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Post Forecasting Kirby Smart’s first season

Monday August 29, 2016

There’s a weather forecasting method called climatology. It uses averages over time as a starting point to forecast the weather during normal weather patterns. On a typical July day in Georgia, climatology might tell you to expect temperatures in the 90s with a stray thunderstorm possible. Individual days can be hotter or cooler, drier or wetter, but climatology is a good place to start unless there are solid reasons not to. Climatology can also be used as a sanity check for extreme forecasts: if another forecasting tool tells you to expect snow in June, climatology leads you to doubt the model or at least to examine why the model gave the result it did.

But climatology is only one tool of many, and it can break down when there are abnormal conditions. Is there a legitimately unusual weather system developing? Have other variables changed? Has the climate itself shifted to a new normal?

The climatology of college football tells us to tap the brakes on big expectations for the 2016 season. There’s a track record for first-year head coaches and especially assistants-turned-head coaches. We know that no first-year Georgia head coach has won more than nine games, and the most recent head coach set that benchmark. If we want to keep going, history warns us about freshman quarterbacks – even the best rarely started out of the gate.

Are there enough special conditions though that might lead us to question what history says to expect? Smart isn’t stepping into a typical first-year situation. Four of Georgia’s last five teams have won at least ten games, and Smart is expected to improve on that. Georgia might start a freshman quarterback, but he’ll be handing off to one of the most talented backfields in the nation. We might even say that the climate has changed for new SEC coaches: the most recent hires for Auburn and Florida won their divisions immediately, and the window for producing results is as narrow as it’s ever been.

Kirby Smart doesn’t care one bit about what history says about the first seasons of Ray Goff or Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn, and he won’t let his decisions be clouded by the results of Matthew Stafford’s 2006 freshman year. That’s fine, but he and his team are going to have to make some extraordinary things happen to stand out from the typical first year. These are a couple of questions I’ll have on my mind during the season:

When will we know that things are different?

The 2001 season got off to a so-so start: there was an easy cupcake win in the opener, a disappointing home loss to South Carolina, and a nice rebound win over Arkansas. It was fairly similar to the way the 2000 season began. Though fans were generally positive, the late game-winning drive allowed to South Carolina and indecisiveness at the quarterback position had made it a brief honeymoon.

Things changed of course with the trip to Knoxville and one of the most famous playcalls in program history. It wasn’t just that Georgia had defeated Tennessee; they had done so the year before. It wasn’t just that Georgia won in Knoxville though it had been decades since the last win up there. It was that Georgia twice got off the mat in situations where previous teams might’ve folded. The Dawgs recovered first from the shock of an early 14-3 deficit and then found a way to recover with an improbable drive after Tennessee’s late go-ahead score. The team reflected the calmness and confidence of its coach, and the win was a significant moment in shoring up the buy-in for both players and fans.

The 2016 Bulldogs will face several tests within the first month of the season. Within five games we should have a fairly good sense of Georgia’s relative standing in the SEC East and learn how well Georgia measures up against a nonconference opponent favored to win its division. Smart doesn’t have to win them all – Mark Richt’s 2001 team stumbled late against Auburn and Boston College, but those losses didn’t undo the groundwork that led to a successful run. But with a successful and popular coach suddenly fired last year, Smart does have to show enough of a difference for fans, players, and recruits to understand that the right decision was made. Will Smart’s teams down the road be able to point to events in 2016 as the foundation for their success?

What’s the two-point conversion play?

Indulge me in one of my favorite obscure game situations. Mark Richt came to favor, with a little variation, a certain play on conversions. (See these plays from 2006 and 2011. The play was also used for the score that should have been the game-winner against Tech in 2014.) A receiver came in motion, often from left-to-right, and went underneath. Meanwhile the other two receivers on the right side of the formation cleared out the defenders. The play rolled right, the QB had some options, and the underneath receiver was usually open.

It’s one of those little details, but the right go-to play at the right time will win games. As much thought as Smart has put into other details across the program, I’m looking forward to seeing what the staff has up their sleeves. I’m focusing on the two-point conversion here, but similar thought and preparation has to go into third-and-short, the red zone, the two-minute drill, and other circumstances that might only come up a few times each game but which can determine the outcome. (Same goes for the other side of the ball – is Georgia’s defense prepared for opponents’ go-to plays and favorite tricks?)

What will Smart have to learn on the job?

Even with all of the preparation in the world, there are some lessons that have to be taught by experience. For Mark Richt, it was clock management. Richt’s self-assessment following his first season at Georgia in 2001 led him to seek out help in that area. The Dawgs fared much better in close games in the years that followed.

We have a fairly good sense by now of how Kirby Smart approaches building a program. We’ve seen the investment in staff and facilities. We’re impressed with the staff’s commitment to recruiting. We know a little bit about how he conducts an offseason. We don’t know how Smart will prepare a team during game week. We don’t know if he’s able to motivate a team from week to week during a taxing SEC season. We don’t know how he’ll manage a sideline or consider in-game adjustments. Does he panic too soon when he falls behind, or does he get too conservative with a lead? It’s possible that Smart has picked up many of these skills along the way, but it’s also likely that, as with Richt, he’ll be able to look back on his debut season and identify specific areas for self-improvement. With that in mind, how will those deficiencies show up during the season, and will the team be able to overcome them?

Post Is there a trap game on Georgia’s schedule?

Monday August 29, 2016

Preseason assessments of Georgia have focused in on a handful of games that will make or break Georgia’s season. North Carolina will set the tone. Ole Miss might be the best team on the schedule. Tennessee and Florida will determine the SEC East hierarchy. Auburn and Georgia Tech are rivals against whom Mark Richt enjoyed lopsided success, and Kirby Smart will be expected to have the Dawgs focused and prepared for them. Enough is riding on those six games that it’s unthinkable for the Dawgs to drop a game elsewhere on the schedule, but it’s always possible.

With two sure wins against non-conference opponents, that leaves four SEC games that will test Smart’s ability to keep the team’s attention on the game at hand. The Dawgs have lost to all but one of these opponents since 2013, and three of the four will be hosting Georgia in 2016. It would be a sign of progress if Georgia is able to dispatch this group without much drama, but the program might not be in a position to do that just yet. Do any of these stand out as more dangerous than the others?

@ Missouri: It’s the first true road game and the SEC opener. Georgia has fared well in their two trips to Columbia, and both teams will be in the early stages of breaking in new head coaches. We’ll see which offense has made more progress since the miserable 9-6 game in Athens last season. Though anything is possible in the league and we expect that people are writing off Mizzou much to easily, losing this game would be a big jolt to an optimistic Georgia fan base and would right out of the gate require a major adjustment to expectations.

@ South Carolina: Two former Bulldogs will lead their teams into this game. Yes, the Gamecocks are coming off a poor season. Yes, they’ve traded Spurrier for Muschamp. Yes, they make Georgia’s quarterback situation look stable. The Dawgs haven’t won at South Carolina since 2008, and this game will fall immediately after the Ole Miss-Tennessee gauntlet. This might be one that the Dawgs have to grind out.

Vanderbilt: Last season’s margin of victory in Nashville was padded by punt and interception returns, but Georgia’s offense struggled to move the ball. Fortunately Vanderbilt wasn’t much better. Derrick Mason’s defense will be a challenge for a team playing its seventh straight game, but it’s tough to imagine Vanderbilt lighting up a Kirby Smart defense. We’ll have the usual sleepy Homecoming crowd. Will the Dawgs sleepwalk through this one?

@ Kentucky: We’re used to this game following the trip to Jacksonville, so the timing shouldn’t be an issue. Recent Kentucky teams have begun their swoon by this point in the season. Mark Stoops is under pressure to get over the hump this year, and we should know how well he’s done in time for our visit. The last Georgia true freshman QB to start at Lexington (2006) left with a loss.

Post Senior LB Kimbrough to transfer

Thursday August 11, 2016

Not long after Georgia learned they might be gaining one defender via transfer, the news broke Wednesday night that senior inside linebacker Tim Kimbrough planned to leave the program. Kimbrough, known as a big hitter on the interior of Georgia’s defense and the team’s 2014 Most Improved Player, was Georgia’s leading returning tackler but was fighting to earn a starting job under the new coaching staff.

Reggie Carter, Natrez Patrick, and Roquan Smith figure to get most of the snaps at ILB this year, but it’s a very thin unit behind those three. The transfer of Kimbrough, combined with the departure of Jake Ganus, means that Georgia will be looking to replace 169 tackles from its top inside linebackers. All four of Georgia’s top tacklers in 2015 are no longer with the program.

Kimbrough hasn’t redshirted yet but he’s also not a graduate transfer, so he’ll have a year to play after sitting out the mandatory one season. There’s no speculation yet about a destination, but it would be some irony if Kimbrough decided to test Georgia’s own transfer policy after the role Georgia played in the Maurice Smith transfer. Hopefully the Georgia administration and staff learned a thing or two.

Post Alabama stands down on Smith transfer

Thursday August 11, 2016

When the transfer request of Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith blew up last week, it wasn’t hard to see the road ahead.

I expect this will follow the usual cycle: there will be some unpleasant publicity for Alabama, some haughty pronouncements from folks at keyboards, and eventually Alabama will relent.

And that’s what happened. It’s what happens every time a little light is allowed to shine on these transfer restrictions. You’d think that schools would know to get ahead of the inevitable publicity storm by now, but even mighty Alabama couldn’t help themselves. Instead the Tide have spent a week defending the inconsistent application of their transfer policy, answering for the petty and vindictive reaction to Smith’s transfer request, and watching story after story come out featuring the Smith family.

Why the change of heart? Either Nick Saban saw the light or he suddenly stumbled across some of those “unique circumstances” that justified Smith’s release, namely a story that went from local to regional to national news became more trouble than it was worth to block Smith’s transfer to Georgia.

What’s next? The transfer isn’t a done deal yet – the SEC must grant a waiver of its own transfer rules, and Alabama is more than happy to kick this can down to the league office. The league has its own “restrictions on athletes with less than two years of eligibility remaining transferring to league schools, including graduate transfers.” The Smith family expects that ruling to come as soon as Thursday evening, and Smith would then be allowed to enroll at Georgia and join the team for the final three weeks of preseason practice. As a projected starting nickel back at Alabama, Smith would provide instant depth for a thin Georgia secondary and instant experience playing in the Smart/Tucker defense.

Post Smart vs. Saban…again

Wednesday August 3, 2016

Since Kirby Smart became Georgia’s head coach, Georgia and Alabama have swapped a couple of assistant coaches, gone head-to-head for top members of the 2016 recruiting class, and now find themselves at the center of a tug-of-war over graduate transfer defensive back Maurice Smith.

Maurice Smith, a defensive back who is set to graduate from Alabama this month, wants to transfer to Georgia, where he would be eligible to play this season. But Smith’s mother said the potential move is being blocked by Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “He wants to go to Georgia. Period,” Samyra Smith said on Tuesday night. “That’s where he wants to go.”

Smith would take advantage of the same graduate transfer rule that brought Greyson Lambert and Tyler Catalina to Athens. As a reward for graduating with eligibility remaining, the NCAA allows players to transfer after graduating without having to sit out a year. The player’s current school must release the player though, and that’s where Alabama is dragging its heels.

Alabama has continued to decline to agree on a move anywhere within the SEC. “They’re being difficult. Intentionally,” Samyra Smith said.

Seth Emerson points out that Alabama didn’t have a problem with another graduate transfer to an SEC school. “Earlier this year, Alabama did not put a block on Chris Black, who graduated from Alabama and transferred to Missouri.”

Emerson also reminds us that karma can be a bitch.

The situation is an interesting turn in Alabama-Georgia relationship, given Smart serving under Saban the past nine years. And earlier this year Smart put a block on a player, A.J. Turman, from transferring to other SEC schools as well as Miami. (Turman did not want to go to Miami, but Smart said he wanted to set a precedent that players couldn’t follow former head coach Mark Richt to the Hurricanes.)

I expect this will follow the usual cycle: there will be some unpleasant publicity for Alabama, some haughty pronouncements from folks at keyboards, and eventually Alabama will relent. But will it be too late? Georgia has already started preseason camp. Alabama begins later this week. Alabama only needs to hold out on Smith long enough for him to be too far behind the curve to contribute at Georgia. Even if Smart is Smith’s former position coach, it might be tough for someone to miss a good chunk of preseason camp and expect significant playing time. It won’t be many more days before remaining at Alabama or transferring out of the conference are the only hopes Smith has for seeing the field in his final year of eligibility. The longer this plays out, the longer the odds of Smith ending up in Athens.

To add another twist of the knife, one of those out-of-conference destinations Smith might consider is …Miami.