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Post Not a 2019 season preview

Friday August 30, 2019

It’s here! Time to load up the car for a road trip to Nashville. An invasion by Georgia fans is almost expected now for any road game, and Nashville is usually happy to accommodate. This isn’t a preview – there are plenty of those elsewhere – but more of a dump of things on my mind as we head into the season.

There haven’t been many surprises over the offseason, and any concerns have to do with the incremental improvements that turn a playoff contender into a champion. In other words, we more or less know the cards Georgia is holding, and we know they’re good ones. That can make for boring blogging at times as there are only so many ways to say that Georgia has a good team.

Kirby Smart touched on an obvious but important point at SEC Media Days in July: how weird is it for Georgia to be measured relative to a team not even on its schedule? As Smart reminds us, the Dawgs have a 12-game row to hoe first. The assumption of a postseason date with Alabama implies a couple of things: first, anything short of another division title would be a serious setback. Second, Georgia is nearly to the point as a program that Georgia advancing to face Alabama is expected as much as Alabama advancing to face Georgia. The Georgia program is now measured in all things relative to Alabama, and that in itself says quite a lot.

The Grown-Up in the Room

It seems as if he was hired yesterday, but only four SEC head coaches now have more experience at their current school than Kirby Smart. Entering his fourth season Smart has created a team and program largely of his own making. There are a handful of redshirt seniors (Blankenship!) and others who committed to Mark Richt for the 2016 class, but 68 of Georgia’s 83 scholarship players are juniors or below.

Smart, for the first time, is welcoming new coordinators. Replacing just a single coordinator has been enough to trip up other Georgia coaches. Hiring from within might lend itself to some continuity, but was that taking the easy way out? That’s no disrespect to Coley or Lanning who have earned their roles, but Georgia didn’t seem to conduct much of a search for its coordinators outside of the 706 area code. Why would they? Both the offense and defense were doing well, and these men certainly had their hands in that success.

There were two things keeping Georgia fans from worrying too much about two new coordinators. First was, again, the Alabama factor. Bama loses coaches all the time and chugs on, so why shouldn’t Georgia? That’s assuming quite a bit though about the state of Georgia’s program. Alabama has earned that benefit of the doubt; I’m not so sure Georgia has. Second is the presence of Kirby Smart. We know what kind of offense Smart prefers, and we know this team is meant to run that certain style. Coley might introduce his own wrinkles, but this isn’t Auburn bringing in Tony Franklin for a wholesale retooling of the offense’s identity. It’s a similar story on defense. It’s unfair to Mel Tucker (and Lanning) to call them figureheads running Smart’s defense just as it was wrong to say that about Smart and Saban at Alabama. What’s true though is that Smart will set the tone in both the players the program recruits and the insistence that the defense meets the same standards of composure and physicality he’s set for the entire program. Certain aspects – like this season’s emphasis on havoc – might change from year to year, but you’re never concerned that Kirby Smart doesn’t know what he wants from his defense.

But if our faith in the new coordinators lies largely in the belief that they’re instruments of Kirby Smart’s preferences, Smart’s own role in decisions deserves greater scrutiny. That doesn’t just mean fake punts late in the SEC championship game. If Coley gets away from the run a little too soon, will Smart be willing to correct? Hopefully it won’t take a Chubb/Michel type of meeting. If an opponent makes adjustments to attack Georgia’s offensive line as LSU did, will Smart be quick to recognize it and help craft a response? Can Smart step in when the defense isn’t getting lined up properly against hurry-up offenses?

The results on the field and on the recruiting trail show that Kirby Smart can build a winning program and culture. Will we see how Smart himself has improved with three years’ experience at the helm? This might be a harsh way of putting it, but will the coaches prove to be at the level of the players they’ve brought in?

Return on Investment

Smart has been the beneficiary of a tremendous investment in the program. Both donors and administrators have aligned to provide Smart with an impressive coaching and support staff, a jewel of an indoor facility, and an eye-popping West endzone addition to Sanford Stadium. We’ve seen the pockets opened for recruiting to the point where no program spends more to attract top talent. Soon the program will begin raising funds for the next capital project – a football facility and much larger weight room adjacent to the Butts-Mehre building. Will donors be as generous as they have been, or do they need to see at least another playoff appearance first? Is this an important year for Smart – not in terms of job stability but in terms of sustaining the no-questions-asked investment that has fueled his first four years?

Home Turf

These Georgia players have been in plenty of big games, and the pressure of expectations is last year’s news. The difference this year is that a couple of the biggest games of the year are at home. None of these players were around for September 2013 (or the 2015 Alabama game, but the less said about that the better.) About the biggest home game these players have seen is the 2017 Mississippi State game. Georgia hasn’t dropped a game at Sanford Stadium since 2016, but they also haven’t faced opponents this good.

For road or neutral site games you can put on the “business trip” blinders and insulate yourself from most things other than the business at hand. That’s tough-to-impossible at home. When there’s a big game coming up it’s all anyone will talk about that week in class, on campus, and all over Athens. Media will come in starting with Kirby’s press conference on Monday, and it won’t let up. If Gameday is here, as it will likely be for Notre Dame, the broadcasts will start on Thursday. I want to see if the coaches – and, more importantly, the team leadership – can get the team to tune out those distractions and prepare. It’s something Georgia is going to have to deal with a lot more often if Kirby builds the kind of program we expect and Georgia becomes everyone’s biggest game.

Something to Prove

Beyond big game hype, the Notre Dame game will come with something a little extra. We all saw the tweets last December from Georgia’s players as they watched Clemson dismantle Notre Dame. That mindset carried over to the bowl game, and we saw what happened.

I’m sure Notre Dame’s coaches will remind their players what Georgia’s players think of them. I hope Georgia’s coaches use it too. You said it, now back it up. Notre Dame was in the playoff last year, and the Dawgs weren’t. Do something about it.

The Z-Factor

Georgia fans have been anticipating Zamir White’s debut since his pivotal commitment in 2017. Remember – at the time he was Georgia’s highest-rated tailback commitment of the internet era. Two major knee injuries have pumped the brakes on any next-Herschel (or even next-Chubb) hype, but the idea that someone that good is on the roster and might be able to contribute has been enticing enough to keep the what-ifs alive in the back of our minds.

Reports out of camp have been promising with White showing a physical running style and no lingering effects from his injuries. Nearly every Georgia back has been lauded this offseason for his pass catching ability out of the backfield, and White has held his own there. There’s no need to rush him into 20 carries per game, but there also seems to be no reason why he shouldn’t be a part of the gameplan from the start. We should be confident enough in Brian Herrien’s ability to give Swift some relief, but Zamir White anywhere near his original strength gives Georgia a legitimate 1A and 1B punch in the backfield and suddenly makes this unit look fairly deep. It would allow the coaches some flexibility with Cook, put less of a load on Swift (who himself has battled injuries), and let the coaches approach the tailback rotation strategically.

White’s 2019 could even have ripple effects beyond the current team. Georgia currently has one five-star tailback committed and, according to reports, is near the top of the list for a second. It wouldn’t be the first time Georgia signed two five-star tailbacks (White himself along with James Cook were such a duo), but it would be unprecedented with White and Cook still on the roster. It’s not unthinkable that any prospective tailback commitment will be watching White and Cook for a sense of how crowded things might be at the top of the depth chart in 2020 if D’Andre Swift goes pro.


Georgia, according to Rivals, has put together three straight top three signing classes (and two straight #1 classes). Quibble about the exact rankings, but there is arguably more talent now in Athens than at any point in the program’s history. How does that increased talent level begin to manifest itself? Georgia has always had standout players and NFL-quality talent. The difference now is in depth. We saw an example of that depth last year when a player of the quality of Cade Mays could step in when Andrew Thomas had to leave the South Carolina game. We saw defensive backs Eric Stokes and Otis Reese push and even unseat starters during the season.

Depth offers you both of those luxuries: options when inevitable injuries occur and continuous competition that reinforces standards. We’ve already seen competition shuffle things around in the preseason. Hopefully we won’t have to discover how resilient the team’s depth is to injuries.

Since we started with Alabama, we’ll finish there too. Georgia’s collapses on both sides of the ball in the fourth quarter have led to narrow losses in the past two meetings with the Tide. Key injuries – Wims in 2017 and Walker in 2018 – couldn’t be overcome. This is where you expect to see depth show up. Will the team be able to rotate players throughout the season to have something in the tank for the postseason? Will more position groups develop players ready to step in with minimal loss of production if a starter is unavailable? Georgia should now be deep enough that you don’t have to stretch to get the right 11 on the field for most any situation, and not many teams can say that.

Post Cry havoc…

Monday August 19, 2019

Any preview of the Georgia defense this year must include one word: havoc. Coaches and players usually aren’t that willing to volunteer details about what they’re working on, but this season’s focus on creating more havoc has been an exception. That’s not as vapid as saying the defense’s objective is to keep the offense from scoring; being more intentional about havoc implies certain adjustments to scheme and a willingness to take a few more chances. It’s willing to put one of Georgia’s 2018 defensive strengths at risk and suggests that the staff might have a little more faith in the 2019 secondary.

What is “havoc rate?”

Yes, “havoc” is a measurable thing and has been a part of the emerging advanced stats developed by Bill Connolly and others. Connolly writes that havoc rate is “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up).

But does a good havoc rate go hand-in-hand with a good defense?

Not exactly, but it doesn’t hurt. Here’s the 2018 defensive advanced stats for college football. Only four of the top 10 defenses by S&P+ had top 10 havoc rates. The rest rated 20 or below, and over 40 teams had havoc rates better than three of the top 10 defenses.

Then again, nine of the defenses with top 10 havoc rates rated no worse than 21st in defensive S&P+. The outlier? Resurgent UAB had the sixth-best havoc rate in the nation but rated 45th in defensive S&P+. The Blazers demonstrated to the extreme the give-and-take of havoc: they were #1 in success rate, #2 in front 7 havoc, and #6 in overall havoc. But they were #112 in IsoPPP – a measure of effectiveness against explosive plays. UAB was aggressive up front and often successful, but they were extremely prone to getting burned by big plays.

I think the takeaway here is that there is more than one way to play effective defense. Still, if you look at the teams Georgia considers its peers – Clemson and Alabama – there’s no mistaking dominant defenses featuring a high havoc rate led by disruptive defensive fronts. You had just better be able to cover well behind that front.

Georgia was 73rd in havoc rate in 2018. That’s bad, right?

Again, Georgia had a top 10 defense by S&P+, so the lack of havoc wasn’t crippling. It’s just not how Kirby Smart prefers to play defense. In a way, it’s a credit to the coaching staff that they were able to adjust the defensive scheme last season to get a fairly effective season out of a rebuilding roster. By dialing back aggressive playcalling, Georgia was top 3 in IsoPPP, passing S&P+, and passing down S&P+. They kept things largely in front of them, didn’t give up big plays, and made opposing offenses work. Even when teams were able to move the ball on Georgia, the Bulldog offense (rated #3 in S&P+) was much more often than not able to put enough points on the board to make up the difference.

There were weaknesses in that approach though. Without many lost yardage plays, teams could generally stay ahead of the chains against Georgia, and the Dawgs had a mediocre defensive success rating of 63rd and were 53rd in rushing S&P+. We saw that softness against the run at some key moments last year. Even at Missouri, the Tigers were kept out of the endzone through the air but still made things interesting by running the ball with surprising success. That was a choice by Georgia to take away the big passing plays on which Drew Lock and the Mizzou offense thrived. Fortunately not too many Georgia opponents in 2018 had the firepower to force Georgia into that kind of a choice.

So what’s Georgia’s plan?

As with any defensive scheme, it begins up front. A defensive line without much push by definition won’t have many havoc plays (sacks and tackles for loss). A veteran group with a few key pieces getting healthy should help. Developing underclassmen like Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and Malik Herring will be key. Travon Walker could have the kind of impact Davis had a year ago as a freshman. Collectively they must improve at taking on the offensive line and getting a push into the backfield.

Behind that line is one of Georgia’s more talented and deep units. The Dawgs have recruited as well at linebacker, especially outside linebacker, than most other positions. In a 3-4 base defense (granting that Georgia plays more nickel than anything), many of your havoc plays will come from the linebacker position. While the defensive line occupies blockers, explosive linebackers can attack. Roquan Smith is obviously the model here, and that’s why so much attention has been paid to Monty Rice’s health and the arrival of Nakobe Dean. The guys on the edge have as much to do with it, and getting more production from the insanely talented outside linebackers will have as much as anything to do with improved havoc rate. A more aggressive approach from this group against Alabama was effective, and getting to Tua Tagovailoa led to sacks and turnovers until D’Andre Walker was injured.

The secondary has an important role to play if you want to avoid the UAB scenario of getting torched in the name of creating havoc. Coaches won’t be as willing to be aggressive up front if they’re not confident in their safety net. The four (or five) defensive backs can’t allow explosive plays. That means pass coverage, yes, but it also means sure tackling to prevent small gains from turning into bigger ones. That wasn’t always a strong point of Georgia’s defense in 2018, especially at safety. This unit will have its own role in havoc: if the front seven are creating pressure, you would expect a quarterback under duress to make more mistakes and create opportunities for interceptions.

Even the offense can help. If Georgia is able to establish early leads, the opponent’s offense becomes more predictable. Georgia can leave its pass rushers on the field, play coverage schemes that might be a little more vulnerable to the run, and get after the quarterback.

Since we have metrics for these things now, the defense’s progress won’t be hard to track. We’ll see it in more traditional stats like turnovers, tackles for loss, and sacks, but “havoc rate” is what we’re really looking for. It will also be worth keeping an eye on IsoPPP to see whether the defense can continue to limit explosive plays as well as they did a year ago. With an improved havoc rate and sustained success against big plays, Georgia would take the step forward on defense that could get the team over the top this year.

Post Georgia’s 2020 football schedule

Saturday August 10, 2019

The SEC released its 2020 football schedule earlier this week. Georgia’s schedule has two items that were big enough to compete with 2019 preseason coverage. First was confirmation that, yes, the Auburn game would leave its traditional November slot for an early October date. The big story was that the Bulldogs would open SEC play on the road in Tuscaloosa as Alabama rotates on to Georgia’s schedule. The two most recent regular season meetings haven’t gone so well for the Dawgs, but Georgia has taken the past two meetings in Tuscaloosa.

It’s a good thing that the Alabama game will take place so early in the season as its build-up has the potential to suck all of the air out of the room, especially if the two teams meet yet again in the 2019 postseason. Both teams will be able to put it behind them and get on with the rest of their season. We’ll hear plenty about that game during the offseason. It’s possible that both teams will have new quarterbacks, and there are a zillion other storylines about that game we’ll have plenty of time to get to after, you know, the actual 2019 season staring us in the face.

Some other quick thoughts about the 2020 schedule before we shelve it for the next six months:

1. I’m glad Blutarsky brought this up because I was struggling with a way to put it. The early placement of the Alabama-Georgia game is ideal for the conference’s chances of having two playoff teams. The loser of the game will have plenty of time in which to climb back up the polls before a possible rematch in December. At the same time, a loss will leave one of those teams with little margin for error for the rest of their season within their own division.

2. Not only does Georgia open the SEC slate at Alabama, that trip to Tuscaloosa will also be Georgia’s third game in 12 days. The season opener in Atlanta against Virginia is on Labor Day (Monday). It will be interesting to see how the staff manages the ETSU game. On one hand, you want the team sharp and rounding into form for the season’s biggest game. On the other hand, you might need an opportunity to rest players moreso than usual after a game just five days earlier.

3. You can pencil in October 3rd (Vanderbilt) as Homecoming.

4. Every couple of years we’ll get a schedule that takes Georgia away from Athens for over a month. With only six home games on the schedule, Georgia will go from October 10th through November 14th without a game in Athens.

5. Yes, the shift in the Auburn game will take some getting used to. It also means that Georgia will have its SEC West obligations out of the way by early October. Georgia closes the conference schedule with five straight SEC East games and won’t play its second game in the division until the second half of the season. In fact, it looks as if the SEC has set up many of its biggest intra-divisonal games for late in the season. From weeks 9 through 13 you have Georgia-Florida, Georgia-Tennessee, LSU-Alabama, LSU-Auburn, Auburn-Alabama, Alabama-Texas A&M, and LSU-Texas A&M. November 2020 should be fun.

6. I was disappointed to see the Kentucky game move back to November. There was some hope based on the 2019 schedule that we’d have an October trip to Lexington. An early autumn trip with Fall Meet going on at Keeneland used to be one of the highlights for Road Dawgs, but it’s not going to happen next year.

Post The 84 that will start preseason camp

Thursday August 1, 2019

Preseason camp opens on Friday, and we’ll get our first practices with the complete 2019 roster. 14 members of the incoming class went through spring practice, and the rest of the class arrived earlier in the summer for offseason workouts. There’s been some additional attrition since spring, but by and large the team that reports will be intact. Returning players made grades, and all incoming players qualified.

Georgia is, by my count, at 84 scholarship players entering camp. They were at the limit of 85 until early June when JJ Holloman was dismissed. Kirby Smart will likely use that scholarship to expand the size of the 2020 class, but it might also mean that a senior walk-on earns a full ride this year. Then again, Ahkil Crumpton didn’t join the 2017 squad until August, so it’s possible that Smart is still out there beating the bushes to find a late transfer to use that open scholarship. Stay tuned.

I like using the “recruiting roster” format below to get a quick sense of how the talent on the team is distributed across classes and positions.

The first thing you’ll notice is how the roster is weighted towards the left side of the table – 50 of the 84 have at least three years of eligibility remaining. That’s not a shock – with early enrollment and the transfer portal, all teams are young teams now. When you’ve recruited this well, just about anyone could be called on to play. That’s especially true of the defense – Ojulari and Wilson were the only defensive newcomers redshirted last year, and they were injured. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the majority of Georgia’s team now comes from the 2018 and 2019 classes rated #1 in the nation by some recruiting services.

It looks like a relatively small senior class, but we can expect that group to be augmented by some juniors declaring for the draft, particularly on offense. Pretty much every position group on offense other than TE has potential junior pro prospects. We have a whole season to play before fretting about 2020, but if Fromm and Swift declare for the draft, Georgia’s skill positions will be light on upperclassmen. It’s a problem for down the road, but there could be a fairly large leadership vacuum (and opportunity!) on the offense in 2020.

For now though it’s an impressive looking group. Georgia is starting to accumulate nice depth across the board. Barring injuries, the Dawgs might not have to lean on true freshmen as much as they have in the past couple of years. Some like George Pickens and Nolan Smith might be ready sooner than others, but the staff can plug these newcomers in when it makes sense and not because there are no other options.

(Possible Day-One starters are in bold – just a best guess using the post-spring depth chart from UGASports.com. [R] indicates a player who has redshirted.)

Years of Eligibility Remaining
  4 3 2 1
QB D’wan Mathis Stetson Bennett Jake Fromm  
RB Kenny McIntosh
Zamir White [R]
James Cook D’Andre Swift Brian Herrien
TE Ryland Goede
John FitzPatrick [R]
Brett Seither
    Charlie Woerner
Eli Wolf
WR Dominick Blaylock
Tommy Bush [R]
Kearis Jackson [R]
George Pickens
Matt Landers Trey Blount
Demetris Robertson
Lawrence Cager
Tyler Simmons
OL Owen Condon
Warren Ericson [R]
Warren McClendon
Xavier Truss
Clay Webb
Trey Hill
Cade Mays
Jamaree Salyer
Isaiah Wilson [R]
Ben Cleveland [R]
Solomon Kindley [R]
Justin Shaffer
Andrew Thomas
D’Marcus Hayes
DL Zion Logue
Tymon Mitchell
Bill Norton
Travon Walker
Jordan Davis
Netori Johnson
Tramel Walthour
Malik Herring
Devonte Wyatt
Justin Young [R]
Michael Barnett
Michail Carter
Tyler Clark
David Marshall
Julian Rochester
LB Rian Davis
Nakobe Dean
Trezmen Marshall
Azeez Ojulari [R]
Nolan Smith
Adam Anderson
Robert Beal
Brenton Cox
Channing Tindall
Quay Walker
Walter Grant
Jermaine Johnson
Nate McBride
Monty Rice
Tae Crowder
DB Lewis Cine
Tyrique Stevenson
Makiya Tongue
Divaad Wilson [R]
Latavious Brini
Tyson Campbell
Otis Reese
Christopher Smith
Ameer Speed
Eric Stokes
DJ Daniel
Richard LeCounte
William Poole
Mark Webb
Tyrique McGhee
J.R. Reed
Specialists   Jake Camarda   Rodrigo Blankenship
28 22 19 15

Post Getting to 70

Thursday August 1, 2019

As practice opens on Friday, we’ll have the usual questions to answer: who steps up to replace the players no longer on the team, who will start, and which newcomers are ready to contribute right away.

A recent UGASports.com podcast reminded me that the schedule presents another preseason question Georgia hasn’t had to deal with in several years: Georgia opens on the road for the first time since 2013 and opens with a road conference game for the first time since 1994. Why does that matter? Georgia can only travel 70 players to Nashville. At least 14 scholarship players won’t make the trip, and that number could be higher if walk-ons are needed for special teams or depth (like a third quarterback.)

That limit means that the travel roster, or at least its first draft, has to be settled in preseason camp. The job isn’t just identifying starters or even the two-deep. The staff must also form personnel groups, special teams units, and select kick returners from that 70.

Coaches won’t have a home game or even a road/neutral nonconference game in which to evaluate the roster before deciding who makes the cut. All of that work must be done in August, and the 28 newcomers or redshirted players won’t have long to make an impression. For those who aren’t established starters it creates a little more urgency to stand out over the next four weeks.

Injuries will do some of the deciding for the coaches. Players like Rian Davis and Ryland Goede who are working back from knee surgeries will likely be scratches. Georgia will have the luxury of redshirting several incoming offensive and defensive linemen, so they’ll also be candidates to miss the trip. Those newcomers who enrolled early and went through spring drills will probably have a leg up over those newcomers who didn’t arrive until June. Still, at some of the unsettled positions like receiver and defensive back, the opportunity to make the 70 is wide open.

No, it’s not as critical as it might be if Georgia were opening with Auburn. It does set a bit of a pecking order and sets the bar for those who didn’t make the roster. As we know with this staff, nothing is set in stone from week to week, and there will be plenty of time in September for other players to make their case. After Vanderbilt the team will have over a month at home to evaluate and refine its travel list before the next road game at Tennessee, and we might expect to see a slightly different 70 make that trip.