Can we expect a similar column the next time the ACC and SEC basketball tournaments come to Atlanta?
I mean – it’s arguable whether the football SEC Championship game matters in this season’s national title picture. It probably won’t, but there’s an outside chance that the margin might affect the final polls. Whatever. But every few years the city hosts basketball conference championship games where the only bigger thing at stake is whether or not some bubble team can get 2 or 3 wins to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. There is no greater set of moot exhibition games than during conference championship week in March.
Bradley can mock the fact that LSU’s outcome on Saturday probably won’t change much about their place in the BCS or where they’ll end up in January. Yes, that’s the case in this exceptional season. If it’s an example of a flaw in the BCS, it’s also a sign of things to come in a post-BCS world. If you want to see a football conference championship really become a meaningless exhibition, make it so that the favored participant is already assured a place in your postseason football tournament.
If you’re looking for tickets or just want to see where the Georgia section is, here is the distribution of seats (pardon the horrible orange and blue scheme). Georgia’s allotment is shaded blue; LSU’s allotment is shaded orange. Georgia will be the visitors, so the team bench will be opposite of both blocks of fans. Since LSU wears white home and away, the Dawgs will still be in red jerseys.
It’s a bit unusual in that the teams’ allotments are next to each other rather than across from each other. With both schools getting only about 16,000 tickets each, most of the tickets went to sponsors and the general public. The north side of the Dome should be a pretty random jumble of fans who got tickets through the secondary ticket markets. None of the premium mezzanine seating went to either school.
The rubber-stamp nature of the 2011 SEC Championship game has been accepted since summer. The conventional wisdom has been correct to this point – the season was more or less a matter of seeing who of LSU or Alabama emerged and then which team from the East would serve as the sacrificial lamb in Atlanta. It’s no surprise then that this storyline continues on into championship week. CBSSports had a nice poll up last night asking whether LSU should rest its starters in the SEC Championship. Such is life when you’re a double-digit underdog in a championship game. Dawg fans are characteristically whining about respect and indignant about falling in the BCS standings, but that can all be taken care of this weekend.
By this point, we shouldn’t need anyone else’s validation. A ten-game winning streak against any schedule is impressive, and everyone in the Georgia camp has seen the improvement for themselves. They’ve pulled off wins against their top four rivals for the first time in nearly 20 years. I don’t really care in what state those programs are. There’s nothing about which to apologize or feel anything less than a sense of real accomplishment for the Georgia program.
Dawg fans are acutely aware of the schedule, and we’ve noted the possibilities opened up by such a schedule since it came out. Nothing new there. I’m fairly sure though that last year’s Georgia team would not have done as well against this schedule. Mississippi State and Auburn proved to be lesser than they were a year ago, but on whole this slate wasn’t much easier than the one that gave Georgia a losing record in 2010.
Same with the outcome of the SEC East. It played out pretty much as expected, only with Florida and Tennessee a little weaker and Vanderbilt a little stronger. If anything changed, it was the assumption that a relatively weaker division meant more margin for error for the team that emerged on top. Credit to South Carolina for keeping it together and producing a quality season by anyone’s standard. They survived the midseason loss of their starting quarterback and tailback and still won ten games, besting their rival and former national contender Clemson in impressive fashion.
South Carolina’s refusal to budge made Georgia’s job clear but tough: win. The Dawgs couldn’t afford to regress to 2010 quality even against the worst of their competition. They didn’t. Georgia and South Carolina both lost to the best SEC opponent they faced this year – Georgia to South Carolina and South Carolina to Arkansas. As both teams kept winning, their seasons and prospects in the SEC East came down to a single common opponent: Auburn.
As Saturday wound down, this was the question on my mind: was South Carolina’s 16-13 loss to Auburn the most shocking SEC regular season outcome in 2011? The Tigers lost to Alabama, LSU, Georgia, and Arkansas by a combined 170-45. None of those teams scored fewer than 38 points, none gave up more than 14 points, and none won by fewer than 24 points. South Carolina picked a bad time to have a poor game against a team that was a whipping boy for the rest of the top of the league. What’s more, they flopped at home and with Lattimore and Garcia in the lineup.
That Gamecock performance against Auburn is a good illustration why it’s so hard for any team to sustain winning over the course of a season. On any day, your starting quarterback can go 9-for-23, or your stout defense can give up 141 yards to a good tailback that didn’t manage but 67 YPG against the top four teams in the league. If Georgia had one of those games against, say, Florida, they were able to find a way to overcome it and still win. That’s why Georgia is representing the East this week, and they deserve to do so.
Though Georgia has won ten of the last eleven against Georgia Tech, relatively stress-free wins have been infrequent. Georgia hadn’t enjoyed a double-digit win over their rivals since 2007, and even that game was within six points in the fourth quarter. Saturday’s game certainly had its tense moments, but Georgia’s dominant third quarter made it increasingly clear that this would not be another nail-biter. Some more notes from a cheerful afternoon spent reasserting the natural order of things…
With only 128 rushing yards, "we run this state" might not be the best theme for the game. Maybe "we passed them by?"
After a frustrating outing against Kentucky, it was important for the offense to get off to a good start. Tech is always easier to handle if you can get up on them, and Georgia avoided the scenario that put Clemson in a hole in Tech’s only significant win of the season.
Aaron Murray’s typical game usually starts slowly, but he was on from the beginning of this one. His only first quarter incompletions were a catchable throw to Marlon Brown on a tightly-defended route and and interception off a throw on which Murray was hit. He was a perfect 4-of-4 on Georgia’s first scoring drive and 5-of-6 on Georgia’s next scoring drive in the second quarter. His 32 touchdowns in 2011 has obliterated the Georgia single-season record.
Murray’s fast start was made possible by outstanding pass protection. There was a breakdown on the intercepted pass, but generally Murray had as much time as he needed to pick apart a porous pass defense. It was a little more crowded on running plays, but that was a function of Tech’s decision to stuff the run and count on another shaky start by Murray. Fortunately both Murray and the playcaller were prepared to exploit those opportunities in the passing game.
Was that particularly smart strategy by Tech? Murray threw all over the Yellow Jackets a year ago. Taking away the run might seem like first principles in ordinary circumstances, but this was a Georgia running game without its top two options and little faith in its third. The Dawgs were putting cornerbacks in the backfield. If you’re going to overload resources to take away an element of the Georgia offense, is the running game really what you’d choose?
With the focus on the passing game, it was enjoyable to see the running game take over to ice the game. Any hope Tech had of a quick shift in momentum with six minutes remaining in the game disappeared as Georgia started to pound the ball. Though the Dawgs ended up with no points, the five-minute drive was a giant dimmer switch on Tech’s chances of a miracle comeback.
Speaking of that final drive, it was gratifying to see Ken Malcome contribute. His talent wasn’t so much the issue keeping him off the field. If he’s starting to put the issues that led to his near-transfer behind him and working to earn playing time, we see that he brings something to the table. With the status of Crowell, Samuel, and even Thomas changing on a week-to-week basis, the opportunity is there.
Moving to defense, Georgia had pretty good success stopping the dive play – the lynchpin of any option attack. They held David Sims to only 36 yards on 12 carries. Garrison Smith’s play in relief of Tyson was huge, but the entire defensive front did a great job holding down the middle.
With the dive covered, the next big job was avoiding the big play. Tech’s longest run was a 27-yard gain on a pitch, but they only had one more run longer than 20 yards. Workhorse backs Jones and Smith couldn’t manage anything longer than 14 and 16 yards.
Tech had some success with inside handoffs, but Grantham soon added that to the list of effective adjustments he’s made this year.
In another nod to coaching, the tendency for Tevin Washington to keep the ball on plays close to the goal line had to be noticed. Georgia was ready for the keeper on that early third down on their own two, and Washington was hit for a loss. Holding Tech to 3 instead of 7 there kept Georgia out in front and let them open up an 11-point lead on their next possession.
Special teams had a second straight quality performance. Georgia was bailed out on a poor field goal operation by Tech’s timeout, but otherwise it was a solid day. Both Walsh and Bogotay buried kickoffs. Butler is back. Boykin had one of his best kick returns of the year.
Watching LSU turn their Arkansas game on a punt return, it’s an unfortunate development this year that Georgia has all but abandoned the punt return or punt block as a strategic weapon. Some of Richt’s players (Gray / Flowers / Henderson) just about made their names returning punts. Being burned several times on fakes has led Richt to default to punt safe in all but the most extreme 4th down situations. With field position so important in LSU’s games this year, ceding 10 or so yards on each punt by choosing to defend the punt rather than return it is something to watch next week.
I love scores that bookend halftime. It’s the biggest payoff from winning the coin toss. Georgia turned a close 14-10 game into a more comfortable 24-10 margin without Tech’s offense touching the ball.
This is some pretty damning stuff about the insular culture at Penn State under Joe Paterno. In the context of the past month, it provides an understanding (though certainly not an excuse) of why even the gravest of crimes and behavior would be handled behind closed doors.
Much of the rationale behind the Penn State culture probably doesn’t sound all that foreign to fans of college athletics. Here are a few de-personalized excerpts:
The cops would call me, and I used to put them in bed in my house and run their rear ends off the next day. Nobody knew about it. That’s the way we handled it.
“(The football coach) would rather we NOT inform the public when a football player is found responsible for committing a serious violation of the law and/or our student code despite any moral or legal obligation to do so.”
(The football coach) felt that “it should be his call if someone should practice and play in athletics.” He said (the coach) felt the school had “overreacted” by deciding to allow reporting of off-campus incidents, and that the NCAA had gone “overboard” with new rules on academic-eligibility requirements.
You won’t have to look far to find support for those positions around your favorite team and its fans. Are the local cops overbearing? Would this all be better settled with a few 5 a.m. sessions of running stadiums? Is it time to draw the line on admissions committees and higher entrance standards?
It might look like a stretch to go from internalizing traffic tickets and tattoos to the kinds of things alleged at Penn State. Michael Elkon had an interesting piece a couple of weeks ago pointing out that it might not be that far of a leap. He suggests “that athletic departments at major universities are places where the default response to any wrongdoing is to try to handle it in-house and to avoid reporting it to the appropriate authorities.”
That’s probably true of a lot of organizations, especially those with a cult of personality where those charged with oversight have a stake in that cult. College athletics, argues Elkon, are particularly susceptible to “ignoring reality” because they’re already so adept at rationalizing the hypocrisies of amateurism and academic standards.
To that end, it helps if the decision-making can be decentralized to remove or reduce the temptation to abuse authority. Georgia is as at-risk as anyone for falling victim to this culture; just look at Damon Evans’ reaction to getting pulled over last year. Jan Kemp is no fan favorite, and the fallout from her case took years to overcome. It’s often a point of contention among fans, but many decisions have, by design, been taken out of the coach’s hands at Georgia. We’ve lost NFL-quality players to the admissions committee. Discipline for drug/alcohol-related incidents are mandated by the university and the athletic department.
There’s always a risk for those controls and systems to break down, especially if pressure can be brought from powerful coaches, boosters, or administrators. Often those left to make the decisions are villified, and it’s reasonable to expect that anyone who blew the whistle at Penn State might have been run out of town. We might not like the (relative) transparency and its short-term consequences, but operating that way does do a little to stave off bigger – and in the extreme case of Penn State, tragic – problems.
Larry Munson died at his Athens home Sunday night with complications from pneumonia, his son Michael said through UGA.
Shelving what I was writing about the Kentucky game. Can’t think about yesterday or anything else right now. Prayers are with Larry, Michael, and the rest of the Munson family. As private of a man as he was, there is no more public symbol of what it means to be a Georgia fan.
Whatever the reasons, Georgia students have left tickets on the table for at least half of the games this year. There’s even an incentive to make sure that tickets get used or at least donated back into a pool for redistribution.
An unused ticket on a student account will result in a one point penalty “strike.” Three strikes in a given season deem that student ineligible for post season tickets (SEC Championship and bowl tickets) and the following season’s tickets.
For many students, the first SEC East title they’ve experienced in their time at Georgia is up for grabs. It’s also an opportunity to honor the seniors that have led the program back. It’s unfortunate that the students won’t show up in full force for a game of this magnitude – yes, even at noon and even against a bad Kentucky team. This isn’t what I want to be talking about before such a significant game and accomplishment, but it’s hard to ignore.
Of course not all students are apathetic. The ones who have shown up this year have been enthusiastic and vocal. It might just be a matter of there being too many tickets in the first place. As of 2008, roughly 18,000 seats were reserved for students, and I would expect the current number to be similar. Student seating includes parts of the West endzone and much of the northeast upper and lower decks. Greg McGarity should look at that allotment in the offseason and compare it to actual usage. Fans have recently had to pay in the four figures for new renewable season tickets, and a few more tickets added to that pool could ease some of the surplus demand.
There are ready-made excuses. The opponents suck. The games are too early. It’s Thanksgiving Break (although the dorms remain open until Sunday.) None of those excuses applied a week ago. Even with the biggest home game of the year, a national television broadcast, and a 3:30 start time, guess which sections were still half-full just minutes before kickoff against Auburn?
If you were in an elevator and went 20 flights up and the doors opened up to Hell……that would be UK Football right now.
Truth be told, I believe most of us would rather see Georgia win the East than Steve Superior.
I would never take pleasure in a UK loss but the fact that losing to UofG would ensure Visor Boy and USC wouldnt win the East would take some sting out of the loss. I absolute abhore Visor Boy. I enjoy anything that takes that smug smirk off of his face.
So many directions we could go after such a complete and enjoyable win Saturday. We’ll let others guide our thoughts…
“We’ll see how Georgia plays when they know they have to win. I have a feeling something good is going to happen to us.” - Steve Spurrier, following South Carolina’s win over Florida
Spurrier was right and wrong. Yes, his team’s win earlier in the day and their solid 6-2 SEC record meant that Georgia absolutely had to win its final two conference games in order to advance to the SEC Championship. They would get no more help from the Gamecocks. But what Spurrier missed was that Georgia has played knowing it must win ever since that disappointing night in early September. The program and its coach have been in a must-win situation for almost a year now.
“We all knew how important this game was; we hear what everyone says…You can say you’re not thinking about it, but deep down you know what’s at stake.” – Aaron Murray after the win over Florida
So if Spurrier was trying to apply the screws, he’s late to the party. Pressure is the normal condition for any major program, but the urgency at Georgia has been especially intense since the disappointing 2010 season ended on a stormy day in Memphis. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The survival instinct that kicked in led the staff to make some difficult but unavoidable changes behind the scenes. As Georgia imposed their will in the second half, I couldn’t help but think about the choices made and the work done in the offseason.
“We’re OK on the run game…” - Gene Chizik, discussing his defense in his interview heading into halftime
Chizik was pleased with his run defense after the first half, but he lamented Georgia’s success on the downfield passes to the outside. True enough, Georgia struck often in the first half on back shoulder routes to the outside that were almost stop routes. Georgia hit one of these routes at the end of the Florida game, and they served Murray well again. Auburn almost always over-ran the routes even when, as illustrated by the CBS crew, there was another layer of coverage over the top.
Chizik’s confidence in his run defense was short-lived. The Bulldogs were successful running the ball right from their first possession of the second half. As a result, Auburn was limited to four drives in the second half. That’s not a good place to be when you’re down four scores to begin with. Georgia’s success on the ground meant that every Auburn drive had to produce points, and of course not one of them did.
The gold standard for soul-crushing drives remains the 11-minute monster that ended the 2002 Ole Miss game, but this weekend gave us something even better: three drives – all 10 plays or more and averaging nearly six and half minutes each. The Dawgs held the ball for over 21 of the 30 minutes of the second half. It might’ve been more entertaining to put up 50 or 60 points, but the act of watching Georgia run over and over for the entire half was thoroughly satisfying.
“I thought I went deaf for a second there.” – Bacarri Rambo describing the noise following his interception returned for a touchdown
I was trying to think of a moment when I’ve heard Sanford Stadium louder. It’s tough. We can debate decibels, but it was one of those electrifying moments we’ve only had a couple of times in the past few years. There was no uniform gimmick. There was no coordinated celebration, just a spontaneous moment of enthusiasm after Rambo’s score.
It was a similar scene last year when Justin Houston scooped up a Tech fumble and scored. Houston’s score opened up a 14-point margin on the Yellow Jackets, and Sanford was rocking. But Georgia couldn’t maintain the momentum, and we were soon back in a one-point game. It was a similar scene against South Carolina earlier this year. Every good play was matched with a catastrophic turnover or breakdown that led to points and, ultimately, to the loss.
I won’t declare all that in the past because we’re only a couple of weeks removed from some pretty big momentum-killers against Vandy and Florida. For one night at least Georgia not only took advantage of opportunities to gain momentum; they also responded on those few occasions when momentum might be lost or even shifted back to Auburn. It started early with a strong response to Auburn’s lone touchdown. Murray was at his best, engineering a drive on which he went 5-for-5. His third down completion to a tightly-covered Orson Charles was placed perfectly, and the touchdown pass to Bennett was as good of a throw and catch as you’ll see.
Georgia remained stingy with what they allowed Auburn. There were no kickoff returns of note – itself a noteworthy accomplishment. Auburn didn’t have a chance at an onside kick after the first quarter. Georgia abandoned any notion of returning punts and gaining field position with their punt-safe defense, but that was the trade-off for closing the door on any potential fake punt. The Georgia defense also held firm after Crowell’s fumbles. Georgia scored 14 points after Auburn turnovers; Georgia’s turnovers turned out to be nothing more than speed bumps.
“You’ve got to make plays on defense this day and age. You’ve got to go stop people. To do that, you’ve got to attack them, be relentless in your effort and prepare during the week. If you do that, you have a chance to go make plays.” – Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham
In a game full of so many big moments, you can’t really say the game turned on any one of them. Some are subtle: a favorable spot on Georgia’s very first series kept the opening scoring drive alive. Others are obvious: Rambo’s interception broke the game open. Though the game was already 35-7 at this point, I really liked what happened just before and just after halftime. If you go back to last year, this was the point in the game where Auburn flipped things in their favor. Trailing 21-14, they tied it up inside of a minute left in the second quarter. The Tigers executed and recovered an onside kick to start the second half, and soon Georgia was the team playing from behind. It was a huge 14-point swing that turned the game.
Late in the first half on Saturday, Drew Butler shanked a punt into the Georgia sideline (‘sup wid dat?). Auburn suddenly had their best field position since their scoring drive and an opportunity to grab a shred of momentum before regrouping at halftime. As Grantham exhorted, Georgia’s defense got the stop and didn’t even yield a first down. The Dawgs also held on the other side of halftime. The kickoff was a touchback. Auburn got 17 yards on one of Dyer’s few productive runs of the night, but Auburn’s attempt to open the second half with a score ended there. Georgia forced a punt and began to dictate exactly how the second half would go. Though Georgia’s drive stalled and ended with a short field goal, the Dawgs made it clear that there would be no huge swing of momentum in Auburn’s favor this year.
“We’ll hold out a little hope, but Georgia is playing awfully well now. You always have some hope. That’s a game we have no control over, so we’re not going to worry about it.” – Steve Spurrier, on his team depending on a Kentucky win over Georgia
We’ll be magnanimous and let Coach Spurrier have the final word. He’s right: Georgia’s job is unfinished. Kentucky might be the SEC equivalent of a two-foot putt, but it’s still a shot that has to be made. It wasn’t nearly against the same odds, but two years ago Kentucky left Athens with their first win at Georgia since 1977. Part of my enjoyment Saturday night was the realization that Spurrier had to sit there and watch it, and hopefully he’ll have an equally-enjoyable viewing experience this Saturday.
The start times for the November 12th games have been announced by the SEC. CBS will have both chapters of a pivotal day in the SEC East. They’ll have the noon game in Columbia featuring Florida’s visit to South Carolina.
Then at 3:30 CBS will broadcast Auburn’s trip to Georgia.
The decision by CBS means that Georgia will know by kickoff exactly what they must do in their final two conference games. If South Carolina beats Florida, Georgia must beat both Auburn and Kentucky in order to win the East. If Florida wins, the Dawgs will know that they can clinch the division outright with a win over Auburn.
With pretty much every Georgia tailback headed to a one-game suspension or to the injured list, we’re faced with the practical challenge of fielding a running game this weekend. The good news is that Georgia is up against the nation’s 111th-best rushing defense rather than an SEC foe. Hopefully the line can create holes that random members of the Alumni Band could run through. But in terms of who will actually carry the ball, reports have focused on these three options. It’s not a stretch to imagine all three being used at some point.
1) Stick with the tailbacks on the roster
Brandon Harton and Kyle Karempelis are the two tailbacks on the roster who could see playing time. Harton is a former walk-on, and Karempelis still is. Neither are especially big guys (5’6″ and 5’9″, respectively.) We’re more familiar with Harton – he had some carries in garbage time against Coastal Carolina.
2) Use the fullbacks
Ogletree and Figgins haven’t carried the ball much, if at all, this year, but they’d be an option to run the ball especially in short-yardage situatins.
3) Look to other positions
Here’s where the fun starts for those of us playing fantasy coach. There are plenty of talented guys on the team who would love a shot at carrying the ball. It’s not likely to be someone from elsewhere on offense. Receivers are thin enough as it is, especially with Mitchell still out. They’re also not likely to waste the redshirt season of someone who hasn’t played yet. So we look to the other side of the ball. A couple have already carried the ball this year. Rambo has been an effective option quarterback for the scout team; we know he can run the ball.
Of the names fans and media are throwing out over the past day, one name – Nick Marshall – intrigues me the most. Follow my thinking here:
I’d be hesistant to use a front line defensive player on all but a couple of carries. You don’t want to risk losing Boykin, Smith, and Rambo if the game can be won with other players. Even Swann is seeing more time on defense, so I’d hesitate to pull him over.
Marshall has already burned his redshirt.
The coaches have already considered Marshall on offense. I know this is mostly offseason recruiting bluster, but Marshall’s possible use in a “Wild Dawg” look was a topic back in May.
Marshall, though a defensive back now, was an accomplished running quarterback in high school who would be comfortable running the ball. This isn’t high school, but it’s not as if he’s going up against Alabama’s run defense on Saturday.
If Marshall gains some experience on Saturday, this needn’t be a one-game experiment. With Samuel down for a while, there’s still a need at tailback going forward.
"Everyone is different, but the smartest decision you can make as a prospect is to stay in state if you are from Georgia. If a guy comes from Parkview, Thomson, or anywhere, the best thing that he can do is to be a Dawg. Everybody will know you, and it is such a big thing to play for the University of Georgia."