Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post The Big Game

Wednesday August 24, 2005

In a big game that people figure to be a close battle, the intangibles that might give one team a slight advantage get analyzed to death. My favorite is the weather – how will Boise St. come off the polar icecap and react to a summer afternoon in Saharan Africa Georgia?

But one thing I think is being overlooked is the big game factor. Some in the Bronco camp, even the athletic director, are pointing to this game as the biggest in the history of the Boise State program. That program, looking for further legitimacy against an SEC power, is staking a lot on this game. It could be a huge boost towards a BCS at-large bid and all the spoils that come with it. Boise is no lightweight. They won’t be intimidated by Georgia; they’ve played teams from major conferences recently and won some. They played an outstanding Louisville team very close last season. They’ve beaten Oregon State. They’ve faced and dispatched respectable mid-major programs and are ready to move beyond that point.

So if Boise isn’t going to be rattled by facing the #13 team in the nation, how does the intangible of the big game come into play?

Building this game up to the biggest in program history could be a big emotional motivator for the Broncos, but it also comes at a risk. Following the season-ending loss to Louisville last season, a loss to Georgia to begin this season would go a long way to chop down Boise’s claims for legitimacy and attention despite many, many wins. This is a huge opportunity on a national stage, and it’s not one they’ve seen before. Even a somewhat major bowl matchup against Louisville did not have the focus and significance placed on it that this game does. Boise’s attempt to come into an SEC stadium in front of 92,000 fans against an opponent with the tradition, history, and recent success of Georgia and claim equal footing is a huge story.

Big games are becoming routine for Georgia, and they’ve started winning more than a few lately. Veterans still with the team have played for conference titles, played in some of the most difficult settings in college football, and have faced the situations of coming back and defending leads against some very good teams. While it’s shaky to predict the emotional state of a bunch of college students, what is a huge game for a team like Boise is something Georgia faces at least five times a season. As recent SEC champions and a Top 10 program, Georgia is used to wearing the bulls-eye and getting the best effort from opponents looking to knock off a top team.

There has been a not-so-subtle shift in the stakes for Boise St. Instead of taking the typical role of the upstart underdog with nothing to lose, they now have a great deal invested in this game. With that comes a different kind and different level of pressure. With some very good years behind them and a decent preseason ranking for 2005, Boise is expected not just to push Georgia but to play an extremely competitive game with the possibility of earning the win.

It’s a credit to Boise State that they’re in this situation. They are not the usual early season cupcake. Much like Gonzaga on the basketball side, they’ve moved well beyond being Cinderella and just hoping to compete with good teams. They now approach these games against major conference programs, few as they might be for a WAC program, with every intention and expectation of winning them. But with those expectations come consequences when you don’t win. No one is going to give you credit anymore for a valiant effort or hanging close.

In sports, you most often see this intangible come up when talking about the postseason. Teams that have players with playoff experience are generally considered to have the upper hand over a team making its first trip, talent being equal. The spotlight, the distractions, and the pressure when certain situations arise can derail a good team not used to one game meaning so much. At the top of college football, a single loss can dash the hopes and goals of an entire season, and Boise certainly has those lofty aspirations this season. Having that – what it means to fail in the big game – in the back of your mind only adds to the pressure of the situation.

The stakes for Georgia are well-known. Everyone knows the wrath and scorn that awaits a ranked SEC team that dares to lose a game.

Putting such a label as the biggest in program history on this game sets Boise State up for quite a breakthrough if they can pull the upset in Athens. Everyone is talking about what a win would mean for the Broncos. “It’ll kind of set the tone for the way our season’s going to go. If we can run the table like we did last year, unless you get an Oklahoma and Southern Cal undefeated like last year, I don’t see how you could keep us out of the national championship,” dreamed quarterback Jared Zabransky.

But the same label also means something else. If everything – five 10+ win seasons since 1999 – has been building towards this moment and this game in Athens, what does it mean if you come up short?

Post Running backs

Thursday August 18, 2005

For some reason, I find myself really scrutinizing the running game. UGASports.com named them the top unit in the SEC. Some are already looking for a nickname for the unit. It’s pretty much a given that Georgia’s backfield is loaded. It’s not that I doubt the talent of anyone involved, but the running game is held up as something we can lean on this season, and that deserves a closer look.

Taking into account the four Richt years, the running game has been hit or miss. The 2001 season saw an injured Musa Smith and an ineffective Jasper Sanks eventually give way to an amazing finish by Verron Haynes. Haynes’ performances against Ole Miss, Tech, and Boston College not only earned him a shot at the NFL, but they also eased concerns that Richt wouldn’t run the ball or feed a hot tailback. The end of 2001 set the table for 2002. A healthy Musa Smith and a veteran offensive line produced Georgia’s first 1,000+ yard season for a tailback since 1992, and Musa eclipsed that mark easily.

In 2003, the running game slipped somewhat. A new offensive line and the lack of a feature back put much more of the offense onto the capable shoulders of David Greene. The Dawgs started 2003 with Tony Milton and Michael Cooper as the backs. Tyson Browning also saw some time but was much more of a situational back. 2003 also saw the emergence of freshman Kregg Lumpkin. Lump turned a lot of heads in Knoxville and had a strong performance in the bowl game, but the legacy of the 2003 running game was defined by the lack of a single 100+ yard game from a tailback. But Lumpkin’s forward momentum was stopped cold on the first day of fall practice in 2004 by a season-ending ACL injury.

Danny Ware made sure in the very first game that the 100-yard mark wouldn’t be the unreachable upper limit for tailbacks in 2004. A Georgia back ran for over 100 yards in seven games in 2004. The freshman duo of Thomas Brown and Ware were up to the job, and a maturing line helped matters. Though the performance of the freshmen backs was far and away the story of the running game in 2004, two negatives helped to shape how the story would end. First was the injuries. Both Ware and Brown missed playing time with a variety of injuries. Ware had to leave both the South Carolina and Kentucky games after great starts. Brown’s hamstring delayed his debut. Then came the fumbles. Georgia’s 14 fumbles lost in 2004 were second-worst in the SEC, and two games with multiple fumbles by Ware gave Brown the opportunity to finish out the season as the starter. Brown had a decent game at Auburn, but he (and much of the Georgia offense) was shut down against Georgia Tech. Brown finished the season on a high note in the Outback Bowl with a touchdown run and a critical late-game conversion which enabled Georgia to run out the clock for the win.

So now we come to 2005. For the first time in a while, the offensive line has a couple of seniors. Lumpkin has finally been cleared for full-speed practice. Ware has changed how he holds the ball to address the fumbles, and he too is healthy. Brown is still one of the strongest guys on the team pound-for-pound and looks to be the starter.

Even with all of these pieces coming into place, the accolades for the running game comes mostly from its future potential. All of the three backs have had very, very good moments. But Dawg fans are still waiting for someone other than Musa Smith to break the “Jasper Line” – the 900 yards earned by Jasper Sanks in 1999 which still stands as the second-highest season rushing total for a Bulldog running back since 1992. Thomas Brown came close last year. For he and any of the others to distinguish themselves and challenge the totals of Hearst and Musa Smith, there are a few things that have to happen:

  • Can the three-headed monster stay healthy? All missed some games as freshmen.
  • Can the line lead the way consistently? The OL showed us something against a very good Wisconsin defensive line, but the Georgia Tech performance was rough. “Veteran” and “experienced” doesn’t in and of itself mean “good”.
  • Can the passing game keep defenses honest? Coach Richt has been candid about the need to find a playmaker at receiver so that the Dawgs can go over the top when defenses focus on the run. Shockley to Bailey was pretty effective at times in limited action last season. Leonard Pope is another proven weapon. However they manage it, the Dawgs must find a way to keep safeties and linebackers thinking about the pass and get these tailbacks into the open field. It’s funny to suggest that the prospects of the running game rest on a receiver, but that’s the way it is – a weakness or imbalance would help keep the Georgia running game in low gear.
  • Can the backs be an effective weapon in the passing game? Auburn’s unit last year is the obvious model. With the exception of Tyson Browning’s nice touchdown on a screen pass against South Carolina last year, screens and other passes to the backs were generally recipes for disaster right up to the end of the Outback Bowl.

I’m as excited as anyone about seeing what this running game can do. As Coach Richt has noted, Georgia has been led in rushing by a freshman for two seasons. Finally the backs getting the bulk of the carries will have a bit of experience and age under their belts with some quality results to show for it. Georgia fans have been teased for nearly five seasons – as soon as Haynes and Smith got going, their eligibility ran out. Cooper fought injuries during the season. Lumpkin got hopes up with a good bowl game and then an injury put his career on hold. Ware and Brown had no problems getting to 100 yards – sometimes. The Bulldog Nation is salivating over the prospects of a 1,400-yard back or a thunder-and-lightning duo…the thought of a dominating trio seems too good to be true. Will it turn out that way? Georgia’s success on the ground is not a given – several of the things listed above need to happen first, and those questions have implications across the entire offense.

Post Unfortunately, the NCAA got it right this time

Friday August 12, 2005

No, I’m not talking about the ridiculous ruling about Native American mascots and nicknames. Go Noles.

Our story started this week with the news that a gentleman would be paying his own way from his contractor’s position in Iraq to see his son, who plays football for Boise State, play against UGA in Athens. A few enterprising DawgVenters with their intentions in the right place set the wheels in motion to subsidize or even cover the cost of the trip.

Enter the big, bad NCAA. They decree that DawgVenters picking up the tab would be an improper benefit to the family member of a student-athlete, even if that student-athlete is on the other team.

This is a situation where you have to look past the emotionalism of the moment and let the rules work. This basic rule – no benefits to student-athletes or their families – cannot be guided by exceptions. Even though his kid plays for the other team, the father would be receiving a (quite substantial) benefit because of his son’s status as a student-athlete. What if he has another son considering where to play college ball? What if a real Boise State booster or two snuck a check into the DawgVent’s effort? Those hypotheticals aren’t true this time, but they’re other reasons for the rule – it’s impossible to control each and every exceptional case, and so the common sense baseline is to allow none of it. Abstracted out a little bit, it speaks directly to the amateur (nonprofessional) status of his son.

An emotional case could be made to provide benefits to families of many players and prospects. Handicaps…exceptional service to the community and nation…single parents sacrificing…abject poverty – these circumstances if made public would stir many of us to action. And under the rules and the spirit of amateurism that the NCAA struggles to maintain, it would be wrong to do so. Allowing those benefits on a case-by-case basis makes the application of a cornerstone rule even more arbitrary than it already seems to be and would make this rule and principle basically worthless.

The fact that the gentleman is working in Iraq and is making this one trip just to see his son play ball in the greatest setting in college football makes for a very touching and inspirational story. The NCAA, which ususally desrves the criticism it gets, must say “no” and of course is set up to look like the jerk. For the trashing they justly receive in many cases, they deserve some recognition this time for sticking by a difficult, unpopular, and – in the end – correct decision.

Post …and that’s OUR Dawgs!

Friday August 12, 2005

While Ann Althouse is claiming “UW” for her University of Wisconsin, we need to correct one more thing that her Husky corespondent missed. “Dawgs” refers to the school with the top mascot in the nation – Georgia. Saying “Go Dawgs!” requires a Southern accent. Otherwise, it comes out with a Midwestern “dahgs” or Lawngyland “dowahgs” or plain ol’ “dogs”.

As they are the occasional New Year’s Day victim on our path to a 10-win season, we’ll support the Badgers’ exclusive use of “UW”.

And while we’re at it, a note to our friends to the east:

  • USC means Southern Cal
  • Carolina means North Carolina