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Post 2020-2021 Georgia men’s basketball schedule

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Tom Crean’s first two seasons was the reengagement of the program with Georgia basketball fans. Challenged by Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set a record for attendance in 2018-2019. Even with the season circling the drain, Georgia’s crowds remained respectable and engaged. (Sometimes even a bit too engaged.) Fans understood it would be a transitional season, and wins over Georgia Tech and Florida were welcome accomplishments in a season without much to cheer about.

That enthusiasm continued into the 2019-2020 season. Bolstered by the arrival of Anthony Edwards, Georgia basketball remained an attraction. In a game that kind of summed up the season, Georgia put on a nationally-televised show against Kentucky for a prime time ESPN audience with rappers and NBA stars courtside but fell short on the scoreboard. Even with a lottery pick and another pro prospect in Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia managed a scant five SEC wins last season.

The fans did their part. But in Crean’s third season, there will be no record crowds. COVID-19 protocols will limit attendance inside Stegeman Coliseum to 1,700 fans. That’s around 10% of capacity – much less than the 20-25% capacity at Sanford Stadium due to the need for greater spacing indoors.

Without record-setting crowds, the focus will be more on the basketball, and that might not be as pleasant of a thought. Georgia will again turn over more than half the roster, and there’s no lottery pick among the newcomers this time. Georgia doesn’t have a player on the preseason all-SEC teams, and the Dawgs were picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams. The season is bound to be unpredictable and chaotic, but the expectations are for Crean to finally build some continuity and depth for future seasons.

The 2020-2021 men’s basketball schedule:

MBB schedule

Post Georgia 31 – Miss. St. 24: An impressive debut saves the day

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Saturday’s broadcast team aptly compared Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to the triple option. They’re schematically night-and-day of course, but the point is that unconventional offenses are designed to make defenses think and hesitate. That hesitation puts stress on individual assignments and allows the offense to repeatedly and effectively attack weak spots. It might be the numbing four yards over and over from the fullback dive in the option, or it might be the easy seven yards from the mesh route or other short routes in front of a soft zone in the Air Raid. If you get impatient over-adjust to take away what’s working, the offenses have counters designed to burn you for explosive plays.

If it was odd for us to see Georgia’s aggressive defense rushing only three while everyone else dropped back, imagine how it must have been for the defenders. At least coaches had learned to work on Tech’s option in small increments from preseason camp on through the season. What we saw Saturday was an alignment that had just been put in since they learned that the Missouri game was off. Dan Lanning admitted to the broadcast crew that Georgia would be using some calls they hadn’t used all season to defend the unique MSU system.

The result was typical of defenders being unsure and tentative. Georgia’s players have had two weeks to stew after being humbled by Florida’s passing game. The defense hesitated in their unfamiliar assignments and were a step slow closing to the ball. Mississippi State found these soft spots in front of Georgia’s zone and were content to exploit the passive defense to methodically work down the field. When Georgia was more aggressive with its pressure, MSU responded with a long scoring pass over man coverage.

Fortunately Georgia didn’t completely abandon its defensive game plan and further expose weaknesses in man pass coverage. It just had to trust its talent to be quicker to the ball. MSU was effective sustaining first half drives by using success on early downs to set up short yardage on third downs. Georgia’s improvement was subtle: MSU didn’t complete fewer passes; they got fewer yards from those completions. Following the touchdown that tied the game at 24, MSU’s average third down distance the rest of the game was 6.5 yards. That longer distance allowed Georgia’s pass rush specialists to have more time to reach the quarterback and keep MSU off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

I lead with the defense rather than the breakthrough debut of J.T. Daniels because it’s easy for the latter to overshadow a point that will be one of the takeaways from this season. A defense billed as the nation’s best is far from that. A roster full of elite recruits was pushed to the limit by a team that barely scraped together enough players to make the trip. Georgia’s defensive brain trust was outschemed for the second time in as many games. True, MSU presented some unique challenges, but it’s not as if this defense had been performing well against other teams with competent passing attacks. It’s more than the reality of facing modern high-output offenses. It’s more than key injuries. You can understand some growing pains from an offense replacing its coordinator and nine of eleven starters. The underperforming defense, especially against the pass, has been a more troubling development.

The debut of Daniels was the highlight, and Georgia needed every big play. While MSU was effective creating short yardage situations on third down, Georgia’s struggles running the ball put Daniels and the offense in many obvious passing situations. It was on Daniels and the receivers to win one-on-one battles to convert and move the ball, and they were up to the job. Jermaine Burton was the standout with 197 yards and 2 TD, but he wasn’t alone. George Pickens caught Daniels’s first pass and tied Burton with 8 receptions. His 87 yards were a season high. Kearis Jackson and Demetris Robertson combined for 100 yards. Daniels helped to show that, yes, Georgia does have talent at receiver, and Todd Monken’s passing game can do some real damage.

It wasn’t a flawless start for Daniels, and that’s not surprising for someone seeing his first action in over a year. He missed a linebacker who had stepped into the passing lane of a slant. He held onto the ball too long on some early pass plays. Even some of his more successful deep balls were underthrown. That’s a byproduct of re-learning to trust his injured knee and getting the footwork right. As that comes around, he should have even better touch on those deeper passes. Accuracy and power on shorter passes wasn’t a problem. The touchdown to Pickens was a pro-quality pass. It was only a four-yard reception, but Daniels had to roll right from the far hash and place the ball low and away where only Pickens could go get it. Daniels gained confidence as the game progressed, and that was the kind of success Georgia needed from the passing game to feel better about closing out the season.

The running game was a different story. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense made it difficult to establish running lanes and often brought safeties up for a very full box. Daniels said he had the ability to check out of bad plays, but he surely doesn’t have the practice or game experience yet to do much more than the most basic of audibles. MSU wisely sent run blitzes at Georgia’s bread-and-butter running plays, and even outside tosses weren’t especially effective against those kinds of numbers. It didn’t help that Georgia’s offensive line had a poor showing. The interior line, especially Hill and Shaffer, struggled with the lighter but more agile MSU defensive front, and backs were often met behind the line of scrimmage. Georgia attempted 23 runs, and MSU finished with 11 tackles for loss.

I don’t fault Georgia for continuing to run into this front – you can’t completely abandon weapons like White and Cook, and sadly the Georgia defense needed some time in between long MSU possessions. But MSU’s control of the Georgia running game left frequent one-on-one coverage downfield, and Georgia wasn’t so stubborn as to take frequent shots to attack those matchups. It’s not a pleasant thought to think about the outcome of this game without that downfield threat in the Georgia passing game. Even if Bennett put in a performance on par with his Auburn game, it still might not have been enough. The opportunities for Georgia’s offense were downfield, and Daniels seems to be the only quarterback on the roster who can reliably hit those passes.

It feels a bit backwards – Georgia seems relatively settled at quarterback now while the defense will be doing some long-term soul searching into the offseason. This year has taught us not to look that far ahead, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than Daniels started the Clemson game that opens the 2021 season. (Not a knock on Brock Vandagriff – that’s just not the game for the debut of a true freshman if you can help it. We’ll leave the Fromm/Fields sequel angst for next season.) Kirby Smart faced the inevitable questions about waiting too long to play Daniels, but both he and the Daniels family explained it well. The J.T. Daniels we saw Saturday was the product of several months of practice, rehab, and individual work, and inserting him earlier in the season might have produced a much less impressive result. I get the frustration of what-if, and it would have been much nicer had the timing worked out two months ago rather than now, but even now Daniels still isn’t all the way back in terms of footwork or comfort. You saw the confidence growing as the game went on, and we should look forward to how he continues to develop. It’s nice to know there’s something to work with.

  • Full credit to Mississippi State for going forward with the game. They were shorthanded, but those who made the trip were clearly focused and invested. We talk about bowl games in terms of motivation, and MSU came to Athens ready to play. As Mike Leach said, it was his team’s best performance of the season, and that says something about them given the state of their season at this point.
  • You don’t want to go overboard excusing away some of Georgia’s issues as a lack of engagement. Still, this was a team that had just suffered a bad loss to a rival that took the season’s goals off the table. That might explain why the coaches were amenable to the black jerseys for this game – as I wrote last week, “there haven’t been many opportunities to simply have fun and enjoy a season that’s been disrupted since the spring, and any little gesture can help a team pull together and get through the remaining schedule.” Now that the black jersey card has been played, is there anything left to get through the rest of the season? The buzz of a more exciting big-play offense might just do it.
  • MSU’s offensive approach helped its defense overcome its numbers disadvantage. Long drives consumed clock and kept the MSU defense fresh. Even if Georgia expected to pound on and tire out the MSU defense in the usual “make them quit” approach, the Dawgs didn’t have the ball long enough to make MSU pay for their thin bench.
  • One of the few downsides to playing Daniels is in the running game. He isn’t nearly the threat to run or scramble the way Mathis or even Bennett was. That allows the defense to cheat on inside zone runs where a more mobile quarterback might choose to keep the ball.
  • The tailbacks didn’t have their most productive games, but they found other ways to contribute. Important blitz pickups by Cook and McIntosh gave Daniels the time to take some of those downfield shots.
  • I love when a team is able to bookend halftime with scoring drives. Alabama did it to Georgia, and it was Georgia’s turn on Saturday. The Dawgs were able to flip the game from a 17-10 deficit to a 24-17 lead without Mississippi State having the ball.
  • The first half had a flow of a tennis match with each team holding serve. That made you more than a little nervous in the second half when Georgia was unable to score on consecutive possessions after MSU tied the game at 24. Fortunately the Georgia defense started to come around at the same time and forced two straight three-and-outs before the Dawgs mounted the game-winning drive.
  • It’s bound to be a frustrating day for defensive linemen against a quick-release passer, but I like what I saw from Carter and Walker. But it’s clear how much the team misses Davis as a hole-plugger in the middle. MSU’s goal line rushing touchdowns had very little resistance gashing the interior of Georgia’s defense.

Ordinarily in a big upset you can point to something extraordinary that happened. Yes, Georgia had some dumb personal fouls, and the “outside the tackle box” decision was laughable, but there was no implosion. This didn’t follow the pattern of the 2019 loss to South Carolina. Georgia made its lone field goal attempt and, one short punt aside, had solid special teams play. Neither team turned the ball over. It’s a little concerning that Mississippi State found itself hanging around without any of the catastrophes you’d typically point to when a 20+ point favorite has to sweat. It was much more mundane than that, and it’s more difficult to process when you can’t point to something obvious and one-off like four turnovers. Georgia’s issues – whether inconsistent offensive line play or weak pass defense – are more persistent. We’re past the point of the season where improvement might preserve the season’s goals. With that in mind, it’s going to be positive developments like the emergence of Daniels and Burton that allow us to take something positive from what’s left of the 2020 season.

Post Homecoming 2020

Friday November 20, 2020

Believe it or not, it’s Homecoming Weekend at Georgia. No, there’s no parade and no halftime coronation. But there is a Homecoming Court, and the school and Alumni Association are doing their best to host virtual events even as students prepare to vacate campus for the holiday week. Such is life in 2020 – everything requires a bit of extra flexibility and creativity.

It’s a homecoming for the football team too. It’s been over a month since Georgia played in Sanford Stadium, and just a thing or two has changed since the Dawgs ended Tennessee’s winning streak and looked ahead to the start of their long stretch away from home. We’ve seen a rash of injuries, had the schedule shuffled twice by the pandemic, and had the quarterback position thrown into disarray. We’ve seen a top 4 team drop two games and fall out of the top 10. We’ve see Georgia supplanted atop the SEC East by Florida, ending hopes of another division title and playoff shot. In short, it hasn’t been a great six weeks away from home. These are the big issues facing the program as they attempt to salvage the final three or four games of the regular season and hopefully avoid a disastrous loss.

Quarterback crisis: Stetson Bennett entered the Alabama game as a sudden celebrity. There were glowing features about his rise from obscurity to become Georgia’s starter, and he had guided Georgia to three SEC wins to start the season. Since that trip to Tuscaloosa, Bennett’s grip on the starting job has become less of a feel-good story and more of a symptom of a second-straight season of underperforming Georgia offense. Bennett has six interceptions against just three touchdown passes over the last three games, and he has completed less than 50% of his passes over that stretch. A shoulder injury to Bennett against Florida led coaches to give D’Wan Mathis another shot under center, and the results weren’t much better. Bennett is still not completely back from that shoulder injury, and there’s unsubstantiated buzz that Mathis might be getting a look at receiver. That leaves…

The debut of J.T. Daniels? Even before Bennett strengthened his hold on the starting job in the Auburn and Tennessee games, fans wondered when we’d see Southern Cal transfer J.T. Daniels get his shot. Daniels received medical clearance early in the season, but that doesn’t mean he was physically or mentally ready to play. Kirby Smart has downplayed the inevitability of playing Daniels, saying only that Daniels continued to work and improve. The injury to Bennett and an unexpected week off gave coaches the opportunity to reevaluate the roster, and Daniels has reportedly seen his share of snaps with the starting unit. Does that mean Daniels will start on Saturday? Not necessarily. But if he doesn’t, as Blutarsky concludes, it would be a depressing statement about Georgia’s talent at the most important position in modern football.

Injury tent: The Bulldogs have battled injuries on both sides of the ball, and those setbacks have changed the look of the team. Leading receiver George Pickens missed the past two games. Tailbacks Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton have been dinged up and missed time. Various linemen haven’t been able to finish games, and of course Bennett’s injury cut short a promising start in Jacksonville. But the defensive side of the ball has been hit the hardest. Nose tackle Jordan Davis went out early in the Kentucky game, and the interior defense hasn’t been the same since. Monty Rice has played through a foot injury at less than 100%. The secondary played most of the Florida game without either starting safety, and Richard LeCounte might not play again this season. Hopefully Lewis Cine will return, but it’s still a dinged-up unit.

Defensive fatal flaw? Georgia came into the season boasting significant returning experience from a dominant 2019 defense, but the unit has struggled to live up to its billing as the nation’s best. Advanced stats still like the Dawgs: ESPN’s SP+ rates the defense #1. That said, Kirby Smart’s scheme and lineup has been lit up by the two best offenses on the schedule, and injuries have only been part of the story. The defense has helped its stats by keeping teams like Auburn and Kentucky out of the endzone, but it wasn’t able to slow down – much less affect the outcome – of decisive games against Florida and Alabama.

What’s changed? This tweet illustrates what you’ve seen with your own eyes. The explosive play is shredding an otherwise decent unit. We’ve even seen the big play do damage in Georgia’s wins: Arkansas jumped out ahead on a long pass play. Tennessee built a halftime lead with two long scores. Those offenses weren’t good enough to sustain the barrage. Florida’s and Alabama’s offenses were. Georgia’s pass rush has been effective at generating pressure, but if the quarterback is able to get the pass off, big gains (or interference penalties) have too often been the result. That’s an unsettling feeling going into a game against an opponent that likes to throw 60+ times per game.

What next? Yes, we’re in a situation the program hasn’t faced since 2016. Sure, Florida could slip up and lose to two of Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky, and LSU. Hope springs eternal! Realistically Georgia is going to have to find a different motivation with which to finish out the season. This is an especially precarious year, and we’ve even seen SEC players decide to pack it in with games left to play. Georgia might not have had any players opt out, but it’s not hard for the same “what’s the point?” mentality to take root in any program that’s essentially out of the playoff conversation. That’s why I’m not downplaying talk of things like black jerseys – there haven’t been many opportunities to simply have fun and enjoy a season that’s been disrupted since the spring, and any little gesture can help a team pull together and get through the remaining schedule.

Georgia will be heavily favored in its remaining games. Let’s say it – a loss (or even a nailbiter) in any of them on top of the previous two losses would mean trouble. Ideally, the upcoming month will be a time of growth. Perhaps the new offense will finally begin to realize its potential led by a different quarterback. Perhaps some younger players will see more time than they did during the closer early-season games. Perhaps Georgia will right the ship, get some injured players back, and finish 8-2 to earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. We can work with that and reset for a more complete and normal 2021 season. But with no end to the weekly uncertainty, players opting out, and injuries mounting, it might be enough to ask that the team gets the opportunity to finish out the season at all.