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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.


Post Georgia 24 – Alabama 41: Not there yet

Tuesday October 20, 2020

On one hand, this wasn’t a loss to South Carolina – it was a road loss as an underdog to a top 2 team. On the other hand, I get the exasperation. Kirby Smart was brought in to get Georgia over the hump from very good to elite. After four years of trading top-rated recruiting class honors with Alabama, you’d expect the talent level to begin to make Georgia something other than the plucky underdog in this series.

Even the perspective-seeking is predictable and familiar. Georgia still has its goals in front of it. Check. Georgia still controls its own destiny. Check. All we need is someone telling us the loss was just what the program needed. Wait – got that too. It’s like your Facebook Memories from October 2018 and 2019 popping up.

But here we are again – a bit of normalcy in an abnormal season. There are differences, of course. This loss came as a road underdog to a very good Alabama team. The takeaway is the same: Georgia must win out, must beat Florida, and must reach the SEC Championship to hope for another shot at Alabama, etc, etc.

The deja vu even creeped into to the game itself. See if this rings a bell:

2nd & 10 at ALA 26
(6:32 – 3rd) Tua Tagovailoa pass intercepted Deandre Baker return for no gain to the Alab 39

1st & 10 at ALA 39
(6:21 – 3rd) Jake Fromm pass intercepted Raekwon Davis return for 19 yds to the Geo 40

That was a pivotal moment in the 2018 national title game. Georgia missed a chance to open up a big lead on the blocked punt, and Alabama tallied their first score of the game. Georgia answered with a long touchdown pass and again had the ball in Alabama territory following Baker’s interception with a 20-7 lead. Raekwon Davis picked a tipped pass out of the air and returned it across midfield. Alabama tacked on a field goal and began a run of 13 straight points to send the game to overtime.

Saturday’s similar exchange of turnovers came far too early in the game to be considered a pivotal moment. It did establish a theme for the game: tipped passes at the line of scrimmage frustrated a Georgia passing game that had some early-season success across the middle. The Stetson Bennett story has been a highlight of the season, but the Alabama game was a dose of reality that showed the limits of this dream story. Bennett might be enough to get Georgia back to Atlanta at the end of the year, and that in itself would be a remarkable accomplishment, but that’s little consolation for fans seeing a special defense squandered for a second straight season.

That said, I don’t think this game was necessarily an example of Bennett hitting his ceiling. Remember, he’s had a handful of weeks getting first-team reps. He’s not the quarterback who spent all summer throwing to these receivers. He was an afterthought while Todd Monken was installing his offense and probably received very little individualized instruction. Put that limited preparation up against a Nick Saban gameplan – even with this Alabama defense – and you’re asking a lot. He’ll improve, but it that enough? Georgia’s offense is in a bit of a pickle. It would benefit from running the ball more and asking less of Bennett as he gains experience. At the same time, unless the running game is performing at a level on par with, say, the 2017 Georgia team, it’s not going to keep up with explosive passing offenses at Clemson and Alabama. The Georgia running game is fine – above-average even. It’s not yet consistent enough or explosive enough to reduce the load on Bennett (or any quarterback) when playing the kinds of opponents against which this team should and will be measured.

Good vs. better

The game was a humbling experience for Georgia’s secondary. Alabama’s top-flight receivers are NFL quality, no doubt. Georgia’s defensive backfield is also supposed to have its share of future pros. Tyson Campbell earned accolades for his performance against Seth Williams and Auburn’s talented receivers, but he became part of someone else’s highlight reel on Saturday. That’s not to pick on Campbell; few Georgia defenders were effective in slowing down Alabama’s skill players. Alabama also used motion and formations to create mismatches that put outstanding receivers against Georgia’s linebackers, safeties, and star.

I wrote last week about the Tennessee game turning when Georgia’s pressure began to reach the quarterback. Zero first half sacks became 5, and subsequent turnovers put the game away. Ojulari’s opening play aside, Georgia again had trouble getting enough pressure to derail the Alabama passing game. It wasn’t for lack of trying – blitzes came from all over the field, and even the secondary featured in the pressure. Alabama was outstanding in picking up this pressure and coordinating the line, backs, and tight end to handle whatever Georgia threw at them. Alabama also used Georgia’s pressure against them: an early corner blitz left Lewis Cine on a speedy receiver for Alabama’s first touchdown. Georgia’s scheme often left defenders in isolated coverage against Alabama’s skill players. The combination of decent protection and Georgia’s inability to defend one-on-one matchups without a penalty allowed Alabama to hit the explosive pass plays that make this the nation’s best offense.

So was Georgia overhyped as the nation’s best defense? Perhaps. It wasn’t the defense’s best game for sure, but Alabama will do that to a lot of defenses. Georgia did several things well, stopped their share of Alabama drives, and forced Alabama to make precise plays – which they did. It’s also possible that “best defense” is relative next to where offenses are at this stage of the season. Even the best of defenses has soft spots that need improvement, and Georgia’s pass defense – especially downfield – isn’t up to par yet. Alabama had the perfect set of tools to take advantage of that.

We’ve embraced Georgia’s defense as a “no-name” group that doesn’t feature many standouts but which also doesn’t have many weak links and plays front-to-back as a cohesive and disciplined unit. This game illustrated the value of standouts. Alabama has several on offense – Waddle, Smith, and Harris are future high draft picks that can take over games. Georgia lacks those players on the other side of the ball. Even good, solid future pros can be made to look ordinary against elite counterparts. That’s not to say that certain players can’t perform better or be put in better positions to succeed. You just don’t see a Chase Young or even Roquan Smith capable of blowing up a quality opponent’s best intentions. We faced an offense that does have several of those players who can dominate a game.

Three little points

The field goal at the end of the half was just three points, but it helped to frame the third quarter. Without that field goal, Alabama’s 90-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter simply ties the game. Their second score a few minutes later after would have kept the game within a single score. A single-score margin heading into the fourth quarter would have seemed a lot more manageable than a 10-point deficit, and maybe Bennett doesn’t press as much on his final interception. No, a 14-point final margin is no less of a statement than a 17-point margin, but in a game that was contested until that final interception, the mindset changes in a single-possession game.


Post No changes planned for Jax attendance

Wednesday October 14, 2020

Despite recent clearance from the state of Florida to allow 100% capacity at stadiums, Georgia and Florida will play in front of a limited crowd on November 7th.

Marc Weiszer reports that the game will take place with “approximately 9,000 tickets per school” which is in line with the SEC standard of 20-25% capacity. “We’re proceeding as we originally planned, no change,” according to Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity.

Ancillary events associated with the Georgia-Florida game, including the annual Hall of Fame Luncheon, have already been called off. There will also be no RV City around the stadium. The City of Jacksonville announced that “complete game day safety policies and procedures will be announced at a later date closer to the game.”


Post Georgia 44 – Tennessee 21: Havoc unleashed

Tuesday October 13, 2020

If Georgia wasn’t as hapless as it looked in the first half at Arkansas or as dominant as it appeared against Auburn, what to make of Saturday’s win over Tennessee? The Bulldogs ended Tennessee’s eight-game winning streak – that streak might’ve been built against lesser competition, but it was still a source of confidence and a measure of progress for the Jeremy Pruitt era. But that streak would eventually be tested against a better team, and the Vols showed that they still aren’t to the point of contending for the division. Georgia also handled an offensive line and running game that was starting to get a little positive press. The Dawgs ended up with five sacks and held the Vols to -1 net rushing yards (including sack yardage.)

Despite another dominant performance by the nation’s best defense, Georgia struggled to gain an early advantage thanks to a series of unforced errors. The first half started with a high snap into the endzone and ended with Georgia being stuffed at the goal line. In between was everything from the dumbest personal foul since the Ole Miss leg hiker to a couple of bombs completed over the Georgia secondary.

Georgia controlled the game even while it was trying to give the game away: Georgia outgained Tennessee in the first half, and the offense was a foot away from a 24-point half even with its mistakes. They had scoring opportunities on four of their final five possessions of the first half. Yet they trailed, and that’s the stuff upsets are made of. (See Exhibit A.) The halftime deficit was more annoyance than panic, though we might have felt differently had that lead persisted for another quarter.

What changed in the second half? Yes, there were fewer of the mistakes that led to Tennessee’s points. Georgia didn’t shoot itself in the foot as often. But the biggest difference was the ability of the Georgia pass rush to reach and affect Jarrett Guarantano. Georgia didn’t record a sack in the first half despite winning the line of scrimmage and shutting down the Tennessee running game. As at Arkansas, several Georgia defenders came free with a shot at Guarantano but couldn’t close. In the first half Guarantano was 11-of-13 with two long TD passes. True, several of those were short dump-offs in long yardage situations that killed drives, but on others Guarantano had time to make plays. He had plenty of time on both of the touchdown bombs, and a blitzing Stevenson wasn’t able to get there in time on the second scoring toss.

Those fortunes changed in a big way almost immediately after halftime. The unproductive pass rush recorded five sacks, caused three turnovers, and led directly to 13 Georgia points in the second half. Ojulari led the way again, but effective pressure came from all over the linebacking corps. A Georgia defense that was performing well in the first half turned into a havoc machine. It didn’t just limit Tennessee’s yardage; it created scoring opportunities and allowed Georgia to retake the lead without gaining a single first down. That’s the true potential of this defense and why “havoc” has been an emphasis for two years. Good defenses make it difficult for the opponent to move the ball. Great ones affect all phases of the game: they create field position, aid the offense, and take away how the opponent wants to move the ball. We have no idea if Georgia’s defensive backs would fare better against the deep ball in the second half because those plays never had the time to develop.

That last point is one thing to watch heading into the next game. We know all about Alabama’s weapons at tailback and receiver and their ability to hit long scoring plays. The best defense is to take those deep shots out of the game by getting to the quarterback before those plays have a chance to develop. Easier said than done, but Georgia has the talent to affect what the opposing quarterback is trying to do. Their results have been mixed even in the same game – from the ineffective to the downright scary.

Fits and starts

Georgia’s running game wasn’t nearly as effective as it was against Auburn. Tennessee is a sound team, Jeremy Pruitt is much more at home with good, fundamental defense than he is wearing a mask, and players like Henry To’o To’o are tackling machines. There’s still a drought of explosive plays in the running game, and that means more is being asked of Bennett to sustain drives. Georgia managed a respectable 193 yards on the ground, but it took 50 attempts to get there. The end-around to Burton was a beautiful bit of misdirection from Monken that even had the CBS cameras fooled for a second, and it came at a great time as Georgia had just taken a gut punch following the fourth down turnover and quick Tennessee score. Even with Burton’s reverse, Georgia averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.

That trouble on the ground caused some problems for the offense. After managing nearly 7 yards on first down against Auburn, Georgia didn’t face a third down shorter than four yards to go until the final drive of the first half. The Dawgs were a fairly respectable 8-16 on third down, but a lot of the early offense relied on Tennessee personal fouls. Bennett has been above-average on third downs, but

Stetson Bennett had another fine day under center, but we saw some limitations that will have to be schemed around. With the run game ineffective and not much of a downfield passing game, Bennett took more risks both with his arm and his legs. Often it paid off, but he did flirt with a turnover or two. I wrote last week that the offense doesn’t have to be scaled back for Bennett, but I also think there’s a limit to how much the offense can be put on him. Whether or not he’s a “game manager,” whatever that means, Georgia’s offense is not at its best when he’s constantly put in a position to have to escape and improvise. The point of bringing in Todd Monken was to make better use of the talent at the skill positions. Bennett – or any quarterback – has to be a big part of that of course, but we’re hearing a lot more about Bennett than we are White, Pickens, or really anyone other than Kearis Jackson or maybe Kenny McIntosh.

All of that makes it sound as if Georgia was lucky to break double-digits. The offense managed 37 points against a respectable defense and staff. Bennett *did* make plays. He worked the middle of the field for big gains to McIntosh, McKitty, and Jackson. He did convert his share of third downs, though, again, those situations aren’t ideal. Milton and McIntosh did gain around 50 yards each behind White. That’s a good rotation that should only improve with the return of Cook. The scheme is in place to be productive with the personnel at hand. In two games we’ve seen that the offense is as capable of stopping itself as it is putting up points. Can it get out of its own way in time for the biggest games of the regular season?

Go for it?

Kirby Smart’s two fourth down decisions were cut from the same cloth: they were a challenge to a physical football team to move the ball a couple of feet. But they were very different situations and should be evaluated differently. The call on the goal line was fine – the jumbo package had two cracks to score from the one and couldn’t. White perhaps had a chance to bounce outside and walk in, but the play is simply meant to gain a yard behind the line’s push. The poorly executed play(s) didn’t make the decision a bad one – the payoff for gaining that yard was obvious. The other fourth down call is a lot tougher to defend. Tennessee’s offense hadn’t moved the ball beyond the 50, and Georgia has a pretty good defense. Georgia also had the lead. Perhaps Smart saw a chance for an early knockout blow if that drive could be sustained, but the result was to set up a struggling Tennessee offense in a position where it could tie the game on a routine pass play. Even if you give Smart the benefit of the doubt, the 5’11”, 190 lb. Bennett isn’t going to get much of a push or even a second effort through the pile. Georgia took an ill-advised risk to run a slow-developing play with suboptimal personnel.

  • Strong special teams play doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Camarda was again superlative. His 64-yard third quarter punt from the Georgia 12 got the Dawgs out of a big hole while protecting a thin 23-21 lead. Podlesney was perfect, and his 51-yarder to give Georgia the lead for good was what I’d consider his first big kick under pressure. Georgia looked to have taken control of the game, but a miss there would have erased a Tennessee turnover and given the Vols decent field position and the lead. McIntosh had another big kick return that set up the drive that should have scored before halftime. Jackson didn’t have many punt return yards, but he was aggressive fielding punts that would have rolled a good ways.
  • The offensive line that held Auburn at bay wasn’t as effective against Tennessee. Yet another shuffling of the lineup was required when Warren McClendon was injured at the end of the first half. Jamaree Salyer shifted to right tackle while Xavier Truss stepped in at left tackle. McClendon might be out for an extended time, so we’ll have to watch whether the adjusted lineup is the plan going forward.
  • Stokes’s interception was the result of a poor throw under pressure, but how telling was it that Tennessee ran a shotgun pass play on 3rd and 1? By that point in the game, any confidence in gaining just one yard was long gone on the Tennessee sideline.
  • Kendall Milton looked great running the ball, but he plays for a coach obsessed with turnovers. Milton won’t earn more playing time if the coaches don’t trust his ball security. Hopefully that will come soon because we can see the potential.>
  • Trey Hill giveth and taketh away. Hill has had issues with snaps before, and two straight high snaps to start the game was unnerving. To his credit, he was solid for the rest of the game. His presence of mind to get downfield and swiftly recover a fumble in the air before Tennessee could react led to a scoring drive that opened up a two-score lead. A turnover there near midfield with a scant two-point lead would have been a big moment.
  • Does the availability of McKitty mean less playing time for Darnell Washington? We’ve seen Washington’s contributions as a pass-catching option and a physical blocker. He’s also a true freshman, and FitzPatrick still seems to be ahead on the depth chart. I’m a little giddy even mentioning a tight end depth chart.
  • Of course the touchdown pass to Jalen Carter was a highlight. Even mere bloggers could see the potential for play-action out of the jumbo formation, and Carter played some TE in high school. It was a more impressive feat of athleticism than your typical big guy touchdown. Carter got knocked back at the line of scrimmage, had to recover and catch the pass cleanly, and then keep his balance while fighting off a would-be tackler.
  • Not too much talk or online shaming about the crowd this week, so we’ll conclude that compliance was better and the adjustments made by the school to the student seating were effective. Georgia won’t host another home game until November 21st, and the pandemic landscape both nationally and in Clarke County could look very different by then as we approach the end of the fall semester.

Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 6: Different month, familiar result

Tuesday October 6, 2020

I guess it’s time to revisit the old coaching axiom that things are never as bad or as good as they seem. Georgia had the SEC’s largest margin of victory in week one, but they spent the week hearing about a disappointing first half and a crisis at quarterback. Now with a dominant win over a top 10 rival, do we need to pump the brakes on Georgia’s inevitable return to the playoffs? Maybe, but we’ll let the coaches worry about that. For fans another win over Auburn – no matter the month, no matter how many fans could be there, and no matter who played quarterback – is worth savoring.

Georgia has now won 13 of the last 16 meetings against Auburn. That’s comparable to the series records against Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt. A summary of the series since Tra Battle helped to turn the series with an upset win at Auburn in 2006:

  • Georgia has won 13 out of 16 and four in a row
  • Georgia is 7-0 in Athens (undefeated since 2007)
  • No Auburn touchdowns in Athens after the first quarter since 2009 (six games)

I admit that last one gets me. Wins are one thing, but it’s stunning that the last time Auburn scored a touchdown in Athens after the first quarter was the Blackout game in 2007.

Offense

Even after his steadying performance at Arkansas, most of us expected it to be a matter of time before Stetson Bennett gave way to JT Daniels. Even the ESPN game promo used Daniels’s photo alongside Auburn’s Bo Nix. After a confident and effective showing against a good Auburn defense, the perception of Stetson Bennett as placeholder is fading away. That’s good news on several fronts. Daniels doesn’t have to be rushed back – “cleared” and “ready” are two very different states. We’ve seen that the offense doesn’t have to be scaled back for Bennett, and a bit of an identity is emerging. It’s doubtful that Todd Monken spent nine months drawing up plays for Stetson Bennett. Likely for the first time in his career Bennett got first-team reps all week in practice and was involved in the game plan. He was prepared, poised, and the moment wasn’t too big for him. Where does he go now that he’s QB1?

It’s tough to pick Bennett’s best throw of the night. The early third down conversion under pressure was probably the most important. Markaviest ‘Big Kat’ Bryant is one of the better defensive ends in the SEC, and Bennett was able to elude and make a good throw with Bryant coming unblocked off the edge. An incompletion there meant a 49-yard FG attempt, and a sack would have killed the drive. As nice as that play was, the touch and placement on the touchdown pass to Pickens though was just *chef’s kiss*.

This wasn’t exactly Kearis Jackson’s coming out party: he led Georgia in receiving last week, too. But even as Pickens remains the dangerous playmaker, Jackson is looking like the guy in the best position to benefit from extra attention on Pickens. Jackson is fast enough to get open deep, tough enough to go across the middle, and, as ESPN pointed out several times, has the football acumen to get open. The passing game wasn’t as diversified against Auburn as it was at Arkansas. Twelve players caught passes last week, but only seven notched a reception on Saturday. Georgia had far fewer pass attempts against Auburn due to better success on the ground but also because of fewer possessions.

That success on the ground was something we’ve been waiting to see. Georgia was ineffective on first and second down at Arkansas, and their low third down conversion rate was a result. Against Auburn Georgia got over 7 yards per play on first down, and a lot of that came from running the ball. Zamir White was pushing 80 yards by halftime. James Cook was getting over 8 yards per carry before he was injured. Milton, McIntosh, and Edwards combined for nearly 90 yards to push Georgia over 200 rushing yards. Much was made about the talent Auburn lost on the defensive front, and that’s true. But this is also an overhauled Georgia offensive line with four new starters. That line found its stride after a shaky start at Arkansas, and both run blocking and pass protection were solid on Saturday.

Of course the offense can still improve. Perimeter blocking has to get better – we’ve seen obvious holding calls on the outside erase nice gains in both games due to lazy blocking. Explosive runs haven’t come yet, though the holes are starting to open and White has shown some good moves. Again downfield blocking is in the spotlight – it can mean the difference between a nice, successful run and a trip to the endzone. Bennett can improve his accuracy – too many of the completions to Jackson ended with a diving catch and left yards-after-catch on the table.

Defense

When we saw Chad Morris’s offense at Clemson in 2013, he had Tajh Boyd running it. That up-tempo offense with a mobile QB wasn’t new, but it was still a handful. Morris’s offense would make him attractive to SMU and later Arkansas. Already after one game his offense had drawn praise for a more sophisticated use of Auburn’s stable of speedy receivers, and even Kirby Smart noted that this wasn’t your typical Malzahn offense. What the 2020 Georgia defense was able to do against Morris that the 2013 unit couldn’t was to make it one-dimensional. Clemson rushed for 197 yards on Georgia in 2013, and Boyd scored twice on the ground. Georgia held Auburn to 39 rushing yards on Saturday. The Auburn running game was limited to true freshman Tank Bigsby, and Georgia made sure that the newcomer wasn’t going to have his breakout game.

I don’t know that any series better demonstrates what this defense has become than the first-and-goal Auburn faced just before halftime. The targeting call on LeCounte could have shellshocked the defense, but they regrouped and forced a field goal. First was preparation: Georgia recognized the tendency to run the quarterback. It was snuffed out on first down. On second down, Auburn shifted the formation and used motion to create better numbers for Nix. Nakobe Dean recognized the situation and quickly tried to realign the defense. It was still a good play for Auburn, but Jordan Davis made an athletic tackle from behind to keep a modest gain from becoming a touchdown. On third down, Tyson Campbell smoothly followed Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz in motion and was right there to stick Schwartz for no gain on a little flare pass that would have scored if Campbell had been a little slower getting into position or missed the tackle. You have intelligent and physical plays at all three levels of the defense working to keep Auburn out of the endzone and limit any momentum they’d have going into halftime.

But even the defense has things to work on. Bo Nix can be evasive and tough to bring down, but several of Auburn’s more successful plays came when Nix was able to elude the initial pressure. It’s thrilling to see someone like Adam Anderson come free on a passing down, but the pass rush has to get home. Ending drives also became an issue in the Auburn game. Auburn’s final four drives lasted 11, 15, 15, and 8 plays. It’s to the defense’s credit that those four drives netted a total of six points, but there were several missed opportunities to make third down stops. If people wonder why an effective Georgia offense only scored three points in the second half, it’s because they rarely had the ball. Auburn’s long drives meant that Georgia only had three posessions in the second half – including the final possession on which they ran out the clock. Georgia’s other two second half possessions yielded two field goal attempts.

No-name No Longer

Despite returning eight starters from the nation’s top defense, the Bulldog defense didn’t get many nods during preseason selections. That relative anonymity might be changing as a couple of players are beginning to break out. Auburn’s biggest offensive threat is a deep and fast receiver corps. Georgia’s defensive backs generally did well, especially against deeper passes, but Tyson Campbell shone while drawing one of the tougher assignments. Seth Williams is a 6’2″ receiver with great leaping and ballcatching skills who torched Kentucky for 6 catches, 112 yards, and 2 TD in the opener. Last year against Georgia Williams posted 13 receptions for 121 yards. Campbell is one of the few defensive backs with both the size and speed to match up against someone like Williams. Williams still had three catches for a modest 34 yards on Saturday, but Campbell was a big reason why Williams wasn’t able to do more damage especially as Auburn began to take more shots downfield in the second half. Williams was visibly frustrated and eventually left the game with what looked to be a leg injury.

Azeez Ojulari and Adam Anderson also stood out. Anderson has become a third down pass rush specialist, and coaches have had fun moving him all over the formation to disguise pressure. He’s also able to drop into coverage. We saw Anderson come free on several obvious passing situations and flush Bo Nix from the pocket. I’m sure coaches would like to see him turn those plays into sacks, but sometimes it’s enough to make the quarterback uncomfortable and get him on the move. Most quarterbacks aren’t as effective on the move as Nix. Ojulari did record a sack, but he was most impressive setting the edge and preventing a speedy Auburn team from having much success in their option plays. It’s telling that Georgia’s top five tacklers were all interior linemen or inside linebackers – most running plays and reads were funneled back inside. Ojulari’s awareness stood out on the last play of the first half when Auburn tried to run out of the victory formation. He sniffed out the trick play and made the tackle for loss – one of three TFL he had in the game.

  • Loved the goalline package with defensive linemen Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter. Will love it even more when one of them releases on a play-action pass.
  • Davis and Carter weren’t just in there to take up space. They made purposeful blocks with good technique.
  • What was more impressive – those defensive linemen on the goalline offense or Travon Walker staying with a tailback down the sideline in coverage?
  • I was surprised that Auburn didn’t attack Georgia’s safeties more, especially once LeCounte was ejected. Lewis Cine is a good, physical player, but he’s still relatively new to the position. LeCounte was replaced by Christopher Smith, a junior who has seen mostly reserve and special teams duty. It’s no knock against Cine or Smith to say that the strength of Georgia’s secondary in pass coverage was at the cornerback position. Most of Auburn’s deep shots went outside against that strength, and Tyson Campbell is one of the few players in the SEC who can match the speed of Auburn’s receivers.
  • Auburn wasn’t without its chances in the passing game. Daniel isn’t as quick as Campbell or Stokes, and receivers were able to get behind him. It’s great to see Campbell emerge, but Georgia does need some reliable depth at cornerback. Has anyone checked on Kelee Ringo’s status?
  • James Cook took almost as much heat as D’Wan Mathis after the opener. He responded with one of his better games as a Bulldog, and we began to see some of the potential realized. It was a shame he was knocked out of the game just as he was getting going, and it’s good news that the injury doesn’t seem to be serious.
  • Stuck between the 5-star starting tailbacks and the 5-star freshman, Kenny McIntosh has carved out a nice role for himself. His kick returns have provided some valuable field position. He’s been active in the passing game and a tough runner between the tackles. It’s a very Herrien-like role with perhaps a bit more talent.

Post Returning to a very different Athens

Saturday October 3, 2020

Just a few things have changed since the rainy November afternoon when Georgia last hosted a football game. The 2019 home season featured two marquee opponents and a new light display that was the talk of the nation and, to be honest, more compelling than most of the action on the field last year. In 2020, we’re just glad to have four home games with capacity limited to 20-25%. The homefield advantage that carried Georgia over Notre Dame won’t be nearly the same despite the addition of artificial noise and the best efforts of the 20,000 present. Typically a visit from ESPN’s College Gameday would have fans fighting for spaces before dawn. This year Gameday will be set up outside the recruiting lounge in Sanford Stadium with no live audience.

As I watched the first few weeks of high school and college games, it’s evident that any plan is only as good as compliance and enforcement. Both seem to be in short supply (on the sidelines as well as the stands.) Many fans feel free to flaunt or test the guidelines (especially after a few drinks), and officials don’t want to be confrontational. We’ll see how the compliance and enforcement go around Athens on Saturday, but if other games tell us anything, we should expect our share of tiresome screenshots shaming noncompliant fans.

Tailgating

We know that on-campus tailgating is limited. Tailgaters must have a ticket to the game and essentially follow the old-school definition of tailgating: a bucket of chicken at the car just before the game. It was confusing to read those rules while learning that Georgia has “banned tailgating” for the season. Deputy AD Josh Brooks provided some clarity:

“No tents, no tables, those big setups, anything that promotes a big gathering, we’re asking everyone to be responsible and stay in their (smaller) groups,” Brooks said. “We are trying to give people a little relief, because we know they don’t want to go straight to the stadium. It was our best attempt to offer a solution or compromise without promoting large social gatherings.”

So a few beers and some snacks at the car with your travel party – fine. Setting up Tent City with grills, TVs, and a DJ might draw some attention. The ban also serves to limit on-campus tailgating away from parking lots at places like Myers Quad.

It stands to reason that the campus tailgating ban will push most tailgating off-campus. That includes downtown bars, off-campus lots, and private residences and businesses. UGA fraternities have agreed to ban tailgating at their houses. That’s good (if enforced), but again it adds to the crowd downtown and at apartment complexes.

The likelihood of off-campus gatherings hasn’t escaped Athens officials. Current state guidelines limit gatherings to 50 people. In September the mayor of Athens asked the governor to amend the state’s order to allow for local exceptions including a 10-person gathering limit to aid in crowd control. There doesn’t seem to have been any movement on that front.

At the game

We know the basics: limited crowd, masks required, distanced seating, cashless concessions, and plentiful sanitizers. Attendance will be constrained to around 20-25% of capacity or around 20,000 fans. No tickets were sold to visiting fans, but tickets are plentiful on the secondary market.

Live mascots aren’t allowed this year. Charles Seiler has it exactly right: the issue with Uga is that he attracts a crowd. He’s a magnet for people, and that’s a situation schools are trying to avoid.

The Redcoat Band and Georgia cheerleaders will be present, but they’ll have reduced squads and will be confined to the stands.

Brooks indicated that there will be artificial noise to augment the Redcoats and fans. An ambient noise level of 70 decibels is allowed, and they can pump it up to 90 decibels after big plays. Again, it’s not likely that someone will be standing on the sideline with a decibel meter, so we’ll see how fast and loose schools are with those limits.

Enjoy!

Hopefully enough people will be mindful so that everyone is able to have a safe time before, during, and after the game. Everyone should know the drill by now, and everyone has agency to know in which situations they’ll be comfortable and to decide where they do and don’t go. Several Athens bars have posted notices that they do not consent to enforcement of local mask ordinances. That’s fine and within the law – they’re giving you the information you need to make informed decisions about your gameday activities. With campus all but shut down, expect downtown to be the epicenter of gatherings and a test of the local ability (and will) to control those gatherings.

I admit – it’s going to be tough to miss my first home game since 1990. I’m genuinely curious to see how both fans and the school pull it off and what impact 20,000 fans can have on a big game. More than anything, I hope those who do attend have a great time, cheer on the Dawgs to a win, and return home without contributing to the spread of a still-active pandemic.


Post Georgia 37 – Arkansas 10: Bennett, defense avoid disaster

Tuesday September 29, 2020

The 2019 season started with a comfortable win at Vanderbilt and then some forgettable blowout nonconference wins to set up the big Notre Dame game. Georgia was out ahead of Vanderbilt 21-0 so quickly that most of us tuned out and began to anticipate that visit from the Irish. There wasn’t much need to look for warning signs, though managing only second half field goals against a bad Vanderbilt team might’ve been more than opening game jitters. Lack of explosive plays and offensive malpractice wouldn’t slap us in the face for a couple of weeks.

The 2020 team and the conference-only schedule have done us a favor: the existential problems facing this team were laid bare right from the start. A true crisis at quarterback and an unsettled offensive line threaten Georgia’s attempt at a fourth-straight SEC East title.

D’Wan Mathis’s debut didn’t last a half. The redshirt freshman never settled into the job, and a big hit clearly affected him. Kirby Smart is correct that many other things contributed to the slow start on offense, but Mathis did few positive things to get things going. I’m glad he was able to get some experience later in the game with the outcome settled, and he seemed a little steadier in a lower-pressure situation. Mathis’s best throw of the day was wiped out by a penalty. That 28-yard sideline pass to McIntosh in the fourth quarter had perfect touch and hit the receiver in stride for a big play.

But the pressure on the quarterback is only going to increase with the quality of opponent. Replacing Mathis with Stetson Bennett had a calming effect similar to Jake Fromm’s entrance against App. State in 2017. Bennett isn’t Fromm. He’s also not Buck Belue coming off the bench to beat Georgia Tech in 1978, though the mop of hair might have you seeing double. To be honest, it felt more like 2006 when Tereshinski and Cox were keeping the seat warm for Stafford. (Also not claiming that JT Daniels is Stafford in this scenario.) Against Arkansas Bennett’s steadying influence under pressure was enough to get the offense going and dispatch an overmatched opponent.

That steadying influence was the difference. It’s not that the offense was all that more productive in the second half. Behind Bennett the offense stopped shooting itself in the foot. Scoring opportunities and field position that came up empty earlier were converted. The touchdown pass to Pickens might have the most important play of the game. Another botched snap on 1st-and-goal made it appear that Georgia was going to waste another scoring opportunity. Facing 2nd-and-goal from the 19, Bennett stayed calm and found a wide-open Pickens who curled back outside to race for the endzone. It’s likely Georgia would have still won, but Georgia would have still trailed midway through the third quarter if they had to settle for a field goal there. After that score and Bennett’s tough 2-point conversion, Georgia never looked back.

Monken’s Debut

Of course it wasn’t the start Todd Monken wanted for his offense. Zoom installs can only do so much, and Monken had to put together an offense with new starters at nearly every position. The numerous penalties and unforced errors made it difficult to evaluate what the offense was trying to do. Once the offense settled down, we began to see a bit of scheme taking shape. Tailbacks were noticeably involved in the passing game, and that was part of a bigger development: 12 different players caught a pass. Pickens had his big touchdown pass, but Jackson looked encouraging as the team’s leading receiver. Bennett was able to spread it around, and Pickens wasn’t the only one getting open and making important receptions.

After several years of Jake Fromm work the sidelines, one of the bigger changes we saw was Bennett finding success across the middle. The seam route to Washington got the late first half scoring drive going. He again found paydirt throwing to a tight end on Fitzpatrick’s touchdown. A nice 20-yard pass to Landers in a small window converted a 3rd-and-10. That was followed up with another pass across the middle to Jackson.

They are what we thought they were

While the offense struggled to mesh so many new pieces, the defense showed off the depth and experience of one of the nation’s top units. There was a costly blown coverage early, but the defense combined with effective special teams to prevent further damage until the offense got going. We saw speed as any Arkansas attempt to get outside was snuffed out quickly. We saw discipline as every Arkansas trick play and attempt at misdirection was blown up. We saw physicality as the Arkansas interior running game went nowhere. If there was a weakness in the defense, it was against crossing routes when the pass rush failed to materialize. That was an issue early in the game with a couple of third down conversions. Even the best defenses are going to have trouble covering if there’s no pass rush, and the Dawgs occasionally had trouble getting much pressure rushing four.

Georgia’s defense should be good enough to carry them in most games, but we saw last year that it’s not going to get them very far towards their bigger goals. If you leave such a razor-thin margin for the defense, one breakdown might just be enough. South Carolina had a single explosive pass play last year, and that was all the offense they needed. Asking even the nation’s best defense to be perfect each week is a big ask, and if the other team is able to add points with defense or special teams, your safety net has just been pulled out from under you. That’s not a winning strategy for a team with playoff aspirations.

Tempo

Kendal Briles brought an up-tempo style of offense of offense to Arkansas, and Georgia was prepared for it. Even with frequent substitutions and situational packages, the Dawgs were able to provide an object lesson in the downside of tempo. 11 Arkansas possessions failed to move the chains. The result was a possession advantage for Georgia of over ten minutes. Though Georgia’s own offense wasn’t especially up-tempo outside of the final drive of the first half, the Bulldogs ran 89 plays – yes, 89. Contrast that with, say, the Texas A&M or Notre Dame games a year ago in which Georgia ran 59 plays.

Be vewy vewy qwiet

One big thing that worked in Georgia’s favor was the crowd. At under 17,000 fans it was a non-factor. I wrote last week about the challenge of getting a team up to play in front of a limited crowd, but there’s another side to that coin. Home underdogs can feed off a frenzied crowd. Things were bad enough for Georgia and its quarterbacks in the first half, but there was never a sense of things snowballing out of control. The mistakes and missed opportunities were more like failed practice reps. It’s much easier to remain composed without a hostile SEC crowd building in volume with each series of futility. A German soccer coach said of playing in front of empty stadiums that “without spectators, it comes down more to the quality of players.” That was certainly the case as Georgia’s talent and depth took over.

  • I flagged Jake Camarda as a player to watch this year because of past inconsistency. He was magnificent on Saturday. Georgia’s offensive struggles were even more frustrating given the outstanding field position created by defense and special teams.
  • Tyson Campbell played well in his return as a healthy defensive back, and DJ Daniel was also solid at cornerback. The performance of Campbell and Stokes on the outside put the star position more in the spotlight. I thought Mark Webb had the better day at star; Stevenson was picked on for some completions.
  • As ragged as the offense was in the first half, it was impressively precise on the quick drive before halftime. Bennett orchestrated it well and started by finding Darnell Washington down the seam. Robertson made a couple of nice catches along the sideline and quickly got out of bounds.
  • The offensive line settled in for the second half, but center issues still have to be worked out. Warren McClendon was an upgrade at right tackle and might have won that job.
  • Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint’s tackle on an Arkansas’s kickoff return is a great way for a freshman to earn more playing time. His tackle pinned Arkansas deep and put pressure on the Razorback offense. Contrast that poor field position with McIntosh’s nice return after the Arkansas field goal that gave Georgia a short field to begin the drive that gave them the lead.
  • Even with plenty of talent on the roster, freshmen were used early and often at key moments. It’s clear that Burton and Rosemy-Jacksaint figure into the plans for the passing game. Washington is already a physical presence at TE. You have to smile at being able to rotate someone like Jalen Carter in on the defensive line.
  • Freshmen didn’t figure as heavily into the running game. Milton and Edwards both saw playing time, but most carries went to White, Cook, and McIntosh. Cook had a fantastic block on the long pass to Landers, but he wasn’t able to break many runs or receptions despite getting the ball in space. He also had a costly fumble. White looks much smoother this year and showed the ability to make people miss if a hole opens up. Unless there’s a big step forward by another back, it’s pretty clear that the fortunes of the Georgia running game this season lie with Zeus. Overall it was a disappointing day running the ball against a defense that struggled to defend the run last season.

I credit the team for not falling to pieces or getting too off-script when things weren’t working. Eliminating unforced mistakes will go a long ways towards a more productive offense, and we saw some of what’s possible in the second half.


Post 20 disjointed thoughts about a disjointed 2020 season

Saturday September 26, 2020
  1. Nothing is guaranteed. It wasn’t a given that we’d get here, and each of the ten games we’re able to see is a gift. I’ve written plenty about my personal decisions regarding the season, but I’ve always been more optimistic about the season itself. That’s not because of some cold indifference to the realities. The SEC has the resources to study and minimize the risks; many other conferences and teams do not. That doesn’t mean that the league has avoided localized outbreaks. It just means that the protocols have been put in place to manage those outbreaks. In doing so the SEC is in a position to forge ahead with a compelling schedule while being in a position to take advantage of the improved testing and other advances that have allowed other leagues back in the pool.
  2. I’ve been especially impressed by Kirby Smart’s navigation of the offseason. Georgia has had coaching changes, attrition, injuries, and of course positive tests. At no point did you ever get the sense that he was out of step with the moment. Smart’s statements about player safety and the program’s response to social issues have avoided the tone-deaf missteps we saw at other programs. Georgia has had its share of positive tests, but the response was to follow the protocols in place, avoid panic and hysteria, and push forward. The result is a team that has largely held together since early June and been able to prepare as much as SEC and NCAA guidelines allowed.
  3. In a way, the uncertainty of this season is a bit thrilling. We’ve never done a season like this before, and there’s no analogue for what we’re about to see. There’s a single bye week but no break at all from the SEC grind. In Georgia’s case, that’s especially true through the first half of the season. Things could get wild, and that’s before we talk about more serious matters like canceled or postponed games and rosters thrown into chaos by quarantine.
  4. In strictly football terms, I’m excited for this season because of the format: ten SEC games. If the league is able to make it through the schedule, we should see something special. The plan is to return to scheduling-as-usual next year, but hopefully we’ll get too much of a good thing this year to ever want to go back. People talk about an asterisk for this year’s champion, but the team that emerges from a 10-game SEC slate will be more worthy than any previous team.
  5. I will miss playing Tech. I know that game means less to an increasing number of fans, but it’s a series that needs to resume after this season.
  6. With several other conferences announcing their return, the playoff committee will have quite a job. They’ll have to weigh teams playing a different number of games at different times of the fall with few intersectional games to aid comparison between conferences. If we get to that point, there will be enough outrage and talking points to fuel weeks of punditry. Just enjoy the season. The ten-game SEC season is the main course. If there’s more beyond that, great.
  7. D’Wan Mathis will start at quarterback.
  8. I’m less confident that Mathis will finish the season as the starter. That’s not a knock on him. We’re still waiting for J.T. Daniels to be cleared. Mathis could take the decision away from the coaches ala Jake Fromm in 2017. We could see shared playing time like 2018, though hopefully Monken’s rotation would have more purpose and tactical reasoning behind it. If we do see multiple quarterbacks, the best case is that Daniels can be slowly worked in. Even if he’s cleared, he’s still a year removed from knee surgery (and has had cleanup work since.) It’s much better if he can be used when and if it makes sense and not because the team’s hand is forced. Worst case is Mathis flops and Daniels must be rushed along. Scratch that – worst case is that Mathis struggles, Daniels isn’t cleared or ready, and Georgia must turn again to a true freshman.
  9. Count me among those who expects Monken to be an upgrade. I’m not looking for anything specific scheme-wise from Monken. He’s been around long enough to have a varied toolkit. I’m most interested to see how the pieces come together. Is he able to run what he wants with new starters at every position but center? Is he making the most of Georgia’s talent advantages and doing what he can to compensate for disadvantages? Does so much change on offense manifest itself in turnovers, sacks, penalties, or miscommunication with players and coaches not on the same page?
  10. Monken’s not the only new coach on offense, and I’d like to see the differences Matt Luke brings to Georgia’s offensive line. For the bowl game his only concern was cobbling together a functional line. Now he’s had some time to get to know and evaluate his unit. Pittman was a wonderful coach and recruiter, but he also had a preference for a large, physical line that suited Georgia’s straight-ahead power style of play. The pendulum might swing back under Luke towards a lighter line that might work better with Monken’s more open and faster-paced offense. This isn’t so much a good/bad question as it is curiosity about how a new coach tries to solve a slightly different set of problems.
  11. I’m bullish on Zeus. He has the skills and size to be a powerful SEC tailback, and the second year after an ACL surgery is almost as bankable as the second-year coach effect. I’m not as sold yet on Cook. We’re told he just hasn’t been used properly, but he’s also had several opportunities to make big plays. It hasn’t clicked yet. With the changes to the offense, there aren’t many excuses left. Hopefully he thrives, but younger backs like Milton are waiting for their opening.
  12. Georgia lost six defensive linemen from last year’s roster, and there’s still more excitement about that unit than I’ve seen in years. I see why – there’s a ton of experience, bona-fide stars like Herring and Davis, and Travon Walker was one of last season’s top freshmen. Any list of newcomers to watch in 2020 leads with Jalen Carter. Tray Scott has quietly upgraded the defensive front year after year.
  13. The overall talent on defense is staggering. The questions then become about roles and the best ways to deploy that talent. Roquan Smith and J.R. Reed became invaluable not only for their individual contributions but also for their roles orchestrating the defense on the field. Even among a galaxy of stars, someone like Nakobe Dean might shine brighter this year. The bright middle linebacker saw plenty of time behind Crowder and Rice as a true freshman and is in a position to become that next defensive leader.
  14. One thing I’d like to see from the defense is for one or more of the outside linebackers to emerge with an all-conference season. The depth is ridiculous with Ojulari, Smith, Johnson, Grant, Anderson, and now Sherman. These are all special players with unique skill sets (just watch how Anderson is used when he’s in the game.) I’d just like to see someone have the kind of season where it’s tough to take them out of the game.
  15. I’ve already mentioned Jalen Carter, but we’re also hearing good things about freshmen receivers Jermaine Burton and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint. Georgia will need early contributions from those freshmen receivers as Blaylock is out for the season and the tight end position unsettled.
  16. Why is the TE position unsettled? We’re still not sure of its role in Monken’s offense. This might be one of those instances I mentioned above where what Monken wants to run is constrained by personnel. Tre McKitty is out in the short term. Seldom-used John FitzPatrick as the likely starter. Great expectations came with the signing of 5* Darnell Washington from Las Vegas. He’ll play, but he’s still getting into playing shape.
  17. I’m not as concerned with the offensive line as I am other areas of the offense. There’s plenty of experience despite four new starters. It’s still a big job to replace two first-round tackles. Salyer has the pedigree to be just fine at left tackle, but there aren’t many options if he’s not up to the job.
  18. “Explosive” is this year’s “havoc.” After last year’s South Carolina debacle, I noted that “not all successful plays are equal.” The explosive runs that had defined Georgia in 2017 and 2018 disappeared. Though the running game could still get nearly 5 yards per carry, the lack of explosive runs meant that the offense had to work its way down the field in smaller chunks. That was too much to ask, and we all saw the results. With no real threat to break big plays in either the running game or the downfield passing game, the offense suffocated.
  19. It looks as if Jack Podlesny has won the placekicking job (again, for now.) It’s good to see some special teams coverage in among the daily QB updates. We’ve seen some spectacular special teams failures in the first three weeks, and Georgia is only replacing the placekicker, both returners, and the special teams coach. These are the areas that might seem like a nuisance at Arkansas but can turn games against Auburn or Alabama.
  20. I admit it’s been tough at times to get my head around the upcoming season and to put nearly the same energy into it especially knowing that I won’t be there in person to see it. There are enough reminders that nothing, including our beloved college football, is close to business as usual. I’ve come to grips with that – there are circumstances, issues, and causes that can’t and shouldn’t go away just because the season is going forward. In a year where we’ve been forced to take things a day at a time, I’m grateful that this day is finally Game Day. May we have many more.

Post Getting their ass ready to play

Thursday September 24, 2020

Playing with no or few fans in the stands is the ultimate noon kickoff. Schools will do whatever they can to artificially create noise and a homefield advantage, but my takeaway watching the first couple of weeks of football has been that nearly every game has the vibe of those sleepy noon starts regardless of the start time. (The exception was Notre Dame’s home opener. It’s no coincidence that Notre Dame’s ticket policy limited attendance to students and the university community.) That means that teams will generally not have a raucous home environment and must, as Kirby Smart put it before the South Carolina game last year, “get (their) ass ready to play” on their own.

We haven’t had much experience with this phenomenon in the States, but European soccer teams play in front of empty crowds occasionally – most often as punishment for unruly or abusive fans. They’ve also played without fans this spring and summer during the pandemic. An ESPN study found that empty stadiums eroded homefield advantage in the German Bundesliga. “The vibe is a little bit off to be fair,” admitted one player.

The lack of fans might even affect how the games are officiated. Refs are human and, right or wrong, can get caught up in the crowd reaction. Sports Illustrated cited a study from Sweden concluding that “the favorable calls conferred on the home team dropped by 23%–70%” depending on the type of foul. Even more, “they noted that the same referees overseeing the same two teams in the same stadium behaved dramatically differently when spectators were present.” Few calls are as exposed to fan reaction as pass interference, so it will be worth watching who does and doesn’t get those calls this year.

These studies dealt mainly with completely empty venues, and there’s not enough experience yet with crowds the size we’re likely to see across the SEC. It’s not likely that homefield advantage will evaporate, but I think the noon game paradigm is the right way to approach preparation. Georgia has been on both sides of that coin: we all remember last year’s South Carolina game or the 2016 games with Nicholls and Vanderbilt, but there’s also the upset win at Auburn in 2006 or Nick Chubb’s breakout game at Missouri in 2014. The Dawgs have generally been able to focus on the game at hand under Kirby Smart, but there won’t be the frenzied home crowds or even the road takeovers that have become the norm.

The good news for Georgia? “Without spectators, it comes down more to the quality of players,” claimed one German soccer coach. Georgia doesn’t lack for quality players. That said, those players have to be ready to go. Whether it was the horrific faceplant of the Big 12 or Tech knocking off FSU in week 1, less-talented but motivated road underdogs can knock off sleepwalking home favorites without the home crowd to wake things up. Those road teams can isolate and focus on the “business trip” routine. Preparing players to match and surpass the energy level of their opponents will be even more important this year than it usually is, and it will all have to come from inside the team.


Post Viewing the 2020 season through six players

Wednesday September 23, 2020

These six probable starters might or might not end up being the best or even most important players at their positions, but they’re interesting starting points for thinking about some of the bigger issues facing this year’s team.

Tyson Campbell: There aren’t many questions on Georgia’s defense, but the secondary is seeing the most turnover on that side of the ball. Lewis Cine seems set to replace J.R. Reed at safety. Cornerback is a little less settled. Despite overall good depth in the secondary, Divaad Wilson’s transfer and an injury to Kelee Ringo leaves coaches with fewer options at cornerback. We know Eric Stokes is set on one side, but the other cornerback spot is still up for grabs. DJ Daniel has the experience to do the job, but Campbell is itching to show why he was a five-star national top 25 prospect in 2018.

Campbell lost the starting job as a true freshman in 2018 to Stokes. He was again expected to start in 2019 and replace Deandre Baker, but a nagging turf toe injury sidelined him for a good chunk of the season and led coaches to rely more on Daniel. Daniel is back, as is Tyrique Stephenson, so it’s not a given that Campbell will start as a junior. We should expect to see a lot more of him though now that he’s unencumbered by injury.

Georgia’s rush defense was among the best in the nation in 2019, and many of those front seven defenders return. The passing defense wasn’t far off; they were 8th in pass efficiency defense. Still, it might’ve been a little lucky that Georgia faced a slew of backup quarterbacks later in the 2019 season. If the rush defense is stout again, the pass defense will be the true measure of how good this defense can be. If that other cornerback spot firms up this year, that creates extra time for people like Nolan Smith, Jermaine Johnson, and Azeez Ojulari to get to the quarterback. Beyond that, success on passing downs will determine whether the defense earns its reputation. Can they get off the field on third down? Can they take advantage of down and distance to create turnovers? Can they prevent explosive throws over the top? If Stokes’s presence forces quarterbacks to look elsewhere, the opposite cornerback figures to be picked on. That’s the opportunity for Campbell. Is the third time the charm?

George Pickens: Pickens lived up to his five-star billing – you know him from his acrobatic catches, his dominant first half against Baylor, or his arrangement of a meeting between a Tech defensive back and the wall of Bobby Dodd Stadium. His flair for the spectacular and his unquestioned physical ability makes him one of the most exciting Georgia wideouts of the past ten seasons.

The question is whether Pickens is ready to go from the occasional highlight to being a more consistent and reliable leader of the receiving corps. The fortunes of Georgia’s passing game ebbed and flowed in 2019 with Lawrence Cager’s health. Pickens was able to pick up some – though not all – of the slack, and of course the quarterback had his own issues. As much as Fromm leaned on Cager in big midseason moments, Cager’s absence late in the year meant that Pickens emerged as Georgia’s leading receiver. Pickens’s 12 receptions and 175 yards against Baylor saw him run away from the pack.

Pickens was rarely dominant, but that’s a lot to ask for from a true freshman in a struggling offense. He had a single game with over 100 receiving yards and was largely held in check from the Florida game through the end of the regular season. The good news is that the trend is positive. Six of his eight touchdown receptions came in the last half of the season, and he scored in each of the team’s final four games. Arguably his best football came against quality opponents in a game and a half of postseason play. Those 16 postseason receptions are the encouraging part – Pickens had a combined two receptions against Notre Dame, Florida, and Auburn while posting better numbers against weaker opponents.

Five of Georgia’s top seven receivers in 2019 are gone or unavailable in 2020. The two who return are senior Demetris Robertson and Pickens. Robertson, another former five-star prospect, has found it more difficult to become a standout after transferring in from Cal. There’s a group of returning receivers with experience but little production. Kearis Jackson made a splash right away at Vanderbilt but injured himself on his best play. The speedy Jackson could get a look at some return duty and as a slot receiver. Matt Landers has battled some bad drops, but his size and consistent effort continue to earn him playing time. Will that cut it in the new offense? Tommy Bush is another tall target who battled injuries in 2019, and we’re not sure yet what his upside can be.

Whether or not Pickens, Robertson, and the others can step up, Georgia will still rely on one of the nation’s top receiver signing classes. The Bulldogs brought in five receivers. Four rated among the top 150 players in the nation. Speedster Arian Smith had offseason surgery, so it might be later in the season until he sees the field. Three of the others – Justin Robinson, Jermaine Burton, and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint – could be early contributors. They might not have the impact Pickens had but as a group could be key to Georgia’s passing game success.

Trey Hill: What an offseason of change for Georgia’s offensive line. Coach Sam Pittman is gone, three starters were drafted by the NFL, and another abruptly transferred to Tennessee. That leaves Hill as the lone returning starter from a unit that has been considered the identity of the Georgia offense since 2017. But Kirby Smart is rarely caught unprepared, and the program managed such a major transition about as well as it could.

Former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke was brought in before the bowl game to replace Pittman and did well to assemble a shorthanded group. It might be more important that Luke was able to hold onto another impressive recruiting class of linemen. Georgia saw a single defection from the class, and key commitments at tackle and center remained on board. That group of signees is part of another reason why Georgia can survive so many changes from a year ago. The losses hurt, but the cupboard isn’t bare. Consistent quality recruiting along the offensive line over the last several classes means that Georgia won’t be scrambling and rushed to play those true freshmen. Though four starters must be replaced, all but one of the replacements have starting experience.

Though Ben Cleveland, perhaps the lone Mark Richt commitment left in the program, has started games since 2017, Hill’s 18 starts are tops among Georgia’s linemen. He wasn’t a natural center and has had shaky moments, but he’s grown into the role and will now have to lead a new group of linemen playing for a new position coach protecting a new quarterback in a new offense. Georgia has signed other centers since Hill took over. Clay Webb and, most recently, Sedrick Van Pran are available in reserve, but the stability and experience Hill brings to an important position is one of the few elements of continuity on an overhauled offense. Georgia will face some of the more difficult defensive fronts in the conference early in the season, so this reconfigured line won’t have long to get it together.

Zamir White: Who was Georgia’s leading returning rusher heading into the 2012 season? Isaiah Crowell (850 yards) was dismissed. Carlton Thomas (361 yards) graduated. That meant that Brandon Harton, whose 247 yards just edged out Richard Samuel’s 240, was Georgia’s top returning tailback heading into 2012. Harton had seen mostly garbage time duty in 2011, but injuries to Crowell and Samuel thrust Harton into the spotlight against Kentucky. He responded with 101 yards against the Wildcats to help Georgia clinch its first SEC East title since 2005.

Georgia’s tailback situation changed dramatically in 2012. Gurley and Marshall arrived to begin a run that arguably surpassed the 1980s as the golden age of Georgia tailbacks. Over the next seven years Georgia didn’t only have standout tailbacks; they weaved a depth chart that ensured there was a proven and productive back in place for the following season. The Gurley/Marshall era overlapped with the Chubb/Michel era which overlapped with the Swift/Holyfield era.

The next transition seemed to be set up with the 2018 signing of Zamir White and James Cook. A series of knee injuries delayed White’s debut, and Cook never really found his role in Georgia’s power offense. White eventually got his chance in 2019, but carries were tough to come by, and coaches were slow to place much of a load on someone coming off two knee surgeries. With Swift and Herrien sidelined for the Sugar Bowl, White posted his season high in carries (18) and yards (92) with one touchdown against Baylor. White ended the season with 408 rushing yards – the fewest yards for Georgia’s leading returning tailback since that pivotal 2012 season.

As with 2012, the tailback position is at a crossroads entering 2020. White and Cook are expected to lead the pack, but they won’t be the only options. Kenny McIntosh earned some tough yards as a freshman. Five-star Kendall Milton will arrive from California as the next heralded Bulldog tailback prospect. Daijun Edwards stood tall in the meatgrinder of south Georgia prep football. It’s less likely that 2020 will follow 2012 though. Milton and Edwards, while solid prospects, don’t carry the expectations of Gurley and Marshall. More to the point, White and Cook are better than the returning backs in 2012. White is ready to step into the lead back role and can hopefully follow Chubb’s lead of a strong season two years after knee surgery. Cook has the tools to thrive in a more open offense. He’ll also be a receiving option out of the backfield, and he is expected to be in the mix to return kicks.

Georgia has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2014. There are two or three backs capable of continuing that streak, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Zeus.

Malik Herring: It’s been a while since the Georgia defensive line has produced a star. In fact, Georgia hasn’t had a defensive lineman drafted since John Jenkins in 2013. Promising prospects like Trenton Thompson and Tyler Clark had to go the free agent route. That drought should end soon, and it is likely to start with Herring. Herring really began to make a name for himself in dismantling Tech’s option attack in 2018, and he quietly became an important – and consistent – standout on Georgia’s improved defensive front in 2019. Georgia’s linemen tend not to get a ton of stats in the 3-4 scheme, and Herring is no exception. But the advanced stats say that Herring does his job well. ESPN considers him the top returning edge defender in the SEC.

Jordan Davis is the plug in the middle. Travon Walker is poised to move from a third-down role to an every-down matchup problem on the opposite side. It’s going to be tough to keep freshman Jalen Carter off the field. It’s Herring though and his ability to control the edge that could set Georgia’s defensive line apart. The defensive line could and should take a step forward in terms of visibility this year, but the real value is the opportunities that a disruptive defensive line create for the wealth of havoc-creating talent at linebacker.

Jake Camarda: Right…Monken’s offense is never going to punt. Just in case, Camarda deserves a bit of scrutiny as one of the more veteran members of Georgia’s special teams. He wasn’t quite able to shake his inconsistency as a sophomore; a 27-yard punt shanked out of bounds a midfield was nearly disastrous against Notre Dame. Even with that inconsistency, Camarda might be the one area of special teams that’s fairly stable.

The big question is placekicking. Camarda might not only figure in punting. He’ll be looked at, along with incoming freshman Jared Zirkel, to replace Rodrigo Blankenship as placekicker. Camarda handled PK duties in high school and was more than competent. If Zirkel isn’t quite ready yet, Camarda could become twice as important. Walk-on junior Jake Podlesny is another option at placekicker.

Georgia will also see new returners in 2020 after a very unremarkable 2019. A stingy defense meant there weren’t many kicks to return, and Brian Herrien was the most productive kick returner. Most punt returns were handled by Dominick Blaylock or Tyler Simmons. Neither return unit scored in 2019, and there were very few explosive returns to help a struggling offense with good field position. James Cook returned four kicks in 2019, and he seems to be the leading candidate to handle the job in 2020. Punt returns might be even more wide-open. Kearis Jackson is the only returning player with punt return experience, but some of the speedy newcomers could also get a look.

We don’t really think much about specialists until things go wrong or unless they have special moments like Blankenship or McKenzie. Let’s hope for the latter.


Post The twilight of the paper ticket

Friday August 28, 2020

The pandemic has served to hasten the move across sports to digital ticketing. Tickets at Georgia and other schools will be delivered to and managed on the ticketholder’s phone. From a public health standpoint it makes sense. Digital tickets are contactless at the gate, and selling/transferring tickets on the secondary market doesn’t require a face-to-face meeting.

It’s necessary but unfortunate that the days are numbered for the paper ticket. The arrival of the sheet of season tickets in August was a day many fans anticipated. Each year’s design was a little different and more elaborate. The bigger point is that the ticket was a tangible memento of the game and our presence at it.

I was reminded of Scott Duvall’s (of the Waitin’ Since Last Saturday podcast) table project that showcased his collection of ticket stubs. You can point to any spot on the table and dive into the history, stats, stories, and memories represented by that ticket. I expect many of us have a collection of stubs whether tucked away in a box in the closet or even turned into a showcase like Duvall’s. Most of the tickets are run-of-the-mill home game tickets, but the 2007 Blackout game or the 2013 LSU game is worth highlighting. Maybe there’s a special place for that Rose Bowl or Notre Dame ticket. That 2002 Alabama or 1997 Florida game? That’s in there too.

As Duvall predicted, “the proliferation of electronic and print-at-home tickets will surely slow the pace of collecting more (stubs.)” That proliferation hit the afterburners this year, and there’s no going back. There are too many benefits to the issuer to go digital: digital tickets are harder to counterfeit, easier and cheaper to produce and deliver, and they can be tied to a team-managed gameday experience.

Pro teams are well out in front of this trend. Tickets are tied to a team app that manages everything from parking to concessions to movement throughout the arena or stadium. Alabama made news last year for using this location tracking to monitor how many students stayed until the bitter end.

Once tickets and the gameday experience are routed through a team-controlled app, marketers will have plenty of data to mine. As the CEO of the group that owns Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium put it, “I will know when you come in, and what you buy and when.” That sounds more menacing than it’s meant to, but the truth is that there’s a lot of valuable information wrapped up in the preferences and behaviors of top-dollar customers. As Georgia caters more to Magill-level fans and seeks to move more fans into that tier, data is key to reaching those people.

For now it’s just ticketing that’s moving to the digital platform. It won’t be seamless; older and lower-income fans might not have the technology to use these tickets, and accommodations will have to be considered. During the pandemic it might mean that some people are unable to attend games. For those of us who have that box of stubs, we won’t be adding much to it. Sports fans are still sports fans, and our deep attachment to nostalgia won’t disappear. We’ll just need something a little less tangible to trigger it.


Post Why I opted out

Thursday August 27, 2020

In April I posted a few thoughts about my decision to renew season tickets for the 2020 season during the early stages of the pandemic. I concluded that “renewing season tickets now bought me time to watch and wait and make a more informed decision months from now.”

The time for that decision is now. Georgia and the SEC plan to play football. The league is leaving attendance policies up to the individual schools based on local regulations, and most schools, including Georgia, will be at around 20% capacity. With a month or so to reallocate tickets under the new arrangement, Georgia had one question for its donors and season ticket holders: are you in or out? Fans had until yesterday, August 26th, to decide whether to opt in to the pool of applicants for tickets or opt out for the 2020 season.

It was a difficult decision, but I have opted out and will miss home games for the first time since 1990. In my April post, I outlined a few criteria I had in mind for attending games, and I don’t believe that we’re there yet. I’m encouraged by the trends in Georgia as we come down from a summer peak, but there is still considerable community transmission. Our therapeutic toolkit has improved since the spring, but the most promising treatments are still in trials. It’s possible (and likely) that the numbers and available treatments will be even better in a month’s time as we kick off, but we’re being asked to make a decision now based on information at hand.

There’s more to it than just the medical risk. For many of us the social element of gameday is as important as the action on the field. It’s an opportunity to bring together friends and groups from around the state (and beyond) and rekindle family bonds and traditions that span generations. It’s a cliché that football is a religion in the South, but gameday sure does seem like a ritual.

We don’t know yet whether tailgating will be allowed. (On-campus tailgating, that is. Off-campus tailgating won’t be under the University’s control but will still have to follow state and local regulations for gatherings.) It’s safe to say though that the social element of gameday will be disrupted. You and your friends could receive tickets to different games. You won’t be sitting in the same location around the same group with whom you’ve gone through the highs and lows of each season. You will park, go to the game, maybe catch a bite in town, and head home. We’ve all probably gone to a game in that way before, and it’s pretty much how I attend basketball games. It’s not how most of us prefer to spend a football Saturday. Those changes are understandable and necessary just to have anyone in the stands this year, but for the trouble, the risks, and the uncertainty of seat location and game, the at-home setup – or watching the game at a private and distanced tailgate – sounds pretty good this year.

Georgia’s refund policy made the decision easier. The policy allows us to convert this year’s sunk costs into priority points or a refund. More importantly, I’ll keep my seat location and priority going forward regardless of my opt-in/out decision. I chose to convert my donation since it is meant to support all of Georgia’s programs and not just football. Others need the refund, and it’s the minimum of decency to offer that option without penalty for the 2021 season.

Much has changed since April. We’ve learned a tremendous amount, but that’s led to other questions. One thing that’s remained unchanged is this: as things reopen and events resume, we can control our participation. We each have our own risk tolerance and financial situation, and its our responsibility to make our own decisions based on the best available information. I’m glad that Georgia’s policy allowed some flexibility with very little downside, and I would have been disappointed with the program had a less generous policy been offered. I’ll very much miss attending games if they’re played – I’ve been to every home game since I enrolled. I’ll miss just as much seeing the usual crew and reuniting with my extended family inside and outside of the stadium. I see those as small sacrifices for myself and my family to navigate safely through this pandemic. You might disagree, and please bark twice as loud for me.

With my decision over and done with, I just hope they can play safely. Wear your mask.