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Post Georgia 27 – Missouri 0: Defense dominates

Tuesday November 12, 2019

You didn’t have to look far during the preseason to see talk about Missouri coming to Athens undefeated with an 8-0 record. That wasn’t an unrealistic expectation: there were no ranked opponents and quite a few below-average ones. They’d be favored in every game until November. The Tigers had some talent, finished 2018 well, and added Kelly Bryant as a graduate transfer quarterback. Missouri was your darkhorse contender if you wanted to look beyond the obvious Georgia or Florida pick without looking completely insane.

Missouri’s opening loss at Wyoming was an immediate shock to the system, but even that result could be explained with some awful turnover luck. Mizzou outgained Wyoming 537-389 but gave up 27 points in a second quarter implosion. Missouri rebounded and began to look like the team they were expected to be. As recently as early October, the SP+ metric considered them a top 10 team.

Then the Troy game happened. Mizzou won easily, but Bryant took a low hit that knocked him out of the game. Linebacker Cale Garrett, arguably the heart and soul of the stout Missouri defense, was lost for the season. Still, October losses at Vanderbilt and Kentucky were unexpected and all but ended Missouri’s status as an edgy pick to contend in the SEC East. You now had the dichotomy of world-beaters Home Missouri and hapless Road Missouri. Fortunately Georgia was due to face Road Missouri.

Missouri’s October losses took some of the shine off of their trip to Athens, but the game still fell on Georgia’s schedule between an emotional win in Jacksonville and an anticipated rivalry game at Auburn. That spot on the schedule plus Missouri’s expected strong start led a lot of Georgia fans to circle this game on the schedule. Even at 5-3 the Tigers were still a top 25 team according to SP+ based largely on a top 15 defense that hadn’t allowed over 30 points all season. With a Georgia offense that struggled in its last two home games against defenses not as good as Missouri’s, it was reasonable to expect a close game.

If you paid attention to what the advanced stats said about Missouri, you knew it wasn’t likely to be pretty for the Georgia offense. As Nathan Lawrence wrote, “it’s hard for me to imagine that (the Georgia offense) will suddenly light up the world against a defense that, in many statistics, is higher ranked than they are.”

In that context, I’m not that disappointed with the offense’s performance. The Dawgs created seven scoring opportunities against a good defense, and they did it with multiple injuries on the offensive line and without their most productive receiver in the second half. Yes, it’s an issue that only two touchdowns came from all of those scoring opportunities. It’s also not hard to see, with a makeable Blankenship field goal and proper alignment on Pickens’s third touchdown, at least another ten points.

It wasn’t Fromm’s best game, but he also avoided the costly mistakes that could have turned this into a South Carolina-like game. Georgia at least started strong with an impressive scoring drive marching 60 yards in 6 plays, and Fromm was sharp early on a couple of third down conversions. The Dawgs put up points on their first and third drives, and only an uncharacteristic drop by Cager on a wide-open pass play stalled a likely scoring drive on Georgia’s second possession. This wasn’t a game like Kentucky or even South Carolina in which a slow start by the offense made fans nervous and gave the opponent hope.

Two big takeaways from this game. First of course was the defense. Missouri shelved Bryant, and that limited an offense that was already having issues. The Tigers, behind Larry Rountree III, had a running game ranked around the middle of the SEC, but it was going to be tough going on the ground without a credible downfield passing game (sound familiar?) With Missouri’s 172 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns a year ago fresh on their minds, the Georgia defense held the Tigers to 50 rushing yards, 2.1 yards per carry, and once again kept an opponent out of the endzone.

Georgia remained adept at limiting the big play: Missouri had a single reception of 20 yards and a single run of 12 yards, and that was the sum of Missouri’s explosiveness. Georgia did well against Missouri’s most dangerous receiver, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, limiting the junior to 4 catches for 30 yards. As with Florida’s Kyle Pitts, Georgia defended Okwuegbunam more like a receiver. Freshman cornerback Tyrique Stevenson saw his most significant playing time of the year and was a big part of the gameplan against Okwuegbunam. Without the big play and with Okwuegbunam held in check, Missouri was just not going to have the firepower to move the ball on Georgia.

The Tigers did have one sequence in the first half on which they were able to string together a couple of plays. An unfavorable bounce on a Georgia punt set Missouri up near midfield. They drove 30 yards to the Georgia 24, but quarterback Taylor Powell forced a pass into double coverage. Richard LeCounte made an athletic play to come over the top for the interception, and he returned the pick 71 yards. It was as close as this game had to a turning point. Missouri threatened to chip into Georgia’s 10-0 lead, but the Tigers wouldn’t cross midfield again until their long drive in fourth quarter garbage time.

The second takeaway was the emergence of George Pickens. With Cager injured, Georgia needed someone to step up at receiver, and Pickens did. We saw in September the kind of potential he had, but it had been slow going as Georgia got into the SEC schedule. It was encouraging to see Pickens buy into the blocking aspect of his job. That’s paying off with more playing time and now a tie for the team lead in receiving touchdowns. Each of his (three) touchdowns on Saturday showcased something different: the first showed tremendous effort to twist and dive towards the goal line from five yards out with three defenders closing in. The second showed the hands and body control Pickens had teased earlier in the year. The third touchdown that was called back showed speed and separation as he got behind the defense. Even if Cager is able to play going forward, Georgia will need (at least) one more credible receiving threat to challenge defenses. Pickens looked like that threat against Missouri.

  • Missouri ran a tailback named Dawson Downing on their goal line series. Monty Rice delivered the Code Red.
  • Rice’s stop at the one-yard line reminded me of the stop he had to keep Mississippi State out of the endzone at the end of the 2017 game. Rice really does not like people getting into his endzone.
  • Rice and Tae Crowder led the way against the compact Missouri offense. The two combined for 13 tackles.
  • Return yardage helped kickstart Georgia’s offense. Blaylock’s 18-yard return after Missouri’s first possession shortened the field for the offense, and one long pass to Cager was enough to get Georgia into scoring range. Blaylock ended up averaging 8.5 yards on 4 returns. With the defense forcing three-and-outs and some decent punt returns, starting field position was usually in Georgia’s favor. Isn’t that how a dominant defense is supposed to work?
  • Stevenson had a good game, and it was also a plus to see Tyson Campbell back out there. Campbell made his presence known early with a pass breakup across the middle.
  • With Georgia replacing its center twice, you knew that the snap would be something to watch. Mays and Salyer generally did well, but there were a couple of errant snaps that derailed a couple of drives. Fortunately that was as bad as it got, and Georgia avoided turning it over.
  • Yes, Swift was open on a third down pass at the goal line, and Fromm missed it. There was an errant snap on that play too, and it disrupted Fromm’s rhythm especially with a blitzing defender coming free off the edge. Once he controlled the ball, Fromm really only wanted to get the ball out, and it wasn’t necessarily thrown to the best option.
  • Much is being made about how there aren’t many superstars on this defense. That’s true, and I think it will change, but Georgia’s depth is leading to specialization that allows the coaches to play exactly the right guy for a certain situation and make use of each player’s strengths.
  • The misdirection sweep to Robertson was a nice counter to Missouri’s aggressive defense. I thought we might see more of it. It’s been a while since all of the orbit motion and jet sweeps that Georgia featured at Vanderbilt, but Georgia has more than enough talent to run those plays, and those plays make defenses pay for keying on the inside zone.
  • Swiss Army Knife Cade Mays has now played all five positions on the offensive line (not to mention tight end) during meaningful action. That’s an indispensable player to have available, and as former Georgia lineman John Theus noted on Twitter, that versatility is very sought after at the next level.
  • The halftime salute to veterans was extremely well done. The music was outstanding, and the new light system was put to sublime use.
  • Florida travels to CoMo this weekend. Is there any Home Missouri magic left this season>?

A final takeaway was the injuries. Fortunately most seem minor, and Cager will continue to soldier on with the shoulder problems that have nagged him for most of the season. The biggest concern is the offensive line, and you want it as close to full strength as possible for one of the nation’s best defensive fronts. Wilson returned to the game, and that was great news. Early reports indicate that Mays should be OK also. Hill had his ankle rolled, and his status will get the most scrutiny. Even if Hill is unable to go, we should be confident in Mays on the interior, and he’ll have a week to work on his snaps rather than coming in cold off the bench. It’s not just getting the snap off and blocking the big guy on the other side – the center is often the one making calls and audibles along the offensive line. Georgia will also have some time to work on that communication in practice this week.


Post Georgia 24 – Florida 17: Blind squirrel finds third straight nut

Monday November 4, 2019

Let’s get right to the big-picture stuff: Georgia beat Florida for the third straight season. It’s Georgia’s second three-game winning streak over the Gators in the 2010s, and they’ve won the decade (six wins to four) for the first time since the 1980s. The win didn’t clinch the SEC East for Georgia, but it puts the Dawgs in the division lead with an important head-to-head tiebreaker in hand. Georgia must win at least two of its final three SEC games to control its own fate in the division. For those of us whose Georgia fandom came of age in the 1990s, it’s been a surreal and enjoyable decade in Jacksonville.

It’s impossible though to talk about this game without placing it in the context of the past month. Georgia was a near-unanimous pick in the preseason to win the division (and this game). But the loss to South Carolina, the sluggish offense against Kentucky, and Florida’s relatively successful season changed the outlook during the bye week. Georgia was still favored by Vegas and SP+, but the Gators had become a popular pick among the punditry. Florida had found new life with quarterback Kyle Trask, beaten Auburn, and held their own at LSU. Their only loss had been to the #1 team in the nation, and they’d be big favorites in their remaining games if they could somehow get past Georgia. Meanwhile Georgia faced nearly three weeks of internal and external criticism and doubt. In the last game they played, the Georgia team faced boos from their home crowd, were shut out in the first half, and managed a whole 35 passing yards. That performance came a week after one of the worst home upset losses in program history.

It was unrealistic to expect either black-and-white redemption or condemnation for Georgia’s offense in Jacksonville. We know they were capable of much more than they had shown against Kentucky (or even South Carolina), but this wasn’t going to become a wide-open points machine in two weeks. It’s true: Georgia showed a few wrinkles we hadn’t seen. They involved the backs in the passing game. They had some success, even with tight ends, across the middle. I still don’t think anyone, especially members of the coaching staff, should be taking victory laps about the offense’s performance. More scoring opportunities ended with field goals rather than touchdowns. Georgia’s rushing production was well off its season average and even slightly below what Florida had been giving up. Georgia’s offense didn’t reinvent the wheel in this game. They didn’t turn it over, and Lawrence Cager was available for the entire game. That’s been enough to win games this season. Is it capable of more?

It’s not being overly critical to say that Georgia’s offense was competent against a good defense. It relied a bit too much on third down conversions, but we can also credit the coaches for having plays ready for those situations and the players for consistent execution on third downs. Georgia has been fairly good (putting it modestly) on early downs, but it wasn’t in this game, especially on second down. Yes, Georgia’s success on third down was tremendous, and hah-hah “Third and Grantham”, but it’s not ideal to face 18 third downs in any game. The running game had one of its lower outputs of the season, and we saw early on that Florida wanted to challenge Georgia’s run blocking with a bear defensive front. Runs became more productive as the game went on, but Swift’s gallop just before halftime was the only real explosive run in the game for either team. The Dawgs ran enough to control the clock and set up play-action, but the real damage had to be done through the air.

Most of all we can credit the pass protection. Facing a third down of most any distance you know to expect pressure and a defense anticipating a pass play. Florida doesn’t have a stout defensive interior with a dominant player like Javon Kinlaw, but they do have some of the better outside pass rushers in the SEC. The Georgia offensive line was as healthy as it’s been in some time, and it showed. The Bulldogs were able to use Cade Mays strategically as a blocking tight end or rotate him in at guard with Cleveland. When you face a defense as aggressive as Florida’s, tight ends and especially tailbacks must be involved in pass protection, and they too were outstanding. Swift in particular picked up a few blitzes – none bigger than on the final third down conversion.

Fromm had his best outing since the Tennessee game. Given plenty of time by the protection, he was able to make some big throws. I was pleased that the coaches trusted Fromm to throw not once but twice on the final possession. The delay penalty was probably on Fromm, but he responded with a screen pass to Robertson who made a nice move to gain back a chunk of yards and stay inbounds. The pass to Wolf that sealed the win was more difficult than it looked from the stands – Fromm faced an oncoming blitz and put perfect touch on the pass. Rather than running three times into a wall and putting the game back in question as they did against Notre Dame, Georgia’s coaches trusted their veteran quarterback to win the game on his terms.

Fromm also made some important plays on his feet. He was Georgia’s most successful rusher on the opening drive and kept things alive for those all-important first points. He also had a brilliant scramble just before the long touchdown pass to Cager. He evaded a sack that would have meant a nine-yard loss, got past two other tackles, and turned a negative play into a three-yard gain and a manageable second down.

We’d scrutinize the offense a little more if the defense hadn’t been so effective. Georgia held Florida to three points through three quarters while the offense built up a two-score advantage. We focus on the offense’s third down success, but the defense limited Florida to two third down conversions on nine attempts. The defense was even better against the run. Florida has relied less on the run since Kyle Trask took over at quarterback, but some of their biggest plays this season have come on the ground. Georgia held Florida to 21 rushing yards, and that figure was in the single digits or even negative for most of the game due to sack yardage.

The key to Georgia’s defensive success was summed up by PFF’s Brent Rollins: “The Bulldogs played a squeaky-clean game from a tackling perspective, missing a grand total of zero tackles.” Rollins later revised that to two missed tackles for Georgia, but the point stands. Georgia didn’t miss many tackles. That’s an objective for any defense in any game, but it really mattered against Florida.

The advanced stats told us that Florida wasn’t an especially explosive offense overall, but they made their explosive plays count on the scoreboard. Coming into the game Florida had five players with rushes longer than 25 yards and eight players with a reception longer than 30 yards. Against South Carolina, three of Florida’s five touchdowns came on plays of at least 25 yards. They had scores of 64 and 88 yards to beat Auburn. A 76-yard run sealed their comeback win at Kentucky. They started the scoring against Miami with a 66-yard receiver screen. Multiple players were capable of big plays at just about any time.

It’s not that Kyle Trask had been heaving passes 60 yards downfield. Many of these longer scoring plays were typical plays on which missed tackles and Florida’s outstanding speed and talent at receiver led to long gains. Take Perine’s long run to clinch the Auburn game – two missed tackles turned a modest running play into a knockout punch. Those were the kinds of mistakes Georgia avoided, and, as a result, Florida couldn’t sustain drives. Their typical drive was around 35 yards and, without favorable field position, rarely got them into scoring range. Georgia didn’t allow any receptions over 30 yards. They certainly didn’t allow any runs over 25 yards – Florida’s most successful running play went for just nine yards. We got a taste of Florida’s explosive potential: four receivers had catches of at least 23 yards, but Georgia made sure those longer plays were the exceptions and kept those isolated moderate gains from becoming long scoring plays.

  • Special teams also played a role in the win. Blankenship was solid once again on three field goal attempts. Camarda punted twice and struck each one well, though you’d hope for a little more touch on the shorter second punt if we’re being picky. Blaylock even added (a few) punt return yards! Perhaps the biggest advantage was on kick returns. Florida never started a drive beyond its 25 after a Georgia kickoff. Three of Florida’s four kickoffs were returned beyond the 25. It’s not that Georgia was breaking returns into Florida territory, but every yard helps. Georgia might have even approached their final possession more conservatively had they not started beyond their own 30.
  • Georgia largely controlled the game, but it was important to see them answer each Florida score. Don’t tell me you didn’t have 17-16 visions after Florida cut it to 16-10. I’ll again bring up Fromm’s scramble to avoid a sack on the next possession, and Cager’s wide-open score a few plays later let us exhale.
  • Cager. Lawrence Cager. His career-high performance is deservedly the subject of every story about this game. I’m dwelling on him playing at all after bruised – if not broken – ribs on top of an already-injured shoulder. His story is already a great one, but if Georgia goes on to accomplish some of its season goals, Cager’s season and determination is the stuff of legends.
  • Much was made about the return of Florida speedster Kadarius Toney. The Gators, like Georgia, are just as likely to get yards on the ground with sweeps to quick wideouts. Florida tried one sweep to Toney. It was defended perfectly and stopped for no gain. I don’t think Florida tried perimeter runs again, though they hit a few short receiver screens on the outside.
  • Georgia’s final possession was…dicey. Had Florida forced a three-and-out, we’d be talking a lot more about the huge mistake to draw a delay penalty after the kickoff. Whether that was the fault of the sideline or Fromm, it could have been a blunder on par with the end of the South Carolina game. The receiver screen to Robertson was a good call and at least made second and third downs more manageable. Swift was nearly funneled out of bounds on his final carry, but everyone on the sideline was screaming for him to stay inbounds and go down to keep the clock moving.
  • Had Georgia beaten South Carolina, we’d remember Tyler Clark’s tackle for loss at the goal line as a key play of the season. He had another stuff like that in this game. The entire defensive front had an impact. Herring seemed to be in on every big stop or pressure. Jordan Davis drug a holding lineman for yards and still managed a devastating sack. Clark and Wyatt played well. Walker returned from his injury and had a tipped pass that forced Florida into a field goal attempt.

Post Georgia 21 – Kentucky 0: A soggy shutout

Monday October 21, 2019

It took a while for the South Carolina loss to sink in. Many of us stood there in shocked silence more than a week ago trying to process that *this* team got beat by *that* team, and it just wasn’t clicking. We looked to the Kentucky game for some kind of catharsis and reassurance. A scoreless first half was probably the one thing for which none of us had prepared. With some time to consider what had happened against the Gamecocks, already in a surly mood after a grim and soggy walk to the stadium, and after watching their team fail to cross the 50 in a scoreless first half, frustration boiled over in an audible cascade of boos muffled by raindrops.

I’m not going to get into the debate of whether or not it was appropriate to boo – the rationalization that “we’re booing the playcalling and not the players” is silly, and the tsk-tsking condemnation of the booing comes with just a bit too much “Georgia Way” condescension for me. It should be alarming enough that we’re midway through a season that hangs in the balance, and the big question heading into the bye week is one’s stance on booing anything other than the refs.

In other circumstances it might’ve been easier to take Saturday’s gameplan. A risk-averse staff especially wary of turnovers after last week’s outcome had the excuse it needed in the weather to take as few chances as possible. It didn’t sit well with an impatient crowd wanting to see more of a response to last week’s loss and wanting some signs that the anemic yards-per-play against South Carolina was just a bad day. Depending how you see things, the conditions were either an explanation or an excuse.

Playing it safe came with its own risks. Kentucky nearly drew first blood on the opening drive of the second half, but a holding penalty took them out of field goal range. If Georgia was waiting to see which team would make the critical mistake first, it could have just as well been a botched Georgia snap or exchange that turned the game. We’re only a few weeks away from Georgia’s punter giving up costly field position. Fortunately Kentucky blinked first and Georgia was able to cash in on its two drives that began in Kentucky territory.

Georgia was able to survive this game in large part because they have a legitimate superstar on offense. D’Andre Swift has had a wonderful season. He leads the SEC in rushing and is second in yards per attempt and rushing touchdowns. What we hadn’t seen yet though is a dominant game from Georgia’s feature back. Swift hadn’t had more than 113 yards in a game since the season opener – it hadn’t really been necessary. But if there was a game in which to lean on a star tailback, this was it. Kentucky’s run defense isn’t stout; South Carolina had a pair of 100-yard rushers against the Wildcats. Without much of a passing game, Swift showed the ability to get yardage from his first carry. Once Kentucky opened the door with its shanked punt, Swift was there to make them pay for it. He finished with a season-high 179 yards and two TD on 8.5 yards per carry.

The “Plan B” that everyone talked about after South Carolina wasn’t necessary in this game. Georgia played turnover-free ball, played the field position game well (until one certain kickoff), and leaned on its defense to contain Lynn Bowden Jr. Kentucky got even less than Georgia did from the passing game, and even a dangerous ballcarrier like Bowden can be defended if the offense is one-dimensional.

It was an active day for Georgia’s inside defenders. Six of Georgia’s top seven tacklers were middle linebackers or safeties, and in this kind of game safeties (Reed in particular) were used to spy Bowden. Reed’s awareness to take on Bowden on a third down run caused the fumble that led to Georgia’s second score. Quay Walker had one of his best games as a Bulldog, and Malik Herring was active getting into the backfield and forcing Bowden to scramble.

While Swift was the individual star, a shutout in an SEC game shouldn’t take a backseat. It took some breaks as many shutouts do. Kentucky’s dropped pass in the endzone at the end of the third quarter came after a running back released unnoticed into open space. Penalties ended other Kentucky drives. (Is that defensive line shift Georgia’s most effective havoc play?) Tackling in open space was shaky and allowed Kentucky to sustain drives that might have otherwise helped to flip field position earlier in the game.

But when there’s a zero on the scoreboard, a lot went right. Coverage helped ensure that Kentucky didn’t complete a pass until the fourth quarter. Stokes in particular broke up a likely reception on a deep pass that would have given Kentucky a first half scoring opportunity. Stevenson was targeted on some late pass attempts and covered well to preserve the shutout.

  • They’ll never say so, but in hindsight you wonder how much Georgia’s coaches relished the shutout considering the whole Eddie Gran business during the offseason.
  • Gran has done some interesting things at UK and has had to be creative with the personnel he has, but no offensive coach ever wants to be collared with the goose egg.

  • Once again we saw Cade Mays used as a blocking tight end. It’s laudable to make use of the talent you have. Woerner and Wolf have made some key blocks on the outside, but there’s still a weakness in tight formations. Mays can help if injuries don’t require him to fill in on the line.
  • Kentucky’s inability to get points out of their long kick return at the end of the third quarter removed whatever will they had remaining. Points there, especially on second down where Georgia failed to cover a back releasing into the endzone, would have made it a one-score game with an entire quarter left. Once Georgia took over on downs, it was clear that Kentucky’s defense wanted no part of the Georgia running game on that final scoring drive.
  • As impressive as Swift was, the running game really took off when Solomon Kindley came into the game. The unsung hero of Georgia’s line has seen limited duty since his injury against Notre Dame. His return to health will be a big dose of stability for an offensive line that’s had to shuffle players around especially with Justin Shaffer, Kindley’s top backup, unavailable for the foreseeable future.
  • George Pickens had an important fourth down catch to sustain Georgia’s final scoring drive that put the game away. It was also encouraging to see Pickens crash in on some of Swift’s longer gains – we know that willingness to block will lead to more playing time in this offense. He seems to be emerging as Fromm’s favorite target now that Cager is out.
  • Georgia’s defense earned the shutout, but tackling still wasn’t at the level Kirby Smart expects. Bowden is a difficult player to bring down, and there were a few missed opportunities to stop him for losses or shorter gains. It was enough in this game to contain Bowden and prevent many big plays.
  • It was Swift’s game, but Herrien had some punishing runs to move the chains on Georgia’s second and third scoring drives. His burst around the end and dive into the endzone hearkened back to his first college touchdown against North Carolina.
  • Blankenship can keep the touchbacks coming, please.
  • Fromm has “rushed” (or scrambled) 11 times in the past two games. He had only done so six times in the first five games of the season. Injuries have scrambled the offensive line a bit, and that might account for some of the protection breakdown, but you also hope Fromm isn’t losing patience and confidence in the ability of his receivers to get open. You also hope that the rash of turnovers against South Carolina didn’t make him a little gunshy.

Post Georgia 17 – South Carolina 20: Fizzle

Monday October 14, 2019

With an upset that jarring, I’m a lot more concerned with the why and how it happened. Most of us are asking a version of the same question: was this a one-off bad day, or is this thing close to going off the rails?

A shocking loss can lead to some emotional reactions, and I’m glad that fans handled this loss to South Carolina a little better than they did the 2012 loss. This time most of the ire seems to be focused on the coaches, and especially the offensive coordinator. Georgia has a collection of five-star skill players, the self-proclaimed “best offensive line in the nation”, and a veteran “coach on the field” quarterback. The perception after the game is that Georgia has a garage full of sports cars that are only driven in first gear.

There’s a few of those reactions I’m not sold on – not because they’re wrong but because they might lead us in the wrong direction.

For example, the turnovers hurt, and one in particular set the tone for the entire second half. But three of them occurred after the start of the fourth quarter. Kirby Smart was correct that it’s tough to win with a -4 turnover margin. It’s true that Georgia likely gets points from one or two of those possessions and wins this particular game. At the same time Georgia played three quarters with one turnover and still only managed ten points. The turnovers were not holding back Georgia’s offense.

Still another narrative was Georgia’s slow start. Georgia got points on two of their first three drives. The next drive lasted ten plays before a fourth down stop on South Carolina’s side of the field. If you want to define a slow start as not putting up 35 points in the first half, fine, it was a slow start. Georgia’s offense was at its most productive, such as it was, earlier in the game. It could not adjust after South Carolina took away the sideline passes and began to choke off the run.

I don’t bring up those narratives to dismiss them – Georgia did seem as if it was banging its head against a wall on offense. The turnovers were costly, particularly with three in South Carolina territory. Ten points in the first half isn’t a blistering start. I just think there’s a bigger issue that helps to explain what we saw. Bill Connelly was kind (or morbidly curious) enough on Sunday afternoon to post the advanced stats box score of the game, and there was one line that jumps out.

A key element of Georgia’s identity on offense over the past three seasons has been explosiveness. The Dawgs have been successful generating big plays, especially from the running game. It’s not just the highlight runs by Swift to end last season’s Kentucky and Auburn games – it’s been a steady ability to turn moderate gains into chunk plays. What happens when that explosiveness is taken away? Georgia’s longest run against Notre Dame was a 16-yard carry. Georgia, without turning the ball over, managed 23 points. Against South Carolina Georgia’s longest run was 14 yards. Zamir White had one for 12 yards, but not many others came close to double-digit yardage.

To paraphrase Connelly’s summary of the game, South Carolina more or less hit only one big play in the game – their lone offensive touchdown – and that was enough to finish with a better explosiveness metric (IsoPPP) than Georgia. Both teams were well below average in generating big plays in this game (you don’t need advanced stats to tell you that), but Georgia was even more below average. Worse, Georgia’s bread-and-butter running game was the least explosive element of its offense.

That doesn’t mean that Georgia’s running game was shut down. Georgia’s rushing success rate on running plays was 53% – well above the national average. Without the threat of a big play though, it meant that Georgia had to be successful on more plays to sustain and finish drives. That was the tough part. When you’re moving 5-6 yards at a time instead of getting more explosive 20-yard gains, it takes just a single penalty, incompletion, or stuffed run to throw things off. Sure enough, Georgia’s success rate on passing downs was a so-so 31%.

Not all successful plays are equal. A 25-yard carry is definitely successful, but so is a 5-yard carry on first down. A problem is that Georgia’s successful plays are becoming less successful. Georgia is averaging 7 yards per play (YPP) this year – good for 7th in the nation. Over the past three games against a trio of P5 opponents, it’s a lower 5.9 YPP and much closer to the national average of 5.71 YPP. Against South Carolina it was just 4.93 YPP – a good two yards off Georgia’s typical performance and almost a full yard off the national average. The Dawgs had a respectable 53% success rate on standard downs. Second down though was where it fell apart. The Dawgs have been one of the best teams in the nation on second down in recent years, but they were adrift in this game. Georgia often found themselves with a reasonable second down situation that turned into 18 third down plays, many of them medium-to-long.

Georgia’s struggle to break off long runs might have mattered less had the passing game been able to create its own big plays, but that wasn’t happening either. South Carolina manned up against Georgia on the outside and contested most every deep shot. Fromm’s 5.26 yards per attempt was well below his usual, and it was even lower on passing downs when he completed just 10-of-20 for 108 yards. As Georgia failed to show much of a downfield threat, South Carolina’s defense became more effective around the line of scrimmage. Interior runs were less productive, short routes were covered, and Fromm felt more pressure.

The South Carolina defense put Georgia in a position of having to string together modest gains to move the ball. Georgia’s defense did the same thing – and they were pretty effective at it. South Carolina’s success rate for the game was only 34%, and it wasn’t much better when Hilinski was in the game. When that’s the case, things like field position begin to matter more. The Bulldog defense forced stops time after time in the second half, but the offense was unable to do much when it got the ball back. Georgia’s average starting field position for the game was its own 27.8 yard line. Not horrible, but rarely was it better than that. The defense didn’t lose the game, but they also didn’t flip the field with turnovers of their own or even pin South Carolina deep on the few opportunities it had to do so.

Another way to flip the field is with special teams. Camarda had his best game of the season and did his part. (Just another quirk of this game that both teams scored touchdowns after their worst starting field position.) Georgia forced seven South Carolina punts and got zero return yards. Blaylock handled the returner role well and cleanly fielded several punts while allowing others to safely roll into the endzone. Georgia though did little to help its offense improve its starting field position. I get it – several of South Carolina’s punts came from around midfield or in short-yardage situations. “Punt safe” is the right call there, and there won’t be a return. That wasn’t the case with other punts. Blaylock had a good ten yard cushion on the first punt but called for the fair catch. On others, Georgia didn’t do much to disrupt South Carolina’s gunners, and Blaylock had no choice but to fair catch.

The central question moving forward is whether Georgia can be an explosive offense against better defenses. (South Carolina might not be a great team, but its defense is still top 20 in SP+.) Georgia’s explosiveness metric was below average against Notre Dame. It was worse than that on Saturday. Several more defenses are on the schedule with talent as good as or better than Georgia has faced. Whether it has to do with the coordinator change and playcalling/scheme, inexperience at receiver, or execution, an important advantage that propelled the Georgia offense over the past couple of seasons is vanishing. Getting that edge back is job #1 heading into the defining stretch of the season.


Post Georgia 43-Tennessee 14: Taking control of the series

Monday October 7, 2019

Once you got past the “But 41-0!” and “But Georgia State!” level of analysis for this game, there were a few points of agreement among most previews. First was that Tennessee had recruited better than its record. There is some talent on this team, even a couple of 5* players – maybe along the lines of average Richt-era signing classes. Second was the acceptance that Tennessee had some dangerous talent at receiver, but the chief problem holding back the passing game had been competent quarterback play. Inaccuracy and turnovers have been the story at quarterback for the Vols for the better part of three seasons. If only someone could reliably get the ball to Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings…

I’m sure Jeremy Pruitt and Jim Chaney pondered that same what-if, so freshman Brian Maurer got the start. They tried Maurer in the loss at Florida too, but there’s a difference between being inserted cold on the road already trailing and starting a game at home with a little advance notice. Maurer simply did what other Tennessee quarterbacks hadn’t: he got the ball to his talented senior receivers.

That’s the risk of playing an underachieving team: what happens when they don’t underachieve? To their credit Tennessee didn’t pack it in after a humbling loss at Florida. They used the bye week productively and, as Kirby Smart put it, “punched us in the mouth” by attacking Georgia’s injury-depleted secondary. It worked – for a while. Tennessee punted on their first possession but struck quickly to equalize the score on a double-move that caught Richard LeCounte flat-footed. The Vols finished the first quarter with a more methodical possession that was kept alive by a dumb personal foul, and Tennessee claimed the lead on a nice touchdown pass that split Georgia’s safeties.

Though Georgia gave up two early scores and even trailed for much of the second quarter, you never really thought that this was a game that could get away from the Dawgs. A big reason was the play of Jake Fromm. Even while the Vols were at their best Fromm was able to engineer several scoring drives. The Dawgs scored on their initial possession, and a couple of penalties stalled two other drives that ended with field goals. Georgia only punted once in the first half and were never three-and-out. Tennessee’s surprising early success might be one takeaway from the game, but the story was Fromm and Georgia’s offense which put up 526 yards. The 43 points were the most scored by a Bulldog team in Knoxville.

Fromm had his most productive game of the season – 24-29, 288 yards, and 2 TD. It helped that he was rarely touched or even pressured, but he still showcased an impressive variety of throws. There was the precise back-shoulder touchdown pass to Cager. There was the improvised wheel route to an uncovered Swift. There was the pretty cross-field pass dropped perfectly in place for Robertson. Fromm coolly engineered a touchdown drive inside of four minutes remaining in the first half. Given the ball back with less than a minute to go, the Dawgs cranked up the tempo and swept down the field for another score. Georgia had plenty of timeouts left at the end of the first half but didn’t need them – Fromm managed the clock perfectly.

I wouldn’t say Georgia had a dominant game on the ground, but they still ended up with 238 yards rushing. Herrien led with 88 yards, but it was a group effort. Zamir White had seven carries, his most since Murray State, and you could tell he’s becoming more comfortable with contact. Swift hasn’t made a career against the Vols – 158 yards and 4.6 YPC in three games. He showed off his versatility in this game though with 72 receiving yards to match his 72 rushing yards. Swift led the Dawgs with four receptions and was an essential part of that drive to end the first half. His success on the draw play erased any thoughts of killing the clock, and he had a couple of receptions releasing out of the backfield helped keep the drive moving.

The defense did struggle early, and I’ll be glad not to face Jennings again. It didn’t help that Georgia wasn’t generating much pressure. Maurer’s releases were quick, and he wasn’t asked to make many reads. Georgia’s front was effective at containing the Tennessee running game, so Georgia was able to tighten up its pass defense, increase pressure, and make things more difficult for Maurer. Pass rushers, especially Ojulari, became more effective, and a well-timed blitz by Stokes and Crowder ended things.

Let’s not get carried away worrying about the defense though. Tennessee put up a few good pass plays which should concern you only if you expected them to do nothing at all (and, honestly, I think some Georgia people expected exactly that.) Even so, their passing success rate for the game was a so-so 37% (just a tick *worse* than their rushing success rate!) Tennessee’s overall success rate was a decent 47% in the first quarter but 40% or lower in every other quarter. Kirby Smart wasn’t so much concerned about the completions as he was the tackling, and that’s fair. The penalties hurt too, and that only served to keep the game close longer than it otherwise might have with the Georgia offense humming along at a success rate near 60% in the first half.

Before the game I made a quick list of things I was looking for, so we’ll go down that checklist:

No explosive plays: Entering the game Tennessee had just 14 plays longer than 20 yards this season, good for 116th in the nation. This went out the window early on, didn’t it? Georgia’s secondary bit on a sluggo (slant-and-go) route, and Callaway was off to the races. The Vols didn’t hit any long scoring plays like that again, but they were successful on several intermediate passes that occasionally went longer than 20 yards. If coverage wasn’t the issue, tackling was. Of all of the defense’s issues, Kirby Smart was most displeased with their inability to limit yards after catch and contact. It’s a tough ask to bring down a big receiver like Jennings, but that’s the job.

A defensive or special teams score: Hello, Tae Crowder! While Eric Stokes was adjusting Maurer’s spine, Crowder was blitzing off the other edge. His leap caused Maurer to hestitate, Stokes got the hit every blitzing defender dreams of, and Crowder stayed in the play to scoop the ball. A fortunate block by an official cleared the path, and the former tailback got the chance to score one of Georgia’s longest touchdowns of the season. The score didn’t turn the game like Sean Jones’s fumble return in 2003, but it was an emphatic close that made quite a few people happy “in the desert.”

Protect the ball: Check. Georgia not only avoided turnovers, they didn’t even put the ball on the ground. From the ball security standpoint, it was a clean game for the Georgia offense. Georgia’s defense, on the other hand, proved quite effective at separating Tennessee players from the ball.

Never Crompton: It did seem for a while as if Chaney found his next 2009 Crompton in Maurer. I cautioned that “the defense can’t let the starter get comfortable and make the plays to gain confidence,” but unfortunately that’s what happened on the long score by Callaway. Maurer finished with 259 yards, 2 TD, and an impressive 9.3 yards per attempt, but most of that damage came in the first half. Georgia’s defensive adjustments knocked Maurer’s completion rate down to 50%. Guarantano had to come off the bench for a couple of plays, and his 1-5 passing showed why Tennessee made the switch. Even though Maurer didn’t end up going Full Crompton, the game should have provided at least some clarity for Tennessee going forward – if they can remove the depression in Maurer’s torso left by Eric Stokes.

A clean pocket: Jake Fromm’s good enough, but giving him the time he had Saturday night is just inviting trouble. Tennessee didn’t sack Fromm and rarely pressured him. The line had some issues pass blocking earlier in the season, but it seemed to be the strength of the unit in this game. It was a big improvement over the three Tennessee sacks a year ago.

Opening up the offense: Happier? Pickens caught a touchdown. Zeus got his carries. Georgia passed for 288 yards and rushed for 238. At times, only penalties slowed the Georgia offense. It does help that Georgia ran a season-high 70 plays – about five more plays ran than in any other game. Tempo helped as Georgia hurried their way to two quick scores before halftime, but it also mattered that Georgia sustained several drives even if they came away empty or with only a field goal.

A few loose ends:

  • I wondered in the offseason if Georgia would use its OL riches to help its thin TE depth. Wolf and Woerner are decent blockers on the edge but have been beaten on the inside. Against Tennessee Georgia occasionally lined up Cade Mays tight outside the tackle. The formation didn’t produce any noteworthy plays, but it’s something to keep an eye on later in the season.
  • No, Georgia didn’t create much pressure early, but the game ended up with its share of havoc. The Dawgs recorded three sacks, two turnovers, and 11 tackles for loss. It was good to see Julian Rochester get in the game and make one of those TFL.
  • Two field goals loomed large in this game. Blankenship’s 50-yarder in the first quarter was an important reassuring answer to Tennessee’s early haymaker. Cager’s drive-killing pass interference penalty on a scoring catch was deflating, so getting points out of that drive was a big lift. As important was Tennessee’s miss just before halftime. Three straight completions, including a pair of 21-yard tosses, quickly had the Vols on Georgia’s 30. The defense forced a pair of incompletions, but the 47-yard FG attempt was within the range of Brent Cimaglia who, like Blankenship, hadn’t missed all season. The failed attempt gave Georgia the ball on the 30 with just under a minute left – decent enough field position to consider trying for more points. Rather than a narrow 20-17 Georgia halftime edge, the miss propelled Georgia to a 26-14 lead.
  • The loss of Jordan Davis didn’t prove to be as dire as it might have against better teams. I’m just grateful that 1) Davis should be fine and 2) there wasn’t a repeat of the past horror shows we’ve seen on that field.
  • As well as the defense played in the third quarter, it’s unfortunate that the offense couldn’t put the game away. The offense’s lowest success rate (still a decent 50% and better than any quarter Tennessee had) came in the third quarter. Georgia’s best third quarter drives ended with a field goal and a failed fourth down conversion. This was still a two-possession game into the fourth quarter, but credit to the Dawgs for closing the door on any comeback hopes and finishing strong.
  • Georgia now leads the series with Tennessee 24–23–2. Any other Bulldog fan who lived through the 1990s will never cease to be amazed by (and gleeful about) the turnaround and the state of both programs.

Post Back to work

Friday October 4, 2019

It’s back to reality this weekend. We’ve had not one but two weeks to bask in the surreal spectacle that was the Notre Dame game. Now Georgia begins a stretch of three SEC East games in which they’ll be heavy favorites. As teams begin to position themselves for the postseason and new challengers emerge, fans and observers will be looking to see how the Dawgs go about these conference games. Is there demonstrable improvement? Can Georgia cleanly dispatch unranked conference opponents? Will injuries to players like Campbell and Kindley turn into longer-term issues that affect the team in important ways?

The toughest challenge this month won’t necessarily come from the opponents. These are the games in which Kirby Smart’s emphasis on playing to a standard rather than the opponent is most useful. It was easy to get up for Notre Dame. Focus won’t be an issue from the Florida game on. But when you hear you’re a 20+ point favorite on the road, it’s tempting to let distractions creep in. The Dawgs won’t be able to lean on the crowd that just about willed them to a win two weeks ago. Georgia will have a nice crowd in Knoxville, but the takeover effect of even 20-30,000 Georgia fans will be muted in a 100,000-seat stadium. A boisterous crowd isn’t likely for a noon start against South Carolina or a Homecoming game against Kentucky. It will be up to the players to have the discipline to grind through this stretch and become a better team at the end of it than they are now.

Georgia’s 38-12 win over Tennessee in 2018 was one of the stranger wins of the season. Isaac Nauta’s timely fumble recovery and touchdown run was about the only offense Georgia could muster in the first half. Tennessee closed to within 24-12 early in the fourth quarter, and the vibe around Sanford Stadium got a little uneasy before Georgia scored the final 14 points. It was an atypical day for the offensive line: Tennessee recorded three sacks and four tackles for loss. The Dawgs fumbled the ball four times and were fortunate to recover them. Swift was held to just 50 yards. Justin Fields’s 45 yards and two rushing touchdowns might have been his most important contribution of the season as Jake Fromm was held without a touchdown pass.

Tennessee had some successful moments in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season with impressive wins over good Auburn and Kentucky teams, but the season still ended short of a bowl game. Hopes for a second year bounce in 2019 fizzled after losses to Georgia State and BYU and a 1-3 start. Now Tennessee’s just trying to keep its head above water and keep the whole thing from falling apart. So, yes, we can expect them to come out of the bye week desperate for a win with nothing to lose. That’s fine, and it could keep things close especially if Georgia comes in still a bit hungover from Notre Dame and the bye week. But big underdogs are big underdogs for a reason, and it would take a very uncharacteristic game by both teams to end up with anything other than a comfortable Georgia win.

A few things I’m looking for in this game:

No explosive plays: This tidbit comes from Barrett Sallee: the Vols have just 14 plays longer than 20 yards this season, good for 116th in the nation. Georgia has done fairly well against the big play this year and are once again among the nation’s top ten against explosive plays. Jauan Jennings (yes, he’s back for a fifth season) is the top receiving target and will be a physical matchup. Jennings headlines a talented group of receivers. The issue has been getting them the ball. If they can ge the ball to the receivers, Georgia’s cornerbacks are banged up. Tyson Campbell is unlikely to play. Stokes isn’t quite 100%. Divaad Wilson was impressive against Notre Dame and could have a larger role in this game.

A defensive or special teams score: Georgia has one NOT so far this season – J.R. Reed’s scoop-and-score against Murray State. Tyler Simmons seemed close to breaking open a punt return at Vanderbilt, but Georgia hasn’t threatened a score from the return game since. NOTs were a big part of Georgia’s wins over Tennessee in the 2000s: Damien Gary and Thomas Flowers scored on punt returns, and who can forget Sean Jones’s fumble return? We’ll be curious to see who Smart sends out to field punts after the misadventures of the Notre Dame game. Kearis Jackson is back from injury, but it might be a little soon to put him in a pressure role.

Protect the ball: Georgia won the turnover battle against Notre Dame, but they also put the ball on the turf four times. Fromm hasn’t thrown a pick yet this year, and hopefully that continues. There’s no better way to keep an underdog in a game than turnovers.

Never Crompton: We all know Jim Chaney coached at Tennessee once before earlier in his career. His lone win against Georgia came in 2009 – a game that left us in a very dark place and which certainly factored in the coaching changes that ushered in the Era of Grantham in 2010. Georgia had no answers for Chaney’s offense, and Jonathan Crompton threw for a career-high 310 yards and 4 TD. Jarrett Guarantano has struggled this year (and even regressed according to some metrics) leading Jeremy Pruitt to try freshman Brian Maurer. Pruitt has been coy about which quarterback will start on Saturday, and Georgia should be prepared for either. Two years ago a Tyrique McGhee interception on the first play put the Tennessee offense on its heels right out of the gate. It would be nice to disrupt things early on again this year and have a quarterback controversy play out in front of us. At the very least, the defense can’t let the starter get comfortable and make the plays to gain confidence. A Crompton-like day for another Chaney QB is Tennessee’s best shot to stay in this game.

Opening up the offense: What does that even mean? Yes, we saw in the Notre Dame game how limited the passing game was in the first half. We’d like to get the ball more to Pickens or Robertson or Blaylock or Cager. And what about the tight ends? Oh, and there’s this stable of tailbacks and a monstrous offensive line to run behind.

The advanced stats tell us that Georgia’s offense, on a per-play basis, is among the most efficient and successful in the nation. So then you might look at pace. Georgia’s offense hasn’t run more than 65 plays in a game and ran only 59 against Notre Dame. (That’s no surprise as it seemed as if Georgia barely touched the ball in the first half.) If you’re going to run around 62 plays per game, big yardage totals and points require a higher percentage of those plays to hit. More often than not Georgia manages to be among the top offenses at creating explosive plays. When it’s not, it looks a lot like the Notre Dame game. You can always run more plays using tempo, and we saw that too against Notre Dame. Kirby Smart will be the first to tell you that the tradeoff of tempo is putting a tired defense back on the field, but he’s seen it work too many times to leave that strategy on the shelf.

It comes down to this: if your goal is to spread the ball around and get more players involved in the offense, you’re either going to have to find a way to run more plays or, as we saw against Arkansas State, make each individual play more explosive.

A clean pocket and big holes: This game should be a bit of a pride check for the offensive line. They didn’t have a great game against the Vols last season. Fromm didn’t throw a touchdown and was sacked three times. Swift was held to 50 yards. The biggest play of the first half came on a fumble recovery after pressure knocked the ball out of Fromm’s hand. Smart is expecting a stacked line and Pruitt taking some chances with blitzes to pressure Fromm. It worked well for them last year, and Georgia needs its line performing well to take advantages of the opportunities opened up by Tennessee’s pressure.


Post Bye week opponent watch

Monday September 30, 2019

Sure, you could have done something productive during the bye week – that yard isn’t going to tend itself. Alternatively you could have been sucked into watching the #1 team in the nation fight for its life against a team coming off a loss to Appalachian State. A bye week was a great opportunity to check up on the teams Georgia has defeated and get to know the teams we’ll see down the road.

Vanderbit: Notched their first win of the season in a 24-18 home defeat of Northern Illinois. Vandy jumped out ahead and held NIU scoreless in the first half but ended up sweating the outcome. Ke’Shawn Vaughn became the first SEC back to have multiple 130+ yard games this season.

Murray State: Fell to 1-3 in a 40-7 loss to UT-Martin. The 17 points scored against Georgia are the most they’ve scored in a loss.

Arkansas State: Survived a 50-43 shootout with Troy and are 3-2 on the year. ASU has scored at least 30 points in all of their games win or lose…except for the shutout loss in Athens.

Notre Dame: Got back into the saddle with a 35-20 win over Virginia in the day’s only matchup of ranked teams. It’s a nice win, and many are saying that it makes Georgia’s win a week ago look a little better. I’m not entirely sure about that – the Irish needed two big defensive plays to come from behind in the second half, and the offense was actually outgained by the Cavaliers.

Of course it’s good to see our signature win (to date) get a quality win of their own. I’ll just take two things from the game: first is Tony Jones Jr. grinding out 131 yards. Georgia’s defense held him to 21 yards and essentially made Notre Dame one-dimensional. The other takeaway is why Kirby Smart seemed so obsessive about turnovers in the leadup to our game. Of course any coach will emphasize the importance of turnover margin, but every Georgia player seemed to know that Notre Dame doesn’t lose when the turnover margin is in their favor. Sure enough, Notre Dame needed every one of Virginia’s five turnovers to avoid a much closer game than the final score indicated.

Tennessee: (insert “struggled with bye week” joke). The Vols didn’t exactly win the bye week – three players departed the team, leaving Tennessee with 77 scholarship players.

South Carolina: Recorded their first FBS win of the season with a solid 24-7 defeat of Kentucky. Two Gamecock tailbacks rushed for 100 yards, and a stingy defense limited a hapless Kentucky offense to 212 yards and 3.4 yards per play. The natives had become restless after a 1-3 start, but this win was a much-needed shot of confidence going into a bye week before the trip to Athens.

Kentucky: Fell flat at South Carolina. As the saying goes, if you have zero quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Sawyer Smith had a dreadful 2.8 yards per attempt against South Carolina, and the Wildcats asked WR Lynn Bowden to take snaps because, well, why not. The UK defense was able to keep things close-ish, but South Carolina’s second touchdown opened what seemed like a 50-point lead. The Cats will have a bye week to try to figure things out before Arkansas – maybe their best chance at an SEC win.

Florida: Shut out Towson, a school I only knew about because of a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1990s. I’m sure this game is just what the Gators needed to prepare them for a visit from Auburn next week. Kyle Trask accounted for three touchdowns with an efficient 18-20 and 9.4 YPA. The Gators remain undefeated and in the top ten but will face Auburn, LSU, and Georgia over the next five weeks.

Missouri: Had a bye this week and are 3-1. They’ll have a fairly light load in October with Troy, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. The loss to Wyoming is in the distant past now, and it would be surprising if Mizzou weren’t 7-1 when they visit Athens.

Auburn: Probably still putting up points on Mississippi State. The Tigers jumped on the visiting Bulldogs (literally) and led 42-9 by halftime en route to a 56-23 thumping. Bo Nix had his best game to date, but really every part of the Auburn offense did what it wanted in this game. Auburn’s defense was solid as always, and the MSU offense didn’t help themselves. The Tigers are rolling, but two of the next three are on the road at Florida and LSU.

Texas A&M: Escaped the SEC upset of the year with a 31-27 win over Arkansas in Dallas. This turned into the most entertaining game of the noontime slate as the teams traded scores and the lead five times. The Aggies got 251 yards passing from Kellen Mond but only rushed for 89 yards. Arkansas had the final possession inside A&M territory, but the Aggie defense prevailed. A&M is 3-2 and has yet to cover itself in glory. They’ll get a bye and then the pleasure of facing new #1 Alabama.

Georgia Tech: Were not shut out by Temple.


Post Georgia 23 – Notre Dame 17: They say the (LED) lights are bright

Tuesday September 24, 2019

“It’s a lot of the reason why they want to come to Notre Dame. It’s like being on Broadway. It’s a Broadway show. You’re on stage every game you play.” – Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Georgia, rather than Notre Dame, put on a show for the ages Saturday night. There was the breathtaking light show. There were fans in place and in full voice well before kickoff. Of course there was the attendant hype of a visit from ESPN’s Gameday show. The weather was perfect for an all-day tailgate and a late kickoff. By most any measure the Georgia-Notre Dame game was peak spectacle and a treat for all of the senses. The producers of the latest Disney big-budget musical would have approved.

But it might be saying something that more people are talking about that spectacle rather than what happened on the field. This wasn’t a scripted Broadway show, so the game itself was under no obligation to match the sensory overload going on around the stadium. The scripted version of this game might have produced a thrilling shootout like the 2013 LSU game. Even better might have been a 2007 Auburn or 2014 Clemson style of game in which Georgia delivered the late coup de grâce that turned a close battle into a satisfying rout.
What you got was 0-0 after the first quarter. While the lights swirled, the stadium shook from the noise, and the crowd waited for its opportunity to explode, Georgia and Notre Dame went about their business with utmost caution, taking risks only when absolutely necessary, and leaving both sets of fans a bit confused about just what their coaches were trying to accomplish.

There was plenty of time to kill at tailgate, so we tried this thought exercise: what would your expectations be if Notre Dame were playing at Clemson or Alabama? Sure – that’s pointless tailgate talk informed only by the failures of past Notre Dame teams, but it did help to understand why expectations were high for this game even as Georgia fans reconciled these expectations with their usual dread. If Georgia aspires to be a playoff contender and the peer of Clemson and Alabama (and if not, why are we even doing this?), you might expect Georgia to handle Notre Dame as other recent playoff teams have. Fair or unfair, Notre Dame’s recent history against top teams colored how many fans and pundits saw this game. It certainly affected the point spread.

If you saw this game as a means to solidify Georgia’s status as a playoff contender or if you wanted to see a statement game, the outcome likely left you a little uneasy. If you wanted a game like the 1991 Clemson game or the 2007 Blackout game that let the party carry on in the stands, sweating that last Notre Dame possession was probably a bit of a buzzkill. At the same time, Georgia is now one of the few programs in the nation with a win over a top ten team, and that’s not a bad statement. The Dawgs have a relatively light load before a more challenging November gauntlet. With two bye weeks in the next month, a banged-up team will have an opportunity to heal. There’s time to improve. They’ll need to.

We left South Bend two years ago ecstatic over a one-point win. The playoff wasn’t really on our mind; it was enough at that moment that Kirby Smart won a huge road game. We could enjoy the Notre Dame win for what it was and maybe allow a little hope that Smart could deliver something better than the 7-5 of 2016. Georgia survived Jake Fromm’s first start and built on that win to steamroll Mississippi State and then the SEC East.

I don’t think many people will consider Saturday’s win a building block. Now each game has to be placed in the context of what it means for Georgia’s chances against Alabama and Clemson (or, increasingly, LSU or Auburn.) I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a healthy approach. Georgia is already at a much higher level as a program than it was two years ago. Notre Dame might be as well. This time a win just means Georgia passed its toughest test to date and survives September with its goals intact.

Depth Wins

Within two plays Georgia was without its starting cornerbacks. That’s a concern when the opponent’s quarterback is as effective as Ian Book had been. Daniel and Wilson were tested though not as often as I would have expected. Book took what was given him across the middle, and that more often than not was enough. Wilson had been mentioned as a possible starter in the summer of 2018 before he was injured, and we saw him make a strong case for a larger role. Tyrique McGhee had been fighting for playing time at corner and then at star, but when it came down to it in this game the coaches chose his experience over perhaps more talented newcomers.

Georgia’s biggest accomplishment on defense was containing the run. That objective was aided by the absence of Notre Dame’s top two tailbacks, but it still had to be done. The Dawgs held the Irish to just 46 rushing yards. Book has the ability to make plays while scrambling – less Jalen Hurts and more Joe Burrow – but he only kept the ball three times for 18 yards. Without much of a credible rushing threat, even the most competent passing game will struggle at times. Georgia could afford to help out its inexperienced cornerbacks, and they forced enough incompletions to keep the Irish from sustaining scoring drives. Book’s total of 275 yards might seem alarming, but those yards came on 47 attempts – just 5.9 yards per attempt and more than a full yard less than Fromm’s YPA.

Both teams were missing important contributors, but the Dawgs had better depth to manage their losses. Georgia was down a couple of cornerbacks and at times two offensive linemen. Notre Dame was without two of its better rushing options. Georgia was able to piece together a defense that limited Notre Dame to one scoring drive per half. Notre Dame never was able to get its running game going.

Phone Booth Offense

Jake Fromm completed his first six passes. He was 11-12 in the first half. He also had 59 yards passing at halftime – a subpar 4.9 yards per attempt. Of Georgia’s 11 completed passes in the first half, only two went for more than 10 yards. 5 of the 11 – nearly half – went for 3 yards or less. Coincidence or not, Georgia’s only completions beyond ten yards came on their final drive of the half which resulted in their first touchdown.

Most preseason previews of Georgia’s offense were a variation on this theme: “Teams will try to stop Georgia’s running game and make Fromm beat them with a group of inexperienced receivers.” Is anyone surprised that’s what Notre Dame tried to do? It might be a surprise that they were moderately successful, but that’s what happens when a defense throws bodies at the line of scrimmage. Not many teams have the talent in the secondary that Notre Dame has, and so the Irish felt comfortable playing pass coverage without much of a safety net. Fromm often didn’t have a ton of time to let plays develop downfield, and it took a couple of nice individual plays by Cager and other receivers to beat that tight coverage on longer passes.

Some Georgia adjustments in the second half got the Bulldog offense out of the phone booth. Isaiah Wilson helped to shore up the pass protection. The Dawgs took a few more chances in the passing game. Fromm went from one incompletion in the first half to five in the second. But it paid off – six of the nine completions in the second half went for at least 10 yards. Four of them were for at least 15 yards. Georgia still wasn’t taking (or completing) shots downfield – there was only one reception longer than 20 yards – but even slightly longer passes went along with a few more holes and more success for the running game.

Georgia will and should remain a team identified by its running game and offensive line, but Fromm has more than earned the trust to do more.

  • Just have to mention the crowd again. When we talk about all elements of the Georgia program pulling in the same direction, the scene at Sanford is what it looks like. The music, lights, and game operations were on point, and the crowd did its part by arriving early and affecting the Notre Dame offense. The staff even found time to give the star-studded list of visiting prospects a memorable experience.
  • As much as the crowd and atmosphere affected the game (and it did), I don’t think I’ve ever heard a full Sanford more quiet than it was after Notre Dame scored in the fourth quarter. Credit to the crowd for getting back into it for Notre Dame’s last possession.
  • Notre Dame was obviously affected by the crowd, but it wouldn’t have been hard for Georgia’s players to get carried away by the scene. The Dawgs had a respectable six penalties and only one big mistake – the late hit by Shaffer. Kirby Smart talks about playing with “controlled emotion,” and between the penalties and zero turnovers by the offense, he has to be pleased with how the team handled the environment.
  • Both teams have made a living with explosive plays, and there weren’t many to be had. Each team had a deep pass or two – one to Cager and one to Kmet.
  • After Reed’s interception, we said in the stands that the only thing missing was a patented Swift knockout punch. That never came – Swift almost cracked 100 yards, but he had to grind for nearly all of them. This was one of the first times we’ve seen Swift take on the workhorse role, and he held up.
  • Lawrence Cager will never again be “that guy from Miami.”
  • Georgia’s tackle stats tell you the kind of game it was: Georgia’s top four tacklers were all middle-of-the-field defenders: safeties and ILBs. You have to go eight spots down before your get to a defensive lineman or OLB.
  • Georgia didn’t record a sack in the game (nor did Notre Dame.) Without a lot of deep passes or slow-developing pass plays, there’s not a lot of time for a pass rush to get to the target. The Dawgs were also more interested in keeping Book contained rather than take aggressive chances in the pass rush that might have opened lanes for long scrambles. Georgia was able to flush Book a couple of times, and the speed with which Nolan Smith got into the backfield on the final play led to Book putting up a low-percentage prayer.
  • Zero sacks also doesn’t mean zero havoc. Georgia notched the two interceptions, had three tackles for loss, and recorded six pass break-ups (three by Reed alone.)
  • We first got an idea of the player J.R. Reed would be in South Bend. Reed had another outstanding game against the Irish with seven tackles and three pass break-ups. He was thisclose to two pick-sixes that would have torn Sanford Stadium asunder.
  • The news that South Carolina’s Jamyest Williams has entered the transfer portal reminds me that instead of Williams and Deangelo Gibbs, Georgia got Eric Stokes and J.R. Reed. Not a bad outcome.
  • If the game was missing one thing, it was at least a small group from the Notre Dame band. That organization and the Notre Dame fight song are as much a part of the Fighting Irish tradition as the gold helmets. Most bands, including Georgia’s Redcoat Band, limit the road games for which the full band travels, but there’s at least a Redcoat presence at every game.

Post Managing the moment

Thursday September 19, 2019

Georgia has played in a lot of big games since Kirby Smart took over in 2016. Upperclassmen on this team have played for a couple of SEC titles, won a Rose Bowl, and played for the national title. A top-ten showdown against Notre Dame shouldn’t be an exotic experience for Georgia’s players.

The difference is that all of those other big games were either on the road or at neutral sites. Georgia has won important games in South Bend, Pasadena, and Atlanta, and they’ve dropped some games away from home against SEC West foes. For the first time since Kirby Smart took over the program, Georgia gets to enjoy a top-ten matchup at home.

Auburn was #9 (and fading) when an unranked Georgia team pulled the upset in 2016. It was a big win for the program, but there wasn’t much buildup for the game itself due to Georgia’s up and down season.
The most hyped home game under Smart might be the 2017 Mississippi State game when then-#17 MSU visited then-#11 Georgia. Auburn was #24 when they played in Athens a year ago, and there just haven’t been many other home games to move the needle during Georgia’s current run.

That of course all changes on Saturday when the spotlight of the college football world shines on Athens. You’d think finally having a game of national significance at home is nothing but an advantage for Georgia, but it has its perils. You can put on the “business trip” blinders on the road and insulate yourself from most things other than the team and the game at hand. It’s much more difficult to do that at home. The game is all anyone will talk about this week in class, on campus, and all over Athens. Media began streaming in starting with Smart’s press conference on Monday, and it won’t let up. With Gameday coming to town the broadcasts will start on Thursday. I want to see if the coaches – and, more importantly, the team leadership – can get the team to tune out those distractions and prepare as well as they have for the first three games. With Georgia’s new approach to scheduling, preparing for big games – home or away – is something we’re going to have to deal with a lot more often if Kirby Smart builds the kind of program we expect and Georgia becomes everyone’s biggest game.

There’s a reason they call it “home field advantage” though. If Georgia can solve the distraction problem, they’ll have an awful lot in their corner. The crowd will be out of its mind. Brian Kelly is correct that Notre Dame’s players are used to being the big attraction wherever they go, and I’m sure Notre Dame will bring many more fans than the 8,000 tickets allotted to the visitor. Still, it will be a loud, raucous environment capable of rattling even the most hardened road warriors.

It’s a big moment for Kirby Smart. There’s the game itself – Notre Dame seems to be the only credible threat to Georgia heading into November without a loss. Georgia’s adjustments helped to win the Rose Bowl, but this coaching staff found itself outmaneuvered a couple of times in 2018. With the home field and a presumed advantage in talent, a loss would be a setback. Smart will also be welcoming one of the most impressive collection of prospects that Georgia has hosted, and we know they’ll want to see a good show.

More generally, the game is an opportunity for Smart to show off what he’s built in less than four years. Smart’s team, culture, the facilities, and a supercharged fan base will all be on display for the first time against a top-ten opponent on Smart’s own home field. The roster is now nearly all players he recruited. Private donors and the athletic department have made a tremendous investment in facilities and personnel. Under Smart’s leadership all elements of the program seem to be aligned, and Smart lacks for no resource. With a national audience for what might be the biggest home nonconference game in over 50 years, there’s no better time for Smart to show what it’s all been building towards.

There are too many games left and bigger goals remaining at the end of the season to consider a win on Saturday a peak, but it would still be a milestone. Georgia’s narrow win in South Bend two years ago started Georgia on a run of success, and everyone will be watching to see how far they’ve come since then.


Post Georgia 55 – Arkansas State 0: Ruthless

Monday September 16, 2019

We’ll keep this brief with much bigger things to talk about this week, but if you were concerned about Georgia’s focus for a noon kickoff against a decent mid-major opponent ahead of the Notre Dame game, you should be very pleased with Saturday’s result. Even if you didn’t expect Georgia to sleepwalk through this game, it was still an impressive showing. It’s easy to forget after a result like that that Arkansas State came in to the game as Georgia’s toughest opponent of the season, but this is a fairly successful Sun Belt program with eight straight bowl appearances. Coming into the game both ESPN metrics (SP+ and FPI) had them higher than Vanderbilt. The Dawgs were focused and prepared and, perhaps for the first time this season, kept their edge throughout most of the game.

I’m not sure whether the offense or defense had the better day, but posting a shutout gives the honor to the defense by a hair. Blake Anderson’s teams had put up at least 300 yards of offense in 27 straight games. They had reached 400 yards in eight straight games. Those streaks came to a crashing halt in Athens. Georgia held the Red Wolves to 220 yards of total offense, allowed a single play over 20 yards, and forced five three-and-outs. With their leading rusher out, Arkansas State could do little on the ground – there was no running play longer than 10 yards, and no ASU back had more than 24 yards of rushing.

Without a credible rushing attack to worry about, the Georgia defense could pin its ears back against a potent passing game. Georgia’s secondary had perhaps its best performance of the season, and they were aided by a pass rush that recorded four sacks and many more pressures. ASU was held to a paltry 4.4 yards per attempt through the air while completing 57.5% of their passes. Georgia’s defense did very well limiting yards after the catch and had very few missed tackles. That’s a must if Georgia is going to take more chances up front in the service of havoc.

Some minor drama occurred late when Arkansas State attempted a fourth down conversion deep in Georgia territory. (Credit to Anderson for not taking the cheap field goal just to avoid the shutout.) Lewis Cine ended the threat with an interception in the endzone, but it was the sideline’s reaction that stood out. Cine was greeted by an enthusiastic bunch of starters. They were happy for the freshman of course, but you could also tell that preserving the shutout mattered to the defense. It reminded me of the reaction after a Monty Rice tackle kept Mississippi State out of the endzone in 2017. There was a pride in the defense’s performance from the starters through the reserves, and the reserves aspired to the standard set for the starters. Of course it helps when even the reserve units are packed with 3*, 4*, and occasionally young 5* players.

Meanwhile the offense had one of the program’s top 10 games in terms of production. Georgia spread the ball around on the ground and in the air – no player had more than 9 carries or five receptions, but there were still enough balls to go around for 268 yards of rushing and 388 yards passing. Explosive plays were the order of the day – four backs had a carry of at least 19 yards, and even Stetson “Mayfield” Bennett got in on the act with a 14-yard scamper on a bootleg. Nine players had a reception longer than 10 yards, and three had a catch go for longer than 30 yards. Thanks to outstanding blocking downfield, Georgia’s ballcarriers and receivers found a lot of room once they got into open space. Lawrence Cager’s enthusiasm after blocking a defender into the endzone on Cook’s long scoring run shows how even relative newcomers are taking their roles seriously, and the offense is clicking because of it.

Georgia hasn’t faced much of a challenge over its first three games, but the team has taken care of business. There were no slip-ups, close calls, or glaring weaknesses exposed. Whether it was the penalties at Vanderbilt, the missed tackles against Murray State, or the turnovers in each game, Georgia has tightened up at the margins and built towards the result we saw on Saturday. The Dawgs look very much like the top five team they were expected to be, and that’s about all that could be asked after these three games. Georgia has a deep and well-balanced team and is the only squad in the nation after three weeks with all three units (offense, defense, and special teams) in the top 10 of the SP+ rankings. Now it’s time to see whether the team can sustain this level of play against much better competition.

  • Fromm only had five incomplete passes. At least three of those were downfield shots just off the fingertips of the receivers. On a couple to Pickens, Fromm could have put a little more distance on the pass as Pickens had to slow down and allow a defender to make a play. Fromm’s poise earned a touchdown before halftime as a play broke down and Fromm bought time until Cager became open.
  • The Pickens Catch of the Year of the Week is a thing now. Certainly his game can use plenty of refinement, but there’s no mistaking the raw talent. The emergence of a playmaker on the outside will only make the job easier for Georgia’s running game.
  • Interior pass blocking had been an issue over the first two games, but it was solid on Saturday. Hill had his best game so far. The line didn’t give up a sack, but there was a close call on a play on which Thomas was beaten. Fromm had to rush the pass, and it was underthrown. Pickens made a nice play to come back to the ball, and a near-disaster turned into a moderate gain.
  • As at Vanderbilt, Georgia’s third down conversion rate was under 50%. The four third down conversions were huge: two went for explosive scoring plays, another kept a scoring drive alive, and the final conversion helped Georgia escape its own goal line and set up Kenny McIntosh’s long touchdown run.
  • Only three of Georgia’s third down opportunities were short yardage (3 yards to go or less). Georgia converted two of those.
  • Georgia only ran the ball on three of its third downs, and one of those runs was a draw on 3rd-and-14. Even on its three short-yardage third downs, Georgia passed twice. Georgia was similarly unpredictable on third-and-short last week, and Coley has moved the ball around well in those situations. It’s still nice to know Fromm can burrow his way forward for two yards if necessary.
  • After two weeks of seeing the tight ends a little more involved in the passing game, a 6-yard reception by Eli Wolf right before halftime was the only catch for a tight end on Saturday. Woerner was targeted on another pass. It’s not that Georgia changed much with play selection; other options were open. The tight ends didn’t take the afternoon off – they were again outstanding in run blocking.
  • Tyson Campbell had one of his better games and is settling into the cornerback spot opposite Stokes. Stokes-Campbell-Webb seem to have solidified as the top unit in nickel coverage, but Wilson and Daniel are providing some nice depth. There were still some shaky moments, and Arkansas State’s best chance to hit a big play was fortunately dropped. In all the secondary held its own against a couple of quality receivers.
  • Lewis Cine saw a lot of action in garbage time, and he made the most of it. As the only player without a name on the back of his jersey (because his usual #8 was shared with Blaylock), a lot of people wanted to know who #28 was.
  • Can’t let Pickens’s theatrics overshadow another good game for Blaylock. Not only is he a threat for big plays as a receiver, it was important to have him available as a steady option when Simmons couldn’t field punts.
  • Both Simmons and Blaylock got coached up by Smart after letting punts hit the field. Otherwise special teams had another productive game. Early drives ending in field goals wasn’t ideal, but Blankenship still made sure Georgia got points out of those drives and increased that early lead ever so slightly.
  • Stetson Bennett made better decisions in his second game. He could have forced a pass on the bootleg, but the room was there for a big gain on the ground. He managed the situation well when Georgia was backed up on its own goal line and made a key third down pass to move the chains.
  • Cager’s difficult come-back touchdown catch at the goal line was a just reward for Cager’s outstanding blocking work on the outside. Cager’s blocks were involved in two and maybe three other touchdowns. Good downfield blocking = explosive plays.
  • On the flip side, I hated to see Trey Blount have his first career touchdown taken away from him. It was the right call, but Blount has done a lot of grunt work (and was on the field to block for Sony Michel’s Rose Bowl gamewinner.) Hopefully he gets in the endzone soon.

Finally, credit to the fans and program for the show of support towards Blake Anderson and the Red Wolves program. The idea, promotion, and execution of the impromptu pink-out was tremendous, and it was heartwarming to drive down Milledge before the game to see how the students responded. The team didn’t allow the moment to distract from the business at hand on the field, and the outreach to Anderson and ASU stayed on the right side of uncomfortable and patronizing. It was a wonderfully decent and human gesture, but it was also simply the right thing to do.


Post Big Bear is watching

Friday September 13, 2019

Earlier this summer I wrote about professional teams using data mining from electronic transactions to monitor and customize the fan experience.

I shouldn’t be surprised to see this technology now being used by some of our quasi-professional college teams.

(Alabama) is rewarding students who attend games — and stay until the fourth quarter — with an alluring prize: improved access to tickets to the SEC championship game and to the College Football Playoff semifinals and championship game, which Alabama is trying to reach for the fifth consecutive season. But to do this, Alabama is taking an extraordinary, Orwellian step: using location-tracking technology from students’ phones to see who skips out and who stays.

I’m not a fan of coaches scolding students and fans for lack of attendance and support. Play better opponents. Provide a better experience.

At the same time, Alabama’s plan doesn’t bother me that much. Attend or don’t attend; leave or stay. But I don’t have much of a problem using scarce and subsidized postseason student tickets as an incentive to reward consistent attendance. It’s not perfect – there are legitimate reasons to leave games or skip them entirely, and that’s the student’s choice. I’m sure some will find a way to game the system. It does seem preferable to ticket distribution based on a random lottery or even seniority though. If the location tracking is your hangup, I have a few flip phones to sell you.


Post Georgia 63 – Murray State 17: Past, present, and future

Tuesday September 10, 2019

Georgia paid tribute to one of its icons on Saturday, and the Bulldog Nation welcomed back some of the greatest players of the 60s, 70s, and 80s (*). The ceremony introducing “Vince Dooley Field” was enough to fill the stands on a relentlessly hot day and move a nearly-capacity crowd to a warm ovation.

It was by no means a farewell for Dooley who remains active in the Athens community and makes frequent appearances at events. In some sense though it was closure and a way to wrap up an unsettled period in Georgia history that covered nearly two decades now. Clashes with the administration led to the end of Dooley’s career as athletic director and divided a Georgia fan base right as its flagship football program began to show signs of life. With all of that division a distant memory and that administration long gone, Saturday’s ceremony might have been as much about putting that era behind us as it was a recognition for a long and successful career.

Whether or not the “Dooley Field” recognition could be seen as vindication or a last laugh, it should be at least enough to close this chapter with an appropriate ending. Dooley himself seems at peace. “It’s all been great, but I’ll be glad when it’s over, to focus all the attention back to where it should be, on the football team,” he said. Dooley is content now to “(fade) away in the sunlight in my garden,” and we hope that twilight isn’t for many years to come.

Meanwhile the team that plays on the field now named for Dooley is doing anything but fading away. If the pregame ceremony was about the past, Saturday’s game quickly became about the bright future of the program. Some initial shakiness had fans grumbling about a 7-7 score after one quarter, but a 35-point second period cleared the way for waves of reserves to have their moment in the (did we mention brutally hot) sun.

Fromm was sharp as usual with only one incompletion, Swift got into the endzone and had yet another explosive run, and Reed perfected his scoop-and-score technique. The starters did their jobs. After the game though most of the conversation had to do with some of the impressive Sanford Stadium debuts we saw. So often these blowouts end up with the team basically taking a knee for the second half, but those who stuck around or watched on TV saw plenty of action. The offense scored as many points (28) without Fromm in the game as with him. The defensive reserves allowed just a field goal.

Here are just some of the firsts we witnessed:

  • George Pickens’s first reception and touchdown.
  • Pickens leading the team in receiving yards
  • Zamir White’s first touchdown
  • White leading the team in rushing yards
  • Nolan Smith’s first sack(s)
  • Eli Wolf’s first career multiple-reception game
  • Stetson Bennett’s first touchdown pass
  • Latavious Brini’s first interception
  • Demetris Robertson’s first Sanford Stadium receiving touchdown
  • Dominick Blaylock’s debut and first touchdown
  • Netori Johnson’s first tackle for loss on a late fourth-down stop

Those are just individual highlights. Several other players saw their first action at Sanford Stadium. Thanks to the new redshirt rule, Georgia emptied the bench. If a scholarship player didn’t play in this game, they were probably injured. What struck you was that even with the reserves in the game you were still watching impressive, though inexperienced, talent. It’s late in the fourth quarter, and there’s 4* DE Bill Norton. At cornerback was 4* Tyrique Stevenson who could have played for anyone. Blaylock didn’t even play last week and showed explosiveness. I thought about three years of watching Smith, Pickens, Blaylock, Walker, Dean, and White and couldn’t help but smile. Even as we celebrated the past by honoring Dooley, the present is exciting, and Georgia’s not going away for the foreseeable future.

Kirby Smart will have plenty to pick apart from the game. Pass protection can still be a concern. Smart wasn’t pleased with tackling. Georgia was more successful at creating havoc plays, but at times it came at the cost of giving up big plays when the initial tackle was missed. He’ll be pleased with fewer penalties and the results against the run, but Murray State’s air raid exposed a few areas to clean up in pass coverage. Fans don’t have to think about all of that. This is a good, deep team, and it showed on Saturday against a lesser opponent. As Smart reminded us, it’s something else to perform this well against more equally-matched opponents. We’ll worry about that when those opponents show up.

There was one area in which Georgia’s depth was more than just a luxury. The midweek injury to Isaiah Wilson meant that Georgia would have to find a solution at right tackle. We assumed that Mays would slide out to tackle with Cleveland taking over at guard, but Jamaree Salyer also saw time at tackle with the first unit. The offense didn’t suffer much with either combination. Granted the level of competition had something to do with it, but Georgia was still able to do most of what it wanted to. Since Wilson could miss the Notre Dame game, the team will have another week to experiment with its starting offensive line and find the best combination to take into the big game.

One thing that might be overlooked was how clean the game was in terms of operations. Murray State’s air raid offense wanted to push the tempo. If they huddled, they often used a “sugar huddle” that didn’t give the defense much time to align itself to the formation. Even their punt unit used an unconventional method to get on to the field. Georgia was rarely caught off-guard by any of this. The Dawgs had to burn an early timeout before a punt, but otherwise they were prepared with quick substitutions involving entire changes of personnel groupings. I don’t recall any substitution infractions or major misalignments of the defense, and that’s tough to accomplish against this kind of team. Given the heat and how easy it would have been for minds to wander with such a lopsided score, it’s even more impressive considering how many reserves played and the dizzying number of combinations Georgia had to get on and off the field. That’s a credit to the detailed preparation that went into an FCS opponent.

More…

  • Eli Wolf didn’t just have a career high in receptions. His five receptions in 2019 match his 2018 total at Tennessee, and he already has more receiving yards at Georgia (84) than he did in his Tennessee career (78). Wolf has been a welcome addition and has allowed Georgia to use a lot more 12 (ace) personnel than we expected, and the tight ends are doing more than blocking. They were key parts of the passing game during the second quarter scoring outburst.
  • Perimeter blocking is consistent – even late in the game Trey Blount was getting it done on the outside.
  • Last season kick coverage was often an adventure when there wasn’t a touchback. Three such kicks in 2019 is a small sample size, but Georgia seems to have solved its coverage issues. Special teams in general are solid, and Camarda has been outstanding.
  • Stetson Bennett showed he was capable of running a simplified offense. He made a couple of mistakes and probably should have been intercepted twice, but you know he was anxious to make something happen in his first meaningful action at Georgia.
  • A week after subpar results on third down, Georgia converted 8-10. Only one of those failed conversions came before the fourth quarter – the sack of Fromm in the first quarter. Murray State’s defense isn’t Vanderbilt’s, but that’s still improvement.
  • More interesting might have been the way Georgia mixed it up on third-and-short (three yards or less.) The Dawgs didn’t face third-and-short until the second quarter, but that 3rd-and-3 play was a 24-yard Fromm pass to Wolf. On six plays of 3rd-and-3 or shorter, Georgia ran three times and passed three times. Georgia’s only short-yardage third down play near the goal line was a handoff to Zamir White, and he plowed six yards into the endzone behind some nice blocking.
  • I didn’t see any serious injuries or even cramping – that’s incredible in those conditions. Kirby Smart made a point of practicing outdoors as much as possible in August, and the team’s conditioning seemed to be up to the challenge.
  • It wasn’t obvious in broad daylight, but you could see the new lighting system being used before and during the game. Georgia’s new LED lights can be instantly turned on and off individually to create any number of effects, and they can also be dimmed similar to what you’ve seen at a Braves game. We’ve also seen testing of red lights. It should be quite a show for that little night game in two weeks.
  • At least from my perspective the University did well to manage the conditions. Cold water was available well into the second half. The policy to allow ticketholders to bring water into the stadium helped, and I heard good reviews of the water filling stations. I only saw one heat-related incident in our area, and it was promptly handled. I appreciate the hard work it took by stadium staff to make the heat as tolerable as possible.

* It amazes me that this era still resonates as it does with younger fans and recruits. A recruit meeting Herschel Walker now would be the equivalent of a young Walker meeting Frank Sinkwich or some other WWII-era legend.


Post Georgia 30 – Vanderbilt 6: Your ordinary everyday takeover

Wednesday September 4, 2019

A year ago Georgia led Vanderbilt 21-6 at halftime but scored 17 third quarter points to allow both the bench and stands to empty early. The Dawgs enjoyed the same halftime margin on Saturday night but struggled to pull away, settling for a trio of second half field goals for the final margin. Penalties, a turnover, and a failed fourth down conversion kept the Bulldogs out of the endzone in the second half. The result was a comfortable if not flashy 30-6 win. There are plenty of things to work on and improve but very few areas that should keep fans up at night.

It’s a new season, but the Georgia team we saw in Nashville was very familiar. Even with two new coordinators both the offense and defense would have looked at home in 2018.

That’s not to say there weren’t some tweaks. The offense featured a bit more pre-snap motion, especially orbit motion that brought a player in motion behind the quarterback. Georgia ran from passing formations and, as on the first touchdown, passed when a run might have been expected. Play-action was a big part of the passes Georgia attempted, and Georgia’s run threat led to some very open shots down the field. Otherwise though, it was the run-heavy attack you’d expect from Georgia. The motion and spread looks allowed the offense to showcase its speed on the outside while creating nightmare defensive matchups when Georgia decided to run between the tackles.

Things also looked familiar on defense, and that might merit a closer look. We’re going to be sick of the term “havoc” before long, but the defense identified havoc as a key area of improvement this season. If that’s the case, it’s worth pointing out that Georgia shut down some capable skill players and kept Vanderbilt out of the endzone without creating much disruption. In fact, according to Patrick Garbin of UGASports.com, it could be said that Georgia took a step back in havoc relative to 2018.

Pass pressure and hurries aren’t a part of the havoc calculation due to inconsistent stats, but, as Garbin points out, Georgia fared much better pressuring the quarterback in this game even if it didn’t lead to tangible results like sacks or turnovers. More often the results were errant passes or short gains that neutralized Vanderbilt’s explosive potential. Georgia only allowed five plays longer than 10 yards and only one play longer than 20 yards. Without those big gains, Vanderbilt could be relied upon to shoot themselves in the foot with their own miscues. It’s a formula that worked against enough teams in 2018 to give Georgia a top 10 defense, and it worked again on Saturday night. I’m not so sure that’s the identity the team wants this year though.

Georgia’s defense – the line in particular – was a little more into the game in the second half. The few havoc plays largely occurred after halftime, and as a result the Vanderbilt offense wasn’t able to stay on the field very long. During one stretch in the second half, Vanderbilt had four straight three-and-outs losing a combined 1 yard. Even though Georgia’s offense slowed down, the Bulldog defense slammed the door on any kind of comeback. For contrast, Vanderbilt had no possession shorter than six plays in the first half, and several of those drives only stalled due to penalties. Consequently Georgia only had four first half possessions while their offense was humming.

I know the thinking is that Georgia’s offense went conservative in the second half with the game more or less under control. That might be the case, but there are still reasons to have expected more points on the board. The defense’s ability to get off the field meant that four of Georgia’s six second half possessions started with field position no worse than their own 46. You want more than six total points out of those four possessions. The other two possessions ended on downs and Jackson’s fumble. Georgia was still running its first team offense with the long strike to Jackson and consecutive shots at the endzone with Pickens, so it wasn’t a case of the offense taking a knee for the final 30 minutes. You want to see the offense finish those drives better especially when given that kind of field position.

Spreading it around

In each of the past two seasons a single receiver emerged as Jake Fromm’s favorite target. Wims stood out in 2017, and Holloman became that target in 2018. Whether Fromm feels more comfortable spreading the ball around or he just hasn’t found that go-to target yet, we saw Georgia showcase a variety of weapons in the passing game. Fromm completed 15 passes to eight different receivers. Six players had multiple receptions, and no one had more than three. There were three receptions by tight ends, three by tailbacks, and nine by four different wide receivers. Others (Simmons and Pickens in particular) were targeted but didn’t record a reception.

There were hardly any outright drops – many of the incompletions were just passes into tight coverage. We can’t dismiss concerns about the receiving corps yet, especially with Jackson’s injury, but some nice options seem to be available. Simmons and Pickens will soon join the stat sheet, and we haven’t even seen others like Blaylock yet. Georgia (and Fromm) had a bit tougher time of it on more obvious passing situations like third and long or at the end of the first half.

There were some shaky moments in pass protection. Hill, as the newest member of the regular offensive line, is still figuring some things out and had problems with a couple of stunts and twists, and he wasn’t alone in getting beat by the pass rush. LSU and Texas last season were able to confuse Georgia’s protection at times as they limited Georgia’s offense. We’ll see if Pittman can address those protection issues before Georgia faces another opponent that can take advantage of them.

Tailback U

When you combine for over 300 yards on the ground against an SEC opponent, something is going right. The offensive line and perimeter blocking were excellent, but each of the backs had something worth celebrating in this game:

  • Herrien earned a well-deserved start and set the tone right away with a 10-yard gain.
  • Cook showed how versatile he can be in the offense with two carries and two receptions. He glided to the endzone on his scoring run, and he’s going to be a tough assignment running the orbit motion.
  • Zeuuuuuuuuuuus – I was surprised that Georgia fans had it together enough to not only recognize that White got into the game but to greet him with a serenade loud enough to make the other players wonder what was going on. The reception for White could turn a heart of stone, and it was a well-deserved appreciation for the two years of hard work that led to White just taking the field. White didn’t disappoint on his five carries – just hold onto the ball!
  • Swift’s health and availability was a daily preseason obsession, but he showed no limitations once the lights were on Saturday. He led Georgia in both carries and yardage. No disrespect to the other ballcarriers who contributed to the win, but a fully operational Swift is just in a class by himself.

Tight ends

I wondered if Georgia might turn to its offensive line depth to help the tight ends in short-yardage situations, but the three tight ends Georgia used Saturday turned out to be enough. When Georgia went into the I-formation on the goal line they turned to Eli Wolf as the blocking back, and he was up to the job taking out two Vanderbilt defenders. Tight ends were active in the passing game with three receptions, and they (especially Woerner) were devastating blocking in open space.

The tight ends were a little less effective blocking in tight formations. The fourth down attempt was a mess. It wasn’t an issue of five offensive linemen left to block seven defenders; Georgia was in 12 or (“ace”) personnel with two tight ends in to help up front. There were enough blockers, but both tight ends missed their block. Georgia was more effective in short yardage with a lead blocker (Wolf) or running out of a spread look.

Newbies

There weren’t a ton of true freshmen who played at Vanderbilt, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of new faces. Georgia mixed in a handful of new-to-us players who had us scrambling for our roster sheets. JUCO transfers DJ Daniel and Jermaine Johnson were popular choices on third downs. Grad transfers Eli Wolf and Lawrence Cager had nice debuts for the offense. Divaad Wilson got an earful from Kirby Smart on a thoughtless personal foul but was right back out there as part of Georgia’s secondary. In all five redshirt freshmen, two JUCO transfers, and two grad transfers joined with seven true freshmen to make a significant impact on the outcome.

In the haze of the celebration after Georgia’s first touchdown, I swore I saw a freshman defensive linemen charging down the field to cover a kickoff. That says about all you need to know about Travon Walker – part basketball player, part defensive end, and part special teams gunner. Walker is already working into the defensive line rotation, and it was surprising to see Walker get the nod over more experienced players like Malik Herring.

Azeez Ojulari isn’t a newcomer, but you might not know the name if you tuned out of the Sugar Bowl. Ojulari stepped into Ledbetter’s #13 and looks to be a three-down option at outside linebacker. Nolan Smith quickly showed why he was the nation’s top prospect with an impressive backside pursuit to force a Vanderbilt punt.

A home nonconference game and the full roster combined with the four-game redshirt rule should mean many more glances at the roster this week.


Post Not a 2019 season preview

Friday August 30, 2019

It’s here! Time to load up the car for a road trip to Nashville. An invasion by Georgia fans is almost expected now for any road game, and Nashville is usually happy to accommodate. This isn’t a preview – there are plenty of those elsewhere – but more of a dump of things on my mind as we head into the season.

There haven’t been many surprises over the offseason, and any concerns have to do with the incremental improvements that turn a playoff contender into a champion. In other words, we more or less know the cards Georgia is holding, and we know they’re good ones. That can make for boring blogging at times as there are only so many ways to say that Georgia has a good team.

Kirby Smart touched on an obvious but important point at SEC Media Days in July: how weird is it for Georgia to be measured relative to a team not even on its schedule? As Smart reminds us, the Dawgs have a 12-game row to hoe first. The assumption of a postseason date with Alabama implies a couple of things: first, anything short of another division title would be a serious setback. Second, Georgia is nearly to the point as a program that Georgia advancing to face Alabama is expected as much as Alabama advancing to face Georgia. The Georgia program is now measured in all things relative to Alabama, and that in itself says quite a lot.

The Grown-Up in the Room

It seems as if he was hired yesterday, but only four SEC head coaches now have more experience at their current school than Kirby Smart. Entering his fourth season Smart has created a team and program largely of his own making. There are a handful of redshirt seniors (Blankenship!) and others who committed to Mark Richt for the 2016 class, but 68 of Georgia’s 83 scholarship players are juniors or below.

Smart, for the first time, is welcoming new coordinators. Replacing just a single coordinator has been enough to trip up other Georgia coaches. Hiring from within might lend itself to some continuity, but was that taking the easy way out? That’s no disrespect to Coley or Lanning who have earned their roles, but Georgia didn’t seem to conduct much of a search for its coordinators outside of the 706 area code. Why would they? Both the offense and defense were doing well, and these men certainly had their hands in that success.

There were two things keeping Georgia fans from worrying too much about two new coordinators. First was, again, the Alabama factor. Bama loses coaches all the time and chugs on, so why shouldn’t Georgia? That’s assuming quite a bit though about the state of Georgia’s program. Alabama has earned that benefit of the doubt; I’m not so sure Georgia has. Second is the presence of Kirby Smart. We know what kind of offense Smart prefers, and we know this team is meant to run that certain style. Coley might introduce his own wrinkles, but this isn’t Auburn bringing in Tony Franklin for a wholesale retooling of the offense’s identity. It’s a similar story on defense. It’s unfair to Mel Tucker (and Lanning) to call them figureheads running Smart’s defense just as it was wrong to say that about Smart and Saban at Alabama. What’s true though is that Smart will set the tone in both the players the program recruits and the insistence that the defense meets the same standards of composure and physicality he’s set for the entire program. Certain aspects – like this season’s emphasis on havoc – might change from year to year, but you’re never concerned that Kirby Smart doesn’t know what he wants from his defense.

But if our faith in the new coordinators lies largely in the belief that they’re instruments of Kirby Smart’s preferences, Smart’s own role in decisions deserves greater scrutiny. That doesn’t just mean fake punts late in the SEC championship game. If Coley gets away from the run a little too soon, will Smart be willing to correct? Hopefully it won’t take a Chubb/Michel type of meeting. If an opponent makes adjustments to attack Georgia’s offensive line as LSU did, will Smart be quick to recognize it and help craft a response? Can Smart step in when the defense isn’t getting lined up properly against hurry-up offenses?

The results on the field and on the recruiting trail show that Kirby Smart can build a winning program and culture. Will we see how Smart himself has improved with three years’ experience at the helm? This might be a harsh way of putting it, but will the coaches prove to be at the level of the players they’ve brought in?

Return on Investment

Smart has been the beneficiary of a tremendous investment in the program. Both donors and administrators have aligned to provide Smart with an impressive coaching and support staff, a jewel of an indoor facility, and an eye-popping West endzone addition to Sanford Stadium. We’ve seen the pockets opened for recruiting to the point where no program spends more to attract top talent. Soon the program will begin raising funds for the next capital project – a football facility and much larger weight room adjacent to the Butts-Mehre building. Will donors be as generous as they have been, or do they need to see at least another playoff appearance first? Is this an important year for Smart – not in terms of job stability but in terms of sustaining the no-questions-asked investment that has fueled his first four years?

Home Turf

These Georgia players have been in plenty of big games, and the pressure of expectations is last year’s news. The difference this year is that a couple of the biggest games of the year are at home. None of these players were around for September 2013 (or the 2015 Alabama game, but the less said about that the better.) About the biggest home game these players have seen is the 2017 Mississippi State game. Georgia hasn’t dropped a game at Sanford Stadium since 2016, but they also haven’t faced opponents this good.

For road or neutral site games you can put on the “business trip” blinders and insulate yourself from most things other than the business at hand. That’s tough-to-impossible at home. When there’s a big game coming up it’s all anyone will talk about that week in class, on campus, and all over Athens. Media will come in starting with Kirby’s press conference on Monday, and it won’t let up. If Gameday is here, as it will likely be for Notre Dame, the broadcasts will start on Thursday. I want to see if the coaches – and, more importantly, the team leadership – can get the team to tune out those distractions and prepare. It’s something Georgia is going to have to deal with a lot more often if Kirby builds the kind of program we expect and Georgia becomes everyone’s biggest game.

Something to Prove

Beyond big game hype, the Notre Dame game will come with something a little extra. We all saw the tweets last December from Georgia’s players as they watched Clemson dismantle Notre Dame. That mindset carried over to the bowl game, and we saw what happened.

I’m sure Notre Dame’s coaches will remind their players what Georgia’s players think of them. I hope Georgia’s coaches use it too. You said it, now back it up. Notre Dame was in the playoff last year, and the Dawgs weren’t. Do something about it.

The Z-Factor

Georgia fans have been anticipating Zamir White’s debut since his pivotal commitment in 2017. Remember – at the time he was Georgia’s highest-rated tailback commitment of the internet era. Two major knee injuries have pumped the brakes on any next-Herschel (or even next-Chubb) hype, but the idea that someone that good is on the roster and might be able to contribute has been enticing enough to keep the what-ifs alive in the back of our minds.

Reports out of camp have been promising with White showing a physical running style and no lingering effects from his injuries. Nearly every Georgia back has been lauded this offseason for his pass catching ability out of the backfield, and White has held his own there. There’s no need to rush him into 20 carries per game, but there also seems to be no reason why he shouldn’t be a part of the gameplan from the start. We should be confident enough in Brian Herrien’s ability to give Swift some relief, but Zamir White anywhere near his original strength gives Georgia a legitimate 1A and 1B punch in the backfield and suddenly makes this unit look fairly deep. It would allow the coaches some flexibility with Cook, put less of a load on Swift (who himself has battled injuries), and let the coaches approach the tailback rotation strategically.

White’s 2019 could even have ripple effects beyond the current team. Georgia currently has one five-star tailback committed and, according to reports, is near the top of the list for a second. It wouldn’t be the first time Georgia signed two five-star tailbacks (White himself along with James Cook were such a duo), but it would be unprecedented with White and Cook still on the roster. It’s not unthinkable that any prospective tailback commitment will be watching White and Cook for a sense of how crowded things might be at the top of the depth chart in 2020 if D’Andre Swift goes pro.

Depth

Georgia, according to Rivals, has put together three straight top three signing classes (and two straight #1 classes). Quibble about the exact rankings, but there is arguably more talent now in Athens than at any point in the program’s history. How does that increased talent level begin to manifest itself? Georgia has always had standout players and NFL-quality talent. The difference now is in depth. We saw an example of that depth last year when a player of the quality of Cade Mays could step in when Andrew Thomas had to leave the South Carolina game. We saw defensive backs Eric Stokes and Otis Reese push and even unseat starters during the season.

Depth offers you both of those luxuries: options when inevitable injuries occur and continuous competition that reinforces standards. We’ve already seen competition shuffle things around in the preseason. Hopefully we won’t have to discover how resilient the team’s depth is to injuries.

Since we started with Alabama, we’ll finish there too. Georgia’s collapses on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter have led to narrow losses in the past two meetings with the Tide. Key injuries – Wims in 2017 and Walker in 2018 – couldn’t be overcome. This is where you expect to see depth show up. Will the team be able to rotate players throughout the season to have something in the tank for the postseason? Will more position groups develop players ready to step in with minimal loss of production if a starter is unavailable? Georgia should now be deep enough that you don’t have to stretch to get the right 11 on the field for most any situation, and not many teams can say that.


Post Cry havoc…

Monday August 19, 2019

Any preview of the Georgia defense this year must include one word: havoc. Coaches and players usually aren’t that willing to volunteer details about what they’re working on, but this season’s focus on creating more havoc has been an exception. That’s not as vapid as saying the defense’s objective is to keep the offense from scoring; being more intentional about havoc implies certain adjustments to scheme and a willingness to take a few more chances. It’s willing to put one of Georgia’s 2018 defensive strengths at risk and suggests that the staff might have a little more faith in the 2019 secondary.

What is “havoc rate?”

Yes, “havoc” is a measurable thing and has been a part of the emerging advanced stats developed by Bill Connolly and others. Connolly writes that havoc rate is “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up).

But does a good havoc rate go hand-in-hand with a good defense?

Not exactly, but it doesn’t hurt. Here’s the 2018 defensive advanced stats for college football. Only four of the top 10 defenses by S&P+ had top 10 havoc rates. The rest rated 20 or below, and over 40 teams had havoc rates better than three of the top 10 defenses.

Then again, nine of the defenses with top 10 havoc rates rated no worse than 21st in defensive S&P+. The outlier? Resurgent UAB had the sixth-best havoc rate in the nation but rated 45th in defensive S&P+. The Blazers demonstrated to the extreme the give-and-take of havoc: they were #1 in success rate, #2 in front 7 havoc, and #6 in overall havoc. But they were #112 in IsoPPP – a measure of effectiveness against explosive plays. UAB was aggressive up front and often successful, but they were extremely prone to getting burned by big plays.

I think the takeaway here is that there is more than one way to play effective defense. Still, if you look at the teams Georgia considers its peers – Clemson and Alabama – there’s no mistaking dominant defenses featuring a high havoc rate led by disruptive defensive fronts. You had just better be able to cover well behind that front.

Georgia was 73rd in havoc rate in 2018. That’s bad, right?

Again, Georgia had a top 10 defense by S&P+, so the lack of havoc wasn’t crippling. It’s just not how Kirby Smart prefers to play defense. In a way, it’s a credit to the coaching staff that they were able to adjust the defensive scheme last season to get a fairly effective season out of a rebuilding roster. By dialing back aggressive playcalling, Georgia was top 3 in IsoPPP, passing S&P+, and passing down S&P+. They kept things largely in front of them, didn’t give up big plays, and made opposing offenses work. Even when teams were able to move the ball on Georgia, the Bulldog offense (rated #3 in S&P+) was much more often than not able to put enough points on the board to make up the difference.

There were weaknesses in that approach though. Without many lost yardage plays, teams could generally stay ahead of the chains against Georgia, and the Dawgs had a mediocre defensive success rating of 63rd and were 53rd in rushing S&P+. We saw that softness against the run at some key moments last year. Even at Missouri, the Tigers were kept out of the endzone through the air but still made things interesting by running the ball with surprising success. That was a choice by Georgia to take away the big passing plays on which Drew Lock and the Mizzou offense thrived. Fortunately not too many Georgia opponents in 2018 had the firepower to force Georgia into that kind of a choice.

So what’s Georgia’s plan?

As with any defensive scheme, it begins up front. A defensive line without much push by definition won’t have many havoc plays (sacks and tackles for loss). A veteran group with a few key pieces getting healthy should help. Developing underclassmen like Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and Malik Herring will be key. Travon Walker could have the kind of impact Davis had a year ago as a freshman. Collectively they must improve at taking on the offensive line and getting a push into the backfield.

Behind that line is one of Georgia’s more talented and deep units. The Dawgs have recruited as well at linebacker, especially outside linebacker, than most other positions. In a 3-4 base defense (granting that Georgia plays more nickel than anything), many of your havoc plays will come from the linebacker position. While the defensive line occupies blockers, explosive linebackers can attack. Roquan Smith is obviously the model here, and that’s why so much attention has been paid to Monty Rice’s health and the arrival of Nakobe Dean. The guys on the edge have as much to do with it, and getting more production from the insanely talented outside linebackers will have as much as anything to do with improved havoc rate. A more aggressive approach from this group against Alabama was effective, and getting to Tua Tagovailoa led to sacks and turnovers until D’Andre Walker was injured.

The secondary has an important role to play if you want to avoid the UAB scenario of getting torched in the name of creating havoc. Coaches won’t be as willing to be aggressive up front if they’re not confident in their safety net. The four (or five) defensive backs can’t allow explosive plays. That means pass coverage, yes, but it also means sure tackling to prevent small gains from turning into bigger ones. That wasn’t always a strong point of Georgia’s defense in 2018, especially at safety. This unit will have its own role in havoc: if the front seven are creating pressure, you would expect a quarterback under duress to make more mistakes and create opportunities for interceptions.

Even the offense can help. If Georgia is able to establish early leads, the opponent’s offense becomes more predictable. Georgia can leave its pass rushers on the field, play coverage schemes that might be a little more vulnerable to the run, and get after the quarterback.

Since we have metrics for these things now, the defense’s progress won’t be hard to track. We’ll see it in more traditional stats like turnovers, tackles for loss, and sacks, but “havoc rate” is what we’re really looking for. It will also be worth keeping an eye on IsoPPP to see whether the defense can continue to limit explosive plays as well as they did a year ago. With an improved havoc rate and sustained success against big plays, Georgia would take the step forward on defense that could get the team over the top this year.