than last season when the need to start over again was sadly obvious. Georgia has a system that works, the players to make it work, and the job of the offseason is making sure those pieces stay in place.

  • One of the highlights of the second half was the reception Daijun Edwards received from his fellow backs after scoring to start the fourth quarter. There might not be a surefire first round talent among the group, but all five (including Milton) bring something to the table.
  • Perhaps the most impressive thing we saw from the tailbacks across the board was patience. McIntosh and White had big runs down the left side as they allowed the blocking to arrange itself and then took off.
  • The passes to Washington got people talking about the tight ends, but they also had some impressive blocking. Watch the touchdown runs by White and Cook, and you’ll see multiple tight ends clearing the way.
  • One of the next steps for the offense is efficiency. It’s great that Daniels has been effective on third down, and he was again in this game, but it’s playing with fire to be in so many 3rd-and-long situations.
  • Pickens has had a good run with 16 receptions, 238 yards, and 3 TD since Daniels took over. He’s getting more one-on-one matchups as receivers like Jackson and Burton emerge. When Pickens does draw double coverage, you end up with something like a wide-open middle of the field for Cook. Pick your poison.
  • Yes, everyone knows you can take a shot downfield when you have a free play from a pending offsides penalty. It’s another thing to execute it. No one gave up on the play, Pickens took off, and Daniels put the ball where his star receiver could do his thing.
  • I’ll talk about it every time it happens – it doesn’t get much better than bookending halftime with scores. Georgia turned a tie game into a 28-14 lead before Missouri had a meaningful possession. Good clock management at the end of the first half helped make that possible.
  • Lewis Cine was victimized on Missouri’s biggest pass play of the game, but his value as a tackler has only grown this season. Offseason improvement in pass defense should turn him into a very good safety. Latavious Brini saw far more time than usual after Christopher Smith was dinged up. Missouri couldn’t take advantage of Brini, and the junior actually had a good game and stepped up nicely. Brini had one impressive play in particular where he sprinted in from a deep safety position to stop a jet sweep before it turned upfield. His 1.5 tackles for loss were second on the team behind only Malik Herring.
  • The return of Jordan Davis was a boon for other defenders like Herring. Georgia had only a single sack due to Missouri’s quick release passes, but they ate up the running game and made Bazelak uncomfortable. Over 15% of Georgia’s tackles resulted in a loss.

Post McGarity’s misguided frustration

Sunday December 6, 2020

There’s good reason to be frustrated by Friday’s decision to postpone the Vanderbilt game. Vanderbilt is one of many SEC programs dealing with player shortages due to a combination of COVID testing, tracing, and opt-outs. Other programs, including Kentucky, Mississippi State, and South Carolina recently fielded teams with fewer than 50 scholarship players in order to finish out their seasons. This has been a difficult season requiring a lot of creativity, patience, and flexibility. Three months ago the prospect of even having a season was in doubt, and we’re on the verge of possibly completing a reconfigured ten-game schedule.

Timing was the biggest issue with Vanderbilt’s inability to play. This was to be Georgia’s Senior Day, and a group of seniors who might leave as the program’s winningest deserve their moment. I truly hope they get that recognition on the 19th. The late announcement also meant that many families of these seniors had already left for Athens. Travel during the pandemic is already stressful enough, and a family like Mark Webb’s had to make an unnecessary trip from Philadelphia. Had the circumstances changed all that much from Wednesday to Friday when an earlier announcement might have allowed fans and family members to alter their plans? I get the desire to postpone the announcement as long as possible to allow for every possible chance to play the game, but it wasn’t as if Vanderbilt suddenly discovered an outbreak on Thursday or Friday. There are questions about Vanderbilt’s ability or desire to field a team to finish out the season, and we’ll see whether they show for scheduled games with Tennessee and Georgia. If they can’t, hopefully we’ll get a little more notice this time.

Greg McGarity went a step further and directed his frustration at Vanderbilt and other unnamed schools he believes are not following COVID protocols.

“It’s just so frustrating when you have coaches and players and support staff that make significant sacrifices to stay safe, and they do so, and then they have no competitive benefit other than their health. We have shown the ability to stay healthy by being disciplined…We are an example of what can be done with discipline and a desire to play college football.”

I’m writing this post because McGarity’s statement reminded me of an unfortunate aspect of our national conversation this year. This is an easily-transmitted airborne respiratory virus. There is no moral vector to a virus, but that’s become a part of how we talk about it. When we learn of a positive test, an instinct is often to ask “what were they doing?”. We approach it as if contracting the virus is a consequence – if you get sick, you must have been doing something wrong. Deep down, it’s a way to assuage our own fear – if we can pin someone’s positive test on an activity that we avoid, we will remain safe. If you don’t get sick, your choices are validated.

Certainly some activities and behaviors are riskier than others, and some people even choose to flaunt that behavior. But we also know that there are plenty of people who try to “do everything right” who still contract the virus. There are states and communities whose leaders “follow the science” which have seen outbreaks every bit as bad as locations taking different approaches. There are of course risk mitigation strategies that we’re all familiar with, but there is no risk elimination. Even if we grant that McGarity and his fellow ADs put in place the most well-thought-out protocols and safety measures to protect the season, their plans rely on student-athletes exposed on a daily basis to fellow students, family members, and the local community. More schools than not have had players or coaches miss time due to testing or tracing results, and we’re glad that Georgia is an exception. There is a whole range of risk and probability, and we should be grateful when the numbers work out in our favor and prefer grace towards those with different outcomes.

McGarity should acknowledge that reality because he’s seen it within his own program. Football might have largely avoided COVID issues so far, but other Georgia programs have not. At least three Georgia head coaches have tested positive for the virus. The Georgia soccer team had to cancel its regular season finale due to COVID tests and tracing within the program, and it took a shorthanded roster to last month’s SEC Tournament. Were the protocols for the tennis, equestrian, and soccer teams different than they were for the football team? If Georgia football is an example to emulate because it has been spared, what does it say about these Georgia programs?


Post Issues and expectations for Georgia’s next athletic director

Wednesday December 2, 2020

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity announced his retirement this week, effective at the end of 2020. Senior Deputy Director of Athletics Josh Brooks will step in on an interim basis until McGarity’s successor takes the job. McGarity has served in the role since 2010 and has presided over a large increase in the department’s revenues and budget, and he’s overseen coaching changes in nearly all of Georgia’s major programs.

It’s possible that Georgia’s next athletic directory is already part of the organization – Brooks himself is expected to be a candidate. It might also be a man or woman with no ties to the school. Familiarity with certain candidates might bias us one way or the other, and it would be doing Georgia a disservice not to consider qualified outside candidates for a job that will surely attract attention from across the nation. How many lists did Dan Lanning or Todd Monken appear on before Kirby Smart selected them as coordinators? So rather than get bogged down in the pros and cons of name that might or might not exist on Georgia’s list, I’ll focus more on the issues waiting for the AD and what might be expected from the ideal candidate.

Maintaining the strengths: Before getting on with grandiose plans for the future, the next AD must identify and maintain the areas in which Georgia athletics is strong. That goes for personnel but also processes in areas like athletic performance, academic support, compliance, and financial responsibility. Georgia has largely avoided scandal under McGarity, though the 2014 NCAA reprimand of the swimming and diving program wasn’t a good look for anyone. It’s a low bar to expect character, transparency, and consideration of the student-athletes from an athletics administration, but have you looked around lately?

The bank account: Georgia’s reserve fund has been a point of contention for years, but that financial strength has allowed the athletic department to weather the pandemic without the cuts to personnel or programs that we’ve seen even at other P5 schools. The introduction of the Magill Society has been a success to the point that even that exclusive group of donors has been subdivided into still higher tiers of support. Private funds were successfully raised for three major facilities projects. We won’t pretend that these projects didn’t happen without some conflict, and hesitation to invest in the football program was a major friction point towards the end of the Mark Richt era. McGarity’s legacy must own that period too. The need for a healthy reserve has to be balanced against securing the resources Georgia’s programs need to be competitive. On the whole, the next AD will be starting on a firm financial footing.

Performance: You play to win the game, and on that front Georgia hasn’t been doing as well. Sure, football seems to be in great shape, and that ends the discussion for a lot of stakeholders. Other sports haven’t been doing as well, and that includes sports that have traditionally propped up Georgia’s all-sport ranking. The new AD won’t have long before there are decisions to make from the basketball programs on down. Even within successful programs like football, coaches and staff must be identified, retained, and compensated. An AD’s legacy is often shaped by the personnel decisions he or she makes, and it doesn’t just affect wins and losses. A series of poor hiring decisions can leave even SEC programs responsible for large buyouts and without financial flexibility.

Advocacy: Representing Georgia’s interests beyond the hedges is an important part of the athletic director’s job. Whether accurate or not, the perception is that McGarity was often too deferential and unwilling to stand against scheduling changes and other policies that affected Georgia. This is touchy – we see the outcomes, but we frequently don’t know the discussions that went on and options for alternatives. It wasn’t McGarity’s style to raise a stink in traditional or social media, and I suspect that’s what some critics would have preferred. How assertive will the next AD be with the conference and NCAA, and how visible will that advocacy be?

Leadership for change: Some major change could soon be coming to college athletics. Name / Likeness / Image (NIL) policies and laws that allow student-athletes to earn money are already being crafted and passed. More universal and permissive transfer policies are being discussed, and we could soon see a one-time transfer allowance. More importantly, 2020 has raised the profile of college athletes as agents for social change. How will the next AD position Georgia in these areas? Will Georgia be one of the driving forces at the forefront of change, or will it be dragged along? Support for initiatives like “Dawgs For Pups” and voting registration on campus was impressive this year, and the next AD should continue that support.

Facilities: McGarity completed or began several significant facilities projects, and those projects included several highly-visible (and arguably long-overdue) buildings. The indoor practice facility is the obvious example. The West Endzone project at Sanford Stadium addressed needs for recruiting and locker room space. The under-construction Butts-Mehre annex will provide room for the football program’s growing footprint. Stegeman Coliseum, Foley Field, and the tennis complex have seen or are undergoing significant renovations. It’s been an impressive investment in facilities that will benefit many of Georgia’s programs.

What’s left to do? That’s kind of the point. Seth Emerson and others have beat the drum for several years about the need for a more comprehensive master plan to serve as a vision going forward. Such a plan would provide a clearer vision to potential donors and guide future spending. As Emerson put it, the goal of a master plan “is not to go willy-nilly into the arms race and waste money.” We’ve seen Alabama take a step in this direction a couple of years ago with their $600 million facilities plan. Georgia will have different needs and priorities, but that’s the sort of focused vision that’s necessary in the next generation of facilities projects at Georgia.

Customer Experience: It’s likely that any facilities plan will include the crown jewel itself: Sanford Stadium. In the past a stadium project meant increased capacity. That’s no longer the case. Even before the pandemic, the growing appeal of watching from home was eating away at the demand to attend games. New stadium construction now focuses more on amenities rather than capacity, and renovations are following suit. Recent work on Bryant-Denny Stadium at Alabama resulted in a modest decrease in capacity. As the report notes, “Alabama’s shift to a slightly smaller capacity follows the trend of colleges pulling back from the arms race for the biggest while shifting to emphasize the premium experience.”

That “premium experience” is the watchword now. Georgia clumsily dipped its toe into the premium experience game last year with the Magill-only beer garden. It’s likely that any significant project at Sanford Stadium will include (if not exclusively) amenities aimed at enhancing the experience for high-dollar fans. That’s not meant to be cynical. If there’s a softness in the demand for stadium expansion, revenue growth is most likely to come from the top levels of donors, and keeping those donors happy will be a high priority. Any modern stadium or arena is built with that consideration in mind, and now renovation projects like Alabama’s are attempting to retrofit older stadiums with similar amenities.

But beyond that we know there are improvements to be made that can benefit all fans, and many of them don’t require construction equipment. Josh Brooks, McGarity’s interim replacement, spearheaded several of those improvements. Grab-and-go concessions has been a big improvement. We can also expect to see a deeper dive into paperless tickets and moving other elements of the game experience onto mobile devices. That’s the norm now for professional sports, and the pandemic has hastened a move towards a touchless experience. Brooks and McGarity have both been willing to listen to and engage with fan feedback. That’s to their credit and a good first step. We know all of the familiar complaints about Sanford Stadium from parking to bathrooms to crowded concourses to poor cell service. The next AD will hear about them too. Will there be action?


Post Georgia 45 – South Carolina 16: Return of the ground game

Tuesday December 1, 2020

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – Georgia easily handled a shorthanded opponent and took advantage of mismatches at several positions due to players that were injured or had opted out. But the situation was similar a week ago, and Georgia had to fight until the last possession against Mississippi State. Saturday’s much easier result against South Carolina is progress if only because of how Georgia took care of business this time. They took control of the game with 21 first quarter points, held off South Carolina’s attempt at a comeback, and closed the door in the second half.

If last week’s game was about the emergence of J.T. Daniels and the passing game, the win at South Carolina was about the resurgent running game. Mississippi State bottled up the Georgia rushing attack, but it didn’t take long for the Dawgs to show that things would be different in Columbia. An early seam pass to McKitty warned South Carolina about selling out to stop the run, and Georgia’s four-headed tailback position took over. Three of the four tailbacks had carries longer than 22 yards, and all four rushed for at least 77 yards. Edwards got most of his carries in the fourth quarter and was instrumental on Georgia’s final possession that consumed the last nine minutes of the game. The running game was bolstered by a much better performance from the offensive line – especially the interior of the line. Ben Cleveland was the SEC OL of the week, and Hill and Shaffer were much better. The line is still chasing consistency, but this was about as good as it gets.

Though the running game was dominant, fans still wanted to see whether J.T. Daniels’s debut was a fluke. He wasn’t asked to do nearly as much and completed 10 of 16 attempts for 139 yards. 71 of those 139 yards came on two long completions to McKitty and Arian Smith. Otherwise Georgia’s explosive plays came from the running game, and the pass was primarily used to move the chains. After spreading the ball around last week, only five Bulldogs caught passes against South Carolina, and for the first time in a while no tailbacks caught passes out of the backfield. They were a little busy running the ball.

Daniels played well and under control. His lone interception was no shame – just a nice play on a tipped pass that could have been caught. He had another pass in the second half that was a much more likely candidate for an interception, but fortunately that forced pass was dropped. Daniels picked a bad time to have his worst sequence of the game. Following a South Carolina touchdown, Georgia gave the ball right back on a three-and-out that featured two bad plays from the quarterback. First Daniels underthrew an open Burton on a sideline route. The play likely would have scored if Burton were hit in stride, but the ball fell harmlessly behind the receiver. On third down Daniels simply held the ball too long and took a sack. It was an issue we saw last week, and he’s still learning timing and decision-making.

So we’ve seen Georgia break 30 points in each of the past two games with unbalanced offense. Balance for its own sake isn’t the objective, but the next step is for the offense is to put these pieces together in more of a cohesive attack. We know the running plays are there, and now we know the elements of a big passing game are in place. There won’t be much of a test until the Missouri game is rescheduled, but the Vanderbilt game should be a chance for continued progress and not a perfunctory effort to run out the clock.

Georgia’s defense, and its coaches, had to feel more comfortable going against South Carolina’s offense after playing the unconventional Mississippi State offense a week earlier. We know that Mike Bobo is a capable coach of offense, but his scheme is nothing unfamiliar and more along the lines of what Kirby Smart has made a career out of defending. Take away some of South Carolina’s top receivers, and the Bulldog defense felt a lot more at home against a physical run-based Gamecock offense. Kevin Harris, the SEC’s leading rusher, was limited to 53 yards and 3.1 yards per carry. Dual-threat QB Luke Doty carried the ball 15 times (including sacks) and ended up with a net of -15 yards. Without having to respect South Carolina’s deep threat, players like Lewis Cine could look to attack and make plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

That doesn’t mean it was a clean game for the Georgia defense. Poor tackling was an issue all night and helped South Carolina’s first half scoring drives. A missed tackle allowed the Gamecocks to convert a fourth down that led to a scoring opportunity. Doty was able to complete 18 of 22 passes even without a dynamic receiver like Shi Smith, but Georgia’s pass rush was at least able to keep Doty from becoming too comfortable in the pocket. South Carolina’s tight end was not Kyle Pitts or even Hayden Hurst who was a particular thorn in Georgia’s side while at South Carolina, and that’s fortunate. The Gamecocks had success working TE Nick Muse against Georgia’s linebackers. Muse came into the game with 294 yards all season and added 131 yards on 8 receptions.

  • Jalen Carter became a sensation for his role as a fullback in the Auburn and Tennessee games, and this win showed what fans have to look forward to from Carter the defensive lineman. He and Travon Walker are two of the more athletic defensive linemen Georgia has seen. The line is still missing the physical presence of Jordan Davis in the middle, but Logue and other young players have held their own.
  • Special teams won’t get much attention in a lopsided win, but Georgia’s advantage there was impressive. A 50-yard punt, solid coverage, several touchbacks, a long punt return, and a blocked extra point only made things easier for the rest of the team.
  • Welcome Arian Smith! The freshman has been recovering from offseason surgery, but his potential was on full display as he blew by a defender to get open for an easy touchdown reception. That’s just one more weapon for this passing attack.
  • Yes, Prather Hudson is still on the team. He entered the transfer portal after the 2019 season but remained with the team. He moved to defensive back and has been a regular on special teams, but the coaches gave him another carry at tailback on the final drive while Edwards caught his breath. Hudson had a nice 7-yard run around the right side that moved the chains and kept the drive going.
  • I was surprised to see that this series was 5-5 over the past ten games; surely Georgia had a better decade than that against South Carolina. I shouldn’t be surprised – South Carolina won four of five in the early part of the 2010s even while Georgia won two division titles. Last season’s upset pulled things back even after Greyson Lambert’s record-setting performance in 2015 began a run of success for Georgia. Now the Dawgs have won five of six including the last three in Columbia. Georgia has outscored the Gamecocks 86-33 in the past two games at South Carolina.

Post 2020-2021 Georgia men’s basketball schedule

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Tom Crean’s first two seasons was the reengagement of the program with Georgia basketball fans. Challenged by Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set a record for attendance in 2018-2019. Even with the season circling the drain, Georgia’s crowds remained respectable and engaged. (Sometimes even a bit too engaged.) Fans understood it would be a transitional season, and wins over Georgia Tech and Florida were welcome accomplishments in a season without much to cheer about.

That enthusiasm continued into the 2019-2020 season. Bolstered by the arrival of Anthony Edwards, Georgia basketball remained an attraction. In a game that kind of summed up the season, Georgia put on a nationally-televised show against Kentucky for a prime time ESPN audience with rappers and NBA stars courtside but fell short on the scoreboard. Even with a lottery pick and another pro prospect in Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia managed a scant five SEC wins last season.

The fans did their part. But in Crean’s third season, there will be no record crowds. COVID-19 protocols will limit attendance inside Stegeman Coliseum to 1,700 fans. That’s around 10% of capacity – much less than the 20-25% capacity at Sanford Stadium due to the need for greater spacing indoors.

Without record-setting crowds, the focus will be more on the basketball, and that might not be as pleasant of a thought. Georgia will again turn over more than half the roster, and there’s no lottery pick among the newcomers this time. Georgia doesn’t have a player on the preseason all-SEC teams, and the Dawgs were picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams. The season is bound to be unpredictable and chaotic, but the expectations are for Crean to finally build some continuity and depth for future seasons.

The 2020-2021 men’s basketball schedule:

MBB schedule


Post Georgia 31 – Miss. St. 24: An impressive debut saves the day

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Saturday’s broadcast team aptly compared Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to the triple option. They’re schematically night-and-day of course, but the point is that unconventional offenses are designed to make defenses think and hesitate. That hesitation puts stress on individual assignments and allows the offense to repeatedly and effectively attack weak spots. It might be the numbing four yards over and over from the fullback dive in the option, or it might be the easy seven yards from the mesh route or other short routes in front of a soft zone in the Air Raid. If you get impatient over-adjust to take away what’s working, the offenses have counters designed to burn you for explosive plays.

If it was odd for us to see Georgia’s aggressive defense rushing only three while everyone else dropped back, imagine how it must have been for the defenders. At least coaches had learned to work on Tech’s option in small increments from preseason camp on through the season. What we saw Saturday was an alignment that had just been put in since they learned that the Missouri game was off. Dan Lanning admitted to the broadcast crew that Georgia would be using some calls they hadn’t used all season to defend the unique MSU system.

The result was typical of defenders being unsure and tentative. Georgia’s players have had two weeks to stew after being humbled by Florida’s passing game. The defense hesitated in their unfamiliar assignments and were a step slow closing to the ball. Mississippi State found these soft spots in front of Georgia’s zone and were content to exploit the passive defense to methodically work down the field. When Georgia was more aggressive with its pressure, MSU responded with a long scoring pass over man coverage.

Fortunately Georgia didn’t completely abandon its defensive game plan and further expose weaknesses in man pass coverage. It just had to trust its talent to be quicker to the ball. MSU was effective sustaining first half drives by using success on early downs to set up short yardage on third downs. Georgia’s improvement was subtle: MSU didn’t complete fewer passes; they got fewer yards from those completions. Following the touchdown that tied the game at 24, MSU’s average third down distance the rest of the game was 6.5 yards. That longer distance allowed Georgia’s pass rush specialists to have more time to reach the quarterback and keep MSU off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

I lead with the defense rather than the breakthrough debut of J.T. Daniels because it’s easy for the latter to overshadow a point that will be one of the takeaways from this season. A defense billed as the nation’s best is far from that. A roster full of elite recruits was pushed to the limit by a team that barely scraped together enough players to make the trip. Georgia’s defensive brain trust was outschemed for the second time in as many games. True, MSU presented some unique challenges, but it’s not as if this defense had been performing well against other teams with competent passing attacks. It’s more than the reality of facing modern high-output offenses. It’s more than key injuries. You can understand some growing pains from an offense replacing its coordinator and nine of eleven starters. The underperforming defense, especially against the pass, has been a more troubling development.

The debut of Daniels was the highlight, and Georgia needed every big play. While MSU was effective creating short yardage situations on third down, Georgia’s struggles running the ball put Daniels and the offense in many obvious passing situations. It was on Daniels and the receivers to win one-on-one battles to convert and move the ball, and they were up to the job. Jermaine Burton was the standout with 197 yards and 2 TD, but he wasn’t alone. George Pickens caught Daniels’s first pass and tied Burton with 8 receptions. His 87 yards were a season high. Kearis Jackson and Demetris Robertson combined for 100 yards. Daniels helped to show that, yes, Georgia does have talent at receiver, and Todd Monken’s passing game can do some real damage.

It wasn’t a flawless start for Daniels, and that’s not surprising for someone seeing his first action in over a year. He missed a linebacker who had stepped into the passing lane of a slant. He held onto the ball too long on some early pass plays. Even some of his more successful deep balls were underthrown. That’s a byproduct of re-learning to trust his injured knee and getting the footwork right. As that comes around, he should have even better touch on those deeper passes. Accuracy and power on shorter passes wasn’t a problem. The touchdown to Pickens was a pro-quality pass. It was only a four-yard reception, but Daniels had to roll right from the far hash and place the ball low and away where only Pickens could go get it. Daniels gained confidence as the game progressed, and that was the kind of success Georgia needed from the passing game to feel better about closing out the season.

The running game was a different story. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense made it difficult to establish running lanes and often brought safeties up for a very full box. Daniels said he had the ability to check out of bad plays, but he surely doesn’t have the practice or game experience yet to do much more than the most basic of audibles. MSU wisely sent run blitzes at Georgia’s bread-and-butter running plays, and even outside tosses weren’t especially effective against those kinds of numbers. It didn’t help that Georgia’s offensive line had a poor showing. The interior line, especially Hill and Shaffer, struggled with the lighter but more agile MSU defensive front, and backs were often met behind the line of scrimmage. Georgia attempted 23 runs, and MSU finished with 11 tackles for loss.

I don’t fault Georgia for continuing to run into this front – you can’t completely abandon weapons like White and Cook, and sadly the Georgia defense needed some time in between long MSU possessions. But MSU’s control of the Georgia running game left frequent one-on-one coverage downfield, and Georgia wasn’t so stubborn as to take frequent shots to attack those matchups. It’s not a pleasant thought to think about the outcome of this game without that downfield threat in the Georgia passing game. Even if Bennett put in a performance on par with his Auburn game, it still might not have been enough. The opportunities for Georgia’s offense were downfield, and Daniels seems to be the only quarterback on the roster who can reliably hit those passes.

It feels a bit backwards – Georgia seems relatively settled at quarterback now while the defense will be doing some long-term soul searching into the offseason. This year has taught us not to look that far ahead, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than Daniels started the Clemson game that opens the 2021 season. (Not a knock on Brock Vandagriff – that’s just not the game for the debut of a true freshman if you can help it. We’ll leave the Fromm/Fields sequel angst for next season.) Kirby Smart faced the inevitable questions about waiting too long to play Daniels, but both he and the Daniels family explained it well. The J.T. Daniels we saw Saturday was the product of several months of practice, rehab, and individual work, and inserting him earlier in the season might have produced a much less impressive result. I get the frustration of what-if, and it would have been much nicer had the timing worked out two months ago rather than now, but even now Daniels still isn’t all the way back in terms of footwork or comfort. You saw the confidence growing as the game went on, and we should look forward to how he continues to develop. It’s nice to know there’s something to work with.

  • Full credit to Mississippi State for going forward with the game. They were shorthanded, but those who made the trip were clearly focused and invested. We talk about bowl games in terms of motivation, and MSU came to Athens ready to play. As Mike Leach said, it was his team’s best performance of the season, and that says something about them given the state of their season at this point.
  • You don’t want to go overboard excusing away some of Georgia’s issues as a lack of engagement. Still, this was a team that had just suffered a bad loss to a rival that took the season’s goals off the table. That might explain why the coaches were amenable to the black jerseys for this game – as I wrote last week, “there haven’t been many opportunities to simply have fun and enjoy a season that’s been disrupted since the spring, and any little gesture can help a team pull together and get through the remaining schedule.” Now that the black jersey card has been played, is there anything left to get through the rest of the season? The buzz of a more exciting big-play offense might just do it.
  • MSU’s offensive approach helped its defense overcome its numbers disadvantage. Long drives consumed clock and kept the MSU defense fresh. Even if Georgia expected to pound on and tire out the MSU defense in the usual “make them quit” approach, the Dawgs didn’t have the ball long enough to make MSU pay for their thin bench.
  • One of the few downsides to playing Daniels is in the running game. He isn’t nearly the threat to run or scramble the way Mathis or even Bennett was. That allows the defense to cheat on inside zone runs where a more mobile quarterback might choose to keep the ball.
  • The tailbacks didn’t have their most productive games, but they found other ways to contribute. Important blitz pickups by Cook and McIntosh gave Daniels the time to take some of those downfield shots.
  • I love when a team is able to bookend halftime with scoring drives. Alabama did it to Georgia, and it was Georgia’s turn on Saturday. The Dawgs were able to flip the game from a 17-10 deficit to a 24-17 lead without Mississippi State having the ball.
  • The first half had a flow of a tennis match with each team holding serve. That made you more than a little nervous in the second half when Georgia was unable to score on consecutive possessions after MSU tied the game at 24. Fortunately the Georgia defense started to come around at the same time and forced two straight three-and-outs before the Dawgs mounted the game-winning drive.
  • It’s bound to be a frustrating day for defensive linemen against a quick-release passer, but I like what I saw from Carter and Walker. But it’s clear how much the team misses Davis as a hole-plugger in the middle. MSU’s goal line rushing touchdowns had very little resistance gashing the interior of Georgia’s defense.

Ordinarily in a big upset you can point to something extraordinary that happened. Yes, Georgia had some dumb personal fouls, and the “outside the tackle box” decision was laughable, but there was no implosion. This didn’t follow the pattern of the 2019 loss to South Carolina. Georgia made its lone field goal attempt and, one short punt aside, had solid special teams play. Neither team turned the ball over. It’s a little concerning that Mississippi State found itself hanging around without any of the catastrophes you’d typically point to when a 20+ point favorite has to sweat. It was much more mundane than that, and it’s more difficult to process when you can’t point to something obvious and one-off like four turnovers. Georgia’s issues – whether inconsistent offensive line play or weak pass defense – are more persistent. We’re past the point of the season where improvement might preserve the season’s goals. With that in mind, it’s going to be positive developments like the emergence of Daniels and Burton that allow us to take something positive from what’s left of the 2020 season.


Post Homecoming 2020

Friday November 20, 2020

Believe it or not, it’s Homecoming Weekend at Georgia. No, there’s no parade and no halftime coronation. But there is a Homecoming Court, and the school and Alumni Association are doing their best to host virtual events even as students prepare to vacate campus for the holiday week. Such is life in 2020 – everything requires a bit of extra flexibility and creativity.

It’s a homecoming for the football team too. It’s been over a month since Georgia played in Sanford Stadium, and just a thing or two has changed since the Dawgs ended Tennessee’s winning streak and looked ahead to the start of their long stretch away from home. We’ve seen a rash of injuries, had the schedule shuffled twice by the pandemic, and had the quarterback position thrown into disarray. We’ve seen a top 4 team drop two games and fall out of the top 10. We’ve see Georgia supplanted atop the SEC East by Florida, ending hopes of another division title and playoff shot. In short, it hasn’t been a great six weeks away from home. These are the big issues facing the program as they attempt to salvage the final three or four games of the regular season and hopefully avoid a disastrous loss.

Quarterback crisis: Stetson Bennett entered the Alabama game as a sudden celebrity. There were glowing features about his rise from obscurity to become Georgia’s starter, and he had guided Georgia to three SEC wins to start the season. Since that trip to Tuscaloosa, Bennett’s grip on the starting job has become less of a feel-good story and more of a symptom of a second-straight season of underperforming Georgia offense. Bennett has six interceptions against just three touchdown passes over the last three games, and he has completed less than 50% of his passes over that stretch. A shoulder injury to Bennett against Florida led coaches to give D’Wan Mathis another shot under center, and the results weren’t much better. Bennett is still not completely back from that shoulder injury, and there’s unsubstantiated buzz that Mathis might be getting a look at receiver. That leaves…

The debut of J.T. Daniels? Even before Bennett strengthened his hold on the starting job in the Auburn and Tennessee games, fans wondered when we’d see Southern Cal transfer J.T. Daniels get his shot. Daniels received medical clearance early in the season, but that doesn’t mean he was physically or mentally ready to play. Kirby Smart has downplayed the inevitability of playing Daniels, saying only that Daniels continued to work and improve. The injury to Bennett and an unexpected week off gave coaches the opportunity to reevaluate the roster, and Daniels has reportedly seen his share of snaps with the starting unit. Does that mean Daniels will start on Saturday? Not necessarily. But if he doesn’t, as Blutarsky concludes, it would be a depressing statement about Georgia’s talent at the most important position in modern football.

Injury tent: The Bulldogs have battled injuries on both sides of the ball, and those setbacks have changed the look of the team. Leading receiver George Pickens missed the past two games. Tailbacks Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton have been dinged up and missed time. Various linemen haven’t been able to finish games, and of course Bennett’s injury cut short a promising start in Jacksonville. But the defensive side of the ball has been hit the hardest. Nose tackle Jordan Davis went out early in the Kentucky game, and the interior defense hasn’t been the same since. Monty Rice has played through a foot injury at less than 100%. The secondary played most of the Florida game without either starting safety, and Richard LeCounte might not play again this season. Hopefully Lewis Cine will return, but it’s still a dinged-up unit.

Defensive fatal flaw? Georgia came into the season boasting significant returning experience from a dominant 2019 defense, but the unit has struggled to live up to its billing as the nation’s best. Advanced stats still like the Dawgs: ESPN’s SP+ rates the defense #1. That said, Kirby Smart’s scheme and lineup has been lit up by the two best offenses on the schedule, and injuries have only been part of the story. The defense has helped its stats by keeping teams like Auburn and Kentucky out of the endzone, but it wasn’t able to slow down – much less affect the outcome – of decisive games against Florida and Alabama.

What’s changed? This tweet illustrates what you’ve seen with your own eyes. The explosive play is shredding an otherwise decent unit. We’ve even seen the big play do damage in Georgia’s wins: Arkansas jumped out ahead on a long pass play. Tennessee built a halftime lead with two long scores. Those offenses weren’t good enough to sustain the barrage. Florida’s and Alabama’s offenses were. Georgia’s pass rush has been effective at generating pressure, but if the quarterback is able to get the pass off, big gains (or interference penalties) have too often been the result. That’s an unsettling feeling going into a game against an opponent that likes to throw 60+ times per game.

What next? Yes, we’re in a situation the program hasn’t faced since 2016. Sure, Florida could slip up and lose to two of Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky, and LSU. Hope springs eternal! Realistically Georgia is going to have to find a different motivation with which to finish out the season. This is an especially precarious year, and we’ve even seen SEC players decide to pack it in with games left to play. Georgia might not have had any players opt out, but it’s not hard for the same “what’s the point?” mentality to take root in any program that’s essentially out of the playoff conversation. That’s why I’m not downplaying talk of things like black jerseys – there haven’t been many opportunities to simply have fun and enjoy a season that’s been disrupted since the spring, and any little gesture can help a team pull together and get through the remaining schedule.

Georgia will be heavily favored in its remaining games. Let’s say it – a loss (or even a nailbiter) in any of them on top of the previous two losses would mean trouble. Ideally, the upcoming month will be a time of growth. Perhaps the new offense will finally begin to realize its potential led by a different quarterback. Perhaps some younger players will see more time than they did during the closer early-season games. Perhaps Georgia will right the ship, get some injured players back, and finish 8-2 to earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. We can work with that and reset for a more complete and normal 2021 season. But with no end to the weekly uncertainty, players opting out, and injuries mounting, it might be enough to ask that the team gets the opportunity to finish out the season at all.


Post A cocktail-less Cocktail Party

Saturday October 24, 2020

We learned earlier in the month that there would be no change to limited attendance plans for the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. The city announced further information this week that reflects the reality of playing a neutral site game in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

The biggest news: no tailgating will be permitted in stadium lots, and a game ticket will be required. It will be quite a change from seas of fans crammed into lots around the stadium from early morning on. The city is discouraging those without a ticket from coming to the stadium area. Stadium lots won’t even open until 12:30 p.m.

Of course the city’s tailgating prohibition won’t apply to the private lots and event spaces that ring the inner stadium parking, so those looking for a place to tailgate will still have options. It should be a banner day for the gypsy lots on the periphery of the stadium lots.

Once inside the stadium, the policies will be familiar: facial coverings are required except when eating or drinking, and concessions will be cashless. The cocktail party might be cancelled in the parking lots, but fans can grab a brew inside: beer and wine sales will now be available throughout the stadium rather than just the club areas.