Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Georgia 62 – Vanderbilt 0: Play ’em all

Wednesday September 29, 2021

SEC rules allow teams to travel 70 players to road games. 68 of Georgia’s 70 saw action in Saturday’s 62-0 demolition of Vanderbilt. The roster sheet my wife brought had a harder workout than several of Georgia’s starters. The only available Bulldogs who didn’t play? Tailback Kendall Milton was reportedly nursing a banged-up shoulder. He was dressed and went through warmups, but there was no need to risk injury. Georgia brought four quarterbacks, but Brock Vandagriff didn’t enter the game. Apparently Carson Beck needed experience handing off.

There’s not much you can take from a game between a very good team and a very, very overmatched one – even by typical Vanderbilt standards. Games like this one are the reason coaches harp on playing to a standard. Did Georgia approach the game the right way? Did they execute well? I’m sure the staff will find coaching points even from this film, but largely the answers were “yes.” Georgia came out sharp for an 11AM local kickoff, took immediate control of the game, and didn’t allow Vanderbilt to muddy the outcome while emptying the bench. Georgia did what it was supposed to, sure, but it was even more impressive than the astronomical 35-point spread led us to expect.

The first quarter was a symphony of offense, defense, and special teams working together to produce 35 points. Vanderbilt didn’t manage a first down until Georgia had scored five touchdowns. The unrelenting defense, a Christopher Smith interception, and a Daijun Edwards fumble return on a kickoff set Georgia’s starting offense up with outstanding field position. Three of Georgia’s early scoring drives started in plus territory, and it wasn’t until Georgia’s fifth possession that the Bulldogs had to drive more than 70 yards. J.T. Daniels was locked in and completed 8 of 9 passes with a single drop to take advantage of the favorable field position. Georgia’s diversified offense scored on a pass to the tight end, a tight end jet sweep, a reverse to a receiver, a power run at the goal line, and a well-placed fade to the back of the endzone. That was enough for Daniels: he exited the game after the first quarter, and the pipeline of backups started flowing into the game.

Vanderbilt’s 77 total yards is a tidy way to sum up the Georgia defense’s afternoon. What impressed me more is that only 27 of those yards came after halftime. Georgia played every defender that boarded the plane, and the reserves maintained the level of play. Vanderbilt didn’t manage a second half first down until their final series of the game. It’s easy to lose focus after such a decisive start, and that might’ve happened towards the end of the first quarter. Vanderbilt’s backup quarterback Mike Wright got Robert Beal in the air with a pump fake and scrambled away as Tramel Walthour was caught inside. Combined with a personal foul against Jalen Carter and Vanderbilt had their biggest gain of the day to move inside of Georgia territory. Wright had another successful run on a 3rd and 8 where Georgia defenders bit on a fake toss and left a lane up the middle. Georgia’s defense quickly refocused. Wright tried a few more fake tosses and option plays and was stuffed, and the Commodores had no other play longer than 10 yards.

There was no statement to be made in this game. We know Georgia’s defense is excellent, and they showed us again. J.T. Daniels proved that his injury wasn’t a big deal against South Carolina, and he again looked to be in complete command of the offense. Brock Bowers has been showing out since the Clemson game. Perhaps the continued emergence of Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey is noteworthy. But once Georgia made it clear that they weren’t going to mess around and make this a close game, the only statement that could be made was about Georgia’s overwhelming talent advantage up and down the bench.

  • The 2006 Vanderbilt win in Athens was the weekend I picked to propose to my future bride. Jalen Carter must have a similar unpleasant memory of Vanderbilt from earlier in his life. I don’t know what they did to hurt him, but he definitely got some anger out. I never saw what drew his personal foul in person or on the replay, but it couldn’t have been much worse than what he was doing the rest of the game.
  • Kelee Ringo has come a long way in just four games. He was in position for several pass break-ups without the contact that drew flags against Clemson. He doesn’t seem likely to give up his starting spot.
  • As impressive as Ringo was early on, Kamari Lassiter was all over the field in the second half. His play (and interception) had a lot to do with Vanderbilt’s meager second half yardage. With Jalen Kimber out for the season, Lassiter will be one of the first defensive backs off the bench.
  • So happy for Robert Beal. He decided to return to the team rather than transfer, and he’s seeing valuable minutes off the bench among a very deep group of players. His hard hit on special teams led to Vanderbilt’s kick return fumble, and he recorded Georgia’s lone sack of the game.
  • With Georgia already well out in front at that point, I was hoping Daijun Edwards would get a carry to finish off his fumble return. He nearly dragged the entire Vanderbilt kick return unit with him to the four yard line.
  • Jake Camarda picked a good day for an off day. Punting from one’s own endzone is a different animal – the main job is to just get the punt off – but neither of his late punts had his usual distance. Kickoffs were a similar story. I wondered if the coaches might just be working on kick coverage, but Kirby Smart’s postgame comments made it clear that the shorter kickoffs weren’t intentional.
  • That said, Vanderbilt’s kick returns were horror shows. The yardage they lost by not simply taking a fair catch on every kick might approach their offense’s total yardage gained.
  • It was good for Stetson Bennett to get two solid drives to start the second half. Georgia moved the ball in the second quarter but came up empty in the red zone. Bennett’s interception was the third of three straight passes that could have been picked. The first drew a pass interference flag, but Cook was open underneath. The second pass was a quick receiver screen, but FitzPatrick missed a block that nearly allowed a defender to step in front of the pass.
  • I credit Vandy’s Clark Lea with not attempting a cheap field goal at the end to deny Georgia a shutout. He essentially conceded the game with a draw on 4th-and-long. His team was simply overmatched. Lea has a tough job ahead of him, but it’s where he wants to be.
  • The crowd was overwhelmingly red of course, and Vanderbilt’s only presence was the ridiculously loud video board. But some pregame showers, the 11 AM local kickoff time, and Georgia’s early onslaught made for a fairly subdued crowd. Perhaps the loudest moment of the game came on Vanderbilt’s final fourth down attempt as the remaining crowd stirred to life to cheer on Georgia’s reserve defenders.

Post Georgia 40 – South Carolina 13: A return to fun

Thursday September 23, 2021

Two years ago South Carolina beat Georgia in a shocking overtime upset in front of a sleepy noon Sanford Stadium crowd. Kirby Smart took responsibility, admitting that he didn’t do a good job of “getting (their) ass ready to play.” South Carolina only mustered one touchdown on offense and had to finish the game with their third-string quarterback. It was enough though – Georgia turnovers, including a pick-six at the end of the first half, and the stagnant 2019 Georgia offense made it an uphill fight just to send the game into overtime. The story of the game and, as it turned out, the season was the evaporation of explosive plays from the Georgia offense. The big plays, especially in the running game, that had come to define Georgia in 2017 and 2018, all but vanished. So it was in Georgia’s lone regular season loss: “South Carolina more or less hit only one big play in the game – their lone offensive touchdown – and that was enough to finish with a better explosiveness metric (IsoPPP) than Georgia.”

All of the elements of the 2019 loss – a sluggish team, the sleepy crowd, and an inexplosive offense – were nowhere to be found in the 2021 rematch. Georgia’s focus was clear with precise scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions. Both of those scores came on explosive plays: James Cook ripped off the team’s longest run of the season, and J.T. Daniels found Jermaine Burton open deep. Daniels added another deep scoring toss to Adonai Mitchell, and Georgia’s offense was able to pack it in by the middle of the third quarter.

It wasn’t billed as a marquee game expected to be full of drama, and it didn’t become one. Georgia was favored by 30+ points and nearly covered. Often that’s a recipe for a lot of empty seats that clear out early on. But the combination of a night game and the first SEC game in front of an unrestricted Sanford Stadium crowd since November of 2019 led to the kind of engaged and raucous home crowd you’d expect for a game against Auburn or LSU. Most of all, it was fun. Of course it’s easy to let loose when the outcome isn’t in doubt, but that was only part of it. Big scoring plays are fun. A suffocating and athletic defense is fun, and it’s easy to make noise for a defense that has a pretty good shot at making your jaw drop. Fans even entertained themselves during long television timeouts. There might’ve been a few eyerolls at the wave going around the stadium in the second half, but both the team and the crowd were having fun. You couldn’t really say that during the tight mudfights that defined many 2019 home games. The limited crowds of 2020 could only do so much. It was probably the most enjoyable home game since Georgia broke the Tech option at the end of 2018.

I was glad to see so many stuck around to light up Sanford. For the 2019 Notre Dame game, the lights and the spectacle were the story. This time the spectacle was the backdrop to the party on the field and in the stands. Exuberance over simply being back had a lot to do with it, but that would have faded quickly had the game settled into 2019-style trench warfare. The team gave the fans plenty to cheer about, and the fans appreciated and recognized a team with a chance to do something special.

Cleanup crew

So much has been said about Georgia’s defense this season (and deservedly so!) that I just want to focus on one area: resiliency. We saw it in the opener against Clemson. Clemson’s best starting field position came from two Georgia turnovers, and the Tigers could do nothing with it. Even the series following Daniels’ interception that left the Tigers in field goal range went backwards. The first half of the South Carolina game also tested the defense’s resiliency. They were caught unprepared during a substitution and gave up a big early pass play. A Stetson Bennett interception gave the Gamecocks the ball in the red zone. Georgia wasn’t especially good getting off the field on third downs. But they didn’t allow one mistake to become another. Field goals weren’t going to keep South Carolina in the game.

Two minutes of “WTF?!?”

It’s tough to explain either team’s approach at the end of the first half. Georgia seemed content to run out the clock with three straight running plays despite good field position and a full complement of timeouts. South Carolina could have taken a nice defensive stop and a two-score game into the locker room set to receive the second half kickoff. Shane Beamer called timeout to get possession of the ball with under a minute left and no other timeouts remaining. Jake Camarda once again executed a perfect punt, and Ameer Speed downed it inches from the goal line. That might’ve been a clue for South Carolina to cut their losses, but the coaching staff doubled down by trying to hit a big play from the endzone. Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis charged through the line to blow up the play, and Nolan Smith prevented the quarterback from reaching the ball back across the goal line. A decent kick return after the safety reignited the Georgia offense, and the Dawgs managed the final 30 seconds well to set up a field goal. Podlesny was able to knock through a confidence-building attempt, and Georgia extended their lead with five points in the final minute of the half. Any edge South Carolina might’ve had with Georgia stalling at the end of the half was gone, and Georgia picked right back up after halftime by generating two turnovers and short field touchdowns to blow the game open.

  • Third downs played a big role in the game. South Carolina came into the game among the nation’s leaders in third down defense. Yes, the level of competition has to be considered, but only giving up two conversions through two games is still impressive. Georgia had few problems moving the chains: the Dawgs were 9-for-12 on third down. That mattered most on Georgia’s third scoring drive. They converted three third downs in the series, and all three were six yards or longer. The first conversion was Kearis Jackson’s first reception of the season. Hed showed some nice veteran skill to understand exactly how many yards he needed.
  • Third downs were one of the few shortcomings of the Georgia defense. South Carolina converted nearly 50%, and it was on Kirby Smart’s mind as he went into halftime. Two of South Carolina’s longer first half pass plays came on third and long.
  • Those long gains through the air were about the only negatives to take from the game. Georgia’s defensive backs had done well through two games, but their performance – especially isolated in man coverage – was a top preseason concern. We can expect teams to continue to test that coverage – if they have the time for those plays to develop.
  • On the other hand, lateral plays to stretch this defense just don’t work. South Carolina tried a QB keep on their first snap. Nolan Smith snuffed it out for a two-yard gain. Another QB keep following Bennett’s interception might’ve scored against many teams. Nakobe Dean sprinted over to make the stop. We’ve all see what Channing Tindall does against these plays. There’s just too much speed up front. If anyone is going to get this defense, it’s going to have to be vertically.
  • Nolan Smith *and* Adam Anderson are having their Lorenzo Carter seasons. Two top prospects have developed into dangerous every-down players after a couple of years learning the ropes.
  • If anything slowed down Georgia’s fast start, it was the decision to pull a red-hot J.T. Daniels for the third series. I have nothing but good things to say about Bennett and what he did against UAB, but any non-medical reason to sit Daniels at that point just doesn’t make sense. Georgia’s offense only had one other touchdown drive in the half after the substitution, and it took the safety to really kickstart things again.
  • Daniels of course was fantastic and demonstrated a great understanding of his receivers by hitting the deep passes in stride. If he had some off moments, it was on the “Bennett plays” that had him roll out and throw on the run. A rollout near Georgia’s goal line on which he threw back across his body was especially awkward.
  • It wasn’t quite the showcase for the running game that we saw in Columbia last season, but the Georgia rushing attack continues to come along. 184 yards, however they come, isn’t a bad day at the office. Cook finished off the first drive with a patient explosive run. White turned Kendrick’s interception into points with a pair of powerful blasts up the middle. Milton emerged as the team’s leading rusher. The success is still inconsistent, and that goes along with an offensive line that’s still in progress. We had wondered if this stretch of games would allow the team to experiment to find more effective line combinations, but there doesn’t seem to be a shakeup coming.
  • Does the emergence of Brock Bowers explain some of Georgia’s downfield passing success? Many of Todd Monken’s plays involve options at different levels, and Bowers has given life to the intermediate passing game. Add in some credible play-action, and defensive backs have a lot to think about. Do they cheat up on the run, do they pay attention to Bowers – Georgia’s leading receiver, or do they keep an eye on the receivers streaking downfield? Reminder – Darnell Washington is about to be added to the mix.
  • Downfield blocking also seems to be coming along. Cook had a few more successful plays to the outside thanks to solid blocking. A needless penalty on Robinson wiped out one of the better Cook plays. If Georgia can prove to be dangerous in the short screen or underneath passes, it opens up yet another level of options for Monken.
  • G-Day hype is a running joke among Georgia fans, but Adonai Mitchell might be the exception. Besides the highlight of the long touchdown reception, he also made several tough possession-type catches to sustain drives. That’s a fairly complete skill set just three games into his college career. Not many have benefitted more from early enrollment and the return of a complete offseason program.
  • South Carolina’s Kevin Harris was the SEC’s leading rusher in 2020. Georgia held him to 31 yards and under 2 yards per carry. South Carolina had a single run over 10 yards. No team has had much success running on Georgia yet, but that strength will be tested soon. After Vanderbilt, Georgia heads into a three-game stretch against some physical and explosive backs.

Post Georgia 10 – Clemson 3: You are enough

Thursday September 9, 2021

Finding explosiveness from a limited arsenal

The disappearance of explosive plays from Georgia’s offense became a big story in 2019 and was a large contributor to the offense’s fade. This was from my writeup of the 2019 Notre Dame win:

(Fromm) was 11-12 in the first half. He also had 59 yards passing at halftime – a subpar 4.9 yards per attempt. Of Georgia’s 11 completed passes in the first half, only two went for more than 10 yards. 5 of the 11 – nearly half – went for 3 yards or less.

Sound familiar? J.T. Daniels’ 4.5 yards per attempt and 135 yards against Clemson might have been a troubling callback to 2019 for Georgia fans eager to see an offense capable of competing in the shootouts that have come to define high-level college football. Saturday’s win more closely resembled the defensive struggles of the 2010 era. When you’re trying to scratch out a win over a perennial playoff participant, you play to your strengths. For Georgia those strengths were a dominant defensive front and a running game tough enough to control field position and close out the contest.

In 2019 an inexperienced group of receivers and an unimaginative offensive system allowed defenses to pack the line of scrimmage without consequences. Receiver personnel reared its head again in Charlotte. Injuries have gutted the Georgia receiving corps leaving several of its more experienced and proven members sidelined. Clemson didn’t have to stack the line – a unit with Bryan Bresee and Myles Murphy doesn’t need to. The Tigers were able to sag in coverage, give Georgia short-yardage plays, and take away explosive plays.

When you lack explosive plays, you have to string together a lot of plays to sustain drives and end up with points. That increases the chances of something going wrong. Georgia’s offense was effective in one regard – they usually weren’t too quick to exit the field. The easiest way (other than a turnover) to handicap a high-performing defense is to keep putting them back on the field. Georgia managed only two three-and-outs in the game and had four drives of 8+ plays. Yes, more points need to come from those drives, and shorter drives are fine if they involve high-EPA plays that lead to points. In this game it was significant that the defense was able to stay fresh. Take a game like Auburn 2019: Georgia’s defense started well en route to a 21-0 lead. But 5 of 6 second half Georgia possessions were three-and-out, and a gassed defense had to hold on for dear life until Travon Walker’s game-ending sack.

I’m more convinced that the lack of output had much more to do with injuries and personnel than gameplan or creativity. Daniels was sacked early in the fourth quarter as Van Pran and Ericson left Myles Murphy unblocked. Had the play developed, McConkey was breaking open down the sideline on a wheel route, and Daniels was clearly winding up to deliver the knockout blow. It was a clever play marred by execution on the line. The plays are there. Will the players be?

The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury and the offensive line finds its optimal lineup. That assumes though that there are no further injuries or that those who do return will be back at peak performance. Ratledge’s injury reminds us that injuries will continue to be a fact of life throughout the season. Kirby Smart pointed out that Jermaine Burton, one of the seemingly healthy receivers with some experience, missed quite a bit of practice time dealing with his own injuries. That’s kind of what I was getting at with this post – just because we see someone out there and cleared doesn’t mean that they’re in top shape and able to perform how we remember them performing. I’m sure we all have expectations for how Blaylock or even Washington will look once they return to the offense. It might be wiser to accept things as they are and ask how more production can be coaxed out of the players that are available. The idea of a high-performing offense can’t depend on the promise of a certain player or players returning at an unspecified time at a given level of fitness. Georgia must work with what it has.

Several things can be true:

  1. Clemson returned a lot of talent from the defense rated #8 by SP+ last season.
  2. Georgia was missing several key receivers and had to reshuffle the offensive line early in the game.
  3. Those who did play had some costly execution errors that prevented bigger plays or longer drives.

Georgia will face many good defenses this year but it should be a while until they see a unit as complete and talented as Clemson’s. The return of the injured receivers is out of anyone’s control. What is in the team’s control is the execution of those who see the field. Kirby Smart has explained time and again the role of perimeter and downfield blocking in turning decent gains into explosive plays. That need won’t change regardless of who’s available, and the output we expect from Georgia’s offense depends on it.

The defense – the beautiful defense

The defense’s strength starts up front, and it’s telling that sacks and pressures were distributed among nearly every position – defensive tackles, ends, inside linebackers, and outside linebackers. Dan Lanning made optimal use of the athleticism and experience of his front seven. The source of pressure from play to play was unpredictable, and those not involved in pressure dropped back into locations that made reads difficult. Even those, like Wyatt, who didn’t record a sack were active batting down passes and making sure Clemson didn’t establish any kind of running threat.

If there was a standout among a unit that itself was a standout, it was Jordan Davis. It’s often enough for defensive linemen to occupy lanes and let linebackers make the tackles. Davis cut out the middleman and recorded two tackles for loss and a sack of his own. On other plays, his penetration led to someone else’s stat. To me Davis’s most impressive play might’ve been tracking down the Clemson quarterback on a delayed read. Davis fought through the line and had the agility to change directions to bring the quarterback down from behind. Those are plays we see linebackers or defensive ends make.

The linebackers made sure they wouldn’t be overshadowed by the defensive line. Nearly all of them came up big. Nolan Smith started strong with a physical pass rush that led to a sack. Channing Tindall’s speed made you gasp as he sprinted to make a cross-field tackle and made it clear that going wide wasn’t an effective counter to Georgia’s inside domination. Nakobe Dean’s constant presence in the backfield and relentless blitzing up the middle reminded me of the adjustments Georgia made in the Rose Bowl. People have wondered whether Dean’s junior season would resemble Roquan Smith’s stellar 2017. The way Dean was used in this game won’t slow those comparisons.

It wasn’t a surprise – maybe more of a relief – to see the line and linebackers play as well as they did. That was the expectation with so much returning talent and experience. It was a different story for the secondary. The attrition from the 2020 squad left Georgia’s defensive backfield with enough uncertainty to raise questions whether it would hold back the potential of the defense. Georgia fans have to be pleased with what we saw from the group. Clemson had a single explosive pass play, but Georgia’s defense largely kept the action in front of it and tackled well to prevent short gains from becoming something bigger. There was an expectation that the front seven would help the secondary, but in this game it went both ways. Several of Georgia’s sacks and pressures took time to develop, aided by solid coverage downfield.

There were some pass interference calls – Ringo in particular panicked and nearly tackled his receiver on a pass unlikely to be caught in bounds. Those were mistakes of aggression and sometimes 15 yards is preferable to giving up a long pass play. Only a few times was a defensive back simply beaten. Kendrick bit on an inside move and gave up the longest pass play of the game on a third down.

Georgia’s defense was magnificent in a way that looks sustainable week to week. Speed, talent, awareness, athleticism, and all of the other attributes that stood out don’t depend on the opponent. It’s not the best plan to lean on the defense that much – just a single blown coverage can change the game and give the opponent all it needs.

  • Other than Christopher Smith’s textbook pick-six, the defense’s biggest moment followed Daniels’ interception. Georgia followed a short gain with two sacks to take Clemson out of field goal range and take away any momentum Clemson might have gained from the turnover. Georgia turnovers twice gave Clemson a short field, and the Tigers were able to do nothing with their best field position.
  • The anticipation to see Gilbert and Washington on the field overshadowed another impressive spring performer: Brock Bowers. Bowers had a standout debut as Georgia’s reception leader and was trusted to block against a top-quality defensive front. He made his share of mistakes, but that was a high-pressure environment in which to debut, and he handled it.
  • The knock on Latavious Brini has been speed keeping up with slot receivers. His coverage skills shone in the short-yardage red zone area where speed becomes less of a factor. He made consecutive pass breakups in the end zone and, most importantly, did so cleanly without drawing a flag.
  • Zamir White left no doubt as to his alpha status as the back you want closing out a game. There was something special though about the few times Kendall Milton got loose.
  • Jake Camarda was a highlight of a so-so special teams unit. Consistency had been the only thing holding him back, and each of his punts was a positive for Georgia. Five of six punts landed inside the Clemson 20, and he did well to get his last punt off when Clemson applied pressure. Camarda enabled Georgia to establish and maintain a decisive field position advantage.
  • Arian Smith and the other gunners were key to downing those punts. Smith had time to visit the concession stand before the ball arrived.
  • Other special teams – less so. Podlesny’s missed 36-yard FG wasn’t close. Tough to fault Milton for getting hit on the bounce while he was engaged with a block, but there could be better communication to clear the area. I understand why you’d want a hobbled but sure-handed Jackson fielding punts, but he didn’t present much of a threat in the return game when field position meant so much.
  • Limited tight end depth meant that offensive tackle Xavier Truss was called into a service as an extra blocker.
  • The player perhaps hurt most by Georgia’s perimeter blocking woes was James Cook. He is most valuable getting into space and is a frequent target on sweeps and screens. Too often there was a defender waiting to meet him.
  • J.T. Daniels wasn’t asked to do much, and he didn’t. The defense bailed him out on the interception. Another pass to Bowers in the back of the endzone into tight coverage made you hold your breath. A third-down completion before the missed field goal might have gone for more yards had the pass been more accurate. It wasn’t a bad game, but it also wasn’t a statement game that kicked off a Heisman campaign. The usual outlets can shelve those pieces now. Winning the game was the important thing, and Daniels largely stayed upright with quick, short passes before the Clemson pass rush got home.
  • So much of the pregame conversation had to do with the stakes in the game and its playoff implications. It was assumed that either team could take a loss and still control its own fate by winning out. I’m not so sure that’s the case for Clemson. It’s likely they won’t face another ranked team during the regular season. They desperately need to face a highly-ranked opponent in the ACC championship, but a North Carolina loss on Friday hurt those chances. With a 12-1 record and no wins over ranked teams, Clemson’s resume will be on par with better G5 teams rather than other P5 champions.

Post 21 questions for the 2021 Georgia football season

Friday September 3, 2021

The 2021 offseason has had its moments. Injuries have affected the depth chart both in the short term and long term. The transfer portal giveth and taketh away. Players may now be paid for their name, likeness, and image, and many are learning how to juggle those obligations with their usual coursework and team responsibilities. But compared with 2020 when the season itself was in doubt, Georgia’s past eight months have been about as steady as can be expected.

The narratives are clear: Georgia is a consensus top five team behind a fearsome front seven on defense, a deep pool of tailbacks, and an established starting quarterback. Clemson and Florida stand out as the toughest games on the schedule, but the Bulldogs are once again overwhelming favorites to win the SEC East. That’s the baseline expectation. Whether they can take an additional step and win the SEC or return to the playoff is much less clear.

1) Will we have a normal season? We looked forward to the 2021 season as a return to normality, tailgating, and full stadiums. That seemed a given as recently as the early summer. We enter the season with cases spiking and hospitals strained across the SEC footprint – constant reminders that the pandemic is still very much ongoing. Vaccinations fortunately have made the risk calculations different from a year ago. Plans and attendance policies for a normal season remain unchanged, but anecdotally some fans are reconsidering attendance and travel plans. Ticket demand for certain games hasn’t been strong, and there could be a number of reasons ranging from the quality of games to economic factors to health concerns to pleasant memories of a 2020 season spent on the couch. Teams will face an updated set of rules in 2021 in terms of testing, quarantine, and distinctions for those who were vaccinated. We shouldn’t see the wholesale cancellation and postponement of games we saw a year ago, but will we see any team have to forfeit a game because they are unable to field a squad?

2) Do we appreciate how different things are this year? Georgia’s quarterback stability is night and day from a year ago. Without an organized spring and offseason, a new offensive coordinator had to install an offense with a new starting quarterback. Then that quarterback opted out just before the season. His replacement wasn’t up to the job. The heralded transfer wasn’t ready yet. Georgia had to turn to a former walk-on, and he performed well enough to keep Georgia in contention in the SEC East. Now Georgia has a returning starting quarterback, a returning coordinator, and a complete offseason and spring. That’s no guarantee for success, but it’s also less likely that we’ll see the desperate grasping at straws that shocked us all at Arkansas a year ago. There’s no reason not to be ready.

3) Does Georgia have its elite quarterback? After Georgia beat Clemson in 2014, the fortunes of the two programs diverged. The two paths can roughly be traced to quarterback play. We saw the debut of Deshaun Watson in that 2014 game, and the Tigers have produced two first-round QBs since with each having a solid 2-3 years at the helm. After 2015 Georgia improved its QB recruiting, but production has been hit-or-miss as two top-rated prospects transferred out. The story of college football over the past couple of years has been quarterbacks putting up stunning numbers in creative and aggressive offenses. J.T. Daniels showed enough in a handful of games in 2020 to give hope that Georgia finally had its guy – and a system in which he can shine.

4) Do we underrate Georgia’s areas of concern? By this point we’ve heard it all. Yes, receivers are banged up. Yes, the offensive line is in flux. Yes, Georgia lacks experienced depth in the secondary. Once we internalize all that, it’s easy to move on to the next thing to worry about. We knew that receivers and tight ends were depleted entering 2019, but we didn’t figure that the passing game would all but disappear as the season wore on. The quarterback position should have been a bigger red flag in 2020, and we were banking on big improvement from Jamie Newman for no reason in particular. Sometimes a weakness really is a weakness, and there’s no need to dig much deeper than that when they show up in games.

5) What stats will tell the story in 2021? The decline of the offense in 2019 showed up most clearly in the explosiveness numbers. On the other side of the ball, havoc rate has become the calling card of disruptive defenses. This year we can add two stats: net yards per play (YPP) and expected points added (EPA). YPP is simple – how many yards are you gaining (or giving up) per play? If you want to compete for a national title, it had better average out to around +2.5 YPP. EPA is a little more complex, but it attempts to assign a point value to every play. Big plays get you closer to scoring points, so they have higher EPA values. A one-yard run (or worse, a lost-yardage play) is going to have a tiny (or negative!) EPA value. Is the defense as effective with an overhauled secondary? Is Monken succeeding at opening up Georgia’s offense? Tracking these two stats and comparing them against Georgia’s peers should give us some answers.

6) How many offensive line combinations will we see? Clemson has one of the best defensive fronts in the nation, so it’s unlikely that Georgia will use an untested player at a critical position like left tackle. But Georgia’s optimal lineup might have Jamaree Salyer inside, and there are capable – though inexperienced – tackles in the pipeline. An injury to center Warren Ericson has opened the door for Sedrick Van Pran. After the Clemson opener Georgia has about a month of games that afford experimentation and evaluation.

7) How useful is tailback depth? No question – Georgia is loaded at tailback. That was the case last season, and now a healthy Kendall Milton is added to the mix. The problem is that you can only play one at a time – usually. That will help to limit wear-and-tear, but it also creates challenges – or opportunities – for coaches to get the most effective players on to the field. At the same time, depth can create a temptation to pull a player on a roll. The depth and versatility of Georgia’s tailbacks will be a test of creativity. We saw Cook score on a long pass at Alabama lined up wide. Others have strengths in the passing game. Most of us are anticipating a more open offense this year and go right to Daniels and the receivers, but the depth, experience, and talent at the tailback position has to make this group essential to Georgia’s 2021 plans.

8) Can anyone replace George Pickens? Georgia has talent at receiver. Jackson is an underrated veteran. Burton had an impact freshman season. Smith has explosive speed. Mitchell opened eyes during spring. Fingers are crossed for Blaylock’s eventual return. None might be as individually gifted as Pickens was, but collectively most roles can be filled. There are options for speed, size, hands, and possession. Many have had the complete offseason to work with Daniels and Monken, and the timing of the injury to Pickens at least gave the team time to prepare without him.

9) What should we expect from the tight ends? The promise of watching teams defend Darnell Washington and Arik Gilbert at the same time was a huge tease. Washington could and likely will contribute, but it could be October before that happens. We saw a good dose of 12 personnel in the spring game, and it was enticing to see Todd Monken deploy multiple tight ends. The absence of Gilbert could open things up for Brock Bowers who had an impressive spring. Bowers, like Gilbert, could line up wide and still give Monken some different options using 12 personnel. Fortunately John FitzPatrick returns from a preseason injury to give the position some veteran stability, and Brett Seither is due to contribute. I don’t anticipate Monken putting this position on the shelf while we wait for Washington to heal.

10) Can Jordan Davis stay healthy? His return for a senior season was a huge boost to Georgia’s defensive front. If you look at some of Georgia’s tougher losses of the past three years (Texas 2018, South Carolina 2019, and Florida 2020), Davis was on the sidelines. That’s not to say that Davis’s presence would have meant a Georgia win, but Georgia has only lost two regular season games (LSU 2018, Alabama 2020) in three seasons when Davis played.

11) Can Adam Anderson become a three-down player? Does he need to? A big part of Azeez Ojulari’s ascent into the first round a year ago had to do with his development into a player Georgia wanted on the field in most any situation. Georgia’s depth along the defensive front is impressive, but there are still times when you just want your best 11 out there. Anderson has made a name as a pass rush specialist lining up all over the formation, and the preseason hype has been dizzying with possibilities for Anderson to contribute everywhere from a hand-down pass rusher to star. It reminds me somewhat of people dreaming up ways to use James Cook on offense. Anderson’s athleticism and potential are staggering, but he’ll be most valuable for Georgia (and at the next level) if he, like Ojulari, can find a role that keeps him on the field.

12) Is Devonte Wyatt underrated? Jordan Davis deservedly gets a ton of attention as the anchor of Georgia’s defensive front, but Wyatt’s decision to return for a 5th year established Georgia’s line as one of the nation’s best. His combination of speed and size makes him a difficult challenge for offensive lines and forces offenses to pick their poison when it comes to double-teaming he or Davis. You’ll often see Wyatt described as “disruptive”, though learning to control his athletic gifts and aggressiveness will be what makes his senior season special.

13) Is Nakobe Dean set to take off? Dean has been an impact player since his arrival in Athens, but he’s now drawing national attention. Many have pointed out that Roquan Smith didn’t become a superstar until his junior season. Dean spent much of 2020 playing through a torn labrum but was still one of Georgia’s defensive leaders. In good health and with a dominant defensive line in front of him, Dean has both the talent and the environment in which to follow Roquan’s meteoric rise.

14) Who will lead the secondary? Georgia missed the experience of Richard LeCounte following his midseason injury in 2020. Christopher Smith was thrust into a larger role in the absence of LeCounte, and he and fellow safety Lewis Cine are two of the more veteran members of the secondary. Both starting cornerbacks could be newcomers – Kelee Ringo and Derion Kendrick. Georgia has had that steadying influence in the defensive backfield since J.R. Reed stepped up in 2017, and LeCounte inherited that role last season. Now it will likely turn to Cine and Smith to see the big picture and captain the unit on the field. Don’t forget that the defensive backs also have a new position coach. Communication, confidence in assignments, and quick adjustments will have to be sorted out before the season kicks off.

15) Can Jake Camarda find consistency? Georgia’s punting has been in the upper third of the SEC in both average and net punting yardage for the past two seasons. The one thing though that’s plagued Jake Camarda has been the untimely shank. We’ve seen it as recently as the last game against Cincinnati – a 4-yard punt in the first quarter gave Cincinnati possession on Georgia’s 42-yard line, and that favorable field position led to the game’s first touchdown. We know what Camarda is capable of, but eliminating those costly shanked punts should be the next step in his development.

16) Will Kearis Jackson break a kick return? He’s been close: Jackson had a kickoff return of 56 yards and a punt return of 52 yards in 2020. His decision to return certainly helps Georgia’s receiving corps, but a dependable veteran return man is invaluable in special teams.

17) Will Georgia have to deal with hostile crowds? Most (all, really) of Georgia’s interesting games will happen away from Sanford Stadium. We know all about Clemson, and no one will overlook the Florida game. Yes, there were some fans in the stands last season, but less than half the team has played in front of a packed SEC crowd. I’m of the belief that Georgia would have had a much tougher time pulling out the 2020 Arkansas game in front of a full hostile crowd. Even J.T. Daniels, who played for USC at Texas in 2018, will get a new experience in Charlotte. One game where the road crowd might make the matchup more interesting is at Auburn. Of course they’re rebuilding under a new head coach, but they’re not Tennessee. Georgia hasn’t had an easy time at Jordan-Hare since 2012.

18) Is there any possibility of a slip-up at home? You never say never after the 2019 South Carolina game, but Georgia should be heavy, heavy favorites in its home games. South Carolina is in disarray. Arkansas overachieved in Pittman’s first year and will be pressed just to get back to that level. Kentucky is the best team on Georgia’s home schedule, and there’s always a chance of a Homecoming sleeper after a trip to Auburn. Missouri is always a wildcard and should be improved in Year 2 of a new coach. That game comes on the heels of an emotional game in Jacksonville that could decide the SEC East. Don’t sleep on UAB – they got votes in preseason polls. Navigating the weak home schedule will be a test of focus.

19) What or who will be the unexpected story of 2021? No question that Stetson Bennett was the story of 2020. He saved Georgia at Arkansas and then led the Bulldogs to convincing wins over two rivals. Yes, he didn’t have enough to lead Georgia to a division title and was eventually supplanted, but he wasn’t even considered part of the plan leading up to the season. In 2019, transfer WR Lawrence Cager emerged as Jake Fromm’s favorite target in big wins against Notre Dame and Florida. Georgia doesn’t have a ton of uncertainties in 2021, but there are still opportunities for players to step into the spotlight. The defensive backfield is an obvious area waiting for someone (or several someones!) to emerge. A young receiver could have the impact Jermaine Burton had a year ago. Hopefully the surprises in 2021 are fortuitous ones.

20) Will Georgia have a swagger? We remember how the 2017 team became a machine that used the “revenge tour” motivation to steamroll its rivals en route to a conference title. Even that team didn’t find its legs until the Mississippi State game. The team had to come to terms with the loss of its starting quarterback and survived the trip to Notre Dame by the narrowest of margins. The flea-flicker to start the MSU game showed a bit of brashness and confidence in a freshman quarterback, and the team never looked back. I’m not saying the 2021 team needs a trick play to get going. The team should be more confident this season with a more stable quarterback situation, and the quarterback often sets the tone for a team’s identity (see Burrow or Lawrence or Mayfield). It will miss the edge a player like Pickens brings. That confidence needs to be in place from the start – Georgia has the talent to compete with Clemson or anyone, but there has to be the belief that they can win these games.

21) Should there be a greater sense of urgency? I agree with Kirby Smart that it’s more a question of “when” and not “if” Georgia reaches the top. That outlook is reassuring, but it can also serve to take the focus off the present. We remember Smart saying after the national title game that “Georgia isn’t going anywhere.” He was right – Georgia has remained a top 10 program, recruited well, and has lost just four regular season games since 2017. But Georgia also hasn’t won a conference title or returned to the CFB playoff since. For that “if” to become “when”, a lot of things need to go right within a season, and Smart will need to find ways to get the most from the talent he has recruited. It’s comforting that all of the eggs aren’t in the 2021 basket just as they weren’t in 2018, 2019, or 2020. But there are reasons why those years didn’t become “the year.” If 2021 is going to have a different outcome, Georgia will have to avoid the missteps that sank recent seasons. Overhauling the offense after 2019 showed a willingness to change and improve, and we’ve yet to realize the payoff from that evolution. It might not happen in 2021, but we should also admit that there are very few reasons why it shouldn’t.