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Post Fans disappointing coaches, a continuing series

Monday April 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post 2018 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday February 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

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

The Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Checking all of the boxes

Monday February 12, 2018

There’s any number of ways to look at the success of a recruiting class. The simplest way is to add up the stars and rankings and sort them relative to the competition. That’s how we end up declaring Georgia’s class as the nation’s best. It got the best players and it got more of them. A more nuanced way to evaluate a class is to consider needs or scheme. It’s fine to sign the nation’s best group of receivers, but what if you didn’t sign that left tackle to keep your quarterback upright? You signed a great pocket passer, but you run an option offense.

Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall poses some questions to help us think through whether a team signed the “right” kind of players to succeed in the modern game. Let’s walk through them.

How does your QB handle live bullets? What does full film say about your team’s new QB(s)? In a tough game against strong defense, does he hold up? What skills does he lean on to get the job done?

We’ll let Kirby demonstrate what it’s like to watch Justin Fields during a game.

I expect Fields to have some adjustment to the college game similar to what Boyd saw in Shea Patterson. Fields was the focal point of his offense and often had to improvise under pressure. If you want to see Fields against an elite HS defense, check the film from his game against Adam Anderson and Rome – both the highlights and the rest. Like any freshman, he’ll have to learn more discipline and read progression, and he’ll have to trust his line and receivers.

Did your team get star prospects at the focal positions of the college game? In particular, did they sign any good tight ends?

Georgia continued to stockpile talent at the tight end position with the addition of Luke Ford and John FitzPatrick. Ford’s a big target in his own right at 6’5″, but FitzPatrick is a legit Leonard Pope-like 6’7″. Georgia might continue to use those tight ends differently than, say, Oklahoma, but Georgia’s tight ends still have to be adaptable enough to line up everywhere from the slot to H-back. Ford and FitzPatrick can do that.

I’d also consider it a good sign that Georgia signed elite edge defenders. James Cook was also a big get, as we’ve seen the value of a versatile back like Michel or Swift.

Conversely, did your team sign a good nose tackle?

If there’s a possible weakness in the amazing class Georgia signed, it might be along the defensive line. The Dawgs lose unheralded but valuable tackle John Atkins and also Trenton Thompson. Jordan Davis at 6’6″ and 330 lbs certainly qualifies as a big body along the defensive front, and Devonte Wyatt has been seasoned by a year at prep school and participation in Georgia’s postseason practices. Neither signee is a reach, but this is a rare position at which Georgia didn’t sign a top 10 prospect. It becomes a top priority for the 2019 class.

Can your best defenders stay on the field?

Boyd explains that “the real key is that your best players project to multiple positions so that they can stay on the field and be in the right spots at the right times to play winning, situational football.” This might be the real strength of the Georgia class. You can imagine several of these prospects in different roles. A good example is Otis Reese – he was considered a linebacker during recruiting, but Kirby Smart announced that Reese would start out as a safety. (Visions of Thomas Davis?) The Dawgs landed a fleet of guys in the defensive end / outside linebacker-ish body type. Tyson Campbell is an elite corner but is big enough to take on the star position. Certainly most of these defenders will prove more proficient at one position than another, but the athleticism and skills are there to keep the best of them on the field in most situations.


Post How a disastrous recruiting class became the nation’s best

Friday February 9, 2018

As I tried to wrap my head around Georgia’s historic 2018 recruiting haul, I kept coming back to April and May of last year. Georgia had missed out on Brenton Cox. Adam Anderson decommitted and flipped to LSU. The state’s top quarterbacks were headed to Clemson, Ohio State, and Penn State. At one point in May another decommitment left Georgia with only two 2018 pledges: kicker Jake Camarda and cornerback Chris Smith. Georgia was near the bottom of the conference with several top prospects headed elsewhere. You began to see versions of the same question being asked by media:

Those weren’t inflammatory hot takes. It was an angsty time, and Georgia’s class was actually shrinking as other programs secured some important targets.

Hope came from reports that some key prospects favored Georgia and would eventually form the cornerstone of the class. Zeus. Salyer. Hill. If they came on board, the class could be salvaged. But Georgia couldn’t afford many more misses, and even those who leaned Georgia’s way were keeping a wary eye on the 2017 season. Kirby Smart had established himself as a solid recruiter, but there was still uncertainty about the product on the field after an 8-5 debut. Prospects were getting an earful from the competition about Georgia’s ability to compete for titles. “That was my big critique about them coming into the season and overall,” explained Jamaree Salyer. “They haven’t been able to win the big games in recent history.”

Things began to happen. Zamir White committed and at least got everyone down off the ledge. Justin Fields decommitted from Penn State. Adam Anderson decommitted from LSU. Kearis Jackson committed. The season began, and Georgia finally had some on-field success to sell. Prospects like Salyer took notice. “Beating a highly-touted Mississippi State team at home was really good,” he said following that early win. Fields committed with two other five-star QBs on the Georgia roster, and that got the class and Georgia’s recruiting efforts in the news. James Cook continued Georgia’s embarrassment of riches at tailback. The class began to fill out, but several major prospects held out until the early signing period.

Christmas came early for this signing class. Lynchpin offensive linemen Salyer and Hill committed. Brenton Cox flipped from Ohio State. Cade Mays was an impressive late commitment. Georgia dominated the December signing period as just about every top target inked with the Bulldogs. If you circled a name back in spring or summer as a must-get to salvage the 2018 class, odds are they signed with Georgia. Between the SEC Championship and the early signing class, no program had a better December than the Dawgs.

With all but a handful of 2018 spots locked up, the February signing day didn’t offer nearly the drama we’ve seen most years. Still, there was work to do and important pieces to add. Tyson Campbell adds instant impact in the secondary. Tommy Bush’s size will draw comparisons to Wims on the outside. Quay Walker and Otis Reese will shore up the linebacker position depleted by graduation and the draft. Wednesday’s fantastic results gilded the lily that was Georgia’s December haul.

There’s no need this year for spinning the shortcomings in this class. It was the best. There were no reaches. It’s the kind of class necessary to keep Georgia competing for titles. It’s the kind of class Georgia will need to continue to sign to have the kind of multi-year runs we’ve seen from Alabama and Clemson. One thing already will be different about the 2019 class – with seven commitments including three 5* prospects already on board, you won’t see the words “concerned” or “worry” used very much unless you’re talking about the programs recruiting against Georgia.


Post How to mess up a perfectly reasonable price increase

Thursday February 8, 2018

Two things bugged me about Georgia’s decision to raise ticket prices. I really don’t have much problem with the increase itself. We all know what the market is like, and anyone who’s followed the Dawgs on the road has first-hand experience with the concept of premium pricing. Two things though…

Transparency

Outgoing athletics board member Janet Frick noted that the board wasn’t given the full proposal on paper until the meeting at which the proposal was approved. That implies that those who submitted the proposal expected it to sail through the approval process as-is without much consideration, dissent, or discussion. In this case, they were probably right. Even Frick admits that the proposal was “appropriate,” and there was no real objection. Frick’s larger point has to do with transparency.

“Organizations are healthier when there is time and consideration and full vetting of decisions before they happen. We need discussion and dissent. That leads to better long-term decisions. No one benefits from a “rubberstamp” mentality,” she tweeted.

There have been too many stories lately about institutions turning a blind eye to ongoing abuse within athletic organizations. There have been no such allegations at Georgia, and Seth Emerson does a good job of discussing the issue as it pertains to Georgia. These instances of abuse elsewhere festered for years in large part because the individuals and systems in positions of responsibility allowed them to continue. The coverup doesn’t have to be active, though in some horrific cases it was. Often it was enough to remain passive – to not ask questions, to kick the can down the road, or to blindly sign off on the decisions and actions of others.

Yes, it’s a stretch to mention an uncontroversial ticket price increase in the same breath as the far more serious problems that reach all the way to the NCAA commissioner. What they have in common though is some breakdown in oversight. It’s one thing to be careless with the presentation of a proposal, but I doubt Frick would raise the issue if this were the only instance of a “rubberstamp mentality” she had encountered in three years on the board. Transparency, dissent, and discussion don’t have to be contrarian. As Frick notes, they’re signs of a healthy oversight body that’s likely to be out in front of more substantial problems.

Update: I think we understand now why the proposal was rushed through the board. The administration didn’t seem prepared to present any kind of coherent case in support of the proposal to the general public, let alone to the board charged with the program’s oversight.

More for less

We know that the 2018 home schedule, especially the non-conference part, isn’t all that great.* We’re used to our biggest SEC rivalry game played off-campus. We also know that Kirby Smart is in favor of playing major programs at neutral sites to start the season. The economics favor neutral site games.

What it all means is that even with the ticket price increase we’re less likely to see Georgia’s best games included as part of the season ticket package. Notre Dame will be an exception, but that was agreed to years ago. Not only will you be paying more for your season tickets, there will also be one and occasionally two additional tickets at premium prices above even the highest $75 home ticket price. Your season ticket package will contain four, and sometimes only three, SEC opponents, Tech every other year, and whatever lower-tier nonconference games the school can negotiate.

As a friend put it, if you’re going to raise prices I want more $75 games and fewer $55 ones.

* – What happened with the 2017 home schedule was pure alchemy. 2017 was supposed to be a garbage home slate full of sleepy nooners. Somehow we ended up with an unprecedented number of late games and the opportunity to see in person:

  • Fromm’s immediate impact coming off the bench
  • The team come into its own against MSU, the darling of September
  • How the team and Fromm would respond in a shootout against Missouri
  • The team clinch the SEC East against SC
  • Sending off a legendary senior class in the home finale

Not a bad year to be in Sanford Stadium.


Post Wynn wins the Senior Bowl

Saturday January 27, 2018

Think back to about a year ago. Coming off a lackluster 2016 season, one of Georgia’s biggest questions was at offensive line. The line underperformed in 2016 and lost several starters. One of those starters was a stopgap left tackle, and the fact that Georgia’s best option at that key position was a graduate transfer from Rhode Island (with its implied “of all places”) summed up not only the state of the 2016 line but also the level of talent available to the new staff. Not only would line coach Sam Pittman have to piece together functional lines with the current roster, he’d also have a big replenishment job ahead in recruiting.

Georgia began to take care of that recruiting imperative with the 2017 class. Georgia landed three of the nation’s top 20 linemen, and analysts concluded that “no position group will receive a bigger upgrade from this (2017) class than the offensive line.” The class had depth and quality. Perhaps most important was the best collection of incoming tackles Georgia had seen in recent memory. Two of the top three freshman signees were tackles, and another signee was the #2 junior college prospect at tackle. Many, including myself, expected Georgia’s 2017 starting line to include two of these three tackles.

So when Isaiah Wynn all but declared himself the starting left tackle after the 2017 spring practice, it wasn’t taken very seriously. Wynn had been a guard on that 2016 line and at 6’2″ was several inches shorter than a prototypical tackle. It’s not that Wynn didn’t have experience at tackle. The 2015 Florida game caused many changes in the program, and an immediate reshuffle of the offensive line was among them. Wynn finished the 2015 season at left tackle (all games won by Georgia, by the way) but was moved back inside when Pittman arrived with Kirby Smart. Wynn did play at left tackle in Georgia’s Liberty Bowl win, but Georgia was dealing with an injury to the starter. Wynn was a candidate at tackle for 2017 and would start out there during spring, but the assumption was that he was there as a placeholder until one of the newcomers took over.

We know how assumptions work out. 2017 held three big surprises at the tackle position: 1) the Isaiah who became an anchor at left tackle was Wynn and not Wilson, 2) not only did Wilson and JUCO D’Marcus Hayes not claim a starting job, both redshirted in 2017, and 3) the one freshman from this class who did earn a starting job was Andrew Thomas – perhaps the least heralded of the three incoming tackles (though as a 4* and U.S. Army All-American certainly no slouch). If you had predicted those three outcomes after Signing Day, many fans (at least those who didn’t laugh in your face), would have wondered why this touted group of 2017 OL signees turned out to be such a bust.

The 2017 season of course had little to do with any shortcomings of the signing class. Wynn turned out to be an anchor. Thomas picked up the system quickly and stood out as early as preseason practice. Georgia was able to draw on its depth (imagine that!) and promote Ben Cleveland at guard. Wilson struggled with acclimation, and Georgia’s top guard signee Netori Johnson had a more serious physical issue to overcome. Both should be very much in the mix going forward. With another impressive class of linemen on the way in 2018, there will be no shortage of depth or competition for playing time.

But back to Wynn. He’s getting noticed this week at practices for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. He was named the top offensive lineman of the week and is drawing praise and attention from people in a position to earn him quite a high draft pick and a large rookie contract.

Sure enough, Wynn is back at guard this week. The NFL has enough guys at the “right” size to play tackle to take a flyer on someone like Wynn. He’s proving in Senior Bowl practice that he’ll do just fine back on the inside. But for Georgia he was just what the Dawgs needed at left tackle. He was a big reason why Georgia’s prolific running game took off and also a key to Jake Fromm’s progress and success as a true freshman quarterback.

(Since I began this post talking about 2016, how about this thought exercise? Wynn held his own at tackle at the end of 2015 as Georgia won its last five with a run-focused offense. Tyler Catalina struggled at tackle for Georgia, but he’s made an NFL active roster as a guard. Would the 2016 line have fared better had Wynn and Catalina exchanged positions? Was that a rare mistake by Pittman? Certainly there were adjustments to the new staff in 2016, and Pittman had to make the best out of the roster he had. It’s just one of those hypothetical what-ifs that fans have the luxury of asking.)


Post Saban’s calculated gamble

Thursday January 11, 2018

Alabama’s quarterback switcheroo in the title game was fascinating enough in the context of the game, but it also gives Georgia fans a lot to think about concerning our own group of quarterbacks.

Jacob Eason’s unfortunate injury in the opener made it a moot point, but Georgia’s quarterback situation loosely resembled Alabama’s at the start of the season. There was an established second-year starter and a promising newcomer waiting in the wings. Jake Fromm wasn’t quite as highly rated as Tua Tagovailoa, but Fromm’s performance at G-Day and in preseason camp led to more than a couple of questions about how Kirby Smart would find playing time for his true freshman.

Eason’s injury reversed the situation. Smart chose to stick with his freshman, and Saban continued to start the established sophomore. There was a difference in how each program worked in the backup. Eason attempted four passes the rest of the year (and none beyond the Vanderbilt game) after returning from his injury. Alabama continued to find playing time for Tagovailoa who attempted 77 passes in 2017. While Fromm’s position as the starter became more and more certain as the season went on, the idea of starting Tagovailoa threatened to grow beyond the fringes of the Alabama fan base especially after Alabama’s offense struggled against Auburn.

Tagovailoa was unknown to people who didn’t watch much Alabama football, but he threw passes in seven regular season games, attempted nearly a quarter of the team’s passes, and accounted for just under 40% of the team’s passing touchdowns. He was unfamiliar but not unready or unproven. Georgia’s coaches were aware of and, going by Smart’s postgame comments, even prepared for the possibility of seeing him. Would Fromm have been in a similar state of readiness had Eason remained the starter?

Thinking about that in the Eason/Fromm context now is a little pointless, but it becomes a little more relevant in 2018. Georgia will once again have a promising and capable true freshman, and Justin Fields will bring a skill set that will give the coaches some options. It remains to be seen how Fields and Fromm will measure up in terms of arm strength, accuracy, preparation, and even leadership, but Fields’ mobility is a unique attribute.

I’m not beating the drum for a quarterback controversy days after Jake Fromm led his team to the national title game. But when the situation and matchup convinced Saban to take a risk with everything on the line, he didn’t hesitate, and Tagovailoa was ready. I admit that’s the first place my mind went when I saw Alabama’s quarterback change. Would Smart be willing to take such a calculated risk if he had a reason to do so? And how would Georgia fans receive a change like that? Would the reaction be outcome-based, or would they understand the coach’s attempt to match personnel and situation? In hindsight, Saban’s move was genius only after Tagovailoa made an improbable third down escape to spark Alabama’s first scoring drive. Were those missed Georgia tackles the difference between a desperate and failed experiment and validation of Saban’s bold move?

Fields hasn’t suited up yet, so I know this is getting ahead of ourselves. One of the more impressive things about 2017 was how Georgia players of all levels of experience were ready when called on. That’s a credit both to the coaches and the players. Crowder was ready for the most obscure possibility in the Rose Bowl. Ridley was ready to step up with Wims injured in the title game. Even after clinching a division title, the staff made a change on the offensive line to make the offense that much better for the postseason. We forget that Fromm himself is an example of readiness. Eason’s injury could have been a deflating disaster, but the staff (with Fromm’s hard work) had the freshman ready to step in right away and then prepared him for the challenge of the Notre Dame game. I don’t know how Smart will approach the quarterback position next year, but I’m confident that he won’t be caught unprepared.


Post How playoff games are won

Wednesday January 3, 2018

It’s going to take some time to process the Rose Bowl. It’s surely a classic, and it’s place among the great Rose Bowls will have to be debated by people who have watched a lot more Pac 12 / Big 10 football than I have. And we really don’t have time to dwell on it, because the win opens up an opportunity to play for something even bigger in less than a week. When you’re in the middle of an emotional roller-coaster of a game, all you have are disjointed reactions until we have time in a few weeks to sort all of this out. Because it would take volumes to do justice to this game, it’s all I can do to focus on one player: sophomore wide receiver Tyler Simmons.

Simmons played occasionally in 2017 as a reserve receiver. He had two catches for 17 yards during the regular season and hadn’t caught a pass since the Samford game. With Jayson Stanley suspended for the game, Simmons was called on more often in the Rose Bowl. The first time we saw him was in the first quarter when he caught a first down pass just short of the marker. A subsequent penalty killed the drive and led to a missed FG, but who thought we’d get into scoring position on consecutive passes to Charlie Woerner followed by Tyler Simmons’ first reception since September?

Simmons made a bigger play in the third quarter. Georgia faced a punt near midfield and hoped to pin the Sooners deep. Stanley was often a gunner on punt coverage, and Simmons filled the role on this punt. He sprinted down the sideline and made a clean stop of a rolling ball just shy of the goal line. Oklahoma was able to punch the ball out with a couple of runs, but they remained on their side of the field due to the starting field position. Georgia’s defense bounced back with a couple of sacks, and the comeback rolled on. After a shaky start that featured a short punt and a missed field goal, Georgia’s special teams was as good as it’s been all season in the second half. Simmons’ play on that punt was one of several big moments in the kicking game.

There’s one more highlight featuring Simmons, and it’s a play we’re going to rewatch for years. Look at the receiver personnel on Georgia’s final play. It wasn’t the usual Wims, Godwin, Hardman, or Ridley. It was Crumpton, Blount, and Simmons. Three guys with a total of eight receptions between them. We’ve seen Georgia use a similar grouping on run plays throughout the season. Again Simmons took the place of the suspended Stanley in the formation. Wynn got out in front of the play. Nauta helped Baker seal off the inside. Fromm – Fromm! – sustained a block on the outside cornerback to open up the lane. Simmons, lined up in the slot, got to the secondary and disrupted a defensive back long enough for Michel to get past.

Why focus on Simmons? Georgia needed its stars to come up big, and of course they did. The Dawgs wouldn’t have won without Michel or Smith or Chubb or Fromm or Carter doing what they do. Georgia has never lacked for that star talent even in the lean years. Teams compete for championships though when their star players are augmented by others up and down the roster doing their jobs. As Georgia’s recruiting picks up, you’re going to have talented players outside of the starting lineup called on to fill roles even on special teams or in situational packages. There can be no dead weight. Every active player on this team has the opportunity to contribute. The flip side is that everyone must be ready to contribute when that opportunity presents itself. Tyler Simmons was. Tae Crowder was.

OK…one last Simmons clip from Cole Cubelic. Ouch.


Post Enjoy the first of many trips to the Benz

Saturday December 2, 2017

Matt Hinton (via Blutarsky) nailed it: “The Bulldogs are who they are; the results in Atlanta will be a matter of execution.”

12 games in, there’s no getting around the identity of this Georgia team. We know, within certain parameters, what the team is going to try to do. We also know what they’re not likely to do, or at least what they don’t do well. That was perhaps the shock of the first meeting – Georgia didn’t look like itself. They couldn’t run, couldn’t protect the passer, didn’t tackle well, had costly special teams errors, and hurt themselves with penalties. Certainly some of that had to do with Auburn’s own level of play, but some of it didn’t.

I don’t know if Georgia can overcome the deficiencies that only show up against a team of Auburn’s quality. I expect, or at least hope, that the penalties and turnovers can be eliminated, and that would lower Auburn’s ceiling. But can Georgia raise its floor? Against the two best defenses they’ve faced this year, the Georgia offense has scored 20 and 17 points. I expect it might take a score in the 20s or even 30s to win this game. That would mean being able to run well against a stout front. It would mean better protection of Fromm. It would mean a more vibrant and diverse passing game than we’ve seen. It would mean receivers getting separation. It might even take a defensive or special teams score to get Georgia’s point total over the top.

Those are many more conditionals than you’d like entering a game like this especially when the opponent’s checklist for the game is much more status quo. Auburn does have a couple of questions to answer: can they improve on their 3-2 mark away from home and, more importantly, can they do it with their star tailback limited or even out? On the lines though, where games are most often won or lost, Auburn was one of the few teams to outclass the Bulldogs. That disadvantage remains the largest hurdle to clear for Georgia regardless of the location or crowd. If Auburn can control the line of scrimmage and affect Fromm with only its front four, it’s going to be tough to find open receivers. Conversely, if Georgia has to bring defenders forward to slow Auburn’s running game, the explosive passing play is a real threat.

With so much on the line and so much to overcome for Georgia to reverse the outcome of the loss three weeks ago, I should be a nervous wreck. I’m not. I’m giddy, excited, and thrilled about getting ready to watch a meaningful game in December, but I’m not going to be any more of a basket case than I am for every other Georgia game. For one thing, I have a great deal of faith in this team and its own strengths. They’ve done a remarkable job of compartmentalizing each game, and I don’t think they’ll be any more spooked by the loss in Auburn than they will be full of themselves after crushing Tech. I don’t doubt for a second Georgia’s readiness for this game – they’ve been up for every challenge thrown their way this year.

Will Leitch had an excellent piece this week diving into the meaning of this moment for Georgia fans. Leitch is worth reading for many reasons, but I’m not sure anyone is better at tying a moment or event to the fans involved. (Even his book advocates for fans.) It’s no surprise then that Leitch, even after a few short years in Athens and as an observer and now fan of the program, has a pretty good handle on our collective angst and mindset going into this postseason.

I’m just in a different place with this team, and it has a lot to do with some of the points Leitch has raised in his piece and on the podcast with which he, Scott, and Tony do such a fine job. This isn’t a disagreement with Leitch, because I know way too many people right there with him.

Leitch is correct that at some point “you still have to break through.” It could well be today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens. But it doesn’t have to be today, and coming to grips with that has me a lot more at ease about this game than I should have the right to be. I’m confident that with this staff and the way recruiting is going, Georgia will be back in this position sooner than later. This game isn’t Georgia’s only shot; it’s the first of many shots to come. If you’ve allowed yourself to buy into what Kirby Smart is doing at Georgia, it comes with the expectation to play in games like this.

Blutarsky writes, “If Georgia is crowned SEC champ tomorrow, it’ll feel like the Dawgs will play the rest of this season on house money.” I agree with that (especially in the context of his whole post), but to me the team is already playing with house money. They’ve met every expectation I had for this season, and now they’re in a position to wildly exceed those expectations. If in five years we’re talking about Smart’s program as the Bills or Braves of the SEC who can’t get past this preliminary step into to the playoff, we’ll have greatly misread what’s going on now.

(It’s important to acknowledge that we more than most should appreciate how hard it is to get to this point, let alone sustain it in upcoming seasons. The amazing chemistry and leadership from the seniors, the mix of coaches, the dynamics of the SEC East – all of those are fluid from year to year. So, yes, if you’ve done the work to get to this point, embrace the opportunity and don’t take for granted that there will be others. Least of all for this year’s seniors, this is their only shot, and that alone is enough reason for urgency this weekend.)

Heading into the 2012 championship, I was just hoping the Dawgs would play a competitive game. (They did that, and more.) Though the situation isn’t any easier than it was in 2012, I’m much more confident in this Georgia team. It has nothing to do with 2012 or 2005 or any other previous Georgia team on the cusp of something extraordinary. It’s about this 2017 team and how far they’ve come and where they are in the vision Kirby Smart has for his program. If that vision continues to unfold as it has in 2017, this will be the first of many opportunities for the program to take that big step forward. Why not make the first one count?


Post Georgia 38 – Georgia Tech 7: Order restored

Tuesday November 28, 2017

Consider it time well-spent: Kirby Smart admitted during the week that Georgia increased the amount of time it spent during the season preparing for the Georgia Tech offense. Whatever the plan was, it worked. Georgia looked confident, prepared, and executed well on both sides of the ball. The result was the largest margin of victory in the series since 2012 and the crowning accomplishment to Georgia’s best regular season since 2002.

I know the Tech game is small potatoes next to what’s ahead, but it’s an important game to me and deserves its due. It was also an important game to the coaching staff and the seniors stung by the loss in Athens a year ago. You saw a team that was focused on the job at hand, and that’s to their credit with such a big challenge ahead this week. A few quick points before we move on to the postseason:

Third Downs

Kirby Smart’s message going into halftime was about getting off the field on third downs. Tech was 7-10 on third down in the first half, and that’s not acceptable against any opponent. They converted two 3rd and 10 plays on their lone scoring drive. One of those plays was a rare instance of Georgia losing backside contain as Herring and Bellamy got caught inside and Marshall was able to escape pressure and scurry for the first down. Tech’s third down conversions weren’t disasters and only led to a single score, but their real cost was to limit Georgia’s first half possessions. Fortunately the Dawgs were fairly efficient with the ball and scored on all but one of their first half possessions. Had Georgia’s defense done a little better job on third downs, the game might have been out of hand by halftime. As it was, Tech was still close enough to make you a little nervous when Georgia’s first possession of the second half came up empty.

Smart’s message was received: Tech finished the game 8-15 on third down. Georgia Tech’s Department of Calculatin’ tells us that means Tech converted a single third down in the second half, and even that was on their inconsequential final possession. The Georgia defense put up consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half, allowing the Georgia offense to put up two more touchdowns and blow open the game before the Jackets moved the chains for the first time in the half. Georgia was able to flip Tech’s time of possession advantage and kept the ball away from a Tech offense that needed every possession it could get.

Defense

Georgia’s defense met the challenge of taking on this offense. They attacked the line of scrimmage, tackled well, and used their speed to their advantage. Perhaps most importantly, the defense limited Tech’s explosive plays. Tech broke only two runs of over 20 yards, and only one of those came with the outcome in doubt. Better still, Tech wasn’t able to go over the top in the passing game and catch the secondary asleep. Tech’s comeback in 2016 started with a pair of long completions that put Georgia’s defense on its heels. Though Tech crossed up the secondary on their touchdown reception, Tech got nothing through the air after halftime.

Roquan Smith compiled another highlight reel. Georgia’s defensive gameplan allowed Smith to more or less spy the action in the backfield, and his speed was often more than good enough to react and make the play. Smith flew from sideline to sideline, making life on the perimeter difficult for Tech’s offense. Smith even lined up at times behind Natrez Patrick in the defense’s version of an I-formation. But Smith wouldn’t have been in a position to make those plays without the defensive interior taking away the dive and forcing Marshall outside. B-back KirVonte Benson was held to one of his lowest outputs of the season with 12 carries for just 44 yards. Benson got no run up the middle longer than 8 yards. The defensive line had been criticized for their play in the loss at Auburn, but Georgia’s defensive plan worked as well as it did at Tech because of the work done by the line.

Offense

Georgia’s offense didn’t set any records on Saturday. No tailback came close to 100 yards. Swift’s 31-yard carry was the only run longer than 16 yards. In a bit of a role reversal, the explosive plays came through the air. Wims’ touchdown, Hardman’s 50-50 win, and Crumpton’s glorious cherry on top of the sundae all took advantage of Tech’s defense keying on Georgia’s running game. And it’s not that Georgia’s running game was stymied. The team outrushed Tech and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. The Bulldog offense was patient and efficient. There were no turnovers, so we never saw the Golden Slide Rule awarded on the Tech sideline. The Dawgs were content to grind out decent yardage on the ground and counter with big plays through the air as Tech threw bodies forward to limit even longer runs.

Fromm ended up with one of his best games statistically. His first touchdown to Wims was a perfect post pattern, but his final throw to Crumpton might’ve even been better. It was on the money 30 yards downfield from the far hash, and he hit Crumpton in stride on the corner route. It’s up there with his best passes of the season. Fromm’s start was a little shakier – at least one and probably two of his first few passes could have been picked off. Fromm hasn’t thrown a ton of passes across the middle as a true freshman, and it’s probably a wise strategy: there are a lot of defenders waiting to pick off errant passes in that area of the field. Fromm seemed to settle down with a nice strike to the goalline for Wims (amazingly not given a touchdown), and it was on from there. He had only two other incompletions after that first drive.

Extra Points

  • Big early play: Michel fighting for a first down on 3rd and 5 from the Tech 33. Michel was hit at the line and again short of the sticks, but he escaped for an 8-yard gain. Chubb scored Georgia’s first touchdown 5 plays later.
  • A big early play for the defense: Natrez Patrick stoned an inside run for a loss on short yardage as Tech was driving. The Jackets still went for it on fourth down, but Patrick’s stop made it so that the conversion wasn’t an easy running play away. Tech instead chose to pass, and Sanders made a great play on the ball, nearly coming away with a pick-six.
  • Georgia’s offense picked a good time to have their first turnover-free game of the season. Tech’s average starting field position was its own 22, and they were never given a short field by turnovers or special teams. Even when Georgia’s defense was struggling to get off the field on third downs, Tech was rarely able to sustain its drives long enough to get into scoring range.
  • The Dawgs also cut down on their penalties. Ridley’s personal foul wasn’t smart, but the Dawgs only had 2 penalties called in the game. I’ll take no turnovers and only a couple of penalties in the next game too.
  • Let the advanced stats tell you how complete a win this was: Georgia had better than a 3.5 yards per play advantage over Tech, and the success rate margin (61% to 31%) was the largest spread in the nation last weekend. Again, that’s a remarkable accomplishment of discipline and focus in a rivalry game when they could have easily been looking ahead to the SEC Championship.

Post Georgia 42 – Kentucky 13: Senior sendoff

Tuesday November 21, 2017

All better? If you expected the Kentucky game to be a bloodbath in which Georgia pounded out the frustration of the Auburn loss, it was probably a little disappointing to see a 7-6 game in the second quarter and a 21-13 game early in the third quarter. Instead we saw a team persist with the same approach that got them to 9-1 as they shook off some early Senior Day cobwebs and dispatched of another team as if they could have been any other home or SEC East opponent Georgia faced this year. Kentucky, a much better team than Vanderbilt, was indistinguishable from Vanderbilt in the end, and that’s what this Georgia team has done to most of their opponents.

It doesn’t always (or even most of the time) work out this way, but if any senior class deserved to shine on the day set aside to honor them, it was this group. Each of Georgia’s six touchdowns was scored by a senior. A senior defensive back grabbed a tough interception that led to a touchdown. Brice Ramsey handled the final snap of the game. Nick Chubb’s last carry in Sanford Stadium was a 55-yard touchdown run through a hole opened by another senior, Isaiah Wynn. Chubb’s final home game was as jaw-dropping as his first when he finished off Clemson in 2014.

Seth Emerson noted after the Florida game that “Jim Chaney told CBS analyst Gary Danielson during the week that his goal was to run the ball at least 20 times in the first half as he didn’t think Florida’s defense was as deep as last year and it would begin to tire out.” Kentucky’s line was similar: talented but not deep. So long as the defense did its job, Chaney was content to lean on the Kentucky line until it gave way, and those minimal gains became long Michel and Chubb touchdowns. The persistent runs also opened things up for the passing game, and the Dawgs were able to strike on consecutive second quarter passes for another touchdown. By the end of the game it was almost cruel: Georgia ran the same jet sweep play to a tailback three times, varying only the ballcarrier and the direction of the play. The gassed Kentucky defense had no chance.

Two big statistical advantages turned a potentially close game into a decisive Georgia win. The Dawgs averaged nearly 4 yards per play better than Kentucky. It took Georgia some time to wear down the Wildcat defense, but big gains came eventually. Georgia was also the better team converting its scoring opportunities. The Wildcats averaged 3.25 points on their four trips inside the Georgia 40. They had one touchdown, two field goals, and a turnover on downs before halftime. It was important to hold Kentucky to a total of six points on their three first half scoring chances.

Several of Georgia’s blowout wins have had situations in which things could have become much tighter. There were turnovers against Tennessee, Florida, and even Samford on Georgia’s end of the field that occurred at important points in the game. Georgia’s defense stood each time with a turnover, a fourth-down stop, and even a blocked field goal. In this Kentucky game a potentially catastrophic Fromm interception led to only three points. The defensive response here saved the team from a bigger hole right at the start of the game that might’ve been a tough mental hurdle right after the Auburn game. Limiting the damage after Kentucky’s lone long pass play preserved the slightest of leads for Georgia before the offense opened up in the second quarter.

A bigger moment though was Kentucky’s final possession of the first half. Georgia surged ahead with two second quarter touchdowns, but the Wildcats quickly moved into Georgia territory. Kentucky just missed a wheel route on third down that had isolated Snell on Reggie Carter. They elected to go on fourth down rather than try a long field goal, and a catchable pass was dropped around the Georgia 10. Had Kentucky converted there and added their touchdown out of halftime, it would have been a one-point game in the third quarter. Instead, it was an empty possession that kept Georgia up by 15 points at halftime.

Georgia fared much better cashing in on scoring chances with an average of 6.0 points on their seven trips inside the Kentucky 40. The Dawgs came away with six touchdowns and took a knee to end the game on their seventh trip into scoring range. You can’t do much better than getting a touchdown every time you cross midfield.

The biggest defensive positive from this game was limiting Kentucky’s explosive running game. The Wildcats had no running play longer than 12 yards, and overall they had a modest 4.37 yards per play. They hit one long pass play to set up a field goal, but their bread and butter is the running game. Georgia forced the ‘Cats to grind their way down the field, and Kentucky was unable to sustain all but one of its drives. It’s an accomplishment to hold a quality back like Benny Snell under 100 yards.

Georgia’s defensive flaws were again penalties and tackling. Though no missed tackles resulted in plays breaking open, you saw missed opportunities to stop a ballcarrier behind the line or keep him to a minimal gain. What should have been short gains (or losses) turned into moderate gains and allowed Kentucky to move the ball for the few scoring chances they had.

Kirby Smart said after the Vanderbilt game that “we didn’t strike up front, we didn’t tackle well.” After a statement win again Mississippi State, he was asked if he was pleased with the team’s tackling. “No” was the curt reply. At the time a lot of us chalked that tone up to Smart channeling Saban – ever the perfectionist and finding things to complain about even in the face of ridiculous margins of victory. We’ve seen though as Georgia has faced better teams in November that tackling can be an issue for this defense. Against Kentucky it was the difference between no gain and 4 yards gained. Against Auburn it was much more costly. Looking ahead to Georgia Tech where a missed assignment is the difference between an ineffective play and an explosive one, there’s an urgency to clean up the tackling.


Post From Senior Day to Seniors’ Day

Monday November 20, 2017

Saturday’s win over Kentucky was just how you’d hope this memorable group of seniors would finish their careers in Sanford Stadium. They wrapped up a perfect record at home, earned a division title, and became the first team in program history to sweep the SEC East. Chubb and Michel combined for five touchdowns. Davis notched an interception. Even Ramsey took the final snaps under center. Fans were able to spend the final few minutes and postgame showing their appreciation for these seniors and this team.

Now we’re on to a game that might have a little different motivation for these seniors:

If the Kentucky win was an opportunity for celebration and appreciation between the seniors and fans, this week is more personal for the players. It’s their score to settle and their blemish to erase. It’s tough to believe that this senior class is currently 1-2 against Tech. Worse, Nick Chubb has never been on the field for a win in this series. That needs to change, and it’s been on their minds for roughly 360 days.


Post 2017-2018 Georgia Lady Dogs Preview

Thursday November 16, 2017

There’s no question about it – Joni Taylor’s Lady Dogs overachieved last season. They were picked to finish 12th in the league, but as we noted in our season wrapup, “they finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign.”

So, yes, relative to expectations it was a successful season. But relative to the standards of the Georgia Lady Dogs program, there’s a long way to go before you can consider the program back. They remain far from the conference’s top four teams, they’ve missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished ranked since the Elite Eight run in 2013.

The program seems to have rounded a corner in terms of recruiting. Taylor notched a top 10 class and began to fill out a roster that’s been lopsided with either guards or forwards for several seasons.

Departures

Georgia bid farewell to three seniors: forward Halle Washington and guards Pachis Roberts and Shanea Armbrister. Roberts stepped up as you hope a senior would and led the team in scoring with 14.5 PPG on the way to second team All-SEC honors.

The Roster

Even with only three departing contributors, Georgia’s roster should see a fair amount of turnover in both the starting lineup and in playing time. The frontcourt is familiar: all-conference candidate Caliya Robinson will be a focus of both Georgia’s gameplan and opposing defenses. Senior Mackenzie Engram is fully back after a medical condition cut short her sophomore season and has the versatility to work inside or play around the perimeter. Stephanie Paul had an impressive freshman season and eventually became a starter.

The Lady Bulldogs return a pair of senior guards. Haley Clark and Simone Costa are backcourt veterans who could hold down starting roles early on but will be pushed by newcomers. Ari Henderson returns as the team’s lone walk-on.

The story of the season though is the influx of new talent. Georgia had two transfers sit out last season. 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru is a true post option to help replace Washington. Taja Cole, a former McDonald’s All-American, played as a true freshman at Louisville. Before she played a game for Georgia, Cole began taking on a leadership role. She was one of the most active and supportive team members on the bench last season as she sat out, and she was named to the SEC Basketball Leadership Council. Cole will likely step into the point guard role and lead the team on the court now.

Georgia also signed a top 10 class of four freshmen. Malury Bates, a national top 10 post prospect, was the lone frontcourt signee. She’s sidelined for now with a foot injury but will hopefully contribute this season. Guards Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell, and Que Morrison were all national top 100 prospects who should really improve Georgia’s scoring and athleticism. Morrison might be the most game-ready at this point, but all three guards should work into the rotation with Clark and Costa providing valuable roles, especially on defense.

The team received an important transfer during the offseason. Center Jenna Staiti signed with Maryland out of Forsyth County. She was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect. She’ll sit out this season but will improve the team right away with her presence in practices.

Strengths/Weaknesses

For the first time in a couple of years, depth should be a relative strength. There are 11 scholarship players available with the transfer Stati providing good practice competition. That’s a step up from eight scholarship players a year ago. Even better, all 11 bring something to the table. The rotation will probably tighten down to 8 or 9 as we get into conference play, but the difference is that Taylor won’t be limited by which 8 she can play. Playing time and lineups can be adjusted based on matchups and situations. Of course mainstays like Robinson and Engram will be featured, but there are options for which combinations see the court. That depth also means that starters can take the occasional rest, and that will pay off at the end of games and also at the end of the season.

The biggest expected weakness is the inexperience of so many likely contributors. Six of the 11 scholarship players will see their first minutes as a Georgia player this year. Perimeter shooting will also start off as a weakness. Roberts and Armbrister were two of the top three outside shooters on a team that only hit 27% from outside. Engram and Robinson have the ability to stretch their games, but you’d prefer guards to be your top outside shooters. Newcomers will have to shoulder much of that responsibility.

Georgia must also establish a physical post presence. Robinson and Engram are outstanding players, but stretch players often aren’t comfortable banging inside. They’ll be matched against more traditional post players, especially on the defensive end, and must rebound and defend without getting into foul trouble. Blanaru will help with minutes off the bench, but you trade size for pace and tempo. Robinson must realize her significance to this team and manage fouls wisely.

Outlook

The first challenge for Taylor will be to find the right mix of young and old. There is a solid returning core but also a large and talented crop of newcomers. Even the best freshmen often aren’t used to playing defense at the standard Taylor sets, and there are times when Taylor might trade offensive explosiveness for more sound defense and ballhandling. The deeper bench is a net positive, but it also means that Taylor has more combinations and lineups to consider and evaluate.

The schedule lends itself to some early success as the team develops its chemistry. Home games against Texas and Georgia Tech as well as trips to Virginia and BYU highlight the nonconference slate. Other games will allow Taylor to play all 11 (and sometimes 12) and experiment with her lineup. It’s not the toughest non-conference schedule Georgia has faced, and the risk is that the team won’t be conditioned for the rigors of the SEC or have enough quality wins to merit NCAA consideration. Things get real right away in SEC play as national runner-up Mississippi State comes to Athens on New Year’s Eve. The SEC rotation is about as favorable as it can get as the Lady Dogs will only see most of the league’s heavy hitters once. Georgia’s home-and-home SEC opponents this year are Florida, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.

SEC coaches project Georgia to repeat their eighth-place finish in the conference. Those are moderately higher expectations from a year ago, but an eighth-place finish would likely leave Georgia sweating the NCAA Tournament selections. The SEC did earn eight bids a year ago, but Georgia was passed over for Auburn. It’s often a game or two that separates fifth and ninth place. Georgia did well to win enough close games to improve on their expected finish last season, and they’ll need the same kind of resolve to win the handful of games that could decide whether they finish in the top half of the SEC or on the cusp of a Wednesday SEC Tournament play-in game.

Taylor got her first squad to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, and that team avoided becoming the first Georgia team to miss consecutive NCAA Tournaments. That possibility is back on the table for 2017-2018. If the newcomers take a while to develop and Taylor can’t settle on a rotation, they’ll need to pull some major upsets within the conference to have a shot. There aren’t many opportunities to get a big win in nonconference play, so at least a .500 record against Texas, Tech, Virginia, and BYU seems necessary. If some of these talented freshmen do emerge early and Cole proves capable of running the show, we might have to revise expectations upward. At the very least, it should be some of the more fun and entertaining Lady Dogs basketball we’ve seen in Athens in four or five years.


Post Georgia 17 – Auburn 40: Humility arrived

Tuesday November 14, 2017

A big concern headed down to Auburn was how true freshman Jake Fromm would handle another tough road environment. Fromm did indeed have a rough afternoon. What came as a surprise was how much of the rest of the team would look like true freshmen. Penalties, turnovers, and an overall lack of mental toughness plagued the team from the greenest true freshmen to the senior leadership. For a team that’s made a show of breaking the spirit of their opponents, it was Georgia that lost the battle of wills and got beaten in the most fundamental of ways: Auburn was just tougher on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

It was disappointing but not surprising that Georgia’s offensive line struggled. We know this unit has made progress but was still a relative weakness of the offense. Auburn’s defensive front is the best Georgia will face in the regular season. The Dawgs weren’t able to run at any point, and Fromm faced consistent pressure on pass plays. Auburn effectively used stunts on passing downs which have given the offensive line fits all season.

As poor as the OL play was in this game, the defense’s struggles to stop the run were as shocking as anything since the 2014 Florida game. The defense is structured such that the linemen occupy blockers and the linebackers clean up. The line is never going to put up big numbers in that scheme, but it’s worked well this year and is a big reason why Georgia had been so good against the run. That approach didn’t work nearly as well Saturday. Though the usual suspects, Smith and Reed especially, got their tackles, the line was not disruptive at all. While Georgia’s backs ran into a brick wall up the middle, Kerryon Johnson was able to patiently pick his way through to the next level.

Auburn’s defensive front is outstanding and talented, but Georgia’s is supposed to be as well. Georgia’s three-and-outs on offense asked a lot of the defense, but the defensive line is one of the deeper units on the team. We’ve seen too much of this group to be anonymous in a game like this – especially with Auburn missing two starting offensive linemen. If Benny Snell and the Kentucky running game doesn’t concern you (and it should), there’s another team ahead that is more than content to pound the ball at a passive defensive line.

Georgia’s playcalling has taken a beating since the game, and I’m sure some of it’s deserved. I do wonder if some of those running plays were called with the Georgia defense in mind: they were on the field so much in the second and third quarters that a couple of quick incompletions would have made things worse. Had Georgia come out firing in the second quarter, we’d have accused Cheney of abandoning the run too soon. Of course things couldn’t have gone much worse and the dam broke eventually anyway.

I also think the playcalling flowed from a gameplan that seemed to anticipate the game proceeding along the lines of the 2016 game. It worked for a while: even at 16-9, Georgia was within reach and largely holding Auburn to field goals. The field goal decision at the end of the half had to be a byproduct of that plan: get within six points, and you’re in better shape than the 7-0 halftime deficit Georgia faced in 2016. Instead, Georgia missed the field goal, and Auburn was up 23-6 before the Georgia offense saw the ball again. The bigger problem is that this team doesn’t and isn’t built to have a Plan B when the field goals turn into touchdowns and the deficit begins to grow.

I was glad to see Georgia at least try something at the end of the first half rather than letting the clock expire. As Danielson pointed out, a few seconds of hesitation in calling timeout when Auburn had the ball proved costly. The decision to run and set up the field goal took me right back to the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season.

  • I mentioned before the game the role that non-offensive touchdowns had in Georgia’s last two wins in this series. Neither team recorded a NOT, but Hardman’s muffed punt came close. What really hurt was that the defense had just forced a nice stop on Auburn’s first possession of the second half.
  • Hopefully Hardman’s fumble doesn’t set him back much. He had a strong game against South Carolina, and he took advantage of some shaky Auburn coverage units for 185 return yards. Unfortunately Georgia wasn’t able to do anything with that favorable field position, and Auburn started kicking away from Hardman.
  • I’ve seen several people suggest that it couldn’t have hurt to try Eason, but I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference. Georgia’s issues moving the ball had as much to do with line play and ineffective receivers as it did with any quarterback deficiencies, and Eason would’ve been even more of a sitting target for the Auburn rush. Fromm took his lumps, and hopefully he can take something from the experience.

The “chopping wood” mantra applies equally to losses as it does to wins. Georgia must learn from the loss and improve on the areas Auburn exploited, but dwelling on the loss is as useless as settling after a win or celebrating a midseason ranking. Georgia’s objectives might still be alive, but it starts with finishing 11-1, protecting a perfect home record, and sending these seniors out with a Senior Day win and a Governor’s Cup trophy.


Post Stray last-minute thoughts on Georgia-Auburn

Saturday November 11, 2017

This game has been analyzed to death. Might as well get mine in.

The NOT. Georgia needed a non-offensive touchdown to beat Auburn in each of the past two meetings. In 2015, Isaiah McKenzie’s punt return broke a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter. Maurice Smith provided Georgia’s only touchdown last season with his pick six. When you face a good defense, the opportunity to score points without that defense on the field is golden.

The Dawgs have had a single NOT this year: the strip-sack at Florida recovered by Reed. They haven’t notched a special teams touchdown this year and really haven’t come close since Holyfield’s kickoff return at Notre Dame was called back for a penalty. Hardman has nearly broken a punt return or two, but “nearly” is the story of the return game this year. Auburn gave up a 72-yard kickoff return to Texas A&M last week and had a couple of field goals blocked. Is this the week Georgia gets points from its special teams? Auburn is also capable of the NOT: a blocked punt recovered in the endzone was a huge play in their win at A&M last week.

Given the value of a NOT in a game like this, avoiding them should be a priority. The teams are nearly even in turnovers gained, but Auburn has only intercepted the ball 4 times. The story on special teams is Auburn’s recent struggles. Auburn’s success blocking a punt a week ago should have Georgia’s punt protection on alert, and Daniel Carlson is a very good placekicker. After that, it’s become an adventure. They’ve had issues in each of the past three games highlighted by the blocked field goals and long return surrendered last week. A long LSU punt return was central in Auburn’s collapse in Baton Rouge. Georgia’s special teams have been solid overall if not a bit unremarkable in the return game. That’s been improvement enough, but it might be time to ask the return units to make a play.

Even if the Dawgs can’t generate NOTs, the next best thing is field position. Every Blankenship touchback is a win, and Nizalek continues to punt the ball consistently.

The RPO. Jake Fromm’s ability to execute the run-pass option (including the option of running the ball himself) has been a large part of the offense’s improvement in 2017. With defenses rightly focused on Georgia’s running backs, there are plays to be made in the passing game. Fromm, with a heavy dose of RPOs, has made his relatively few pass attempts count. There’s more to the RPO than the quick slants and curl routes to the outside though. I go back to what turned out to be a negative play for Georgia: Fromm’s fumble at Notre Dame. The play was an RPO with Nauta releasing vertically.

The pop pass to the releasing tight end is a staple of most RPO packages. It’s something we haven’t seen much from Georgia this year: Fromm’s RPO pass reads have usually been to the outside. South Carolina adjusted last week after some early Georgia success to jump some of those RPO passes to the outside and nearly came away with a few turnovers. At the very least, Fromm’s window on those passes became incredibly tight. I expect Auburn to take a similar approach, but that approach comes with its risks. There are opportunities downfield if Georgia’s receivers can beat the press coverage or get the Auburn defenders to bite on a pump fake. But if the defense is playing the run to the point that Fromm sees a chance to pass the ball, the pop pass in the middle of the field should also be available. I don’t want to go overboard and predict a breakout game for the tight ends, but the plays are there.

The red zone. In 2013 Georgia erased a 20-point deficit at Auburn to take the lead before the, um, unfortunate ending. Auburn’s offense had its way with Georgia for the better part of three quarters. The only reason the game wasn’t over by halftime and Georgia had a remote shot at a comeback was that four Auburn drives ended in field goal attempts rather than touchdowns. Georgia likewise couldn’t put Auburn away last season with a couple of second half drives and left the Tigers within a single score until the end.

We’ve seen red zone execution matter for both teams this year. Auburn had to settle for a pair of field goals inside of the Clemson 15 yard line and never got into the end zone in their 14-6 loss early in the season. Around the same time, Terry Godwin’s remarkable catch and a rare rushing touchdown against the Notre Dame defense gave Georgia just enough for their signature win.

Georgia’s red zone offense took a little hit last week with Godwin’s fumble. They also missed an opportunity to build a three-score lead late in the game and left the door however slightly open by settling for the field goal. The touchdown passes to Hardman and Wims were important conversions to open up the lead, and holding South Carolina to a field goal at 21-10 kept the fourth quarter from becoming more interesting. Scoring opportunities are likely to be at a premium for both teams. Each is capable of explosive plays that create scores from beyond the tight quarters of the red zone, but each defense is adept at preventing those big plays. The difference between three points and seven will matter.