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Post Sanford renovations get the go-ahead

Saturday August 13, 2022

The Board of Regents gave final approval for improvements to Sanford Stadium announced earlier this year. Most of the work will target the south side of the stadium – reconfigured gate access, wider 100-level concourses, and better restrooms. The second phase of the project will move the press box to a new facility in the southwest corner of the stadium, reclaim the current press box for premium seating, and add new suites. While the southern approach to the stadium from Sanford Drive will look quite different, the improvements will be welcome in one of the most constricted and underserved areas of the stadium. With Reed Alley providing breathing room for the north stands and the east side opened up by Gate 6, this project will tackle the biggest remaining area that needs more space.

One detail that raised some eyebrows was the addition of temporary gates on the south end of the bridge. It’s fantastic that there will be more entry points, but does it mean that the bridge will only be open to ticketed people on gameday? That would require some additional reconfiguration of Gate 2 and access to the north side of the stadium for the large number of fans walking from South Campus. It would also cut off access to the bookstore, student center, and Tate plaza for fans funneling in from the east and south parts of campus. Yes, you could redirect that foot traffic down Lumpkin Street, but that’s pretty far our of the way with greater elevation changes. The bridge isn’t just part of the iconic view from inside the stadium; it’s also a hub of movement and gathering on game day. It will be worth watching this area as the designs evolve. Some sort of corridor across the bridge needs to be a part of the plan.

I believe this project might eventually have a side effect related to another story from earlier in the year. In the spring we learned that there would be no alcohol sales in Sanford Stadium in 2022. Other Georgia venues from Stegeman Coliseum to the softball and baseball fields began selling beer this past year. From my visits to those venues, it didn’t seem like a big deal. We’ve also seen alcohol sales at other SEC football stadiums, and, again, no big deal. I don’t think anyone making the decisions at Georgia is opposed to alcohol sales at Sanford Stadium.

It’s more likely that the delay in selling alcohol at Sanford Stadium has to do with limited space in key areas of the stadium – particularly on the south side. It’s a constraint we pointed out right away since the SEC loosened its restrictions in 2019. Adding beer lines to the already-cramped concourses would invite disaster and make the game experience even less enjoyable for fans. I don’t particularly care if fans want to waste time in line for a beer. I do care about main walkways or even other concessions being choked off by those lines.

With expanded southside concourses and an opened-up Gate 9 area, there will be room for standalone beer stations on all sides of the stadium. Reed Alley on the north side has plenty of space. The Gate 6 area can work for the east stands. Once this project has been completed I think we’ll see Georgia move forward with alcohol sales at Sanford Stadium.


Post What the rest of the SEC is getting in Oklahoma and Texas

Tuesday July 5, 2022

The 2022 College World Series wrapped up last month marking the end of the 2021-2022 college sports season. Ole Miss claimed the program’s first baseball national title, and the odds were in favor of an SEC squad hoisting the trophy. SEC teams claimed four of the eight slots in Omaha – even with top-seeded Tennessee knocked out in the Super Regionals. Two of the remaining four slots were earned by programs due to join the SEC in just a couple of years: Texas and Oklahoma. Their advancement to the CWS comes just a couple of weeks after Oklahoma and Texas met in Oklahoma City for the NCAA softball title. Football naturally dominates the conference expansion conversation, but short of adding Stanford you won’t find many prospective new conference members with the dominant flagship programs of Oklahoma or the overall success of Texas.

The Longhorn and Sooner brands extend well beyond the gridiron, and they will immediately become SEC contenders in several men’s and women’s sports. SEC programs used to competing for conference titles year in and year out might soon face fresh challenges to the current balance of power. Texas took home the Directors’ Cup in 2021 knocking off perennial winner Stanford in the all-sports competition, and they repeated in 2022. Oklahoma was 24th in the 2021 Directors’ Cup standings, and they make up for a lack of depth across the board with a handful of true powerhouse programs. It’s not enough that these bitter rivals face off annually for conference titles; in 2022 they met twice with a national title on the line.

This is what we might expect when we see these new SEC members on the schedules of our other sports:

Baseball: The Longhorns have a baseball tradition second to none even among SEC programs. Texas has six national titles, reached the national semifinals in 2021, and advanced to Omaha again in 2022. Oklahoma has a respectable program of their own. The Sooners have two national titles and 11 CWS appearances including a trip to the CWS finals in 2022. The SEC tournament soon could just about rival the action in Omaha. But will an even more demanding tournament in Hoover hurt the chances of SEC clubs in the national tournament? SEC softball uses a single-elimination format. Will the men soon do likewise?

Basketball (men’s): Georgia fans will appreciate Oklahoma’s legacy of great players including Mookie Blaylock and Trae Young, but their history goes far beyond that. The Sooners have played in five Final Fours, most recently in 2016. Texas hoops has always been the story of untapped potential. Rick Barnes, now at Tennessee, led the Longhorns to their only Final Four since the 1940s. Shaka Smart won the program’s first Big 12 tournament title in 2021, but it wasn’t enough to overcome an inconsistent couple of years. Texas replaced Smart with successful Texas Tech coach Chris Beard after the 2021 season, and he led the program to its first NCAA Tournament win since 2014. Beard will benefit from improved recruiting under Smart and should be able to stand out among a muddled SEC picture. Kansas’s domination of the Big 12 has kept both programs without a conference regular season title since the 2000s – will they fare better in the SEC?

Basketball (women’s): Oklahoma fielded an elite WBB program in the 2000s and reached three Final Fours. Though still a competitive program and usually an NCAA tournament participant, they’ve slid back over the past decade and are now going through a coaching transition. They won’t upset the order in the SEC right away, but history says they can be a successful program. Texas, like Georgia, was one of the early powers in women’s basketball. The legendary Jody Conradt kept the program at a high level through the turn of the century. Since then they’ve spent lavishly on high-profile coaches and lured Vic Schaefer from Mississippi State after his successful run in Starkville. Texas produced the #1 pick in the WNBA draft in 2021 and seems to be on the upswing with two straight Elite Eight appearances. Schaefer just can’t get away: in the SEC he’ll face his Baylor nemesis Kim Mulkey, now coaching at LSU, and Schaefer’s battles at Mississippi State with South Carolina’s Dawn Staley defined the last decade of SEC women’s basketball.

Golf: Texas has an extremely rich legacy in men’s golf. Legends like Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, and Justin Leonard came through Austin. The Longhorns added to that tradition with another national title in 2022. Oklahoma also has a strong history with 18 conference titles and a pair of national championships to their credit. Sooner head coach Ryan Hybl should be a familiar name: he played at Georgia in the early 2000s and was an assistant coach for the Bulldogs until taking over at Oklahoma. (He’s also the brother of former Georgia and Oklahoma quarterback Nate Hybl.) The Oklahoma women had a strong run from 2012-2014 with a pair of conference titles but haven’t been a factor since. The Texas women have had more success on the links with frequent trips to the NCAA championship and a Big 12 title in 2022.

Gymnastics (women’s): Oklahoma women’s gymnastics will be right at home in the SEC: they’ve been the sport’s elite team recently with five of the last eight national titles and two national runner-up finishes. They’ll join LSU and Florida as SEC conference and national title contenders and make it even more difficult for historical powers like Georgia and Alabama to climb back to the top. Surprisingly, Texas does not compete in gymnastics despite strong developmental programs in the state and great gymnasts like Simone Biles who hail from Texas. (Nor does Texas A&M have a gymnastics program!) Perhaps the expansion will encourage both Texas schools to invest in the sport.

Softball: Nothing like adding the best team in the nation! Oklahoma steamrolled their way to the 2021 and 2022 WCWS titles with the nation’s best offense. They’ve won six national titles and four since 2016. The team Oklahoma beat to win the 2022 national title? Texas, of course. Texas has had to play second fiddle to the Sooners in the Big 12, but they’re no slouch. The Longhorns have six WCWS appearances and advanced to the championship series in 2022. SEC softball has shifted the national balance of power in the sport over the past 20 years, and Alabama and Florida brought home national titles.

Swimming / diving: The Longhorns have another juggernaut in the pool. The Texas men have won an NCAA-leading 15 national titles and have five in the past eight years with the most recent in 2021. The Texas women have won ten straight Big 12 titles but haven’t brought home the national crown since 1991. Oklahoma does not field a swimming and diving program.

Tennis: The SEC welcomes another recent multiple national champion: the Texas women took the 2021 and 2022 national titles. The Longhorn men reached the Final Four in 2021 and the Round of 16 in 2022. Oklahoma hasn’t been as successful on the courts recently, but their men made three straight national title match appearances from 2014-2016. The Oklahoma women broke through in 2022 with their first national championship appearance but fell, of course, to Texas.

Track: The Longhorns have yet another national power in track and field. Both men’s and women’s programs finished second in the 2022 NCAA outdoor championships and swept the Big 12 titles. The Texas women’s program has had slightly more success with several national titles, but the men are frequently competitive on the national level. Oklahoma has an above-average Big 12 program but has never finished first or second nationally.

Volleyball: Texas volleyball brings even more multiple national titles to the SEC. Their last title was in 2012, but they have reached the national championship match three times since. They’re the dominant program in the Big 12 with five straight conference titles. Oklahoma has been a consistent NCAA tournament participant over the past decade. but the program has never advanced beyond the Round of 16.

Other sports: Oklahoma and Texas compete in a handful of sports that don’t have SEC championships. Both schools have varsity rowing teams. Oklahoma adds wrestling and men’s gymnastics. As impressive as the Sooner women’s gymnastics team is, Oklahoma has perhaps the nation’s top men’s gymnastics program. Neither the Big 12 nor the SEC competes in men’s gymnastics, so the Sooners compete in the MPSF frankenconference. They’ll likely continue to do so.


Post Historic draft follows historic season

Monday May 2, 2022

Sometimes a tweet is worth a thousand words:

Safe to say the 2022 NFL Draft was an enjoyable one for Georgia fans, the program, and the record-setting 15 Bulldogs who earned a selection. About the only record Georgia didn’t set was for the most first round picks, so there’s a goal for the future. Keep chopping!

Both sides of the ball

There’s one draft footnote I wanted to highlight: as much as the draft (and the 2021 season itself) was about the Georgia defense, the offense also had a banner day. The six players drafted from Georgia’s offense matches the program record established in 2020 and 1977. No, the offense didn’t have the superstar Heisman finalist and surefire first round pick, but none of the six picks was a reach. Pickens, Cook, White, and Salyer were obvious selections. Shaffer was a multi-year starter who could have gone pro a year ago. FitzPatrick is a dependable blocker with pass-catching ability who should fit in well with a run-focused pro scheme. Six Bulldogs drafted from one side of the ball would be a lead story in most years, but this wasn’t just any draft. The 2021 Bulldog offense was talented, productive, among the nation’s best, and overshadowed by the defense. No reason the draft should be any different.

Sticking it out

Every transfer or early exit has his reasons. Travon Walker thought he was ready to go, and the Jaguars agreed. Jermaine Johnson saw a transfer as his path to more playing time and the first round, and he looks to have made a fruitful decision. Others have family pressures, and there is no right or wrong decision without understanding the context. It’s rarely an easy or cut-and-dried decision though. This draft can’t hurt Kirby Smart’s argument for those who might be on the fence about staying or going.

Three of Georgia’s first round picks were seniors who chose to come back: Jordan Davis, Quay Walker, and Devonte Wyatt. All three likely would have been drafted as juniors, but they all made a lot of money by choosing to return. Hopefully Nolan Smith will experience a similar payoff next year.

The concept of perseverance is all over this draft. Tindall and Walker showed that it’s possible to be a high round pick while competing for a starting position. FitzPatrick toiled in the shadow of Bowers, Washington, and even Gilbert but did his job well enough to be noticed. White and Cook, like Michel and Chubb before them, showed you can share the load in a deep stable of backs and still stand out. Cook’s story goes further: for several frustrating seasons he struggled to find a consistent role, and a transfer to a “better” system might have made sense. He thrived under Todd Monken and finally developed into the kind of dangerous, versatile back that NFL teams covet.

As Blutarsky and others have pointed out, NIL will help to make these decisions easier for some players. Financial concerns can easily lead to short-term or suboptimal decisions from a position of desperation. With NIL those burdens can be eased, and the calculation to come back and develop for an additional year can benefit from a longer-term outlook. That help still might not be enough for some who have larger and more immediate financial needs, and that’s understandable if unfortunate. That point aside, we’re already seeing some high-profile and draftable college athletes return to school with the assurance of NIL income and the ability to work towards a higher draft position.

Everything zen

At least for me, the national title makes it much easier to take a relaxed outlook on the immediate future of the program and just enjoy what’s going on during perhaps the most successful run in program history. Georgia is replacing several assistant coaches and staffers and 15 draft picks. Of course it won’t be easy or even possible to fill those voids. At the same time, we won’t be relying on those replacements to finally break the title drought.

It’s not hard to imagine that my reaction to the draft would be much, much different had Georgia not won the national title. It was tough to think about moving on from the missed opportunity of 2017 without Roquan Smith, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb. I can’t begin to think how despondent the Georgia fan base would be right now seeing a record-setting draft class come through the program without any hardware to show for it. We had become accustomed to waves of talent moving through the program every five years or so, coming close, and starting over. Kirby Smart has broken that cycle. It starts with recruiting – the talent pipeline remains full, and Georgia will have a large number of, if not as many, draft picks again next year. The 2022 team will still be extremely talented on both sides of the ball.

It goes beyond just recruiting though. The program is built from the top down to be sustainable. Smart has ensured that the resources, facilities, and organizational structure are in place to maximize that talent. That alone doesn’t guarantee continued success; it has to be earned over and over. Georgia will be everyone’s target, and Smart won’t allow this year’s team or its stars to coast on their 2021 accomplishments. After the 2021 season, the national title, and a record-setting draft, it’s just a lot easier to have confidence that things are in good hands.

Georgia’s 2022 NFL Draft Picks

Travon Walker (1st overall – Jacksonville)
Jordan Davis (1st – Philadelphia)
Quay Walker (1st – Green Bay)
Devonte Wyatt (1st – Green Bay)
Lewis Cine (1st – Minnesota)
George Pickens (2nd – Pittsburgh)
James Cook (2nd – Buffalo)
Nakobe Dean (3rd – Philadelphia)
Channing Tindall (3rd – Miami)
Zamir White (4th – Las Vegas)
Jake Camarda (4th – Tampa Bay)
Justin Shaffer (6th – Atlanta)
Jamaree Salyer (6th – LA Chargers)
Derion Kendrick (6th – LA Rams)
John FitzPatrick (6th – Atlanta)


Post Georgia women’s basketball reboots for the first time in 40 years

Friday April 8, 2022

When Joni Taylor took over the Georgia women’s basketball program in 2015, the implied message was one of continuity. Of course Taylor went right to work putting her own mark on the program. Even as the lead assistant you’re not the one with the ultimate authority in a program’s operation. But the people and approach remained comfortably familiar. Two of the four coaches from Andy Landers’ final staff, including Taylor, remained with the program. The roster was largely unchanged and only had the usual attrition from graduation. The program’s daily operations weren’t interrupted or restructured. Then-deputy athletic director Carla Williams explained, “the program’s not broken.” Taylor had the cultural fit, was a favorite of fans and basketball alumni, and had the endorsement of Landers. It’s possible, without discounting the personal touches Taylor brought, to consider her seven years as an extension of what came before it.

With last week’s introduction of Katie Abrahamson-Henderson as Georgia’s next coach, nearly 40 years of continuity in Georgia basketball has ended. Yes, Coach Abe began her playing career at Georgia over 30 years ago and so understands its history and tradition, but that’s the extent of the connection. As a coach she is relatively unknown to Georgia fans. Her last four rosters at UCF have had one player from the state of Georgia. She will bring in her own assistants, and they have less coaching or playing experience in Georgia than Coach Abe. Only a few administrative staffers might remain to bridge the transition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you believe that the program needed a fresh approach in order to take the next step. But it does hint at the amount of work ahead of the new staff if the program is to reach a third straight NCAA tournament.

These are just some of the challenges awaiting Abrahamson-Henderson as she gets down to work:

The competitive landscape

When you take a job in the SEC, you know what you’re getting into. Women’s basketball is taking on a higher profile. There are national TV broadcasts, and the best players and coaches are building recognizable and effective personal brands through the college game. The SEC is leading the way, and the competitive energy required to keep up is intense. The conference has been active since Georgia last hired a coach: 9 of the 14 schools have changed head coaches in the meantime. High-profile hires have driven up the cost of doing business, and staff salary pools have had to keep pace. Increased media coverage means that nearly every game is broadcast and scrutinized. Nearly everyone is trying to get better and investing more in their program. Georgia must decide if it wants to ride this wave, and Coach Abe will have to hold the school accountable for its commitment to the program.

South Carolina has a stranglehold on top of the SEC, but the rest of the league has proven fairly transient as coaching changes took root. Kim Mulkey was able to elevate LSU from the middle of the pack to a second place finish in 2022. Mississippi State went in the other direction – from national title game appearances in 2017 and 2018 to out of the NCAA tournament in 2022. Texas A&M won the regular season title in 2021 but dropped into the bottom third of the league this season. New coaches at Ole Miss and Florida breathed new life into programs trapped in the conference cellar. That’s encouraging in one sense. The ceiling for the best SEC teams is the national title. On the other hand, it’s unsettling: it doesn’t take long to be passed by after a couple of sub-par recruiting classes, a rash of injuries, or an ineffective hire.

Another direct competitor Georgia fans might overlook is Georgia Tech. The series historically dominated by Georgia has taken a sharp turn towards parity. Tech rebuilt their program with foreign talent mixed with quality prospects from across the south. Georgia’s inability to lock down the state in recruiting (more on that below) aided this effort and has made Tech a thorn in Georgia’s side. In fact, Joni Taylor had a losing record (3-4) against the Yellow Jackets, and Georgia has dropped 3 of the last 4. Retaking control of this rivalry that was once an afterthought would be small but visible progress that any Georgia fan can appreciate.

Any discussion of college sports these days has to acknowledge the transfer portal. Georgia has been a popular transfer destination with standouts like Taja Cole, Mikayla Coombs, and Jenna Staiti joining the program. This coaching change might make the portal a little less popular among Georgia fans. The Lady Dogs have already seen a couple of players and prospects signal their intent to explore a transfer. The 2023 team was already going to be thin in a couple of spots before any attrition, so Abrahamson-Henderson will likely need to be active herself in the transfer market. Attracting transfers could have a lot to do with her success out of the gate before her more traditional recruiting operation kicks into gear. Speaking of recruiting…

Recruiting

As Georgia’s associate head coach from 2012-2015, Joni Taylor was already heavily involved with recruiting. That experience didn’t immediately pay off once she became head coach and revamped Georgia’s recruiting in the era of social media. Her first impactful infusion of talent came in 2017 with the nation’s #9 class that included recent stars like Que Morrison and Gabby Connally. Another top 20 class followed in 2019, but Georgia didn’t string together consecutive top 20 classes until 2021 and 2022. Georgia’s brand is national; the strong 2017 class featured three out-of-state players, and 5* prospects like Chloe Chapman (Maryland) and Reigan Richardson (North Carolina) have been added since. The bigger problems left for Abrahamson-Henderson to solve are consistency from year-to-year avoiding unbalanced classes and improving recruiting results right here at home.

It’s not news that the state of Georgia produces as much women’s basketball talent as it does for other sports. Recruiters flock to the state, and competition is fierce. Peach State talent is spread across the SEC. Only four SEC teams didn’t have a Georgia native on their roster last season, and more than half of the SEC had a Georgia native start a game. In 2019, 12 of 14 SEC teams had a player from Georgia. Both of this year’s national title game participants started a Georgian.

We often hear about Georgia’s difficulty recruiting in-state with men’s basketball. But many of those same issues have plagued the women’s program over the past 10-15 years. Georgia can always count on signing homegrown players, but it’s been tough to convince the state’s very best to stay home. Top prospects from Georgia have signed with schools as disparate as Stanford, Maryland, Duke, and UConn. Georgia signed the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Since 2005 only two others – Anne Marie Armstrong and Sydney Bowles – have signed with Georgia out of high school. (Georgia will hope that Bowles remains committed through the coaching transition.) Two others, Staiti and Coombs, signed elsewhere before transferring to Georgia. Georgia’s slide from national and even SEC contender status has gone along with this struggle to attract the state’s best players to Athens.

The ascendency of South Carolina has only made the job more challenging. Before Bowles the previous two Georgia Gatorade Players of the Year inked with Dawn Staley. To buck that trend, a Georgia coach needs her version of A’ja Wilson: the elite player who could have signed anywhere and showed faith in the local program. Georgia began to show signs of progress in state with commitments over the past two years from Jillian Hollingshead, Janiah Barker, and Sydney Bowles. It remains to be seen whether those individual signings hold up through the transition, but the larger point is that Georgia was making some headway where it needed to. Abrahamson-Henderson and her staff won’t be starting completely from scratch, but establishing their own in-state connections and recruiting network must be a priority. Hopefully it won’t take 5+ years to do so.

Attendance

Forget the lazy excuse that Georgia fans just won’t support basketball. Tom Crean’s program set consecutive attendance records in 2019 and 2020 without a quality product on the court. That rising tide never lifted women’s basketball attendance, but that’s not to say that the program has never been a big draw. The top 10 women’s basketball crowds at Georgia, including five sell-outs, all occurred more than 10 years ago.

Attendance under Taylor grew modestly from just under 3,000 per game in 2017 to a high of 3,830 per game in 2019. It slid a bit in 2020 to 3,411 during a sub-par couple of years and of course took a nose-dive in the pandemic season of 2021. Fans cautiously made their way back to Stegeman in 2022 with an average of 2,861 per game. The season’s attendance high naturally came against South Carolina with 5,461 fans of both schools turning out. The Tennessee game drew 5,117 fans.

It might seem a little premature to talk about filling the seats before the program returns to the Sweet 16 and beyond. But the one thing that Crean got right is that fans can be a part of the rebuild. It’s easier to recruit if prospects can imagine themselves playing in front of large and energetic crowds. Networks want to put not only successful programs but bigtime environments in their best time slots. Those programs driving the growth of the sport are bringing in fans who might not have even considered women’s basketball 10 years ago. Attendance can’t be an afterthought that must wait until everything else falls into place.

There’s been a core group of fans that found the program during better years, but as they’ve aged and reduced in number there hasn’t really been a large inflow of new fans to replace them. Last season the school introduced an Enhancement Fund for women’s basketball comparable to funds used for other sports. Season tickets were tied to this new fund, essentially doubling the price of season tickets for the most loyal fans. That’s life in modern college athletics, but it also made the job of courting new seasons ticket holders that much more difficult.

This coaching transition is as good of a time as any to reevaluate how Georgia markets women’s basketball. What are some actions that might help Abrahamson-Henderson draw larger crowds to Stegeman Coliseum?

  • Win. Duh. The simplest way for Abrahamson-Henderson to grow the Georgia fan base will be to produce a consistent winner. Of course that’s the goal of any coach, but it works and is what built Georgia’s foundational fan base.
  • Play a compelling style of basketball. Georgia’s calling card over the past decade has been solid defense leading to more wins than losses, but often even the wins were as fun as a trip to the dentist. Coaches will tell you wins are wins, and purists can appreciate defensive battles. Unless you have the defense of the 2021 Georgia football team, low-scoring defensive grinds can be a tough sell. Abrahamson-Henderson pointed out the importance of a lock-down defense to the national title contenders and makes that a focus of her coaching, but she also promised an aggressive, up-tempo energy that should be entertaining.
  • Shamelessly self-promote. How did Georgia gymnastics become and remain Stegeman Coliseum’s top draw? How did Tom Crean set attendance records during some miserable seasons? They asked for it. Constantly. Suzanne Yoculan was a natural salesperson who made her meets must-see events as the program became the nation’s best. Crean hit the road during his first off-season energizing fans and student groups. Attendance was already on the way up when Anthony Edwards arrived, and that sent attendance to another record high.
  • Make growing the fan base a priority of the athletic department. Self-promotion can get you so far, but the effect can be multiplied by leveraging Georgia’s extensive resources. Cross-promote with other sports and season ticket holders – and that means more than waving to the crowd during a football timeout. Support and resources from the athletic department will be important in many areas; marketing is only one of them.
  • Develop and market star players – and build around them. Elite players will draw curious fans. Georgia hasn’t had a WNBA first-round pick since 2008. Jenna Staiti was only the second first-team All-SEC selection since 2016. Of course Georgia has had plenty of good players over those spans, but the program has struggled to produce the household names that fans will tune in to watch and buy tickets to see in person.
  • Engage students. There’s no question that the fan base trends older. Women’s basketball games are also popular with families and especially families with young daughters. It’s an inexpensive family entertainment option. It’s even less-expensive (free!) for Georgia students to attend, but that’s been a tougher group to reach. There have been giveaways and other promotions, but the bigger challenge is making women’s basketball games social events where friend groups want to congregate.

The almost-daily frenzy of news following Taylor’s departure will die down soon, but Coach Abe will be a whirlwind of activity over the next six months before preseason practice begins. Among other things she’ll have to evaluate Georgia’s returning players, get what she can out of the spring recruiting period and transfer portal, set up her own recruiting operation to catch up on the 2023 class and beyond, establish her offseason program, hold summer camps, and provide input on everything from her new office to next season’s schedule. It helps that she’ll have a familiar set of assistants who can anticipate her expectations and preferences, but they’ll also be making their own adjustments. It also helps that she’s done this before with great success. Whether that experience can translate to the SEC is the big question, and we’ll begin to see around October what this new era of Georgia women’s basketball will look like.


Post Monken’s greatest hits

Thursday April 7, 2022

Blutarsky posted what he considers his favorite Todd Monken play calls from the past two seasons. They’re great. The entire Michigan gameplan was a work of art.

Thinking about my favorite Monken plays I keep coming back to this one from the 2021 UAB game:

1st & 10 at UGA 11
(1:14 – 1st) Stetson Bennett pass complete to Brock Bowers for 89 yds for a TD, (Jack Podlesny KICK)

Here’s another look at it. The play is technically 11 personnel, but the tight end is split out to give a 4-wide look. The TE motions inside the receiver. While the receiver runs a post route to clear out the safety, the TE runs a wheel route to go back outside. A fake toss to the tailback on the play side draws in the linebackers and causes the defensive back covering Bowers to hesitate. With no safety help over the top, Bowers slips by the defensive back and gets behind the defense with a clear path to the endzone.

This is why it’s among my favorites:

  • Brock Bowers scores his first touchdown. We’d heard the buzz about him during spring ball and watched him at G-Day, but at the start of the season the bigger question was how Georgia would cope with Darnell Washington’s injury. Bowers scored twice against UAB and began to emerge as a key part of Georgia’s offense, and this play showed it all – his versatility to line up anywhere, his route-running, his hands, and of course his speed.
  • Years of preseason chatter about using the tight ends had become a running gag among Georgia fans. This is the year – we mean it this time! A big play from a tight end wheel route was pure catnip to these fans. Little did they know that this freshman tight end would be Georgia’s leading receiver on a national champion team.
  • What distinguishes the play isn’t just Bowers scoring. It’s the play itself offering multiple options to put the defense in a bind. Later in the game Monken came back to the same play flipped to the other side. Carson Beck fakes the tailback pitch and draws in a safety. This time the tight end, Seither, is covered on the wheel route. The other safety is held just long enough by a dig route coming across the middle. Justin Robinson settled into the vacated opening, and Beck found him for the easy score.

Yes – most plays from even the most pedestrian play callers have options and levels. Monken didn’t invent this stuff. It was still thoroughly enjoyable to see a play that 1) was well-designed, 2) was well-executed, and 3) made use of the skills of a talented playmaker to create an explosive scoring play. It was even more enjoyable to see the same concept score again with an entirely different set of personnel later in the same game.


Post Athens is getting a new arena?

Thursday March 24, 2022

A reader asks in Seth Emerson’s latest mailbag:

I wonder why UGA wouldn’t look to partner with the city for a new state-of-the-art arena that could house basketball and concerts?

Seth’s reply notes that Columbia, SC had good success doing just that, but Columbia is a larger city and state capitol. Further, “UGA likes the location of Stegeman, the middle of campus where students and fans alike can get there.” But, Emerson concludes, “if they were able to create some space in that (downtown) area it would help the long-term facilities plan” and free up some scarce land around the athletics complex.

It turns out that Athens is building a new downtown arena, but the University of Georgia’s varsity athletic teams won’t figure into those plans. This project has flown so far under the radar that Emerson didn’t seem aware of it in his response. I only stumbled across an article last week about its groundbreaking ceremony. The Classic Center Arena “is envisioned to provide a 5,500-seat public assembly facility/arena space” connected to both the Classic Center complex and the downtown multimodal transit facility. Groundbreaking is scheduled for Thursday April 28th, and equipment is already moving into place.

The arena, scheduled to open in 2023, will have 5,500 permanent seats “with the capacity to hold up to 8,000 people along with the ability to transform for any occasion from concerts and sports tournaments to banquets and general sessions.” Its ice rink will provide a larger space for Georgia’s club hockey team, and the Classic Center has signed an agreement to bring in a professional East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) team. It sounds like a nice little multi-use mid-sized event space for the Athens and northeast Georgia area. You can see plans and a virtual walkthrough here.

Was this a missed opportunity? I and Emerson’s correspondent asked whether the city and university ever considered a joint project. Emerson mentioned South Carolina’s facility. Rupp Arena is another example, anchoring the downtown Lexington hotel and convention center. Athens wouldn’t have needed to consider something at the scale of those two arenas – just a modest increase in capacity would bring the arena into line with new arenas at Ole Miss (9,500), Auburn (9,121), and a planned arena at Alabama (10,136). Athletic department funds could help increase the capacity and provide the finishing touches taking it from a nice small-town civic center to a modern collegiate arena. The Athens downtown is practically adjacent to the UGA campus, so an “off-campus” arena at the Classic Center isn’t really a problem for student access.

That ship seems to have sailed now – designs are finalized and earth will begin moving in about a month. Athens will have its own arena that can host high school sports tournaments, all but the largest concerts, and other events that can draw several thousand people. It won’t necessarily compete against Athens’ smaller music venues, but it might help to draw a wider variety of entertainment options to the area. Stegeman Coliseum was never really in this market aside from the occasional Homecoming concert or high school basketball championship. For now it will continue on as Georgia’s home for volleyball, gymnastics, and basketball fresh off an $8 million 2017 renovation.

The future of Stegeman Coliseum has been debated by Georgia fans for decades, and incremental renovations have transformed the building into a serviceable SEC facility. It might have reached its limit after the latest round of improvements. The location of a new arena has always been the sticking point: on-campus or off-campus? An on-campus arena is always the preferred location, and the current site is really the only viable on-campus space. But then what to do during the two years or so during construction? Georgia Tech played in Duluth while its arena was rebuilt in place ten years ago. That’s an option for Georgia, too, but an alternate location within walking distance of campus would be far better. If the Classic Center Arena isn’t going to be the permanent solution, it might at least serve as a temporary home if a decision is made down the road to replace Stegeman Coliseum in-place. Capacity would be a concern even if the 5,500 base capacity can be stretched upwards of 8,000. But that higher number gets you close enough to at least consider the tradeoff of capacity for the convenience of location.

I’m curious to see how this downtown arena comes together and what is possible with local municipal funding. It’s tough to shake the notion that something grander was possible in partnership with the University, but maybe this wasn’t the time or location for anything more ambitious. There certainly would have been many, but certainly not unique or unsolvable, questions of oversight and responsibility for a shared facility. There might have been legal limitations on the use of SPLOST funds. These plans were coming together as Greg McGarity planned his retirement and during the onset of the pandemic. Emerson himself has reminded us several times that Georgia’s athletic department lacked a master facilities plan, so an opportunity to develop a joint solution might have caught Georgia unprepared. Whatever the reasons, Athens will soon have its own small arena, and the University of Georgia will continue in its own 58-year-old on-campus facility.


Post Stegeman’s unchanging banners an opportunity for Josh Brooks

Thursday March 10, 2022

It’s unfair to say that Josh Brooks has had an easy first year as Georgia’s athletic director. He’s already had to appoint three new head coaches under very different circumstances. He’s supervised the ongoing expansion of the Butts-Mehre facility to serve the football program and other sports. He’s listened to fans and made incremental improvements to the fan experience at Georgia sporting events. Brooks has been a busy man and a visible administrator.

It’s also true that Brooks came into the job at perhaps the best possible time. The school’s flagship football program is the best in the nation. Happy fans are buying tickets and merchandise, and the Hartman Fund donation numbers should be a sight to behold this year. Brooks, as befits his role as athletic director, was right there to join in all of the back-slapping and celebrations that went along with the national title. The months since the national title haven’t been as cheerful for Georgia’s winter sports, and Brooks might soon have to transition from posing for pictures with the CFP trophy to less pleasant duties and press conferences.

Stegeman Coliseum’s banners hang from the west end of the arena, and you can’t help but notice them while facing the flag during the performance of the national anthem. As you’d expect, Georgia’s historically strong gymnastics program claims most of the accomplishments (and only national titles) celebrated on those banners. The women’s basketball program adds its five Final Four appearances and eight SEC crowns. We know that championship seasons for men’s basketball have been few and far between, but they too have their place with a Final Four run in 1983 and three SEC titles.

What stands out is that none of the banners have needed an update since 2009. Stegeman’s winter occupants haven’t brought home an SEC title, much less a national title, since the GymDogs sent Suzanne Yoculan into retirement by rallying for another national championship in 2009. The only other schools without SEC titles in basketball or gymnastics since 2009 are Arkansas and Missouri. Are any of these sports close to adding to their banners?

Stegeman Banners

Men’s Basketball

The fate of the 2021-2022 men’s basketball season was sealed last spring. Tom Crean was retained after an unremarkable year. Nine players transferred out. The current roster was cobbled together from a few remaining players, a low-impact signing class, and whatever Georgia could scrape together from the transfer portal. The nature of Crean’s contract buyout essentially placed the program in hospice for a year. There was little doubt how it would end. The only questions were “when will it end?” and “how bad would it get?” We know the answers are “now” and “historically bad.”

Success in men’s basketball has been the white whale of Georgia athletics. Everyone has an idea how to fix things, but they all boil down to recruiting. Almost every year someone points out the Georgia natives enjoying postseason success elsewhere. This year we’ve been reminded weekly how several key members of the 2021 Georgia team have important roles for contenders. Recruiting is more than getting an isolated signature: it’s a sustained process of assembling and retaining a competitive roster year after year. Anthony Edwards was a recruiting coup for Tom Crean, but no one followed. Sahvir Wheeler and KD Johnson were above-average guards who left for better opportunities when a more competitive frontcourt couldn’t be built around them. Just assembling a quality roster and holding it together long enough to build something has been too much to ask.

Because of the transient nature of the 2021-2022 roster, the next men’s basketball coach won’t start out in a good position. There won’t be much of a splash in the spring recruiting period. There will be some typical attrition. Perhaps a handful of contributors from the current squad stick it out through the transition. Georgia will again be reliant on incoming transfers for a good chunk of its roster next season while the new staff gets its recruiting operation into gear. It’s likely to be an ugly, messy situation for a year or two – and that’s the lower limit if the next coach can gain recruiting traction within a year. Will that challenge make Georgia a less-attractive destination for a promising coaching prospect?

Gymnastics

North Carolina women’s soccer. Iowa wrestling. Arkansas track and field. Few schools are fortunate to host a college sports dynasty, and Suzanne Youculan’s ten national titles from 1987-2009 made Georgia gymnastics a national powerhouse. Yoculan went out on top with five straight national titles from 2005-2009 before she retired. Dynasties end, and it’s never easy going replacing a legendary coach. Jay Clark struggled to sustain the program’s success and has had much better results at LSU. Danna Durante managed three Super Six appearances from 2013-2016 but couldn’t bring home titles. With Yoculan’s blessing, Courtney Kupets Carter – one of Georgia’s superstars during the five straight titles in the 2000s – was brought in to recapture Georgia’s former glory and has been at the helm for five seasons.

Unfortunately Kupets Carter hasn’t returned Georgia to the level of the Yoculan era. The program has even slid from Durante’s time. Georgia finished 2021 ranked #18 and will finish the 2022 regular season out of the top 20. Meanwhile, programs like Florida, LSU, and even Auburn have taken steps forward. Top-ranked Oklahoma will be joining the SEC soon.

There is much more sentimental attachment to Kupets Carter than there is to someone like Crean. Kupets Carter is a beloved figure in Georgia sports history and one of its most accomplished athletes. She took over with a hearty endorsement from Suzanne Yoculan. Yoculan even assisted for a season while Kupets-Carter found her stride as head coach. There has been some bad luck with injuries, but the program shows no signs of returning to SEC contender or national Super Six status anytime soon.

Women’s Basketball

The women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for Brooks. Joni Taylor took a team to the SEC tournament final in 2021, was named SEC coach of the year, and is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. That’s not a floundering program. Yet, due to Dennis Felton’s improbable run to the SEC tournament title in 2008, the women’s basketball program has gone the longest without adding to its Stegeman Coliseum banners. It’s been over 20 years since Kelly Miller’s buzzer-beater gave Georgia the 2001 SEC tournament championship. Georgia got as far as the NCAA Regional Final in 2004 and 2013 but came up just short of the Final Four. They haven’t returned to the Sweet 16 since.

Taylor’s results have been inconsistent over her seven seasons. This year marks just the first time she’s been able to string together consecutive NCAA tournament bids. Georgia has earned two top 16 national seeds in Taylor’s seven seasons, but they’ve been unable to sustain that level of play in the subsequent seasons. Last season’s SEC final appearance fizzled out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A promising 2022 season that had Georgia approaching the top ten ended in an early-round exit at the SEC tournament. Recruiting seems to be on the upswing: Georgia will welcome the #7 signing class after inking the #14 class a year ago. Getting more out of these signing classes must be a priority.

The trap is complacency. The program has not come close to the futility of the men’s program, but neither has it met the standard Taylor embraced when she took over from Andy Landers. Georgia’s staff has remained unchanged since Taylor took over for the 2015-2016 season. The rest of the SEC has not stood still. Georgia shows signs of stability and even some progress in recruiting, but you also don’t want to plateau as a program that just makes it into the NCAA tournament and struggles to finish in the SEC top four. That was the state of the program when Landers decided it was time to step aside. Taylor’s program might be the closest of the three to adding another title, but are there steps Brooks can take to help Taylor get her program to the next level? How do you send the message that good should be better?

A common thread?

Recently ESPN’s Mark Schlabach went in-depth about the persistent issues with Georgia men’s basketball. The points are familiar ones to UGA basketball fans, but the details about Georgia’s recruiting approach in particular are still bewildering. Schalabach also brings up Georgia’s facilities. The practice facility was state of the art when it opened 15 years ago and is still a strong resource with dedicated practice, training, and locker space for all three programs. Stegeman Coliseum itself received a major facelift just a few years ago with improvements to the seating bowl and concourses. There is only so much that can be done to Stegeman without replacing it completely, and Georgia is close to that limit. A new facility is a separate discussion, but Georgia has invested quite a bit in capital improvements for these sports over the past two decades.

But capital spending is only one type of investment in the programs. The annual budgets provide the resources to operate day-to-day in those facilities. In 2015, Georgia’s football expenses were about $2 million below the SEC median. By 2020 Georgia was spending $7 million more on football than the median SEC school. Kirby Smart led a significant increase in the football support staff, recruiting resources, and other expenses to go along with capital projects like the West Endzone, indoor practice facility, and Butts-Mehre expansion.

Spending has increased on Georgia’s basketball programs, but they still lag relative to their SEC peers. For the reporting year 2020, Georgia spent $8.3 million on men’s basketball. LSU spent $9.3 million, Tennessee spent $13.1 million, South Carolina spent $8.2 million, and Kentucky blew everyone away with $19.1 million in men’s basketball expenses. For women’s basketball, Georgia spent $4.4 million. LSU spent $4.7 million, Kentucky spent $5.3 million, South Carolina spent $6.9 million, and Tennessee spent $7.3 million.

It’s not about the head coach’s salary. Crean earned $3.2 million, making him one of the 20 highest-paid coaches in the nation in 2020. Taylor likewise is paid well relative to the market. As with football, the annual budget allows a program to increase the support staff, have a larger pool of funds with which to attract better assistants, and provide better meals, travel, and other quality-of-life benefits for the players. Of course there’s not a direct relationship between spending and success, but Georgia’s relative thriftiness here isn’t done out of virtue. It’s no surprise though that Kentucky men’s basketball and Tennessee women’s basketball are among the biggest spenders. Kirby Smart made the case for an expansion of the football budget when he took the job. Will the athletic administration be as receptive if a new basketball coach makes a similar case?

The fans are already there

Tom Crean implored fans to pack Stegeman during his first two seasons, and they responded with sellouts in an unmistakable show of faith in the new coach. Georgia basketball was a hot ticket during the Anthony Edwards season even without a winning team on the court. Support has waned as the program failed to live up to its end of the deal. The GymDogs still draw large crowds and sold out a recent meet with Auburn as the large fan base built by Yoculan’s tireless showmanship persists through some lean years. Even women’s basketball drew large crowds during their championship and Final Four seasons. Georgia is indeed a football school, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a large number of Georgia fans who would like to see more from the winter sports and who are willing to show up and support those programs.

Fans will be watching how Josh Brooks handles the men’s basketball transition. It’s not only an opportunity to reverse the decades-long fortunes of that program. It’s also going to be a signal to fans of all of Stegeman’s occupants. What will be the standards for success? What level of investment and support can these programs expect? Can the same combination of institutional vision and resources that led to a title in Indianapolis also align to finally add more dates to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners?


Post 2022 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 2, 2022

The 2021-2022 SEC women’s basketball season continued the return of college sports to normalcy. Crowds were back, and the league managed a complete 16-game conference schedule despite some midseason hiccups. Teams like Arkansas and Ole Miss had to play three games in the final week of the regular season to accommodate earlier cancellations. Nearly every team had to deal with players and coaches entering safety protocols during the midseason COVID wave, but no one looks to be leaving anyone at home for the postseason.

The 2022 SEC tournament returns to Nashville this week after three years in Greenville, and an unrestricted crowd welcomes hometown Vanderbilt back to the festivities. The Commodores played only three SEC games a year ago before opting out of the remainder of their season. They’ll be excited to return to the tournament and might be an interesting early-round team to watch. One thing to keep an eye on each year is how the crowd ebbs and flows with the success of individual schools. South Carolina has owned Greenville recently, but Nashville has always been Tennessee country. Kim Mulkey has been filling LSU’s arena – will a legion of purple and gold follow her to Nashville? What about surprising teams like Ole Miss or Florida – have the fan bases had time to catch up with their unexpected success?

Two recent NCAA rules changes had a big impact on the women’s basketball season. Allowing seniors to return for an additional season meant that some of the league’s top players were back for another go. No team made better use of this rule than LSU who rode their super-seniors to a second place finish. The transfer portal and one-time transfer allowance remade women’s basketball rosters as much as they did for football and other sports. Teams added important pieces to their roster, but a couple of teams also had key players decide to transfer out mid-season. There was change on the sidelines as well: four schools introduced new head coaches, and each improved their program’s win total from a year ago.

Some developments were more predictable. South Carolina secured another regular season SEC title after finishing second in 2021, and they spent most of the year as the nation’s top-ranked team. Dawn Staley’s next wave of talent are upperclassmen now, and they’ve been joined by the nation’s top recruiting class. The Gamecocks were denied a postseason in 2020 by the pandemic, came up just short in the national semifinal in 2021, and have their sights set on nothing short of the national title this year. They will be the overwhelming favorite in Nashville, but an upset loss early in the year at unranked Missouri reminds the Gamecocks that they can’t be looking ahead to bigger goals just yet.

The rest of the bracket should have some entertaining uncertainty. Some of the more recent blue bloods struggled but have the firepower and coaching to advance in the tournament. Teams have battled injuries and attrition throughout the season, and several have had to make up games late in the year. Every team is banged up and fighting fatigue this time of year, but some might be feeling it more than others. The daily format of the tournament might be too much to ask for some of the contenders. Several schools are playing for a possible NCAA tournament bid. Even last-place Auburn knocked off Tennessee and Georgia during the regular season and came within a few points of four or five additional wins. There are several new teams in the upper half of the conference who might stay in the tournament much longer than we’re used to seeing. Last year Georgia made news by advancing to the title game from the four seed. This year another relative newcomer like Florida, LSU, or Ole Miss wouldn’t be a surprise finalist.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. ALA/AUB ~9:30 PM ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. TENN: ~9:30 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

(LY – last year’s finish, PS – coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (15-1, 27-1) (LY-2, PS-1): A loss to Texas A&M on the final day of the 2021 regular season denied the Gamecocks another SEC title, but they recovered to claim the tournament championship. This year South Carolina won the regular season going away and are the overwhelming favorites to repeat on Championship Sunday. Titles are old hat now for South Carolina’s junior class – that’s right, they’ll be back – and they’ve added tremendous depth that’s shored up just about any weakness they might have had. South Carolina’s success isn’t limited to the SEC. They had a perfect nonconference slate with wins over strong teams like NC State, Oregon, UConn, Stanford, and Maryland. As strong as the record is and as complete as the roster looks, it hasn’t been a cakewalk. They had to rally to beat UConn and Stanford. The sole loss to Missouri was a head-scratcher, but a handful of other SEC teams have pushed the Gamecocks. A 12-0 run put away Ole Miss in a tight game in their most recent game. That’s generally been the theme this year: there have been scoring droughts that allowed opponents to hang around or even get out ahead, but South Carolina has almost always had an answer at the end of games.

Likely national player of the year Aliyah Boston was a star after two seasons but has worked to become even better. Most any broadcast will note how she changed physically in the offseason, and the results have been evident. Boston enters the tournament with an SEC record 21 double-doubles, and she’s notched many of those points and rebounds before halftime. Boston’s junior classmates Zia Cooke and defensive specialist Brea Beal have also been standouts since their freshman seasons. South Carolina isn’t without senior leadership: Destanni Henderson is one of the SEC’s assist leaders but also shoots 40% from outside. Victaria Saxton is a multi-year captain and starter averaging over 5 points and 5 rebounds a game.

It’s the depth that really makes South Carolina special. The reserves could start for most teams, and Dawn Staley has barely had to dip into the nation’s top recruiting class. Laeticia Amihere is the type of tall, athletic forward any coach would like to have. 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso was the ACC freshman and defensive player of the year at Syracuse. Destiny Littleton can come off the bench and shoot 37% from outside. Last year Staley stuck to a rotation of about seven or eight players. That’s expanded this year. South Carolina only has one player (Boston) among the SEC’s top 25 scorers, but that’s a byproduct of the team’s depth and balance.

2) LSU (13-3, 25-4) (LY-8, PS-8): Kim Mulkey has fans of 12 other SEC schools asking why a coach in her first season can elevate LSU to a top-ten national ranking and a solid second place SEC finish. Of course Mulkey is no ordinary coach, and LSU is no ordinary team. The Tigers benefitted more from the additional COVID year of eligibility than just about any other program. LSU had four players decide to return for a fifth season, and three-year Vanderbilt starter Autumn Newby transferred in as a graduate student. That core of experience returning has been a big part of LSU’s success, but it was still a group that finished eighth last season. It took Mulkey to get the most from them, and anyone hoping that there would be an adjustment with Mulkey taking over in Baton Rouge is very disappointed. Most impressively, LSU has taken on their coach’s fearless personality in big games. LSU is 6-1 against teams ranked at game time, and the sole loss was a narrow setback to South Carolina. Mulkey has reenergized support for LSU women’s basketball with crowds of nearly 7,000 for routine SEC home games and a sellout for an important late-season showdown against Florida with second place on the line.

Khayla Pointer made a strong statement to return after her aunt was dismissed as head coach, and Faustine Aifuwa, Awa Trasi, and Jailin Cherry followed. Pointer, Aifuwa, and Cherry are three of the team’s top scorers, and Trasi provides experienced depth off the bench. Alexis Morris is another experienced senior transfer now in her fourth program. Morris earned a starting role and is another of the team’s leading scorers, but she’ll likely be unavailable in Nashville after spraining her knee in the final week of the season. The Tigers should have enough depth and experience to overcome the absence of Morris, but it could hurt their chances in a rematch against South Carolina.

3) Tennessee (11-5, 22-7) (LY-3, PS-3): Tennessee went without a top-four finish from 2015-2020, but Kellie Harper brings the Lady Vols in at #3 for the second straight season. They looked to be headed for a much higher finish after leaving Athens with an 18-1 record and a top 4 national ranking. February wasn’t as kind: the Lady Vols are 4-6 over their final ten games with some bad losses to teams like Alabama, Auburn, and Florida sprinkled in among setbacks to UConn, South Carolina, and LSU. Some key injuries haven’t helped. Reserve forward Keyen Green was lost for the season at Georgia hurting Tennessee’s depth inside. Leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston suffered a serious arm injury at Alabama. Tennessee survived an earlier injury to wing Rae Burrell, but she hasn’t been 100% as the team leans more on her with Horston out. Tennessee should have their usual raucous partisan tournament crowd in Nashville, but even the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena haven’t been a safe haven this year.

The Lady Vols have limped to the finish line relying on their core strengths: using their size advantage at most positions to play frenzied and menacing defense and control rebounds on both ends of the court. Offense has fallen off: Tennessee has shot under 40% six times since winning at Georgia, and they’ve only won one of those games (Arkansas). Rebounding totals that were often over 50 and as high as 60 against Arkansas have been below 45 in five of their last eight games. So long as the team has the scoring of Burrell and the size of Tamari Key inside, they can compete with most teams and took LSU down to the wire in the regular season finale. Guard play can be hit or miss – Tennessee has four or five guards capable of hitting big shots, but Tennessee averages over 17 turnovers per game and has turned the ball over 100 more times (497) than their opponents (397).

4) Ole Miss (10-6, 22-7) (LY-11, PS-6): What a story. Ole Miss was winless in the conference two years ago. It was an accomplishment to finish 11th in 2021. They continued their progress and finished 2021 with a trip to the WNIT title game. Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s program hit the bigtime this year with a top four SEC finish, and national ranking, and a certain NCAA tournament bid. The Rebels stormed out of the gate with a 17-2 record and finally drew enough national attention to crack the rankings just in time to play South Carolina. They lost four out of five midseason including three losses to ranked teams, but they finished well with four straight wins and a competitive loss to South Carolina in the regular season finale. It would be another step forward for the program if they can advance to Saturday’s semifinals for a third crack at the Gamecocks.

The Rebels channel Coach Yo’s energy into frenetic defense – they’re second only to Vanderbilt in steals and turn opponents over almost 19 times per game. Lashonda Monk and Madison Scott alone have 100 of the team’s 277 steals. That defensive intensity has been a constant over the past couple of seasons. A maturing offense has helped move Ole Miss up the standings. Shakira Austin is a gifted post player poised to be a high WNBA draft pick in a few weeks. Scott continues to develop as one of the more exciting wing players in the conference. The team needs help from Angel Baker and Snudda Collins from the shooting guard position as Donnetta Johnson was injured late in the season.

5) Florida (10-6, 20-9) (LY-12, PS-11): You’d never have guessed in January that Florida was headed for a national ranking and a tie for fourth place. The Gators made an unexpected coaching change over the summer and elevated assistant Kelly Rae Finley to interim head coach. They had an unremarkable nonconference performance (which has held back their prospects for a higher NCAA tournament seed.) They dropped their first two SEC games. Then leading scorer Lavender Briggs left the team for good after returning from the transfer portal. They responded by winning 10 of 11 games with only a loss to South Carolina breaking up the streak. Their winning streaks included five defeats of ranked opponents including a 84-59 demolition of Tennessee followed by a rare win at Georgia. Finley deserves a ton of credit for Florida’s resiliency, but a fleet of guards did the work on the court. Kiki Smith, Nina Rickards, and Rutgers transfer Zippy Broughton are quick, slashing guards capable of scoring from anywhere. Forward Jordyn Merritt is a matchup nightmare who, at 6’3″, leaded the team with 30 three-pointers and shoots over 40% from outside. Florida had a shot to finish in second place, but three straight losses to end the season brought them back to earth. The question heading into the postseason is whether this group picked to finish 11th was punching well above their weight.

6) Georgia (9-7, 20-8) (LY-4, PS-4): The Lady Dogs caused a bit of a stir last year with a 4th place finish and a run to the championship game. Joni Taylor was named coach of the year, and prospects for another strong season were bolstered by the return of two eligible seniors. Center Jenna Staiti and guard Que Morrison have had huge fifth seasons – they are Georgia’s leading scorers and top defenders, and it’s not a pleasant thought what this season would have been without them. One eligible senior who didn’t return was Gabby Connally, and Georgia has missed her in a couple of ways. Georgia doesn’t start a true point guard – the duties usually fall to Morrison, but the team has taken a committee approach with mixed results. Connally was also the player you wanted with the ball in late-game situations, and there really hasn’t been a player to step into that role this year. Buzzer-beater isolation plays for Morrison have rarely been effective, and more complex plays tend to fall apart when seconds matter.

Defense remains Georgia’s calling card. It’s truly a team approach that relies on traps, double-teams, and intelligent rotation and help. Opponents only average 58.4 points per game against Georgia. The Lady Dogs are at their best creating turnovers and getting out in transition. Senior Mikayla Coombs is outstanding at intercepting passes, and Morrison often has to lock down the other team’s best scorer. Halfcourt offense can be an adventure, and both turnovers and long scoring droughts have been big problems. Staiti is a reliable scorer, but she’s also the focal point of opponent defenses. Georgia’s challenge has been finding complementary players and outside shooting to free up their top scorer. Lately that answer has come from freshman Reigan Richardson, but it’s been a nightly test for Joni Taylor to discover who has the hot hand. Georgia is deep in that they’ll play many players; the trick has been finding effective lineup combinations without much scoring dropoff. In some games its been the starters who struggled to score while bench players provided the spark. This offensive inconsistency has cost Georgia several winnable conference games that would have had them comfortably among the top four.

Georgia started the season strong with wins away from home against NC State, Notre Dame, and Texas Tech. A 4-2 start in the SEC had Georgia ranked as high as #13 and listed as an NCAA top 16 seed in the initial bracket reveal. A close home loss to then-#5 Tennessee slowed Georgia’s climb up the polls, and a midseason three-game losing streak took Georgia out of the national spotlight. There was still a shot at a top four SEC finish, but a disappointing loss at last-place Auburn sunk those hopes. Georgia did respond with nice wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M to close the season and avoid falling further down the standings. A win at then-#24 Ole Miss was Georgia’s only conference win over a ranked opponent. Small mistakes become magnified against better competition, and Georgia has struggled to make the big plays in tight games against the top half of the conference. In many respects, it’s been a good season – Georgia will win 20 games in consecutive seasons and make consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time under Joni Taylor. But repeating last season’s SEC tournament run will require a much different mindset and execution in the fourth quarter, and there were some signs against Arkansas and A&M. The postseason can produce its own stars – will Georgia have someone step up as its leader late in games?

7) Kentucky (8-8, 15-11) (LY-5, PS-5): Each year there seems to be a team further down in the standings that no one else wants to play. Kentucky is that team this year. Few teams were hit by midseason absences more than the Wildcats. A combination of illness, injuries, and a suspension tested the roster and coach Kyra Elzy’s creativity and ability to hold things together. December was an especially trying period for the team, and they went more than two weeks over the holidays before finally opening their SEC slate with an upset of Georgia. The Wildcats lost eight of their next nine SEC games to fall from the rankings and out of postseason consideration. As the team’s health improved during February, the results followed. Kentucky enters the postseason winners of six straight that include big road wins at Arkansas and Missouri. We should tap the brakes a bit – none of these six wins were against a ranked opponent, and all of them came against teams that finished lower than Kentucky in the standings. Still, an 8-8 finish after starting 2-8 is enough to have Kentucky back in the NCAA tournament conversation and gives them plenty to play for in Nashville. A quarterfinal rematch against LSU might be one of the more interesting Friday games.

Everyone knows about Rhyne Howard, and the two-time SEC Player of the Year has been the one constant this year amidst a shifting roster. Howard might not repeat as POY again but still is Kentucky’s leader and most important player. Their most valuable player might be someone else: forward Dre’una Edwards served a four-game suspension that coincided with Kentucky’s losing streak, and her presence makes Kentucky a much different team. Edwards is Kentucky’s second-leading scorer, pulls down nearly 8 rebounds per game, and can step outside and shoot from the perimeter. She is averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds per game during Kentucky’s six-game winning streak and gives the Wildcats just the complement they need to draw defensive attention away from Howard.

8) Arkansas (7-9, 17-12) (LY-6, PS-7): It’s been a bit of a rebuilding year after losing a couple of first round picks in Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum. There’s still no question what to expect from Arkansas. There are still plenty of players capable of executing Mike Neighbors’s up-tempo offense. The youth of the roster might have meant less consistency than the past two seasons, but this is still a fun team to watch and should be among the NCAA field of 68. Amber Ramirez and Makayla Daniels continue the legacy of sharpshooting guards. Ramirez is a threat to score as soon as she crosses halfcourt. Daniels has slowly worked back in after a scary leg injury in early February but might be rounding back into form with 17 PPG in the past two games. Samara Spencer, Rylee Langerman, and Sasha Goforth have stepped forward as underclassmen, and Jersey Wolfenbarger is a 6’5″ freshman forward who can sprint the court and gives the high-flying Razorback offense an inside presence who can keep up with the pace. The sum of the parts might not be fully baked yet, but when it comes together – as it did for 90 points in a win over LSU – watch out.

9) Missouri (7-9, 18-11) (LY-10, PS-10): Missouri opened SEC play with an upset of #1 South Carolina and finished it with an upset of #23 Florida. In between it’s been a bit of a mess as the team struggled to put together many quality wins. Their identity hasn’t changed much – the Tigers still are up near the top of the league in three pointers attempted, and no one shoots a better percentage from outside. Hayley Frank and Aijha Blackwell both average around 15 points per game. Frank, at 6’1″, is a matchup nightmare shooting over 47% from outside. LaDazhia Williams is again the team’s top post scoring threat but doesn’t rebound at the rate you’d expect of a 6’4″ player. Blackwell remains a scoring and rebounding machine in her third season, but she hasn’t taken the next step to SEC stardom. She has even been left home on a couple of road trips this year for disciplinary reasons. Four players, including Blackwell, were recently suspended for a game against Kentucky. That unsettled dynamic hasn’t helped the team’s record, and coach Robin Pingeton has taken the hit to uphold the team’s accountability standards. Missouri might have the most at stake in Nashville – a loss to Arkansas could knock them off the NCAA bubble.

10) Mississippi State (6-10, 15-13) (LY-9, PS-9): Call them the poor man’s Florida? Like the Gators, Mississippi State had a sudden and unexpected coaching change before the season. An interim coach, Doug Novak, has guided them through the season. Their leading scorer, Rickea Jackson, decided to transfer out mid-season. MSU didn’t have quite the season that Florida did, but they performed better than expected given a depleted roster. Dominant center Jessika Carter sat out this season tackling mental health issues but is expected to rejoin the program next year. The remainder of the roster showed good fight and notched a satisfying win over rival Ole Miss. That win had MSU at 6-5 in the SEC and still hopeful for an NCAA bid, but they dropped their final five games. They’ll need to beat Kentucky and likely LSU to have any shot, but a WNIT bid is possible. Anastasia Hayes has taken over as the focal point of the offense, and Myah Taylor has been an effective backcourt mate. JerKaila Jordan has scored in double figures in seven of the past nine games and will have to have another strong game to have a chance against Kentucky.

11) Alabama (6-10, 15-12) (LY-7, PS- 12): Alabama returned to the NCAA tournament a year ago for the first time in over 20 years and advanced to the second round. They lost a trio of seniors from that breakthrough season and have taken a step back this year trying to replace the production. Guards are the team’s top four scorers, and it’s no coincidence that the team is second-only to Arkansas in three pointers attempted. Such a reliance on the outside shot has brought their overall percentage down, and they can be streaky. Brittany Davis leads the Tide in scoring and has been on a tear lately averaging 26 points per game over the last four. Alabama is 3-1 over that stretch with wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Davis isn’t just a spot shooter – she’s the team’s leading rebounder and has several double-doubles. While the Tennessee win is the only real quality win on their schedule, they’ve come close against Georgia, Kentucky, and LSU and are playing well entering the postseason. Post production could be a problem, but guards Davis, Megan Abrams, and JaMaya Mingo-Young can carry the team if they’re all on. Their potential path through the tournament brings them up against Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee – teams they’ve either beaten or come within four points of beating.

12) Texas A&M (4-12, 14-14) (LY-1, PS-2): It hasn’t been a pleasant farewell tour for Gary Blair and his defending SEC champions. A sizeable chunk of talent departed after last season, and that might’ve been a more appropriate time for a coaching legend to ride off into the sunset. Blair returned for one more year with a number of contributors from that championship squad, and coaches thought enough of the roster to predict a second place finish. Loss after loss began to pile up, and the Aggies find themselves in the position of needing a win over Vanderbilt just to qualify for a WNIT bid. A midseason three-game winning streak over Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt gave hope of a turnaround, but the Aggies head to Nashville on a five-game slide. What happened? 2021 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Destiny Pitts, Jordan Nixon, and Kayla Wells were key members of the 2021 team that couldn’t quite replace the lost production from a deep senior class. Another change is that the departure of Ciera Johnson and N’dea Jones took away a formidable inside presence. A&M has had to become much more of a perimeter-oriented team. Shooting percentage is down, and opponent rebounds are up from a year ago. If they get past Vanderbilt, they’ll face Florida. That earlier meeting produced a 2OT thriller, and a rematch could be one last shot at glory for Blair.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 13-17) (LY-14, PS-14): First-year coach and former UConn star Shea Ralph took over a program that hadn’t won more than four conference games since 2018. Last season the Commodores pulled the plug on the season after just three conference games. Ralph has already equaled Vanderbilt’s best conference record since 2018 and took down Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida. The team continued to improve towards the end of the season even if it wasn’t reflected in the record. Losses to Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Alabama in the final two weeks were all within reach late into the fourth quarter. Ralph likes to go deep into her bench: ten players see at least nine minutes per game and have appeared in at least 15 games. Guards Brinae Alexander and Iyana Moore lead the scoring and shoot around 36% from outside. Senior guard Jordyn Cambridge is a fierce competitor who can attack the basket, get to the foul line, and distribute the ball to open teammates. Cambridge also leads the team in steals and defensive rebounds – in fact, Vanderbilt outrebounds opponents by a slim margin but does so by committee without a true post presence.

14) Auburn (2-14, 10-17) (LY-13, PS-13): For the first time since 2019, there won’t be a winless team at the conference tournament. Auburn earned their way into the win column with impressive home upsets over Tennessee and Georgia. A win over a top-20 Georgia Tech team highlighted nonconference play. New coach Johnnie Harris and her impressive staff made good progress in Year One and came close to several more SEC wins – including a pair of near-misses against first round opponent and rival Alabama. Aicha Coulibaly has taken over from Unique Thompson as the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, and focal point. Guard Honesty Scott-Grayson is again the team’s second-leading scorer but can be up or down. In wins they’ve received contributions from Sania Wells, Annie Hughes, and Jala Jordan to go along with big games from Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson, and they’ll need some outside shots to fall.


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.


Post SEC vs. the field

Sunday August 1, 2021

Blutarsky has often identified college football’s regional passion as one of its unique characteristics worth preserving. That point has always resonated with me, and it’s not hard to see the downside of an enjoyable fall distilled down and repackaged into a nationwide “who’s in?” made-for-television event.

The conference expansion dominoes that fell across the nation a decade ago established conferences less as regional blocs and more as convenient revenue-sharing arrangements. The Big 12 stretched from west Texas to West Virginia. The SEC added a midwestern school to its East division, and Colorado found a home with the Pacific coast teams. Air travel meant that the rough geographic borders that used to constrain conferences were anachronisms, and conferences could be structured more around markets, eyeballs, and media rights. And as Blutarsky also points out, this train left the station long before 2012: the addition of South Carolina and Arkansas to the SEC in 1992 that facilitated a lucrative conference championship football game showed the way.

Texas and Oklahoma are coming to the SEC, and this pretty much says why:

That’s a ton of cash. (Though, for context, it’s still around 15% of the new NFL media rights deal. Why stop now?) What’s more important is that it creates an entity on par with the NCAA itself. That doesn’t mean the SEC’s revenues will equal the revenue of all other conferences combined. The NCAA is a distinct organization and gets its revenue from things like media rights for the NCAA basketball tournament. It does mean that the SEC, along with its media partner, will have sufficient clout to influence not only the competition on the field but also how college football is presented, marketed, and discussed.

Those focused on football have wondered how the addition of Texas and Oklahoma will shift the competitive balance of the SEC. How will the conference be organized? Georgia has played Clemson more often than A&M since the Aggies joined the SEC. Adding teams under the current model would be ridiculous. I do like the pod system many have outlined for football. (I can’t imagine a good system for sports like baseball though that would rotate through the conference often enough.) We can expect changes to scheduling, and it’s not as if Georgia will be playing Texas and Oklahoma every year.

The bigger impact will come nationally as the rest of the college sports landscape will have to deal with an expanded SEC as a bloc. The Pac-12 is already rattling swords about the SEC’s effect on the playoff expansion to 12 teams. The Pac-12 itself might not have much to say about it, but we can expect coalitions to form that will attempt to check the SEC. Those coalitions might be formalized through the expansion and realignment of other conferences, or they might remain informal and shifting alliances depending on the moment. No one wants to answer to the SEC, and there are several schools and conferences that might – might – be effective opposition if they can find common ground.

Those who appreciate the regional roots of college football might be amused that one effect of SEC expansion will be an even greater focus on southern football. Even as the playoff and media coverage package the sport for a national audience, the product will have a decidedly southern bent. It’s a big geographic footprint, but much of what happens in college football will be defined by what happens from Oklahoma to Florida. Certainly there’s enough good football outside of the conference to remain relevant and competitive, but it’s not hard to see that the narrative each season will begin as which outsider can take down the SEC’s best. Expansion might even lead us to rethink what it means to be a conference champion. Surviving and emerging as the SEC champion would, to many, be as impressive and more important than winning a national title against the best of the rest.

Whether it’s previewing each season’s football national title race or pondering the future of college sports, the addition of Oklahoma and Texas will raise the same question: “the SEC or the field?”

One more small thing…another effect I expect from this expansion will be to shift the SEC’s center of gravity westward. By that I mean six of 16 schools will lie on or west of the Mississippi. Oklahoma and Texas have just a bit more presence and clout than Missouri or even Arkansas. The SEC’s Nashville-Atlanta-Birmingham center can’t help but feel that tug. One consequence I expect will be the rotation of the SEC football championship game. Even a more permanent event like the SEC baseball tournament could be forced to rotate. There are at least four major domed stadiums in the west (New Orleans, Dallas/Arlington, Houston, and St. Louis) capable of hosting major events, and Dallas seems the most obvious choice to host the occasional SEC championship. You can be sure they’ll try.


Post Happy NIL Day

Thursday July 1, 2021

Like it or not, the landscape of college athletics changed overnight. Laws in several states went into effect protecting the right of college athletes to earn money from their name, image, or likeness. The NCAA, pushed to the limit, adopted their own interim policy which will serve as a stopgap until legislation catches up. That day may never come – Congress is finding it difficult to find consensus, and we might just be left with a patchwork of state laws.

NIL is perhaps the cleanest solution the schools could hope for: NIL money isn’t paid by the schools, there aren’t employment issues, and there should be fewer Title IX issues. Athletes are now allowed to get what they can get from their personal brands just like any other person. Direct payments from the schools would have been much messier, brought along all sorts of regulatory questions, and cut out a large share of the NCAA membership who are barely solvent. The “Olympic model,” which is basically NIL, has been circulated for well over a decade. Schools and the NCAA could have been out ahead of this issue, but instead we have a last-minute acquiescence to look the other way while an inconsistent framework of state laws kicks in.

Georgia fans have been especially tuned into the NIL issue since the suspensions of A.J. Green and Todd Gurley. The draconian NCAA regulations and Georgia’s passive willingness to accept them had many of us beating the drum for NIL reform years ago. This new era won’t remove the bad taste left by those episodes; all we can do is say that it’s about time.

It will be fascinating to see what comes of this change. There will be an early rush as the market shakes out and determines value. Some will do well; others won’t. Some will build successful brands and set themselves up for a secure future, and others will squander the opportunity. Some will build brands that only tangentially have to do with their sport, and now they can monetize that following. Will there be locker room dynamics? Maybe – who knows? There will be some hilariously bad and cringe-y endorsements and branding. We’re here for all of it. That’s the way markets work, and none of it is reason enough to delay these rights to student-athletes.

Since there’s money involved, there’s also bound to be plenty of fraud and shady characters ready to prey on under-informed players and their families. Schools might not be facilitating the deals, but it’s in their interests to have a supporting role. Resources should be available to student-athletes to help them identify legitimate endorsement deals and stay within legal and regulatory guardrails. Many schools, including Georgia, have introduced such partnerships and programs, and hopefully more will follow. Businessman and NFL veteran Marshall Newhouse tweeted some good advice: get help to understand the state laws and school/NCAA rules that apply, thoroughly vet anyone who approaches you with a deal, and don’t lose focus. “The opportunities will come the more you shine.”

I’m particularly interested to see if and how recruiting changes. Do prospects have more incentive to remain closer to home where name recognition and brand value might be higher? Will prospects play fan bases off of each other to determine the most enthusiasm for their personal brand? Will we eventually see a decision based on what amounts to a legal bidding war? Fans are admonished to avoid communicating with or interacting with prospects on social media, but would it be a different story if they knew that buying that 5* prospect’s merchandise might tilt the scales? None of these prospects are beholden to a specific school’s compliance department yet – will this market be even more unregulated?

There are a million angles to NIL because it really is a fundamental change to the model of college athletics. Schools and the NCAA will still make a ton of money – these deals aren’t coming out of their vaults. Now, finally, the people who generate much of that revenue will get a taste of it and begin to realize the value that’s been there all along.


Post Framing the preseason Heisman hype

Thursday June 24, 2021

Excitement about the potential for the 2021 Georgia offense can only mean one thing: offseason talk about J.T. Daniels’ Heisman chances. The strong finish by Daniels and the Georgia offense, the number of weapons returning, and a full and normal offseason with Todd Monken have generated tremendous anticipation. With record-shattering offenses at LSU and Alabama in recent years, the hope is that Daniels could lead Georgia’s transformation into the next powerhouse offense. But would that mean a Heisman for Georgia’s QB1?

I can probably just link to this post from 2019 when we were having similar discussions about Jake Fromm’s Heisman chances as a senior. Things didn’t go well for Fromm or the offense in 2019, but the larger points stand. If you’re not a dual-threat quarterback, you must put up ridiculous numbers to be considered for, much less win, the Heisman.

How ridiculous? Not many pocket passers have won the Heisman over the past 15 years. Sam Bradford won in 2008 with only 47 rushing yards. Were Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston considered pocket passers? Neither put up big rushing numbers but had decent enough mobility to make plays on the ground. In their Heisman seasons, those quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Bradford and Winston won before the RPO era and the unreal offensive production we’ve seen in recent years. Joe Burrow threw for nearly 5,700 yards and 60 TD in 2019. Mac Jones threw for 4,500 yards in 2020 in a shortened season – and didn’t win the Heisman.

The gold standard for quarterback production at Georgia remains Aaron Murray’s 2012 season: nearly 3,900 passing yards, 10.1 yards per attempt, and 36 TD. That was a productive and balanced offense that took Georgia to the cusp of the national title game.

Back to Daniels: Brent Rollins of UGASports.com framed the answer correctly in this video: “yes, but.” When you look at the stats of recent Heisman winners (or even those invited to New York) and compare them against Murray’s Georgia-best 2012 season, you realize what has to happen. Daniels would have to obliterate the Georgia record book and do things never before seen in Athens. As Rollins observes, it would also require Georgia to run a lot more plays, and a higher percentage of plays must be passes. The deep and talented backfield is going to put an upper limit on how pass-happy Georgia becomes. That’s not to say Georgia can’t and won’t air it out – we saw that evolution begin to take place last season. But if an opponent presents a soft rushing defense, Smart and Monken are just as happy winning with 16 pass attempts and 332 rushing yards as they did at South Carolina last year. They’d be foolish not to, and it would take an intentional shift in offensive philosophy to blow past Murray’s benchmark and put up modern Heisman numbers.

Rollins notes that the Clemson game could swing how the nation views Daniels. A big performance and perhaps a game-defining moment on that stage would make Daniels (or Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei) an early favorite, and it might be possible to maintain that edge with a consistently solid showing the rest of the year. After all, Trevor Lawrence never cracked 4,000 yards in a season and finished second in the 2020 Heisman voting. An unremarkable showing against Clemson, even with a Georgia win, would mean that Daniels would have to stand out in games against lesser opponents with fewer people watching. He’d either have to make it up with volume (outrageous stats) or with a defining performance in the few marquee games left on Georgia’s schedule (Florida.)

Lawrence’s career reminds us of another development to watch. After the Clemson game, Georgia should be favored in its remaining games. Any SEC game could be competitive, but you’d still expect some big leads and lopsided wins. If Georgia is in a number of tightly-contested games this year, Daniels probably isn’t having a Heisman type of season. If the Georgia offense does click, you can expect to see the playcalling shift towards the capable backfield in the second half. What’s more, the trio of Beck, Bennett, and Vandagriff could be doing the handing off late in games. Clemson so dominated the ACC that Lawrence watched his backups close out a lot of games. That hurt his numbers in terms of the gaudy stats Heisman voters like, but it kept him fresh and available for multiple runs into the playoff. I think that’s a tradeoff most Georgia fans would accept.


Post “It’s crazy to think we could make a living out of this.”

Friday June 4, 2021

When most of us over a certain age think about NLI endorsements, we think of the star quarterback doing ads for the local car dealership. Those types of deals will surely come, but Blutarsky highlights a vector for income that might be more appealing (and effective) for college athletes: social media.

Just as social media has disintermediated so many other industries, individuals on social media can build and monetize a large number of followers on their own. Simply allowing student-athletes to share in the opportunities realized by others in their peer group will be a major benefit of NLI policies and laws. Sponsorships and endorsements are part of that, but some have even built their own personal brands. For many, the opportunity to cash in on that brand might be during college. To take an extremely local and specific example, think about Rodrigo Blankenship being able to cash in on the “respect the specs” brand during his time in Athens.

The social media vector could be especially important for female student-athletes. Gender inequity has been a concern raised (whether in good faith or not) about NLI income, but often that’s viewing it through the lens of the QB/car dealership endorsement. Several female student-athletes have large social media followings, and those followings are often independent of the success or revenue potential of the woman’s sport.

David Hale wrote a piece earlier this spring illustrating how this might work.

A new study from Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management found the potential for NIL revenue, on average, was actually greater for female college athletes than men, and athletes outside the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball could still cultivate valuable brands.

He features twin sisters on the Fresno State women’s basketball team. Their team went 17-11 last season and makes about $2 million in revenue. But the twins have over 2 million followers on TikTok, and they alone “could have a potential combined income of more than a half-million dollars annually.” Hale also mentions Olivia Dunne, “a freshman gymnast at LSU, whose nearly 5 million combined followers on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok make her one of the most potentially valuable brands in college sports.”

Every student-athlete won’t have millions of social media followers just as every member of the football team won’t get the car dealership deal. NLI is a wide-open market, and schools are quick to shy away from proposals to pool NLI income. You get what you can get, and some will be left out or limited to smaller “in kind” deal. It’s still better than what’s allowed now, and services are already popping up to help student-athletes establish and cultivate their personal brands. Access to the opportunities is what NLI is about and what has been denied student-athletes under the current system.


Post How to survive at the bottom of the portal food chain

Thursday May 27, 2021

An interesting development in the world of college basketball:

First, it’s a bit silly to avoid playing a game because it might amount to a “free live evaluation” when extensive game film on just about any player is available with a few clicks. Doug Gottlieb makes a more relevant observation that just practicing at the facilities of a major program amounts to a recruiting visit during which a mid-major player can see how the other half lives. Even if you manage to avoid playing those games, talent will reveal itself. Then what?

Tampering isn’t permitted of course, and a player is off-limits until they enter the transfer portal. But the one-time unrestricted transfer is allowed for most sports, and as Nicole Auerbach explained last year, coaches in those sports have ways of contacting potential transfers through backchannels without making the in-person contact permitted by the portal. You can be sure that your favorite major football or basketball program knows how to gauge the interest of a player who might help them well before that player hits the portal.

One of Auerbach’s coaching sources suggested what might come next. Forget tampering or the portal – just plant the seed of a transfer before the player even enrolls. Call it outsourcing grayshirting:

One scenario I hadn’t considered was suggested by a soccer coach. He β€œcan absolutely envision a world where high-major or elite Power 5 football coaches tell a recruit that he’s not quite good enough to play at School X right now, but he could be after a good season at School Y. Those coaches could maintain the relationship with the recruit and circle back a year later, eventually adding him as an up-transfer.”

This needn’t only be done at the individual player level. You wonder if a mid-major coach will lean into this idea and develop more overt, though still unspoken, relationships with larger programs. We’ve seen this with certain junior colleges for decades: academic non-qualifiers at a major program are “placed” in a favorable JUCO or prep program with the intent to re-recruit the player once grades are no longer an issue. The informal arrangement has risks: the player is under no obligation to sign with his original school, he may never make grades, or he might wash out as a prospect. But the system worked well enough that no explanation was required when a top prospect ended up at a familiar junior college.

Mid-major coaches might bristle at taking on the role of short-term player development. We can go back to Jake Spavital’s lament last week: “I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” But what if that coach becomes a participant in the process rather than a victim of it? Could you get better results if you have a steady stream of players who might be marginal prospects at major programs than you could relying on your usual recruiting pool? If transfers are a fact of life and the window of time for developing talent and winning with that talent is shrinking anyway, why not take a shorter-term outlook?


Post Making Athens a basketball destination

Wednesday May 26, 2021

As I read this piece over at Get the Picture, what struck me is how easy it was to see the Georgia basketball program mirrored in Texas State football. That’s not a cheery thought.

There are differences. Some players like Savhir Wheeler recruited by Tom Crean were certainly sought-after prospects, but, man, if this line didn’t hit close to home: “My whole argument is I can take the [high school] kid down the street that no one wants and no one offers who, after three years, you develop him into a good player, and he can leave.” Again, Wheeler, K.D. Johnson, and Toumani Camara were wanted and offered by good programs, but that doesn’t make it easier to see a player’s development pay off somewhere else. It’s especially tough when that “somewhere else” is a team you’ll be facing next season.

“The rest (of available scholarships) have gone to transfers, 11 of them. That after (Jake) Spavital lost 12 players to the portal. He has not signed a high school prospect at Texas State in his Class of 2021…”

That’s describing a mid-major Sun Belt football team, but it’s not far from the story at Stegeman Coliseum. Crean has at least signed a few high school players, though the current recruiting class is rated near the bottom of the SEC. Like North Texas football, Georgia basketball will remake its roster largely through the transfer portal. For the third straight season, well over half the roster will turn over. Continuity is impossible. The coach’s job now is to assemble a roster with a one-year expiration date and win with it. That might be invigorating for Spavital: “it’s given life to our program.” It’s proving more difficult for Crean though as the top performers from each team leave and are replaced with less-accomplished pieces.

The contrast with what’s happening across Smith Street is glaring. Sure, the Georgia football team has lost players to the transfer portal, and there have even been some highly-rated Georgia players like Brenton Cox to transfer out. On the whole, though, most of Georgia football’s losses to the portal have been typical of transfers in earlier seasons – players with disciplinary issues and players buried on the depth chart who haven’t showed signs of breaking through. Georgia football approaches the portal from a position of strength – as a destination. The portal is used to improve the program and not just fill out numbers.

That’s the age-old problem for Georgia basketball: how to make it a destination. It’s been tough enough over the years just to recruit players to Athens, and now the program is doing someone else’s player development. Players have recently departed Georgia for Arizona, Kentucky, Auburn, Dayton, and of course the NBA. That’s quality talent that could have been a solid core had it held together. The long-term goal is to make Georgia a place at which those players see themselves accomplishing their goals. The short-term imperative is to piece together a roster from transfers and recruits and try to hold it together long enough to accomplish something significant enough to make Georgia that destination. Even that is proving difficult, and even signs of progress like attracting an Edwards or a Wheeler are followed by two steps back and have failed to “give life to our program.”

The fans did their part. Challenged by Tom Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set attendance records. The setting for big moments like the 2019 Kentucky game was as good as it gets. Facilities are no longer an anchor holding the program down. What’s left? That’s why Crean gets the big bucks. It’s generally accepted that this will be a decisive season for Crean’s future at Georgia. With the number of decent perimeter shooters coming in, the upcoming roster might actually be more suited to Crean’s style than any roster he’s had at Georgia. But it’s asking a lot for another overhauled roster to come together in the time it takes to have an effective November and December and have enough wins in the bank to survive the SEC slate and deliver Crean to the NCAA tournament. That’s what’s at stake. As Spavital put it, “[if] you don’t win, you get fired. We gotta think outside the box here.”