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Post Georgia 45 – Austin Peay 0: From the lowly East endzone

Tuesday September 4, 2018

So where does this rank among the all-time hot games? Alabama 2002 and Clemson 2003 are the standard, and this felt as hot as it’s been in Sanford Stadium. Fans, vendors, and even support staff fell victim to the heat around the stadium. It’s good news that the team made it through the game unscathed, though the heat sapped a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the players. We were fortunate that the coaches had the good sense to shave five minutes off the fourth quarter before anyone else got hurt.

If there was something we can take away from a game like this, it was Georgia’s display of speed on both sides of the ball. The offense showcased its weapons: six different players and two quarterbacks were involved in the team’s six touchdowns. Two of the scores were explosive sprints by receivers: Robertson announced his presence with a 72-yard jet sweep, and Mecole Hardman ran past the Austin Peay secondary to turn a mid-range completion into a 59-yard score. James Cook was everything we heard about from camp both as a receiving threat out of the backfield and as a tailback. He might be the team’s second-best rushing option already (more on that in a second.)

We wondered for eight months how a Georgia offense would look without Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. We got a glimpse of that on Saturday. No, we didn’t see anything close to the entire offense – there was no wildcat, no special “Fields package”, or even much downfield passing. But in terms of basic identity, we saw an offense much more focused around the perimeter. The offense marched down the field with bubble screen after bubble screen, and tailbacks caught nine of the team’s 21 completions. The longest runs of the day – some by design, and some not – went to the outside.

While it was thrilling to see the speed of Georgia’s backs and receivers in space, the more conventional running game sputtered. Swift was fine, and his day ended early. Holyfield did have a nice bit of improvisation on his touchdown, and Herrien sent a charge through the crowd with a spin move on a swing pass. Still, it was a fairly unremarkable game from the tailbacks as you went down the depth chart. Some of that might be from the line dragging in the heat, but the backs didn’t do much to create the impression of a strong unit behind Swift. If anything, Cook might have looked like the second-best back if only because of his raw speed.

A shutout is always a good result for a defense regardless of the competition, but it’s also a credit to the entire team. The offense didn’t hurt itself with turnovers and stalled drives that flipped field position. Special teams did its job with touchbacks on kickoffs, deep punts, and no return yardage allowed. Until Cook’s penalty in the meaningless fourth quarter, Austin Peay’s best starting field position was its own 25. Overmatched teams aren’t going to put many drives together with that field position. Austin Peay got close with a missed field goal attempt in the first half and a failed fourth down attempt in the second half, but Georgia’s defense held.

Georgia did well to hold Austin Peay to under 100 yards rushing. The Governors feature one of the best FCS rushing offenses, and they use some option elements to test a defense’s discipline and assignments. Kirby Smart wondered how that style of offense would challenge Georgia’s young defense. “I’m not saying they’re going to come in and dominate and be able to run the ball every down on us, but I think what they can do is get explosive plays,” he explained. The defense passed that test thanks in large part to outstanding lateral speed. That speed was a big reason why Austin Peay had no run longer than 14 yards and no reception longer than 12. The secondary might be young and raw, but the speed of guys like LeCounte, Reese, Rice, Gibbs, and Campbell will have them in position to make many more plays than they don’t.

Austin Peay’s running game did expose one area of concern in the Georgia defense: a softness up front. Georgia never established much of a push from the defensive line. Georgia was able to keep those modest gains from turning into more, but matchups will only get tougher for the interior line and linebackers. It’s good to see Reed continuing his 2017 form, but it’s not necessarily a great sign to have safeties as three of your top four tacklers. Monty Rice led the front seven in tackles, and that’s encouraging, but he needs some help. I’m not as concerned about a lack of sacks – the nature of Austin Peay’s offense doesn’t give pass plays much time to develop. You had to like how active Brenton Cox was in his debut.

How young is the defense?

Seventeen defenders were credited with at least two tackles. Only five of those players were upperclassmen. Here’s how it broke down:

  • Seniors: 2
  • Juniors: 3
  • Sophomores: 7
  • Freshman: 5

Of course some of that had to do with how the game unfolded. When you’re emptying the bench in the first half, there’s going to be a lot of inexperience on the field.

Extra Points

  • It was almost unfair to see Adam Anderson out there in the fourth quarter. Emptying the bench meant playing a fresh 5* outside linebacker. His combination of speed and power was unmistakable.
  • So we have a punter, right? Camarda didn’t show any sign of jitters on his three punts, and his first drew an audible reaction from the crowd. He’ll work on placement, but for now I’ll take the cannon shot and a touchback to keep the ball from a returner like Deebo Samuel.
  • The quarterbacks weren’t asked to do much, but they executed well. Each had a near-miss: Fromm threw into tight double coverage on one of the few deeper passes, and Fields nearly had a bubble screen picked off. The risk of a defender stepping in front of one of those screens is high as we see better competition, so both quarterbacks will have to make good decisions if we continue to use that play to get the ball in the hands of receivers and tailbacks.
  • Watch Nauta and Woerner on Robertson’s touchdown run. Glad to see Nauta get his own score later in the game.

Last Thing

It struck me how clean the game was from Georgia’s perspective. It wasn’t the toughest opponent, but we’ve seen teams here and elsewhere slop around in these games. We saw few mistakes related to operations – delays, false starts, substitution penalties, or unforced timeouts. Ridley drew a couple of penalties with aggressive blocking, and Cook was involved in two big mistakes in the fourth quarter. Overall though Georgia had the appearance of a prepared and focused team. Each side of the ball has something major to work on: the offense has to establish a more consistent conventional running game, and the defensive interior must be more physical. Kirby Smart will be hammering home those points as Georgia prepares for much tougher SEC fare, and the temperature won’t be any cooler in Columbia.


Post Opening the curtain on Kirby’s second act

Saturday September 1, 2018

On Saturday it will have been 288 days since Georgia took the Sanford Stadium field, and just a few things have happened during that time. We left the Kentucky game as SEC East champions and with fond memories of an accomplished senior class. That in itself marked a successful second season for Kirby Smart. The division title was the baseline expectation for most of us, and cracking the initial playoff rankings tempted us to dream of more. Georgia had established itself as a very good team, but the Auburn loss had knocked the Dawgs out of the top 4, and Georgia was an underdog in the upcoming rematch with Auburn.

The next two months were a whirlwind that changed how we looked at the 2017 season, Kirby Smart, and the players who made it all happen. It started with a fairly lopsided dismissal of Tech in the final stop on the regular season Revenge Tour. Georgia made the plays in the SEC Championship that it hadn’t at Auburn, and a close game broke open midway through the second half. The team that had taken a nice step forward during the season were now SEC Champions, and the team that was on the outside of the playoff picture was headed for Pasadena. Georgia won its second Rose Bowl in a dramatic classic that most of us have watched on loop this summer. Within a month a team that was an underdog for the SEC title had earned its shot at the national title.

We’re all disappointed with the outcome of the title game, but Georgia stood toe-to-toe with the dominant dynasty of the past decade. If we can’t avoid measuring the progress of this program against Alabama, Georgia looked much more like a peer than the 2015 squad that didn’t belong on the same field. Georgia maintained that competitiveness into recruiting season and wrapped up the nation’s top class. That momentum doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon.

Not many people expected Georgia to go as far as they did last season, and that’s the biggest change heading into 2018. There’s no escaping it this year. Georgia is top four in the preseason consensus. They’re favored at this point against every regular season opponent. They’re solid favorites to repeat as SEC East champs. If reaching Atlanta in December was the expectation last season, it’s the starting point for expectations this year.

Many Georgia fans aren’t comfortable with this situation. I understand – we’ve been burned more than once.

High expectations in 2000 brought down a coaching staff. The #1 ranking in 2008 didn’t last long. Georgia was the preseason #4 by consensus in 2013 but finished unranked after devastating injuries took their toll. The Dawgs have been overrated relative to the preseason consensus seven of the past ten years. Georgia’s had a habit of rocketing past their preseason ranking every ten years or so (’97: +16, ’07: +12, ’17: +14), but all that’s served to do is to build up expectations for the next year. Here we are again: a successful season in a year ending in “7” followed by a preseason ranking near the top.

So, barring a 2013-like run of injuries, what’s to stop 2018 from being another 2008? (Or, heaven forbid, another 2000?) After all, the cheery optimism we have after making a title run in 2017 is just a few setbacks away from turning into wistful bitterness at coming up just short.

One of Kirby Smart’s many jobs this year is managing those expectations within the program. It’s not as though he lacks experience in a program dealing with lofty expectations. He introduced (or borrowed) the “pressure is a privilege” line during Media Days, and it demonstrates how he plans to change Georgia’s approach to expectations. It’s not meant to be dreaded or avoided or buried in some bunker of Munson-like pessimism. It’s to be met head-on and used to set the standard for how the team prepares, practices, and performs.

Pressure might be a privilege, but it is still pressure. Georgia might be favored at this point in every game, but many projections have the Dawgs dropping a game or two in the regular season. One of the things Georgia did well last season was compartmentalizing each game. Smart made sure there was no looking ahead, reinforcing each week that no one remembers or cares who led the race at its midpoint. More importantly, those words were repeated and taken to heart by the team’s leadership. When Roquan Smith or Sony Michel were interviewed, it was as if Kirby Smart’s words were coming out of their mouths. I don’t doubt that this 2018 team has identified its leaders, and you can probably already name most of them. But it was the way those 2017 leaders became instruments of the coaches that distinguished them and will make them difficult to replace. Whether or not Georgia can play to its high standard and maintain focus each week as favorites will depend on how well the next group of leaders can reinforce from week to week the consistent messages from the coaches.

Even if things go well, Georgia’s going to find itself in some tight spots. Nearly every champion does. Georgia will head into some difficult road environments to face quality teams. They’ll be plugging inexperienced players in at key positions like cornerback. Depth isn’t where you’d like it to be at a handful of spots. Even at this high level, losses will happen. You’re going to have a quarterback scramble into his line, bobble the ball, and throw a touchdown anyway. You’re going to have an average quarterback put together the game of his life. You’ll have freak plays and more freak plays. Each loss hurts more because it only takes one to remove your postseason fate from your control. It’s tempting then to focus on the rare loss and not enjoy the wins, and I hope we can avoid that.

If you feel as though Kirby Smart has changed things around the program, why shouldn’t fans be a part of that change? Our apprehension about expectations should become a confidence. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but a certain amount of confidence in this program has been earned. I think we saw the beginnings of it last year. Georgia’s always had a strong showing at road games, but the confidence that came with “taking over” was new. The Revenge Tour gave us plenty of motivational fuel each week. Sleepy Sanford Stadium woke up, and a drab home schedule became a prime-time party.

More than one person noted that the 2017 Georgia football season was our version of the 1991 Atlanta Braves season. It wasn’t just the success, it was the novelty of so many unique experiences and accomplishments. It wasn’t quite worst-to-first, but 2017 was much more than just an SEC championship season. It was the validation for the new coach’s vision and reassurance that Georgia hadn’t made a huge mistake by blowing it all up in 2015. Now we see where that coach takes his program from here. The talent is there. The resources and support are there. I can’t wait to see what’s next.


Post What it means to replace Nick and Sony

Tuesday August 14, 2018

Football Study Hall has a piece looking at the most well-rounded tailbacks from 2017. To determine how well-rounded a back is, they looked at the combination of efficiency and explosiveness. For efficiency, they looked at a back’s success rate relative to the expected success rate for a play, and explosiveness compared actual vs. expected IsoPP. All of that is defined much better in the post.

There were only 22 backs in 2017 with at least 150 carries “who rated in the 50th percentile in both marginal efficiency and explosiveness.” It should come as no surprise that Georgia had two of those 22. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel weren’t just productive in terms of yardage. They were both among the best in the nation at being efficient and explosive, and they accomplished that sharing carries in a tailback rotation that went five-deep. Michel was in the 80th percentile in both categories.

That’s what Georgia is attempting to replace at tailback. It’s not just 2,600 yards and 31 TD. It’s generating that production with a consistency of both efficiency and explosiveness.

One point the FSH piece makes is how running the ball is a tough way to get ahead.

First things first: it must be noted that, of these 83 players, only 28 produced a marginal efficiency above zero percent. As with what people have begun to firmly establish on the pro side…running is a reasonably lower-ceilinged endeavor. It’s lower-risk, too, and some teams have certainly figured out how to run more than others, but for a majority of feature backs, handing them the ball was likely to put you behind schedule. It was also far less likely to produce big plays — only 18 of these 83 produced a marginal explosiveness above plus-0.0 points per successful run.

Georgia was able to buck that trend and produce a dominant running game in 2017 largely because they had an unusual concentration of backs who could stay ahead of the chains (efficient success rate) and possessed a better-than-most threat to rip off an explosive run. It would be an accomplishment for Georgia to have one such back in 2018 – it was nearly unstoppable to have two. That alone suggests a larger role for the passing game for Georgia’s offense in 2018.

Another interesting thing from that post: Georgia faced six of the 19 rushing quarterbacks (60+ attempts, not including sacks) who rated in the 50th percentile or better in both rushing efficiency and explosiveness. The results?

  • Taylor Lamb (App St.): 10 carries, 66 yards, 1 TD, 32 long
  • Brandon Wimbush (Notre Dame): 16 carries, 1 yard, 1 TD, 8 long
  • Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State): 10 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 14 long
  • Stephen Johnson (Kentucky): 8 carries, 4 yards, 0 TD, 7 long
  • Jalen Hurts (Alabama): 6 carries, 47 yards, 0 TD, 31 long
  • Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma): 12 carries, 1 yard, 0 TD, 22 long

Yes, those yardage totals include sack yardage, but the few explosive runs Georgia gave up to rushing quarterbacks were more or less inconsequential. Considering that the scrambling QB was considered an Achilles heel of the defense entering the season, those are some fairly impressive results against a half-dozen of the nation’s most well-rounded rushing quarterbacks.


Post Incentives part 2 – the shrinking visitor’s section

Tuesday July 17, 2018

I wrote earlier that SEC fans are still attending games, and that’s true in most cases. One area in which there seems to be a little softening is in the time-honored tradition of the visitor’s section. Of course with rabid SEC fans there will always be plenty of loyal opposition in the stands, and the one or two best games on the schedule will always be a tough ticket, but the phrase “tickets returned from visiting teams” seems to be showing up a lot more often.

Variable ticket pricing isn’t a new development – it’s been around in some form in the SEC for most of this decade. Teams have figured out the mechanics of charging more for premium (or just conference) games. Neither is supply-and-demand a revelation. When the prices of tickets rise, we’ll see less demand for them. For home fans, it’s somewhat more difficult to turn away. There are other things at stake beyond the ticket price – maintaining a location held for generations and the ritual of tailgating and a fall weekend in Athens make it tempting to swallow each subsequent price increase.

With the introduction of variable pricing for its home games in 2018, Georgia’s had enough tickets returned this year from opponents to offer a five-game pack to the general public for all home games except Tennessee and Auburn. Georgia’s not having a problem selling season tickets to its own fans (new season tickets require nearly 24,000 points), but many are simply holding their spot for the Notre Dame game in 2019. Visiting fans don’t care about our future schedule, and it will be telling to see if these packages will be met with as much interest by Georgia fans since they’re 1) not sold at a discount and 2) aren’t renewable.

It’s not just Georgia of course. Alabama is offering single-game tickets based on returns from opponents. We’re not talking cupcakes – divisional foes Mississippi State and Texas A&M returned tickets. We can joke about fans just not wanting to witness a blowout in person, but Alabama didn’t just become dominant. Alabama’s lowest ticket prices for nonconference games is $40. Prices for conference games are more than twice that, and the A&M game costs nearly three times as much. A sizable number of visiting fans are just staying home.

A related casualty of variable pricing is the visiting band. With equipment and larger instruments, a 350-person band can use well over 500 seats. Since most of the higher-prices games are likely to be conference matchups, the cost to bring a full band has skyrocketed. You’ll see fewer full bands and more 40-100 person pep bands in the visitor’s section across the conference. There will be exceptions for high-profile games (think Notre Dame or Georgia-Florida), but each exception will require a difficult decision by an athletic department to write the check.

Most of us would prefer to never see the color orange or yellow in Sanford Stadium, but a large and vocal block of opposing fans is a fairly unique element of college football. You know it’s a big game when you start to see the other team’s fans arriving in town. On the flip side, following the Dawgs on the road can produce some of the best experiences you’ll have as a fan. Still, the decision whether to attend a road game is often a financial one, and higher ticket prices on top of other travel expenses can make it an easy decision to stay home. If the seats end up filled by home fans, is pricing visiting fans out of the stadium a bug or a feature?


Post Incentives part 1 – SEC scheduling

Tuesday July 17, 2018

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey discussed the conference schedule on Monday, and I expect his honesty won’t sit well.

Schools and coaches still prefer the eight-game, 6-1-1 model for football conference scheduling. He does not expect a move to a nine-game schedule anytime soon. He cited the SEC having 10 teams play in postseason bowls for four straight years and four teams winning nine of the last 12 national championships as evidence the current formula works.

He’s correct, of course. The SEC has the luxury of using the schedule as a tool – a means to ends. Those ends are playoff appearances, bowl bids, and revenue. The top teams SEC aren’t penalized for their nonconference schedules, and they likely won’t be. The other teams jockeying for bowl bids (and the bonuses that come with them) don’t want seven extra losses distributed across the conference. Nick Saban wouldn’t mind an extra conference game, but he’s not particularly worried about a bowl bid or a regular season loss keeping him out of the playoff.

The schools aren’t going to be leading the charge on this. It’s against their interests to do so. Fans could vote with their dollars, but SEC attendance is strong and demand is fairly inelastic (though not completely so.) It was possible that the expansion of television coverage would prompt the conference to increase its inventory of interesting games, but that hasn’t happened either – yet. If SEC revenue lags relative to new Big Ten deals, the networks can always ask the SEC to bring more to the table.

The schools will need better incentives than the ones they have now to get on board adding another conference game. In the meantime, enjoy that trip to College Station in six years.


Post Rules changes and redshirt what-ifs

Thursday July 5, 2018

Two big administrative rule changes last month. As of October 15, a player may transfer without permission from his/her coach, and the player will be added to a national transfer database making him or her eligible to be contacted by any other coach (again without the need for approval from the current coach.) It’s not “free agency” in football – there’s still the requirement to sit out a year – but the rules are now a little more favorable for prospective transfers. One thing to watch – conferences can still make rules that are more restrictive than the national rule. Will they?

The other change allows players to see action in as many as four games while still preserving a redshirt season. We’ll be able to see true freshmen get valuable game experience, and it won’t cost them as in the past. It will also give coaches some flexibility with the roster in the event of injuries that might keep a veteran player out a couple of games but not an entire season. You’d also expect redshirt freshmen to be more prepared to play in their first full season after getting their feet wet as true freshmen.

Many of us went to the same place when this news came out: how might this rule have played out in the past? Would playing a redshirting freshman in a couple of games have mattered enough to change outcomes?

Chip Towers spent some time talking about one of the what-ifs: Knowshon Moreno in 2006. Aaron Murray in 2009 came to mind. The decision to redshirt Murray was made less complicated by injuries, but some playing time late in 2009 might have prepared him better for taking over in 2010 (a season that started 1-4.) Selfishly, how about more opportunities to see Murray throwing to A.J. Green? Their time together was cut short by Green’s 2010 suspension. In their first game together, we got this pass.

The redshirt what-if scenario that stuck with me was David Greene in 2000. This one might’ve changed Georgia football history.

The 2000 season famously fell apart, and it led to a coaching change. The South Carolina game was a debacle, but it was the only contest Georgia dropped until midseason, and Georgia remained in a position to compete for the SEC East title. The quarterback position began to unravel midseason. Quincy Carter hadn’t been impressive: there were the five interceptions at South Carolina, but even in wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt he completed a combined 20-of-37. Carter missed the Kentucky game with an injury, and Georgia turned to Cory Phillips. Phillips was stellar at Kentucky, but he gave way to the return of Carter against Florida. That game was going well, and Georgia was poised to go up by double-digits at halftime. A Lito Sheppard interception of Carter changed the game, the score was tied at halftime, and Florida pulled away in the second half.

The Florida game was also the last Carter would play for Georgia. A thumb ligament injury suffered in the Florida loss ended Carter’s season, and Phillips would start the rest of the way. Terrence Edwards even saw some snaps in a proto-wildcat look. Unfortunately Phillips wasn’t as effective as he had been in Lexington, and Georgia dropped three of its last four games. From the Florida collapse to the horrifying Tech game, fan sentiment began to turn in a big way. It didn’t take long for an announcement to be made after the regular season.

Greene was redshirting in 2000, and there was some rumbling midseason (if not after the South Carolina game) whether it was time to play the true freshman. Donnan, to his credit, put the interests of Greene first and preserved the redshirt. It’s something I’ve seen Donnan asked about over the years, and there’s always the second-guessing about what might have gone differently had Greene played. Quarterback wasn’t the only deficiency with that team. A two-loss season without an SEC East title still wouldn’t have met the high expectations for the 2000 season, and we might still be talking about a coaching change. It’s possible though that a better finish to the season with the promise of Greene under center for the next several seasons would have been enough to stem the full-on revolt that made a coaching change a done deal.

Then again, imagine the idea of a full-blown Greene/Carter QB controversy heading into 2001 with all of the baggage of the 2000 season in tow.


Post Fans disappointing coaches, a continuing series

Monday April 23, 2018

Georgia’s final spring practice of the 2000 season was just another chilly day on the practice fields with slightly relaxed security. That setting was an exception, but G-Day has taken many forms over the years – it’s been optional, off-campus, an open scrimmage, and even a show for the fans with celebrity guest coaches. But what it’s always been is casual, inconsequential, and little more than a way for the more obsessive fans to scratch that football itch right around the midpoint between seasons.

I was in Athens on Saturday, mainly to see some good friends I hadn’t met up with since that dark night in early January. That alone was worth it, and you couldn’t ask for a better day to spend more than a few hours outside in our favorite city. It seems most of the 82,000+ who showed up felt that way. With a scintillating 7-6 halftime score on the board, a good number of those who heeded Kirby Smart’s call headed for the exits.

Now G-Day is an obligation – an ongoing challenge of our loyalty to the program. I don’t begrudge Coach Smart or any team’s coach for reevaluating every activity, interaction, and minute spent running the program as an opportunity to further the program’s own interests. He recognized the spring game as a chance to sell the program, and the crowd is part of the product he’s selling. You can’t argue the man doesn’t know what he’s doing in recruiting. And just as it gets a little distasteful to have your role in this boiled down to a prop for recruiting, a well-produced video is dropped to get you right in the feels.

Attending this year’s G-Day wasn’t much of a burden. Georgia fans had more than enough reasons to file into Sanford Stadium on Saturday, and they responded – again. Happy fans, happy coach. That’s not necessarily the case at Tennessee. The team hasn’t tasted a title in years, the latest coaching search was a public fiasco, and you’re still not quite sure who’s pulling the strings. Tennessee fans can be excused for keeping the enthusiasm in check until the new first-time coach starts to show a little something. That coach disagrees.

“The ones that were here, I’m proud they were here,” said Jeremy Pruitt. “They’re fired up and ready to get going. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that had legitimate reasons they couldn’t be here, all right. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that, why wasn’t they here? It’s kind of like our football team…I think we all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.”

Legitimate reasons to miss a spring game? Did they have to show a note?

Pruitt’s tone is very much in character for him. He has his expectations, and he’s not really interested in the toes he steps on. It’s how he ran his defense at FSU, Georgia, and Alabama. It’s arguably why Georgia enjoys a nice indoor facility now. Is it the smartest thing to do after the first public showing of your new team? That’s not our problem anymore.

Pruitt does have a point though. “We all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.” Georgia fans made that choice two years ago. We’ll fill the stadium in the off chance of impressing a decent prospect on the fence. We’ll pay more for a lesser home schedule. It’s eased some of the friction to see the program become exactly what we decided we wanted it to be. I can’t imagine Tennessee fans being as amenable if Pruitt’s trajectory falls short of Smart’s. Who knew being the customer came with so many expectations on us?

(This post was just an excuse to post this Steve Harvey clip – it’s become the first thing I think of when coaches start to challenge the fans. “I paid $38.50…*you* scream.” (NSFW clip below.))


Post 2018 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday February 28, 2018

Mississippi State is second no longer. The Bulldogs reached new program heights a year ago by reaching the Final Four, shocking UConn in a thriller, and playing for the national championship. They led the SEC until the final week of the season. But when it came title time, Vic Schaefer’s squad came up just short as South Carolina swept the regular season SEC title, the SEC Tournament title, and of course the national title.

South Carolina’s reign at the top was brief. Schaefer’s team left no doubt this year – the Bulldogs rolled through the conference with a perfect 16-0 mark and an overall undefeated record. Mississippi State are the SEC champs for the first time and won the league by a four-game margin. They roll into this week’s tournament in Nashville as the #2 team in the nation and the odds-on favorite to add a tournament championship to the trophy case.

Though the Bulldogs were dominant and in a class by themselves, it was a particularly interesting and competitive season among the top half of the conference. Teams 2 through 7 are all within a game of each other. The standings are unusually stratified: half the conference is 11-5 or better, and the other half all have losing records. There were only a handful of games in which the lower half beat a team from the top half. Alabama continued its bizarre success over Tennessee. LSU dropped a pair to Auburn and Alabama. But that’s pretty much it. The top teams feasted on the bottom half with an occasional loss to another top team. The bottom teams found no success against the top half and got their few wins against each other.

The strength of the top half of the conference is evident in the rankings. All seven were ranked in the latest AP poll. ESPN’s bracketology has SEC members hosting five of the sixteen NCAA subregionals meaning they would be at least 4-seeds or better.

What this all should mean for the 2018 SEC Women’s Tournament is fairly predictable early rounds setting up some collosal matchups from the quarterfinals on. Ordinarily we’d expect at least one or two upsets with lower-seeded teams advancing to Friday. This year, though, the top seven should be strong favorites to reach the quarterfinals, and fans should be treated to some fantastic competitive matchups.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: Bye
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs TBD (likely Missouri): ~9:30 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 4:30 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

1) Mississippi State (16-0, 30-0) (LY-2, PS-2): It’s hard to be better than perfect. MSU built on their breakthrough season of 2017 to win the elusive conference title, and they did so without a blemish. If there’s a knock against this team, it’s that the nonconference schedule wasn’t especially challenging with a win over Oregon standing out. They’ve had a couple of close calls: Oklahoma State and Missouri took MSU to the final minute. But that’s reaching – the Bulldogs didn’t slip up and beat every team that tooko the court. If anything, they’ve finished the season even stronger. Since surviving a scare at Missouri, they’ve won games by an average of 29 points with no win closer than 14 points.

Senior forward Victoria Vivians has long been a star in the SEC, and she’s even improved her range and consistency this year, hitting nearly 40% from outside and 50% overall from the floor. She made her team competitive right away as a freshman, but MSU took off because of the supporting cast built around Vivians. Junior center Teaira McCowan has developed from a raw freshman into a dominant presence inside capable of holding her own against any post player. McCowan is putting up 18.7 PPG and has pulled down an astounding 405 rebounds this year, good for 13.5 per game. Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer are each shooting over 40% from outside and have combined for 143 three-pointers. Morgan William returns as the hero of the UConn win, and she’s been an effective point guard with an assist/turnover ratio better than 4.

Schaefer has tightened his rotation a bit. In 2017 the Bulldogs had ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. That’s down to seven this year, and the team might play about eight or occasionally nine on a given night. No one outside the starting five is averaging over 5 PPG, and they lean on Vivians and McCowan for about half of their points. That formula hasn’t let them down yet. It’s a devastating inside-outside combo that few teams can match when combined with Schaefer’s typically tough defense.

2) South Carolina (12-4, 23-6) (LY-1, PS-1): When you win the national title, you get everyone’s best shot. South Carolina hasn’t fallen far during their title defense, but enough cracks showed to knock them off the top line. They’ve struggled at times to replace a pair of guards now playing professionally, and a season-ending injury to Bianca Cuevas-Moore left the team thin at that key position. Another season-ending injury to grad transfer Lindsey Spann left the team without its best outside option. There’s still more than enough talent to get past most teams, but this isn’t the invincible squad from a year ago that cut down the nets.

The college career of A’ja Wilson is winding down, and it’s not to soon to consider her one of the conference’s all-time greats. It’s not hyperbole to say that her signing four years ago altered the course of the South Carolina program and changed the SEC. Now the Gamecocks, along with Mississippi State, are the standard-bearers of the SEC and the conference’s best hopes to advance deep in the NCAA tournament. With a less-potent lineup at guard this year, Wilson’s been asked to carry more of the load. Often she’s up to the job, but she’s showed signs of wear this year with a couple of missed games. Wilson’s absence was key in three of the team’s four SEC losses: she missed both losses to Tennessee for medical reasons, and foul trouble limited her minutes and production in an upset loss at Missouri. For South Carolina to have much success in this tournament and beyond, they need Wilson in top form.

Wilson is averaging nearly 23 PPG – almost a third of the team’s production. No other player is averaging over 12 PPG. Wilson and fellow post player Alexis Jennings are the focal point of the offense with Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan providing depth off the bench. Backcourt production without Cuevas-Moore and Spann comes from sophomore Tyasha Harris, Doniyah Cliney, and Bianca Jackson, but there’s not a ton of depth. Wilson is dominant on both ends. She leads the league in scoring but also leads in blocks and is third in rebounds.

South Carolina is still a strong favorite to reach the finals, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they took the tournament. The Gamecocks lost to Mississippi State after a late collapse in front of a record-setting frenzied crowd in Starkville, but both programs should have strong support in Nashville. South Carolina should have Wilson back for a likely quarterfinal rematch against Tennessee, and hopefully we’ll finally get to see a Wilson vs. Mercedes Russell battle.

3) Georgia (12-4, 24-5) (LY-8, PS-8): Joni Taylor’s first two teams exceeded expectations, and her third squad continued that trend in a big way. The Lady Dogs were projected to equal their eighth-place finish of last season. They ended the season tied for second, and it’s the best finish for the program since 2007. The team posted its best overall and SEC records since the Elite Eight season of 2013. Explaining how it happened would be incomplete without mentioning the schedule. Georgia faced only one ranked team, Texas, in nonconference play and lost badly. They also had a bit of luck in conference: the three SEC teams Georgia faced twice all finished at the bottom of the league. Georgia earned their finish and postseason possibilities by avoiding bad losses. Their “worst” loss of the season was at LSU. Each of the five teams that beat Georgia are now ranked, and four of them are in the top 12.

Even with a favorable schedule, you can’t finish 24-5 without racking up some quality wins along the way. Georgia was an impressive 10-2 away from home. They have some respectable nonconference wins over BYU, Mercer, Virginia, and Georgia Tech. Georgia started conference play strong with an undefeated January that featured an overtime win at Texas A&M and a home win over Missouri. The Lady Dogs moved into second place, but they dropped three of their next five. Georgia closed the season with three straight wins that separated themselves from the four-team tie just below them. The Lady Dogs ended up tied only with South Carolina, and that’s not bad company to keep.

Georgia replaced much of their backcourt production from a year ago, but they knew they’d be strong in the frontcourt. Junior Caliya Robinson and senior Mackenzie Engram stepped up to lead the team in scoring, and both earned all-SEC honors. Though senior guard Haley Clark returned, much of the backcourt minutes would have to be logged by newcomers. Georgia welcomed Louisville transfer Taja Cole and a top ten recruiting class, but there’s always some uncertainty plugging so many newcomers into an established system. Fortunately for the Lady Dogs, the additions were up to the job. Cole stepped in as point guard. Que Morrison earned a starting role out of the gate and was named to the SEC all-freshmen team. Gabby Connally and Maya Caldwell were called on for significant minutes off the bench, and that depth paid off several times. Clark was able to be more of a role player as a senior, and she often drew Georgia’s toughest defensive assignment.

Though the Lady Dogs have more firepower than they have in recent years, they still have periods in which they struggle to score. They thrive on sound defense that often creates turnovers and transition chances, but even those fastbreaks have been adventures at times. Often the things holding Georgia back are self-inflicted: turnovers, free-throw shooting, and unnecessary foul trouble have all been issues at times. But when Robinson and Engram are firing inside and Georgia can get some production on the perimeter, the consistent Georgia defense makes this a tough team to beat. They’ll return to the NCAA tournament and should be a host for the first and second rounds. Their stock could rise higher with a semifinal appearance, and they’d be playing with house money at that point.

4) LSU (11-5, 19-8) (LY-7, PS-7): LSU kind of came under the radar this year to wind up with the #4 seed. They began the season with few notable nonconference wins and were 12-6 overall and 4-3 in the SEC after a loss at Texas A&M. At this point of the season, just over a month ago, they were considered a bubble team. They closed the season winning 7 of 9 including wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and a rematch with A&M. They had some shaky games down the stretch but survived well enough to enter the four-team tie for fourth. With a 3-1 record against the other tied teams, they came out on top of the logjam.

The trick to LSU’s success has been an 11-1 home record. The Tigers are just 7-6 on the road. Their biggest wins – Tennessee, Georgia, A&M – came in Baton Rouge. They did manage to knock off Missouri on the road, but Mizzou was without Sophie Cunningham. LSU and A&M split home and home during the season, and they’ll likely face each other in the quarterfinals. The Tigers are a tournament lock now, but another win over the Aggies could be a big boost to their seed.

They win with a suffocating matchup zone defense that has its origins in Nikki Fargas’ Tennessee roots. LSU has been one of the league’s lowest-scoring teams over the past couple of seasons, and that continues this year. They’ve won more this year because they’ve been more effective on offense and have scored at least 70 points in six of their last nine games, but they’re still at the bottom of the SEC’s scoring stats. They won’t shoot many three-pointers and will hit under 30% of them. They’ll rely on defense and offensive rebounding to create much of their scoring.

5) Texas A&M (11-5, 22-8) (LY-6, PS-4): The Aggies have perfected putting together above-average seasons and putting a product on the court that can compete with almost anyone. You know that Gary Blair’s teams will play sound defense, won’t attempt many outside shots, and won’t help you out with many mistakes. This year’s A&M team handled most unranked opponents inside and outside of the conference, but they struggled with ranked teams. They have two wins in eight attempts against ranked teams – an overtime home win over Tennessee, and a dismantling of Missouri in the season finale. They were a solid 15-3 at home but an ordinary 7-5 away from College Station.

The Aggies feature the SEC’s freshman of the year, Chennedy Carter. Carter has emerged as a dynamic scorer putting up 21.6 PPG, second only to A’ja Wilson. Carter is supported by some experienced veterans: center Khaalia Hillsman is a tough matchup inside. Danni Williams is a streaky shooter who can put up big numbers. Anriel Howard is a capable scorer inside the arc who can draw contact and get to the line. This isn’t a deep team – only seven players see more than seven minutes per game. That lack of depth could prove to be an issue in a tournament setting.

6) Missouri (11-5, 23-6) (LY-3, PS-3): Sophie Cunningham needs no introduction, but the past two seasons have seen Missouri develop into much more than a one-woman team. The Tigers have defeated South Carolina in consecutive seasons, and they came closer than anyone to knocking off Mississippi State. They were strong at home, losing only to LSU (with Cunningham out injured) and MSU. They hit a rough patch with losses to Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, but they closed the regular season 6-1.

Missouri used to shoot more three-pointers than anyone in the league by a wide margin, but they’re a more reasonable third now. They still hit outside shots at a 38.4% clip, good for second behind only MSU. The Tigers are more effective inside the arc for two reasons: Cunningham is just as comfortable going to the basket as shooting jumpers, and Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter have emerged as the team’s second and third-leading scorers. Frericks and Porter make teams pay for overplaying perimeter shooters. Make no mistake – Missouri will still launch bombs from outside. Four players have attempted more than 100 three-pointers, and nine players shoot better than 30% from outside. Their halfcourt offense is deliberate and moves the ball well. They average over 16 assists per game. It makes sense that they don’t get to the line often, but they hit free throws when they get them.

7) Tennessee (11-5, 23-6) (LY-5, PS-5): Lady Vol fans have been frustrated with the inconsistency of their team over the past couple of seasons, and that continued this year. They swept South Carolina and beat Texas but were only 1-3 against the four teams tied for fourth in the SEC. They led Notre Dame by 20 but collapsed late and lost. The Lady Vols came out on the wrong end of the tiebreakers, and so they’ll finish tied for fourth but seeded seventh. That upset home loss against Alabama kept them from a second place finish.

Like Georgia, Tennessee has paired an experienced core with an outstanding freshman class – rated the best incoming class in the nation. Their top two seniors need little introduction to SEC fans. Center Mercedes Russell chose to come back for her senior season and has improved her game. She’s now capable of dominant post play and has avoided the mistakes that took her out of games earlier in her career. Jaime Nared, already established as a valuable do-everything player, has taken over the mantle of leading scorer. You don’t have to go far down the stat sheet to see the impact of the freshmen. Wing Rennia Davis is averaging over 11 PPG and 7.6 rebounds. The next two leading scorers are also freshmen, and Evina Westbrook has been impressive handling point guard duties as a true freshman.

The Lady Vols have two weaknesses: depth and turnovers. Only about eight players see more than 10 minutes per game, and they rely quite a bit on Nared and Russell. Tennessee is second only to Vanderbilt in turnovers allowed, and the Commodores and Lady Vols have something in common: inexperienced players handling the ball. That issue came up against their first round opponent, Auburn. Tennessee eventually pulled away, but 28 turnovers kept Auburn in that game. Should the Lady Vols advance, they expect to see South Carolina. Tennessee won both meetings with the Gamecocks but have yet to face a South Carolina team at full strength. It has to be one of the more anticipated potential quarterfinal matchups.

8) Alabama (7-9, 17-12) (LY-12, PS-9): Alabama earned their best result in some time with an experienced team heavy on upperclassmen. The roster features six seniors, nine upperclassmen, and just one freshman. They started conference play 4-7, but a three-game winning streak had them in position for the program’s first winning SEC season since 1998 and revived talk of the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1999. The Crimson Tide dropped a pair of overtime heartbreakers in the final week of the season to settle at 7-9, and the WNIT is their likely postseason destination. Impressive wins over Tennessee (in Knoxville!) and LSU elevated the Tide over the rest of the bottom half. Guard Hannah Cook and forward Ashley Williams are the only scorers in double-figures, and it’s not an especially high-scoring team. Alabama plays solid defense, and it’s noteworthy that they have six players across all positions with over 100 rebounds this season. Alabama took a bad loss at Kentucky earlier in the season as they had few answers for the Wildcat backcourt. They should be more competitive in the rematch, but their NCAA hopes won’t survive beyond the quarterfinals.

9) Kentucky (6-10, 14-16) (LY-4, PS-6): It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Cats this low in the standings. Kentucky has finished lower than fourth only once under Matthew Mitchell – a ninth place finish in 2009. The team has struggled to replace the production of Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, and it’s a bit of a rebuilding year with only three seniors on the team. Only two players, guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, average over 7 PPG. They’ve had to lean on a trio of freshmen at forward to join senior Alyssa Rice, and that frontcourt inexperience has cost them at times. The backcourt, especially Morris, can shoot them past lesser teams, but they don’t look to advance deep into the tournament.

10) Auburn (5-11, 14-14) (LY-9, PS-11): Auburn took a step backward after sneaking into the NCAA tournament last season. There’s not a lot they do well statistically. A lack of rebounds and blocks hit at frontcourt issues. They are at the bottom of the SEC in three-pointers. There is one stat at which Auburn excels. They lead the conference in steals, and that speaks to Auburn’s suffocating trap and matchup zone defense. The Tigers feast on turnovers and transition points. They’ve forced 641 turnovers this season, nearly 23 per game, and they have 369 steals. Everyone is active on defense – eight Auburn players have at least 29 steals. They’ll struggle if forced into a halfcourt game, and opponents can find easy scoring opportunities if they can beat the press. Guards Janiah McKay and Daisa Alexander provide much of the scoring, and freshman forward Unique Thompson has been a good addition. No other player scores over 6 PPG. Auburn forced 28 Tennessee turnovers and were tied with the Lady Vols after three quarters in a loss in Knoxville. They’ll have to have a similar defensive effort and finish better to have a chance at an early upset.

11) Florida (3-13, 11-18) (LY-11, PS-13): New coach Cameron Newbauer took his lumps in his debut season, but there were occasionally glimpses of progress. There was an early-season win over Oklahoma and consecutive wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss in January, but the Gators have been unable to sustain much success. There were several close calls. They’ve lost by 3 to Ole Miss, 3 to Kentucky, 7 to LSU and South Carolina, 5 to A&M, and 2 to Missouri. They led Georgia for the better part of a game in Gainesville before the Lady Dogs took over in the fourth quarter. You’d expect some of those games to turn into wins next season, but three of Florida’s top five scorers are seniors. Haley Lorenzen and Paulina Hersler are senior stretch forwards capable of scoring inside or out. Transfer Funda Nakkasoglu had immediate impact as the team’s leading scorer and three-point shooter. No team attempted more three-pointers this season, and even Hersler, a 6’3″ forward, attempted 127. The team shoots over 30% from outside, and that perimeter firepower has kept them in some of those closer games. If they can get past Ole Miss, Florida will face Missouri – just a two-point road loss in early February for the Gators. That could end up as an unexpectedly competitive second-round game on Thursday if Florida has anything left in the tank.

12) Vanderbilt (3-13, 7-23) (LY-13, PS-10): Stephanie White’s team didn’t make much progress in her second season. A young but promising 2016 recruiting class is still coming into its own, and the Commodores must rely on several young players for significant minutes. Seniors Christa Reed and Rachel Bell provide the experienced leadership, but the team’s leading scorer is freshman Chelsie Hall. Vandy’s inexperience really shows in the frontcourt where nearly every regular player is an underclassman. White continues to recruit well, but you’d expect her team to begin to show results soon. Vanderbilt narrowly defeated first-round opponent Arkansas in Nashville last week, and the rematch should be another close game. The difference in that Vanderbilt win was the Commodores’ advantage in the frontcourt. Sophomore Kayla Overbeck was dominant and will have to come up big again.

13) Arkansas (3-13, 12-17) (LY-14, PS-14): Arkansas has big hopes for first-year coach Mike Neighbors, but it won’t happen overnight. Neighbors took Washington to the Final Four in 2016 and coached 2017 national player of the year Kelsey Plum. Arkansas hasn’t had that kind of success since their own Final Four trip in 1998. Neighbors imposed his preferred up-tempo, gunning identity this year with a roster not quite built for that style. The Razorbacks attempted 760 three-pointers this season – more than Missouri and second only to Florida – but only hit 29% of them. We have a pretty good idea what future Arkansas teams will look like. Three guards – Malica Monk, Devin Cosper, and Jailyn Mason – lead the attack and are the only players averaging over 10 PPG. Monk and Mason will return and be a capable backcourt next season, but they’ll need some help in the frontcourt. It’s been a tall order to replace Jessica Jackson.

14) Ole Miss (1-15, 11-18) (LY-10, PS-12): Mississippi’s slide this year can more or less be explained by an early-season injury to standout senior guard Shandricka Sessom. Sessom was averaging around 17 PPG at the time of her injury, and that’s an impossible loss to absorb for a team without much depth. Whether Sessom’s presence would have raised the team out of the bottom four is speculation, but it surely would have made the team more competitive and likely led to a couple of more wins. As it is, Madinah Muhammad and Alissa Alston have stepped up at guard to help shoulder some of the burden. Forward Shelby Gibson can be a handful against undersized opponents, and freshman Promise Taylor has been an effective addition to the frontcourt. With Sessom set to return to an experienced team next year, there should be brighter days ahead for the Rebels.


Post Checking all of the boxes

Monday February 12, 2018

There’s any number of ways to look at the success of a recruiting class. The simplest way is to add up the stars and rankings and sort them relative to the competition. That’s how we end up declaring Georgia’s class as the nation’s best. It got the best players and it got more of them. A more nuanced way to evaluate a class is to consider needs or scheme. It’s fine to sign the nation’s best group of receivers, but what if you didn’t sign that left tackle to keep your quarterback upright? You signed a great pocket passer, but you run an option offense.

Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall poses some questions to help us think through whether a team signed the “right” kind of players to succeed in the modern game. Let’s walk through them.

How does your QB handle live bullets? What does full film say about your team’s new QB(s)? In a tough game against strong defense, does he hold up? What skills does he lean on to get the job done?

We’ll let Kirby demonstrate what it’s like to watch Justin Fields during a game.

I expect Fields to have some adjustment to the college game similar to what Boyd saw in Shea Patterson. Fields was the focal point of his offense and often had to improvise under pressure. If you want to see Fields against an elite HS defense, check the film from his game against Adam Anderson and Rome – both the highlights and the rest. Like any freshman, he’ll have to learn more discipline and read progression, and he’ll have to trust his line and receivers.

Did your team get star prospects at the focal positions of the college game? In particular, did they sign any good tight ends?

Georgia continued to stockpile talent at the tight end position with the addition of Luke Ford and John FitzPatrick. Ford’s a big target in his own right at 6’5″, but FitzPatrick is a legit Leonard Pope-like 6’7″. Georgia might continue to use those tight ends differently than, say, Oklahoma, but Georgia’s tight ends still have to be adaptable enough to line up everywhere from the slot to H-back. Ford and FitzPatrick can do that.

I’d also consider it a good sign that Georgia signed elite edge defenders. James Cook was also a big get, as we’ve seen the value of a versatile back like Michel or Swift.

Conversely, did your team sign a good nose tackle?

If there’s a possible weakness in the amazing class Georgia signed, it might be along the defensive line. The Dawgs lose unheralded but valuable tackle John Atkins and also Trenton Thompson. Jordan Davis at 6’6″ and 330 lbs certainly qualifies as a big body along the defensive front, and Devonte Wyatt has been seasoned by a year at prep school and participation in Georgia’s postseason practices. Neither signee is a reach, but this is a rare position at which Georgia didn’t sign a top 10 prospect. It becomes a top priority for the 2019 class.

Can your best defenders stay on the field?

Boyd explains that “the real key is that your best players project to multiple positions so that they can stay on the field and be in the right spots at the right times to play winning, situational football.” This might be the real strength of the Georgia class. You can imagine several of these prospects in different roles. A good example is Otis Reese – he was considered a linebacker during recruiting, but Kirby Smart announced that Reese would start out as a safety. (Visions of Thomas Davis?) The Dawgs landed a fleet of guys in the defensive end / outside linebacker-ish body type. Tyson Campbell is an elite corner but is big enough to take on the star position. Certainly most of these defenders will prove more proficient at one position than another, but the athleticism and skills are there to keep the best of them on the field in most situations.


Post How a disastrous recruiting class became the nation’s best

Friday February 9, 2018

As I tried to wrap my head around Georgia’s historic 2018 recruiting haul, I kept coming back to April and May of last year. Georgia had missed out on Brenton Cox. Adam Anderson decommitted and flipped to LSU. The state’s top quarterbacks were headed to Clemson, Ohio State, and Penn State. At one point in May another decommitment left Georgia with only two 2018 pledges: kicker Jake Camarda and cornerback Chris Smith. Georgia was near the bottom of the conference with several top prospects headed elsewhere. You began to see versions of the same question being asked by media:

Those weren’t inflammatory hot takes. It was an angsty time, and Georgia’s class was actually shrinking as other programs secured some important targets.

Hope came from reports that some key prospects favored Georgia and would eventually form the cornerstone of the class. Zeus. Salyer. Hill. If they came on board, the class could be salvaged. But Georgia couldn’t afford many more misses, and even those who leaned Georgia’s way were keeping a wary eye on the 2017 season. Kirby Smart had established himself as a solid recruiter, but there was still uncertainty about the product on the field after an 8-5 debut. Prospects were getting an earful from the competition about Georgia’s ability to compete for titles. “That was my big critique about them coming into the season and overall,” explained Jamaree Salyer. “They haven’t been able to win the big games in recent history.”

Things began to happen. Zamir White committed and at least got everyone down off the ledge. Justin Fields decommitted from Penn State. Adam Anderson decommitted from LSU. Kearis Jackson committed. The season began, and Georgia finally had some on-field success to sell. Prospects like Salyer took notice. “Beating a highly-touted Mississippi State team at home was really good,” he said following that early win. Fields committed with two other five-star QBs on the Georgia roster, and that got the class and Georgia’s recruiting efforts in the news. James Cook continued Georgia’s embarrassment of riches at tailback. The class began to fill out, but several major prospects held out until the early signing period.

Christmas came early for this signing class. Lynchpin offensive linemen Salyer and Hill committed. Brenton Cox flipped from Ohio State. Cade Mays was an impressive late commitment. Georgia dominated the December signing period as just about every top target inked with the Bulldogs. If you circled a name back in spring or summer as a must-get to salvage the 2018 class, odds are they signed with Georgia. Between the SEC Championship and the early signing class, no program had a better December than the Dawgs.

With all but a handful of 2018 spots locked up, the February signing day didn’t offer nearly the drama we’ve seen most years. Still, there was work to do and important pieces to add. Tyson Campbell adds instant impact in the secondary. Tommy Bush’s size will draw comparisons to Wims on the outside. Quay Walker and Otis Reese will shore up the linebacker position depleted by graduation and the draft. Wednesday’s fantastic results gilded the lily that was Georgia’s December haul.

There’s no need this year for spinning the shortcomings in this class. It was the best. There were no reaches. It’s the kind of class necessary to keep Georgia competing for titles. It’s the kind of class Georgia will need to continue to sign to have the kind of multi-year runs we’ve seen from Alabama and Clemson. One thing already will be different about the 2019 class – with seven commitments including three 5* prospects already on board, you won’t see the words “concerned” or “worry” used very much unless you’re talking about the programs recruiting against Georgia.


Post How to mess up a perfectly reasonable price increase

Thursday February 8, 2018

Two things bugged me about Georgia’s decision to raise ticket prices. I really don’t have much problem with the increase itself. We all know what the market is like, and anyone who’s followed the Dawgs on the road has first-hand experience with the concept of premium pricing. Two things though…

Transparency

Outgoing athletics board member Janet Frick noted that the board wasn’t given the full proposal on paper until the meeting at which the proposal was approved. That implies that those who submitted the proposal expected it to sail through the approval process as-is without much consideration, dissent, or discussion. In this case, they were probably right. Even Frick admits that the proposal was “appropriate,” and there was no real objection. Frick’s larger point has to do with transparency.

“Organizations are healthier when there is time and consideration and full vetting of decisions before they happen. We need discussion and dissent. That leads to better long-term decisions. No one benefits from a “rubberstamp” mentality,” she tweeted.

There have been too many stories lately about institutions turning a blind eye to ongoing abuse within athletic organizations. There have been no such allegations at Georgia, and Seth Emerson does a good job of discussing the issue as it pertains to Georgia. These instances of abuse elsewhere festered for years in large part because the individuals and systems in positions of responsibility allowed them to continue. The coverup doesn’t have to be active, though in some horrific cases it was. Often it was enough to remain passive – to not ask questions, to kick the can down the road, or to blindly sign off on the decisions and actions of others.

Yes, it’s a stretch to mention an uncontroversial ticket price increase in the same breath as the far more serious problems that reach all the way to the NCAA commissioner. What they have in common though is some breakdown in oversight. It’s one thing to be careless with the presentation of a proposal, but I doubt Frick would raise the issue if this were the only instance of a “rubberstamp mentality” she had encountered in three years on the board. Transparency, dissent, and discussion don’t have to be contrarian. As Frick notes, they’re signs of a healthy oversight body that’s likely to be out in front of more substantial problems.

Update: I think we understand now why the proposal was rushed through the board. The administration didn’t seem prepared to present any kind of coherent case in support of the proposal to the general public, let alone to the board charged with the program’s oversight.

More for less

We know that the 2018 home schedule, especially the non-conference part, isn’t all that great.* We’re used to our biggest SEC rivalry game played off-campus. We also know that Kirby Smart is in favor of playing major programs at neutral sites to start the season. The economics favor neutral site games.

What it all means is that even with the ticket price increase we’re less likely to see Georgia’s best games included as part of the season ticket package. Notre Dame will be an exception, but that was agreed to years ago. Not only will you be paying more for your season tickets, there will also be one and occasionally two additional tickets at premium prices above even the highest $75 home ticket price. Your season ticket package will contain four, and sometimes only three, SEC opponents, Tech every other year, and whatever lower-tier nonconference games the school can negotiate.

As a friend put it, if you’re going to raise prices I want more $75 games and fewer $55 ones.

* – What happened with the 2017 home schedule was pure alchemy. 2017 was supposed to be a garbage home slate full of sleepy nooners. Somehow we ended up with an unprecedented number of late games and the opportunity to see in person:

  • Fromm’s immediate impact coming off the bench
  • The team come into its own against MSU, the darling of September
  • How the team and Fromm would respond in a shootout against Missouri
  • The team clinch the SEC East against SC
  • Sending off a legendary senior class in the home finale

Not a bad year to be in Sanford Stadium.


Post Saban’s calculated gamble

Thursday January 11, 2018

Alabama’s quarterback switcheroo in the title game was fascinating enough in the context of the game, but it also gives Georgia fans a lot to think about concerning our own group of quarterbacks.

Jacob Eason’s unfortunate injury in the opener made it a moot point, but Georgia’s quarterback situation loosely resembled Alabama’s at the start of the season. There was an established second-year starter and a promising newcomer waiting in the wings. Jake Fromm wasn’t quite as highly rated as Tua Tagovailoa, but Fromm’s performance at G-Day and in preseason camp led to more than a couple of questions about how Kirby Smart would find playing time for his true freshman.

Eason’s injury reversed the situation. Smart chose to stick with his freshman, and Saban continued to start the established sophomore. There was a difference in how each program worked in the backup. Eason attempted four passes the rest of the year (and none beyond the Vanderbilt game) after returning from his injury. Alabama continued to find playing time for Tagovailoa who attempted 77 passes in 2017. While Fromm’s position as the starter became more and more certain as the season went on, the idea of starting Tagovailoa threatened to grow beyond the fringes of the Alabama fan base especially after Alabama’s offense struggled against Auburn.

Tagovailoa was unknown to people who didn’t watch much Alabama football, but he threw passes in seven regular season games, attempted nearly a quarter of the team’s passes, and accounted for just under 40% of the team’s passing touchdowns. He was unfamiliar but not unready or unproven. Georgia’s coaches were aware of and, going by Smart’s postgame comments, even prepared for the possibility of seeing him. Would Fromm have been in a similar state of readiness had Eason remained the starter?

Thinking about that in the Eason/Fromm context now is a little pointless, but it becomes a little more relevant in 2018. Georgia will once again have a promising and capable true freshman, and Justin Fields will bring a skill set that will give the coaches some options. It remains to be seen how Fields and Fromm will measure up in terms of arm strength, accuracy, preparation, and even leadership, but Fields’ mobility is a unique attribute.

I’m not beating the drum for a quarterback controversy days after Jake Fromm led his team to the national title game. But when the situation and matchup convinced Saban to take a risk with everything on the line, he didn’t hesitate, and Tagovailoa was ready. I admit that’s the first place my mind went when I saw Alabama’s quarterback change. Would Smart be willing to take such a calculated risk if he had a reason to do so? And how would Georgia fans receive a change like that? Would the reaction be outcome-based, or would they understand the coach’s attempt to match personnel and situation? In hindsight, Saban’s move was genius only after Tagovailoa made an improbable third down escape to spark Alabama’s first scoring drive. Were those missed Georgia tackles the difference between a desperate and failed experiment and validation of Saban’s bold move?

Fields hasn’t suited up yet, so I know this is getting ahead of ourselves. One of the more impressive things about 2017 was how Georgia players of all levels of experience were ready when called on. That’s a credit both to the coaches and the players. Crowder was ready for the most obscure possibility in the Rose Bowl. Ridley was ready to step up with Wims injured in the title game. Even after clinching a division title, the staff made a change on the offensive line to make the offense that much better for the postseason. We forget that Fromm himself is an example of readiness. Eason’s injury could have been a deflating disaster, but the staff (with Fromm’s hard work) had the freshman ready to step in right away and then prepared him for the challenge of the Notre Dame game. I don’t know how Smart will approach the quarterback position next year, but I’m confident that he won’t be caught unprepared.


Post A trip to remember

Friday September 15, 2017

It’s been a rough week without power and internet access since we returned from Chicago and South Bend, but I wanted to get a few posts out about the trip.

Our group arrived Thursday, and the flight up was reminiscent of earlier trips to Tempe and Boulder. Georgia fans in good spirits (and drinking good spirits) filled the plane, and that became a commonplace sight throughout the trip. We used Chicago as our base and did the Cubs/Dawgs/Falcons triple-header. For several of us, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to check off three of the most iconic venues in sports. It looked as if we weren’t alone, and many smiles, “Go Dawgs!”, and even a few barks were exchanged with thousands of fans throughout the weekend. The experience of being a Road Dawg is a treasure. It’s not always inexpensive, and it can be tough to leave family and other obligations for a distant football game, but it’s almost always worth it. I hope every dedicated Georgia fan can experience a big road game.

I was impressed with the folks behind the Dawg Days events in which thousands of fans participated. I can only speak for my group’s experience, but everything went smoothly – pre-event communication, registration, transportation, and of course the events themselves. It was a well-organized operation, and it even handled the sudden Cubs’ time change. Of course drink and bathroom lines can always be shorter, but that’s a fact of life when you offer free beer to Georgia tailgaters.

That brings us to the game and the campus. $400 million buys you some nice stadium improvements, and it showed. The exterior facade of the stadium blended into the surrounding buildings. Wide concourses had almost a vintage feel, modernized with all of the conveniences. It’s natural to compare the results of this renovation with the needs of Sanford Stadium, but that’s a whole other post for some offseason.

A friend called it “Masters Football.” The stadium wasn’t lit up with marquee boards, there was no find-the-leprechaun-behind-the-french-fries game, and in-game messages highlighted faculty achievements and other points of pride. The only blemish was piping in music, especially on opponent third downs, but that’s kind of a given now. (And with several of the music selections Atlanta hip-hop, perhaps they were just trying to make us feel at home.) The campus of course was immaculate with nearly every Georgia fan seeking out a photo opportunity in front of the Golden Dome or Touchdown Jesus.

The quantity of Georgia fans in South Bend shook a lot of us. Even Georgia fans who expected a large turnout were overwhelmed and didn’t expect it to be that big. I was giddy and immensely proud of the turnout, and I’m relieved that we left a fairly good impression. I don’t blame Notre Dame fans for being put off by an opponent taking over their stadium, but I agree with Michael that the Georgia turnout should be considered the highest compliment to Notre Dame. I don’t know that as many Georgia fans would travel to Penn State or Nebraska, though we’d have an above-average showing as we did for Arizona State and Colorado. Regardless of Notre Dame’s current relevancy, college football fans have to acknowledge the program’s place in our history. Most any program’s DNA has some common threads with Notre Dame whether it’s directly (Harry Mehre) or indirectly (Vince Dooley). If you want to go deeper than I care to here, you can explore Notre Dame’s embodiment of northern college football or even dive into Savannah Catholicism. For whatever reasons, we had to be there. A fun city like Chicago nearby added to the appeal, and the opportunity to take in Wrigley Field and Soldier Field as well as Notre Dame made the trip a must for me.

Seeing the red was impressive enough, but the lights during the fourth quarter fanfare took your breath away. The colors were tough to pick out in far corners of the stadium, but there was no mistaking the breadth of the individual lights from nearly every section of the stadium. There were audible gasps, and you can hear the roar growing from the Georgia fans as they realized the magnitude of the Bulldog presence. I heard a Notre Dame observer on the WSLS podcast talk about how demoralizing that moment was for the home crowd, and I wonder what it did for the teams. Georgia’s players and coaches have been effusive with their praise for the road crowd, and I would bet that it took a little wind out of the sails of the home team.

I’ve been a proponent of keeping these big games on campus, though I realize it’s swimming upstream agaisnt the money to be made from neutral site games. Kirby Smart has expressed his preference for the big neutral site games. Fortunately this home-and-home was negotiated before the coaching change. It’s a fact that the interests of the fans don’t always align themselves with what’s best for the team. Georgia could have simply scheduled another lightweight home game as they will in 2018. Speaking for my wallet, a trip of this magnitude isn’t workable every year or even every other year (especially if Jacksonville is an annual ritual,) but I’m already looking forward to UCLA in 2025. Perhaps the rarity and uniqueness of these games make them so desirable. I don’t know that I would have gone to this game in, say, Dallas. I’m selfishly glad they took the risk to play this series.

I should close by commending everything about Notre Dame. From Chicago to South Bend, ND fans were cordial, welcoming, and gracious. Campus ambassadors and game day staff went looking for ways to help and point us in the right direction. There was some bantering of course, and maybe Notre Dame fans are more subdued than usual these days, but I hope they have at least half as good a time in Athens in 2019 as we did last weekend.


Post Rejoice, couch potatoes

Wednesday August 16, 2017

If you like to inject as much college football as possible into your veins, it’s a good day.

ESPN today rolled out a new version of its Apple TV app that introduces the ability to watch four live simultaneous streams which can be displayed on the screen at the same time.

As the article notes, you’ll be able to configure the four streams any number of ways including everything from four equal panes to one primary stream while keeping an eye on the other three. This will be especially great when ESPN goes with the Megacast and offers different views of the same game on separate streams.

Of course it’s not perfect or for everyone:

  • You’ll only get games and streams offered by ESPN and ABC. That’s a ton of content and will include the SEC Network programming, but you won’t be able to include the featured CBS game (or Fox, NBC, etc).
  • You’ll need the 4th generation (post-2015) Apple TV hardware (and, it goes without saying, a decent internet connection. This isn’t something that will work at tailgate.)
  • You’ll have to authenticate with an active cable subscription. This won’t work for cord-cutters – at least until ESPN launches its own streaming service.

But if you can check all of those boxes, your Saturday experience on the couch just got better.


Post It’s the football, dummy

Monday July 3, 2017

I read pieces like this and wonder if we’d be seeing them – or if they’d resonate nearly as much – if Georgia were to win the SEC East in football this year.

I’m the polar opposite of the football-only fan, and I have no time for the subset of our fans (and they do exist) who are openly hostile when resources are directed to anything but the football progam. At the same time, I won’t pretend that anything but football sets the agenda and mood at Georgia. When you appear – and especially feature – on lists of most tortured fan bases, it’s going to color how you view most everything else.

There hasn’t been much going on in Sanford Stadium for at least two years. The Auburn game last year was certainly an exception, but any good feeling generated by that close upset win was erased weeks later when Tech came back from 13 down in the 4th quarter. It’s been a long time since that glorious early September evening in 2014 when the Dawgs were on top of the college football world and it looked as if Georgia, and not Clemson, was poised for bigger things.

When things aren’t going well on the football field, especially for such a lengthy period of time, your eye starts to wander to everything else that’s off. You’re annoyed by the in-game music. You are irritated by the wait for a bite to eat and the conditions in the bathroom. You start to question why you got up at 5:30 AM to have some semblance of a tailgate for a noon kickoff. Eventually you ask yourself why you continue to pay as much as you do for this experience when you could be just as disappointed in the comfort of your own home. In a few months, you’ll see that some other Georgia team lost to Florida, and all of the football dread will come washing back over you. We’re in a bad place right now.

I don’t mean to dismiss legitimate concerns with the state of the athletic department. Are there issues that can be laid at the feet of the athletic director? Personnel decisions certainly. Resources and facilities are also up there, though I don’t think Butts-Mehre has been asleep at the wheel in facilities. We’ve had messy incidents with the swimming program, the tennis programs, and even within the athletic department itself. Taken together, it’s not a good look and not an indication of a healthy culture. That’s all worth exploring, but does the average Georgia fan really have the stomach for that, or is it enough to tip the scales when compounded with our football dissatisfaction?

I do think each sport deserves to be evaluated individually, so it’s important to discern what exactly we’re griping about. I don’t remember the state of the athletic program when Georgia was five yards from the national title game in 2012. Successes like that of the track team or the men’s tennis run or softball’s WCWS season a year ago didn’t seem to move the needle much – certainly not relative to a Homecoming loss to Vanderbilt. If there’s worry over the athletic department, it’s mostly to do with its ability to support a championship football program.

Georgia – all of it – needs a successful 2017 football season. Structural issues in the athletic department, whatever they might be, won’t necessarily be cured by a few more wins, but how the sausage is made is not a careabout for many Georgia fans – so long as the end product is palatable. The bad news is that it’s going to be a while before we have an opportunity to get that good news. We’ll get some shots in the arm from recruiting, but that’s no substitute for the real thing. Even if the football team starts well, we know that expectations for 2017 involve a win in Jacksonville and an SEC East title. That’s still six months or more down the road, and that’s a long time to carry around this much angst.