Friday April 29, 2016
Bill Connelly’s gone back through at least 1991 re-ranking teams using the S&P+ metric. It’s been a fun read. There are national stories to revisit, you can chart the rise and fall of SEC powers, and of course there’s the Georgia angle.
What was Georgia’s best team since 1991? It wasn’t 2007 (10th in the national S&P+ rankings) or 2012 (7th) or even the SEC championship teams of 2005 (7th) and 2002 (5th). Jim Donnan’s best team, 1997, came in 12th, a finish that would be eclipsed in five of Mark Richt’s first seven seasons.
Georgia’s best team, according to this metric, was the 2003 SEC East championship squad (*). That team finished in a three-way tie for the division title and advanced to the title game thanks to its high BCS ranking. The 2003 Dawgs finished with three losses with two coming against eventual national champion LSU. But that team still earned a #4 spot in the S&P+ rankings thanks in large part to the best Georgia defense since…you tell me.
Connelly helpfully provides the offense and defense S&P+ rankings along with his overall list, and it’s no surprise that the 2003 defense was the second-best in the nation behind only LSU. That was a nasty defense from the opening shutout at Clemson to the dominant second and third quarters in Knoxville to Odell Thurman chugging his way 99 yards down the sideline against Auburn. That defense was packed with playmakers and future pros from the defensive line to linebacker to the slobberknocking secondary.
The 2000 rankings also caught my eye. That was a strange year with a polarizing coach and quarterback, a star tailback in the doghouse, a devastating loss in the second game of the season, midseason quarterback turmoil, and a year-end collapse that led to a coaching change. Not the most stable of seasons.
The 2000 defense was talented (hence Donnan’s infamous “55 years” comment) but still very much symptomatic of the season’s instability. It was led by the third coordinator in three years after the disaster of 1999 (61th rated defense.) It relied on a converted wide receiver to start at safety. It was put in difficult spots by an offense that ranked only 41st.
But with the offense in turmoil and the head coach under fire, the 2000 defense was still tenth in the nation (again, according to S&P+.) Things slid on defense towards the end of the year as they slid across the board, but it all comes back to the Tennessee game. The Dawgs don’t snap the decade-long losing streak without, as Larry Munson called them that night, “the beautiful defense” making stop after stop.
The defense was led that year by Gary Gibbs, a former Oklahoma head coach who had been out of coaching for several seasons. Donnan had worked with Gibbs at Oklahoma on the great Sooner teams of the 1980s and brought in a known veteran coach with a more professional reputation to follow the (putting it kindly) contentious Kevin Ramsey experiment of 1999. Hiring Gibbs worked – in just one season Gibbs improved the defense from 61st to 10th in the S&P+ ranking.
Unfortunately Gibbs’ improvement on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the unraveling on the other side of the ball. It did lay a nice foundation for what was to come. The defense only slid to 17th in 2001 in Brian VanGorder’s first season as coordinator, but it really came into its own with defenses ranked #5, #2, and #3 from 2002-2004. Since those three seasons though, only the 2011 defense (S&P+ 8th) was more highly rated than Gibbs’ only showing in 2000. He’d go on to coach an SEC champion unit at LSU in 2001 before making the jump to the NFL.
(*) – As good as that 2003 team was, it was only the 47th best team of the 2000s. While Georgia was consistently good enough to have the 8th best program of the 2000s in average S&P+ percentile rating, there haven’t been any truly great Georgia teams on the level of 2005 Texas or 2001 Miami that we hold up as some of the best of the 2000s. We talk about a few of those teams – 2002, 2007, 2012 – being a couple of plays or breaks away from playing for larger things, but even those very good teams would have been punching above their weight.
Saturday April 23, 2016
Pity Kirby Smart – all the guy wants to do is talk and coach football, and in four months he’s had to devote unnecessary time and energy to blowups over transfer policy, the state legislative process, and now entertainment contracts. And to be sure some of the distraction falls back on Smart. Every little thing is not Something That Has to be Handled. Making it seem so gives agency to the energy sucks all too willing to turn every news item into the next frustrating distraction.
At most places the news that artists often have boilerplate appearance riders wouldn’t move the needle very much. But Georgia isn’t most places, and so the Ludacris contract must become a commentary on everything from Georgia’s open records law to the management of the athletic department. That might be a difference from Smart’s previous employer, but dealing with this different and often dysfunctional landscape is still part of the adjustment.
That this contract has become another distraction is unsurprising. It’s the natural conclusion of a deal that got rubber-stamped in the panic after a promoted pre-game concert was canceled and then saved just days before the event. It’s not as if the University had never hosted a Ludacris performance on campus with a very similar rider. For that Homecoming performance in 2010, shortly after Greg McGarity became athletic director, the University Union or Homecoming committee or whoever signed off on the contract, scratched a few offending items, and the show went on.
And for something so unimportant. Look – I was glad Ludacris performed and enjoyed what I could make out over the sound system pointed in the opposite direction. But as Smart admitted, the show “probably was overrated” in terms of drawing fans. I can’t see anyone making up their minds to attend G-Day based on a 15-minute appearance announced two days prior.
You can only guess how or if they’ll try to top 93KDay next year, but we can imagine that a pregame concert won’t be a part of the plans.
Monday April 18, 2016
There’s a phenomenon with landfalling hurricanes called a storm surge. You’ll get a gradual rise of water as the storm gets closer, but as the center approaches there can be a sudden and much more dramatic rise.
That’s what it seemed like on Saturday as the crowd filed into Sanford Stadium. There was a steady stream of fans filling the first two levels during warmups and then the surge happened. In about 15 minutes shortly after 3:30, the crowd went from an impressive spring game showing of 70,000 or so to an overflow crowd of about 95,000. Fans who couldn’t find seats were perched on the stair tower leading to the 600 level. More fans were on the bridge. Others had to be turned away at the gate.
The game gave us a few things to talk about on the football side – the quarterback battle, the emergence of a few wide receivers, the promising use of tight ends, and some concern about a thin defensive front and pass rush. But really the story of G-Day was the crowd. It was sensational and made an impact on past, current, and future Bulldogs. It became an event. The challenge was made several months ago by the new coach, and fans met the challenge. We forgot our cynicism for a day and bought in, sending the message to Kirby Smart that the support was there. Now it’s his turn.
Thursday April 14, 2016
Just a few days after announcing that the planned pre-game entertainment for G-Day had fallen through, someone stepped up and delivered a heavyweight. It’s a shame he won’t have but 15 minutes.
Thursday April 14, 2016
It’s probably the most anticipated and almost surely going to be the most attended spring game in Georgia history. Fans have been looking forward to this weekend since Kirby Smart challenged fans back in December to fill the stadium. We’ve gone from “he’s kidding, right?” to a full-on commitment by the university and athletic department to prepare for a capacity crowd. Whether we get a full house or merely a very large turnout won’t be known until Saturday, but the push for 93K has been a bountiful source of energy for the young Kirby Smart era. Fans, alumni, students, players, and recruits have responded to the call, and now it’s Smart’s turn to show us what all the hype has been about.
- How many show? Kirby Smart has challenged Georgia fans to fill Sanford Stadium. I’m cynical about these things – we’ve struggled to fill the stadium even for recent late-season SEC games. But with no cost to attend, G-Day will pull from a deeper pool of fans. I also wonder about student attendance. It’s typically low for G-Day, but students like to be part of an event (as do we all.) I think the school would be happy with anything over 70,000. That would put Georgia ahead of most SEC schools and would effectively double the usual G-Day turnout. It would give Smart the kind of environment he’s looking for. If you see the upper East stands start to fill, mission accomplished.
- No, really, how many show? This piece mentions something that’s been on my mind for a while: Sanford Stadium doesn’t have turnstiles. Without a ticket to scan or collect, there’s no way to measure attendance. Any figure you see will be a guess.
- How crazy does it get? UGA officials claim to be ready for a typical home game crowd. There will be differences – parking and seating will be free-for-alls. Many of us are so set in our gameday routines that there will be some scrambling if our usual tailgating spot or seat isn’t available. Fans have been encouraged to arrive early, and the later start time should help space out arrivals. I do hope people take advantage of the gates opening at 1:00 and the pregame activities going on in and around the stadium. I’d really hate to see 50,000 people expect to go through the gates at 3:45 with no clue as to where they’re sitting.
- Pregame? A athletics administrator confirmed that “the university is looking for a musical act to perform in Sanford Stadium before the event.” So much for that. People are saying Georgia dropped the ball, but I consider this a bullet dodged. As diverse as musical tastes are, I was kind of dreading what kind of act they were going to come up with. I also wasn’t looking forward to competing for seats with people who were just coming to see (name of band.) Keep it about football.
- What’s in it for us? This will come off like the annoying Entitled Fan, but if the fan base is going to make the effort it’s reasonable to expect a little more than the usual spring game. Smart might not agree that there’s such an obligation. Since my usual G-Day checklist starts with “no injuries,” I’m a little conflicted here. I’m not expecting a surprise cameo from Chubb, but something besides walk-ons draining a running clock is called for. Smart’s not that aloof, is he?
- What’s different? A spring game isn’t likely to simulate the pressure of a close SEC game, but we should still expect to see some signs of how Kirby Smart has made his mark on the team. One of the lasting impressions from Smart’s introductory press conference was his pledge to be “hands on with the whole program.”
- Who took advantage of the coaching change? With so much turnover on the staff, the opportunities for second chances abound. Maybe there was a player in someone’s doghouse. Perhaps a certain coaching style just didn’t click. I’m interested to see if there are a couple of players who were buried on Richt’s depth chart for one reason or another who found new life with a new coach.
- What about the QBs? Speaking of new life, fans expecting Lambert and Ramsey to be put out to pasture by now will be very disappointed. Those are the two quarterbacks getting most of the work with the first team, and Jacob Eason is, as should be expected, a very talented early enrollee still making the transition. The situation might and likely will change before September, but for now it seems to be Lambert’s offense. Will a new offense and coach allow Lambert to improve enough to come out on top of a second straight quarterback competition?
- Lineman. The departure of both starting tackles gives new line coach Sam Pittman an immediate challenge. The team will be experimenting with line combinations right up through this week, so it’s anyone’s guess who will get the starting nod on Saturday. That’s not so important since we’re likely to see many combinations of linemen for both teams. The interior of the line has the most experience but even there we’ll see experimentation especially if Wynn and Pyke move from guard to tackle.
I could go on at most every position (WRs? ILBs?), and we’ll have plenty to talk about once the film is in. But really this G-Day is about the event itself: the challenge by Smart, the response by the fans, and the commitment by the school. We’ll see how each measures up and then enjoy a little football.
Monday April 11, 2016
I really need to stop getting a post 95% done and leaving it in the draft folder for a few weeks.
Georgia’s coaching change implied many things, and the repudiation of the Mark Richt way of doing things in favor of a more Alabama-style approach is close to the top of the list. We’ve seen more visible and exhaustive recruiting with a budget to match. We’ve seen the support staff grow and investment in a more experienced strength and conditioning staff. You don’t have to connect many dots to see how these changes might make Georgia more competitive.
Even some uncomfortable and controversial policy revisions might make sense in the context of a more competitive program. If certain offenses merit a suspension at one school and not another, sure – claiming a competitive disadvantage doesn’t seem a bridge too far.
Is a restrictive transfer policy one of those difference-makers for a championship program? Did Alabama reach the top thanks to Henry, a ridiculously good defensive front, and preventing a disgruntled third-teamer from looking at Tennessee or Arkansas?
On one hand, Kirby Smart’s revised transfer policy that blocks certain transfer destinations is fairly standard, and it does level this particular playing field. It’s not just Georgia dealing with these policies. Just this month Michigan had to reconsider its own transfer restriction. Louisiana Tech is deciding which course to chart with its signees after a coach resigned.
On the other hand, what’s the payoff for taking a step backwards? Is it worth this contorted rationalization? Even if this policy change is a proxy for a larger turf war, it’s at the expense of the student-athletes and their very finite resource of eligibility.
Just so we remember – almost any transfer (excepting those with rare hardship waivers) must still sit out a year. That’s true even with a release from the current school. Without a release that wait increases to two years. Unless the transfer is to a school in a lower division (FCS, Div II, JUCO, etc.), anyone who has made up his mind to transfer is already willing to sacrifice some eligibility and has accepted that price.
Georgia might seem to have taken the lion’s share of criticism for a commonplace policy, and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of us. But it makes sense – when the program takes a stance outside the norm with a policy it considered the right way to do things and walks it back, that draws attention and raises questions. Will this experience be instructive when the program reviews other controversial policies that Kirby Smart might consider a disadvantage?
Finishing on a slight tangent – it’s stories like these transfer restrictions that come to mind every time I hear coaches talk about early signing periods and the grind of having to “babysit” commitments right up through Signing Day (and, as we’ve experienced the past two years, beyond Signing Day.) Just as you start to have some sympathy for the coaches’ position, you’re reminded what signing that Letter of Intent means. Once you’re in, you’re in. Your choices can be limited for any reason up to and including the new guy wanting to mark his territory. I don’t blame prospects for considering their options as long as they can and using what leverage they might have while they still have it.