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Post Rejoice, couch potatoes

Wednesday August 16, 2017

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

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

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

Of course it’s not perfect or for everyone:

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

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


Post It’s the football, dummy

Monday July 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Why would you sign early?

Wednesday May 10, 2017

It’s official: there will be an early signing period for football. “Early” is a generous description: we’re talking about a whole six weeks before the usual February signing date. We’ve kicked this idea around for over ten years, and for whatever reason now was the time for change. What I wrote then had to do with a proposed earlier signing period in the summer or fall, but my thinking doesn’t change much with a December date.

Put it this way: why would a prospect want to sign six weeks before he’d otherwise do so? What does he gain?

A lot can happen in the December-January time frame to affect the decision. Coaching staffs change. NFL Draft decisions are made along with other roster attrition. Lower-profile or late-blooming prospects might pick up additional offers. Yes, an exception for coaching changes seems to have fairly popular support, but that’s not how the new signing period will operate at first. Once you’re signed, you’re signed.

The only reason to consider signing early is if the prospect feels his offer is in jeopardy. We know there’s a certain elite class of prospect who will have an offer for as long as the decision takes. For the Roquan Smiths of the world, this is a good position to be in. These are the kids the coaches would like to focus on with the rest of the class signed in December. For the rest, how many coaches are above using the offer as leverage to get most of the class inked in December?

We’re supposed to see the early signing period as a positive for the coaches stretched thin by herding an entire class until early February. It’s interesting to see which coaches aren’t thrilled about the idea. They oppose it for the same reason why I think it’s not a great idea for prospects: the loss of flexibility. We saw this ourselves last year with the Toneil Carter situation after Chubb and Michel decided to come back. The coaches who want to keep their options open as long as possible will now have a fair portion of their scholarships locked up well before they’d prefer.

It’s sad and cynical to see this early signing period as a game of chicken between coaches and prospects, but I guess I’ve been following recruiting too long.


Post Basketball teams active in spring recruiting

Wednesday May 10, 2017

Hoop Dawgs add two in spring signing period

Mark Fox wrapped up the 2017 signing class with the addition of forward Isaac Kante from New York. The 6’8″ Kante spent the past year as a postgraduate at Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. Kante used the postgraduate year to work on his skills and increase his exposure to major programs. The plan worked: his offers included Georgetown, Kansas State, St. John’s, and of course Georgia.

Depending on the NBA Draft status of Yante Maten, Georgia could have a solid frontcourt next season. Maten is a known star. Edwards and Ogbeide improved a great deal this past year. Incoming forward Rayshaun Hammonds should be able to work into the rotation right away.

Kante is Georgia’s second signee of the spring period. Combo guard Teshaun Hightower committed earlier in the year and signed at the beginning of the signing period in April. Hightower is the lone guard in the 2017 class. He’ll have an opportunity to contribute, but much of the backcourt production will have to come from a combination of Jackson, Harris, and Crump. The team will need much more consistent production from that group to come close to replacing what J.J. Frazier brought to the team. Wings Parker, Wilridge, and Diatta will also have to step up on the perimeter.

Lady Dogs add impressive transfer

Joni Taylor has added an interesting transfer from Maryland, 6’6″ center Jenna Staiti. Staiti was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect who was a highlight of Maryland’s top-rated 2016 recruiting class. She was a reserve as a freshman for a loaded Maryland team and will have three years of eligibility at Georgia after sitting out this season. The transfer year could be a boon for Staiti. She’s still relatively new to competitive basketball after starting out as a nationally-ranked swimmer, and her game will benefit from the additional year of development.

It’s tempting to look two years down the road and anticipate a frontcourt that features 6’6″ Staiti, 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru, 6’3″ Malury Bates (an incoming top 100 prospect), and a senior Caliya Robinson at 6’3″. With quality options at center, I’m looking forward to Robinson improving and extending her game as forward. It’s been a while since Georgia has had that kind of depth and size up front, and post play has been a big part of the success at South Carolina and Mississippi State. Georgia is building the roster to compete at that level. The program inked a top ten class for 2017, and Staiti is essentially a 5* prospect to kick off the 2018 class.

Transfers have always been a part of college athletics, but women’s basketball has seen a surge of high-profile players on the move. Tennessee and South Carolina have been beneficiaries in the SEC. UConn is set to add a key transfer. With Staiti, Georgia will have three players on its roster who began their careers in the Pac 12, Big 10, and ACC. But while some schools have improved via transfers, others have been hit hard. North Carolina signed one of the best classes in program history in 2013. All four players were gone within two years. Diamond DeShields has found stardom at Tennessee. Allisha Gray is a national champion at South Carolina. The Tar Heels, reeling from the transfers and the uncertainty of an academic scandal, finished last season under .500. There’s a lot more to say about the positives and negatives of that transfer trend, but for now it’s a good sign that Georgia is a net destination for transfers rather than a source of them.


Post Bottom line says to keep the game in Jacksonville

Tuesday May 2, 2017

Last week we learned that Jacksonville’s government has been presented with a new contract that will keep the game in place through 2021. The new deal preserves the current revenue split and sweetens the pot with a shared $2.75 million of incentives over the life of the deal.

Bill King wonders what it might take to force the schools to consider a home-and-home arrangement rather than continuing at the neutral site. The first catalyst he mentions is a possible move to a 9-game SEC schedule. “If that were to happen,” King explains, “Georgia and Florida would be at a disadvantage in having one less home game in the odd-even rotation of home and away, and one less spot open for a cupcake home game.”

It’s true, and that disadvantage is already the case – when Georgia is the “home” team in Jacksonville, that’s a conference game we don’t get in Athens. We get three SEC contests at home, four true road SEC games, and Jacksonville. Georgia faces that situation every other year, but they usually pick up another cupcake game to fill out the home schedule. It was even worse in 2016 – there were just three home SEC games and not one but two neutral site games. I doubt Georgia or Florida would allow the rotation in a 9-game schedule to create a 3 home / 5 road imbalance, and the teams would have four home conference games every year while “hosting” a fifth in Jacksonville in alternating years.

King also wonders whether market forces might compel a move back to campus. As schools face increased pressure to sell season tickets as more fans watch at home, they might have to consider improving the quality of home games. It makes sense – Florida on the home schedule would definitely make a season ticket more attractive. Neither Florida nor Georgia seems to be at that point yet – we’ve seen the empty seats, but the tickets are still – for the most part – being sold.

Let’s say that season ticket sales do fall off. It would take a precipitous drop to give up the cash cow that’s the WLOCP. With ticket prices $70 and up, Georgia’s share of the gate is already more than they’d make selling out a home game at normal prices every other year. That’s even before you include 1) the incentives and bonuses built into the new contract and 2) the fact that Georgia’s take in Jacksonville is pure revenue. The schools pay nothing to host this game and forego only concessions revenue. More, let’s remember that all neutral site game revenue is on top of what we’re already paying for season tickets. Georgia gets the Hartman Fund donations, season ticket renewals, *and* any revenue from neutral site games. It would take one heck of an apocalyptic fall in season ticket sales to upset that gravy train.

Rather than encouraging games on campus, economic incentives tell us to prefer the neutral site. Successful neutral games can command premium ticket prices, cost the schools nothing in terms of operating expenses, and will almost always come with a national TV audience. There might even be untapped revenue to be had. As neutral games go, the Georgia-Florida game is still a bargain. $70 will get you in the door in Jacksonville. Last season it took at least $85 to buy a UGA-UNC ticket, and of course better seats cost more. Prices for this year’s FSU-Bama, Florida-Michigan, and even Tech-Tennessee games are comparable or even higher.

The guarantees that come with these games easily eclipse the net revenue from a home-and-home with a comparable opponent. Michigan is walking away with $6 million for their 2017 opener against Florida. Again, that’s on top of whatever Michigan is bringing in from season ticket sales and priority donations. When Jeremy Foley talks about the “unique opportunity” of Florida playing in that game, he’s not talking about a chance to spend quality time with Jerry Jones. These schools might not have the sharpest knives in the drawer running the athletic department, but even they can do the math.

I’ve said my piece about removing some of the best nonconference games from Sanford Stadium. It might seem inconsistent for me to turn my nose up at non-conference neutral site games while wanting to preserve the Jacksonville game, but that’s a hypocrisy I’m willing to live with. I enjoy it too much. Kirby Smart has made known his preference for a big neutral site game to start the season, so that ship has sailed anyway. As for Jacksonville, until Georgia begins to take a noticeable hit from its own core fans about the quality of the home schedule, there’s just too much value in the neutral venue. If that backlash doesn’t happen with the rancid 2017 and 2018 home slates, will it ever?


Post Why I’m hoping ESPN can continue doing what it does best

Tuesday May 2, 2017

This is a self-centered post, so it’s worth noting first that many good journalists whose work I’ve relied on here are no longer with ESPN. The nature of journalism means that we tend to connect more with these names than we would had ESPN cut cameramen or accounting staff, but it’s an indivdually significant and life-changing moment and an opportunity for empathy anytime someone gets that news. Employees are bearing the cost of management decisions and market forces.

I was on the couch Sunday afternoon watching the home finale for Georgia softball. (Not a great season, but that’s another post.) I was watching an SEC Network-branded broadcast via the ESPN app on my Apple TV. Nearly every softball game has been available that way. Same with women’s hoops. Thanks to the SEC Network and the digital platform, just about every Georgia football and basketball game is now available nationwide when it’s not on CBS or a basic ESPN channel. Thanks to ESPN (and Apple), I now live in a world where it’s frustrating when I can’t pull up a nonconference softball game. G-Day was broadcast nationally, and there was even an alternate stream. For a spring game. It’s all available now, and it’s wonderful.

I doubt that my viewing habits are typical. I’ve never been a regular SportsCenter viewer even in the “Big Show” era, and I can count on one hand the number of hours in a month I might spend on an ESPN channel that isn’t live play-by-play. The 30-for-30 series was fantastic, but that’s about it. If there’s been an editorial shift in programming outside of live sports, I haven’t really been affected. I wasn’t watching anyway. Yes, it’s been impossible to ignore the promos and tie-ins during the games, but quibbling with sports reporters and their narratives isn’t exactly uncharted territory.

So “stick to sports” is how I’ve always approached viewing ESPN, and in that regard it’s never been better. The digital platforms are phenomenal technology. The score app is great, but the evolution of ESPN3 into WatchESPN has been as big of a turning point in how I watch sports as the original ESPN was. Further, ESPN’s presence in the market meant that any network or entity broadcasting sports – from the NCAA to Augusta National – had to provide a comparable experience, and the home sports viewer is better for it. Streams are expected now. There’s enough available now to actually affect attendance trends – why go through the expense and hassle of going to a game when you can gorge on quality HD broadcasts of your game and several others?

The selfish part of me now wonders what happens to this content. ESPN has been able to raise its carriage fees even in the face of the market trend of cord-cutting, but even they can’t avoid the consequences of a dwindling pool of subscribers. Yes, it’s possible that some households decided they could do without ESPN because of politics, and live sports is the one thing keeping many of people attached to their cable or dish subscription. But that revenue pool is still shrinking. Today it affected ESPN itself and several of its journalists. Down the road ESPN will have decisions to make about the money it spends on its content and technology platforms. It will have decisions to make about bidding for broadcast rights. Those decisions will of course trickle down to things you and I care about – college sports, the SEC, and the precious revenue stream we’ve come to count on from those broadcast rights.

I have no idea where it’s headed or whether the current level of content is sustainable. For my sake, I hope it is. I could take or leave ESPN’s journalism. There’s not much of a shortage of sports journalism, and I expect we’ll see many of these bylines reappear at other outlets soon. What is unique and more difficult to replace is access to the games. Unfortunately that’s the most expensive part of this enterprise and where both broadcaster and broadcast rights holder are likely to feel the pinch.


Post Potential talent drain adds urgency to 2017

Friday April 28, 2017

It was a good night for the SEC at the NFL Draft with the #1 overall pick and a record 12 first round draft picks. Half the conference (seven teams) contributed at least one player to this haul. Of course Georgia wasn’t one of them. Seth Emerson reminds us that Georgia’s absence isn’t a bad thing, though it is a necessary consequence of the fallout from the class of 2013 and finishing unranked in consecutive seasons. It’s worth remembering that several players who would have been likely draft picks (though not necessarily first rounders) chose to return and contribute to the 2017 team.

Emerson concludes that “it should be a good year numbers-wise for the Dawgs in the 2018 draft,” and he’s also right that there doesn’t seem to be a first round lock among them. I’ve thought that Michel projects as a higher pick because of his versatility, but Chubb could also do a lot for himself by playing a full, productive, and healthy 2017 season. Trenton Thompson has a very high upside among the defenders. Still, it’s likely to be a deep class, and you don’t have to look far to find ten eligible players from the 2017 team who should expect a serious look from the NFL.

The flip side of Emerson’s piece is an added urgency to produce in 2017. All eyes are on the incoming freshman class as Kirby Smart restocks the roster, but the potential loss of anywhere from 5 to 10 NFL-quality players (depending on the decisions of underclassmen) would leave plenty of holes around the depth chart. When you combine the returning seniors and the rising juniors, the team is perhaps as loaded at the upper end of the experience curve as it is at the lower end. After this season, the demographics of the team change to favor Smart’s first three classes and the 2017 class in particular. The extent to which the program is able to reload for 2018 depends on the progress of Smart’s first two classes as well as whatever the team is able to add in 2018, but that uncertainty makes it more important to show results with this current group.

A part of us wants to be patient with Smart’s process and recognize that there are still holes on the team where playing freshmen might be necessary even with so much top-end talent. At the same time, you don’t want the “throwaway season” label within miles of a team with that many potential draft picks. Seeing so many talented players come through without so much as an SEC East title would be as big of a shame as Stafford, Moreno, and Green also leaving without a trip to Atlanta. It’s going to be a lot harder to enjoy Draft Day 2018 if we don’t have much to enjoy in 2017 first.

(Is it unhealthy to already be anticipating the “well, we’re a very young team” line in 2018?)


Post You had to bring up the 2013 Auburn game

Wednesday April 26, 2017

Almost four years later and it still hurts. Bill Connelly is looking back at the games of the year for his 50 best college football teams (“best” usually meaning “most interesting” – buy the book.) 2013 Auburn is one of those teams, and you can guess what this featured game was. I agree with him – the Kick Six was a remarkable and unforgettable moment, but this Georgia-Auburn contest was a better game. For whatever reason I’m not the type to try to forget games like this…it’s the opposite, really. There’s so much to unpack from this game, and because I’m a masochist we’ll do some unpacking.

I like to start with the comeback. Georgia trailed by 20 twice. They were down 27-7 in the first half, trailed by 17 at halftime, pulled to within 10, and then Auburn responded with 10 points of their own to take another 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Instead of folding Georgia responded with three straight scoring drives and forced their only three-and-outs of the game to salvage enough time to take an improbable 38-37 lead inside of two minutes left. That’s how it ended, right? Go Dawgs.

I still marvel at the gift that was Auburn’s playcalling. Protecting a 37-31 lead inside of six minutes remaining and reeling after two Georgia scores, Auburn went away from the running game that had baffled Georgia’s defense. Nick Marshall threw incomplete passes on first and second down, presenting Georgia’s defense with a rare opportunity to get after the quarterback. Ramik Wilson chased down Marshall from behind, Auburn shanked the punt, and Georgia was set up in Auburn territory with plenty of time for the go-ahead drive. Too much time as it turned out.

Todd Gurley made his biggest mark on this game catching passes. A big part of Auburn’s early success came from bottling up Gurley in the running game. He finished with 79 yards on 15 carries – not awful, but not enough to make much of a difference in the game. Auburn’s large lead meant that Georgia was going to have to throw anyway, and Murray ended up attempting 49 passes. The wrinkle was that Gurley caught 10 of those passes. Those receptions only accounted for 77 yards, so they weren’t big gainers, but they were effective in sustaining the drives that enabled Georgia’s comeback and kept Georgia’s defense off the field. Murray came to rely on Gurley as a reliable check-down to counter the Auburn pressure that often left the tailback open. Gurley’s role catching the ball wasn’t new – we had seen him devastate Florida with a long catch and run just a few weeks earlier. He had 37 receptions in 2013 (third-most on the team!), but more than 25% of them came in this game.

Auburn didn’t punt until well into the third quarter. They got into scoring range on every first half drive. It was bad enough to be down 27-10 at halftime, but the only thing that kept Georgia in the game was that four Auburn scoring chances ended with FG attempts rather than touchdowns. The Bulldog defense was hanging on by its fingernails, but the game could have easily been over by halftime had Auburn turned half of those opportunities into touchdowns. The Tigers converted three of those four FG attempts, but another was blocked in the second quarter and kept Auburn from delivering the knockout blow. Limiting Auburn to a FG attempt early in the fourth quarter was key to Georgia’s comeback – it extended Auburn’s lead to 37-17 but still kept Georgia within three scores.

I’m glad Bill mentioned this – Georgia nearly had a response for the ages. Facing 75 yards to go with 25 seconds left, two long completions and an offsides penalty gave Georgia one shot from 20 yards out. That was about the situation for Michael Johnson’s catch in 2002, but it was Auburn’s year for miracles. I was still impressed that Georgia could do anything resembling football after what had just happened.

Aaron Murray came so close to several career-defining moments. The final drive of the 2012 SECCG is at the top of the list. But like Mason-to-Mitchell against Tech in 2014 or Eason-to-Ridley against Tennessee in 2016, Murray’s tough run to get every inch of five yards for the go-ahead score at Auburn was eclipsed seconds later and ultimately became a cruel glimmer of hope in a heartbreaking loss. Murray’s Georgia career ended a week later with a non-contact knee injury on a run against Kentucky with the game well in hand. That go-ahead score at Auburn was Murray’s last great moment in a Georgia uniform, and hopefully it won’t be forgotten as we try to put the end of the game out of memory. (Bat it down!)

The loss saved Georgia fans from a lesser disappointment: Georgia went into Auburn with faint hopes of an SEC East title, but they’d need to win out and have Missouri lose at least one more. That Missouri loss never came, and we were spared the gut-punch of being denied an SEC East title by Vanderbilt.

UPDATE: For a happier ending, Bill also features the 1980 South Carolina game in which Herschel Walker has no time for geometry.


Post “We wanted to see if we could throw the ball some.”: G-Day 2017

Wednesday April 26, 2017

[G-Day Stats]

When a team with a healthy Nick Chubb and Sony Michel trots out Brian Herrien as its featured tailback, you knew right away that the running game wouldn’t feature much in Saturday’s scrimmage. We saw enough of #1 and #27 to reassure us that, yes, they really did come back for another season, and that was plenty.

Herrien didn’t get a chance to break many runs against the first team defense. Blocking wasn’t great, but the first team offense also faced some of the crowded fronts we saw last year. Establishing some credible downfield threats as the offenses did in the scrimmage will help loosen things up for Chubb and Michel. Holyfield had a little more success against the second team, and he demonstrated why there’s some chatter about his value in the red zone. We saw no runs for the receivers or much beyond the basic sets and plays in the ground game.

This G-Day was all about the passing game. I’ll say only this about the quarterback depth chart: we should feel fairly at ease if the backup has to come in the game, and Fromm appears as if he’ll be ready to play if needed. That in itself is a relief. Fromm’s was as talented as advertised, but he also made some of the decisions that terrify you about putting a freshman quarterback on the field. It’s a growing process you’d rather not see play out in live action, but Fromm was worth getting excited over. He showed good composure, ran the offense well, didn’t make many glaring mistakes within the context of what he was asked to do, and only took a couple of risks you’d expect a freshman to take. Georgia has a good situation at quarterback, and it’s a much better idea to enjoy the bounty of talent at the position rather than make the competition a negative story. The only ominous sign was obvious during warmups – it’s not a crowded QB meeting room.

Eason did struggle out of the gate. Protection was some of the problem, but there were a handful of “sacks” on which Eason held the ball a little long. Things settled down for him in the second half, and the arm is just fine. Eason’s weaker throws came when he was on the move. He was especially shaky with timing and accuracy of some of the check-downs. Some good gains were there to be had with better throws, and he and the backs will have to continue to work on those short passes.

What was as disappointing at times as the line play was protection by non-linemen. Holyfield didn’t square up well to take on pass rushers. Payne had a poor block that aided a Natrez Patrick sack. Yes, linemen have primary responsibilities in pass protection, but most protection schemes feature roles for some combination of tight ends, tailbacks, and fullbacks. When these players miss an assignment, it often gets lumped in with “line play” because the results are the same – a sack, a hurry, or a quarterback running for his life.

I don’t see much use spending a lot of time on the offensive line. I don’t believe the August depth chart will look much like what we saw Saturday, so there’s not much use dwelling on the combinations. That position more than any other could see quite a bit of movement between now and the start of the season. About the only thing to take away is that the door is open for the heralded incoming class to compete for playing time and even starting jobs.

The same can be said for kicking – Blankenship started well and showed he had the leg to kick from 50 yards out, but focus and consistency left him in the second half. The door is open for competition there too. Punting is also up for grabs. Marshall Long was unavailable as he recovers from surgery, but grad transfer Cameron Nizialek was good enough to be considered for the role during the season.

I’m liking the skill set Georgia is developing at receiver. Wims had the usual JUCO adjustment year but is settling in as a favorite target of Eason’s. It took Godwin a little while to make an impact on Saturday, but I saw flashes of the improvement he’s said to have made in the offseason. Godwin’s ability to stretch short completions into longer gains is becoming an advantage. I didn’t see anything to make me think anyone other than Wims and Godwin will be the top two receivers. Chigbu and Stanley are in that limbo as upperclassmen where they must become more consistent or risk being passed over by the younger players that were on display. All that’s without Riley Ridley or Mark Webb, another promising incoming receiver.

There’s no denying the talent that Holloman and Hardman showed, though Holloman’s size advantage was exaggerated against a smaller walk-on defensive back most of the game. The hands and the routes will work against any most coverage, but we’ll see if he can be as physical against bigger and better coverage. Hardman didn’t get much of a chance to get the ball in space, but he made a nice move for extra yards on one such catch late in the game. We didn’t see any of the runs or gadget plays that could feature someone like Hardman – or, for that matter, Simmons. Simmons had a rough start with a fumble and a couple of early drops, but he rebounded well to make some tough catches and show off his speed on a long touchdown reception. I’m high on Simmons if only because there has to be a role for that kind of speed, and he was also able to take his lumps as a straight-up receiver in this game.

Yes, Hardman looked the part at receiver. Yes, he spent a lot of time there this spring. We don’t know what percentage of time, but it was enough to play him there exclusively at G-Day. At the same time, the Holloman-Hill matchup told you plenty about Georgia’s cornerback depth. I can’t picture a permanent move to receiver until we get a better idea in August about needs in the defensive backfield.

If you were expecting this to be the game in which Georgia showed an expanded role for tight ends, this wasn’t it. Blazevich was held out with a knee sprain. Jackson Harris caught a pass. Nauta’s only reception was a dump-off by Eason that resulted in a loss. Eason’s connection with Woerner in the fourth quarter was the only significant play to a tight end. Woerner split outside in the slot and found a hole about ten yards downfield. He shed a few tacklers (something which won’t sit well with Smart) and got a chance to show off some speed by outrunning the defense to the endzone. Tight ends were targeted a handful of other times, but for better or worse it was more of the same for the position.

The defensive front looked capable even without Thompson. Atkins’ pursuit and tackle for loss was one of the highlights of the day. Ledbetter, Walker, Bellamy, and Carter provided constant pressure. The defense had a bit of an advantage knowing that there wouldn’t be much of a running threat, but generally they did well to limit big plays on the ground and focused on getting to the quarterback. Eason in particular faced stacked fronts similar to what he saw last season and what he’ll likely see again in 2017 until the offense can loosen things up with explosive plays downfield. Juwan Taylor seemed to have a good game at ILB for the second team defense and was among the overall leaders in tackles.

Deandre Baker had a challenging afternoon – he was beaten deep a couple of times, shaken up on a minor injury, but he also had his share of wins. Malkom Parrish made some plays on the other side, and Tyrique McGhee had good coverage on one pass in particular to the endzone. Richard LeCounte was active and led his team in tackles, though, as Smart noted, it’s not a great sign for a safety to be making so many tackles. That was a result of Fromm’s success and Holyfield occasionally getting upfield. It is a positive sign, though, for an early enrollee to display such a nose for the ball. He and Gibbs should become quite a tandem in the secondary. If the first team defense needs to be humbled, Eason’s Black team ended up with a handful of explosive plays through the air.


Post Georgia hoops enters the post-Frazier world

Monday March 20, 2017

It was pretty cut-and-dried for the Georgia men’s basketball team: this was a squad expected to make the NCAA Tournament and finish among the top four in the SEC. With anticipation for a step forward building since the end of the 2016 season, Georgia instead took a small step back and left some big questions for the future of the program.

Nonconference losses to Clemson, Marquette, and Oakland put the team’s postseason goals in doubt even before conference play started. Those losses, and the lack of quality wins, meant that Georgia’s margin for error in the SEC was slim. They did themselves no favor with a 4-7 start in league play. The Bulldogs got back to around .500 in conference, but it became increasingly clear that Georgia would have to knock off a team like Kentucky to sway the selection committee. Georgia had three opportunities to take down the Wildcats and came achingly close in two of them, but the signature win Georgia needed against Kentucky – or any team – remained just out of reach.

It seems as if Georgia’s misfortune in close games became a theme after the loss at Texas A&M. They’d just had an overtime loss at Florida. They’d follow those games up with narrow defeats at Kentucky and South Carolina. It’s true that a couple of wins in those games – especially road wins at Kentucky or Florida – very likely would have changed the team’s postseason fate and made for a much brighter evaluation of the season. It was a close margin between disappointment and meeting expectations, but there were also specific and reoccurring issues that led to those losses. Free throws. Ball handling. Shot selection. The collapse at A&M involved all of those things, and the clock issue that decided the game was just one more thing on top of the last ten minutes of horror that saw a double-digit lead evaporate. Shell-shocked by the loss and still fixated on the ending, the season reached its low point in the subsequent game against Alabama in which the coach was ejected and the team was blown out in a winnable game.

When you’re as close to the tournament as Georgia has been over the past two seasons, you can point to any number of small things that made the difference. In 2015-2016, the injury to Juwan Parker cost the team not only Paker’s productivity but also forced Charles Mann to play a bit out of position. In 2016-2017, the story might well be the inability of a young backcourt to replace the production of Mann and Kenny Gaines. Gaines and Mann accounted for 13.2 and 10.9 PPG as seniors. The trio of Jordan Harris (4.7), Turtle Jackson (4.1), and Tyree Crump (3.5) didn’t even replace Gaines’s points, let alone Mann’s.

It’s true that Georgia got improved play elsewhere: Parker was solid and Edwards took a step forward. Ogbeide had his moments. Even Frazier bumped up his scoring. Frazier shouldering more of the load told the tale: only Frazier and Maten averaged in double figures, and the team struggled to find consistent scoring options when they were out of the game. When Maten went down, the answer was more Frazier. Frazier ended up with a wonderful career and arguably deserved a happier ending. His will to win reminded fans of Sundiata Gaines in 2008, and the joy he had playing for Georgia made him one of the most beloved players to take the court in Athens.

But even as Frazier held the team together down the stretch, his shooting struggled. The senior only had one game after Maten’s injury (Auburn) in which he hit more than one three-pointer, and he only hit a single outside shot (against Tennessee) in three postseason games. He did his damage by drawing fouls and converting free throws. That made the difference against lesser teams like Auburn and LSU, but the diminished perimeter offense led to the team losing three of its last four games.

So the questions entering the 2017-2018 season start from the backcourt. The team has a single guard, combo G Teshaun Hightower, committed in the current class. It’s going to fall to Harris, Jackson, and Crump to run the offense and produce much of the outside shooting. Jackson, a rising junior, especially must improve if he’s going to be the point guard. Wings Parker, Wilridge, and Diatta are also going to have to step up to replace some of Frazier’s perimeter scoring. The strength of the team, depending on Yante Maten’s NBA draft status, should be its frontcourt. Maten will be the anchor if he returns, but Ogbeide and Edwards are coming on. Georgia will also add forward Rayshaun Hammonds, a top 100 national prospect. Expect that frontcourt to face sagging zone defenses until Georgia demonstrates a consistent perimeter threat.

Georgia loses only Frazier and a handful of reserves, so a nice core returns, and expectations will be close to what they were for 2017. It might not even be enough to meet those expectations. When the program has to issue a statement about the coaching situation while the season is in progress, you know that there’s a lot riding on the upcoming season.

The biggest challenge for Georgia basketball remains the same as it ever was: recruiting. The speculation about Fox’s future can’t help recruiting, but it’s unavoidable. Fox will have to succeed under those conditions, and he’ll have to convince prospects that he will be successful enough to be around when they get to Athens. The early signing period will have come and gone before we play much of the 2018 season, but a lot of eyes from Athens to high school gyms will be on Georgia’s ability to get back to the tournament in 2018.


Post Lady Dogs pass a low bar

Friday March 10, 2017

In our season preview of the Lady Dogs, it wasn’t hard to conclude that “it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.” Georgia lost five seniors and took the recruiting hit of a coaching change leaving a sparse roster. Preseason polls had the team 12th out of 14 SEC teams, and a finish in that range likely meant a losing record and a good chance that Georgia wouldn’t advance beyond the play-in games at the conference tournament.

Going by those expectations, the Lady Dogs overachieved in Joni Taylor’s second season as head coach. They finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign. The team still missed out on the postseason for the second time in three years, but it’s fairly impressive that they were even in the bubble discussion up through the final week of the season.

Five things can account for much of Georgia’s relative success:

  1. Solid defense. Offense was never going to be the calling card of this team, and the defense was good enough to keep them competitive in most games. Georgia gave up a respectable 62.4 PPG, and they often had a chance to win if the score was in the 50s.
  2. Pachis Roberts’s development into a consistent scorer. We knew Roberts could score, but that ability became something the team could count on to carry it through some of the team’s bigger wins. She earned a second team All-SEC selection for her outstanding senior year.
  3. The team remained fairly healthy. Injuries had been a big story in each of the past two seasons, but few games were missed this year due to injury. The loss of a starter for the third straight year would have been devastating for a team that only went eight deep.
  4. Returning players stepped up. Georgia didn’t have a ton of experience returning, and Robinson lost her starting role during the team’s slump, but Robinson and Engram joined Roberts as the only players averaging at least ten points per game. Those three were considered the foundation of this year’s team, and they played like it.
  5. Role players emerged. Armbrister grew more confident in her shooting. Costa served as a capable reserve at both guard spots. The lone freshman, Stephanie Paul, eventually earned a starting job.

To say that a winning record and avoiding the play-in games were legitimate achievements for this team shows the state of the program and reminds us why a coaching change was unfortunately necessary two years ago. Those marginal accomplishments are fine if this is the low water mark, but expectations will start to build soon. If maintaining the winning record streak was a goal of the past season, next year’s initial goal is a step up from that: Georgia has never missed the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. Taylor’s first squad preserved that distinction, but they’ll be right back under the gun next season. Going further, Georgia hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished higher than sixth in the SEC since the Elite Eight run in 2013. Those are the standards that have been set for the program, and Taylor now begins the job of getting Georgia back to that level after surviving the difficult 2016-2017 season.

On paper next year’s team should be much better. The seniors – Roberts in particular – will be missed, but six players will be added to the roster, and several of them should be looked to for immediate impact. 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru should at the very least give Georgia a true post presence and create more favorable matchups for forwards like Robinson. Louisville transfer Taja Cole is a former McDonald’s All-American, and I’d be surprised if she isn’t the starting point guard. Cole, though prevented from playing by the transfer rules, became one of the more vocal and enthusiastic teammates on the bench and might also step into a leadership role in the future. Those two impact transfers are in addition to a Top 10 recruiting class that stocks the backcourt with three guard prospects rated 4* or higher and a 4* 6’3″ post player. Each member of the class is ranked in the top 15 at their position nationally with three among the top 10 at their position. Georgia might look to add to this class during the spring signing period.

The infusion of talent allows for a much more versatile attack. Georgia’s 8-deep roster wasn’t just limited by talent. The thin bench meant that Georgia couldn’t customize its approach based on the weaknesses of the opponent. Inevitable foul problems further dictated which five were on the court, and a zone was often required even when it wasn’t the optimal defense. Taylor’s first challenge will be building a team out of players who, for the most part, have never played together. Cole and Blanaru at least practiced this year, but Taylor will have to find out the best combinations of those two, the returning players, and the four impact freshmen.

The SEC isn’t getting any easier. We’ve seen ascendant programs at South Carolina and Mississippi State crowd out perennial powers like Georgia and LSU. Kentucky and A&M aren’t going away, and Missouri broke through this year. Tennessee has been down, but they welcome the nation’s top recruiting class. SEC cash has allowed high-profile hires at Vanderbilt and Arkansas. Even Alabama, often found near the bottom of the standings, knocked off Tennessee twice and returns their entire roster. The deeper and more talented roster will allow Georgia to remain competitive, but it’s going to be a long road back to challenge for a top four finish, much less a conference title. If Taylor can continue to recruit well and produce incremental improvements each year, she’ll have Georgia back in the discussion.


Post 2017 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 1, 2017

This is our eleventh preview of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the conference over that time. The addition of Texas A&M had an immediate impact, and Missouri has started to make their mark. You don’t have to go back through many of our previews to find South Carolina and Mississippi State among the bottom half (if not bottom quarter) of the conference. That they’ve turned things around and displaced perennial favorites like Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia shows the kind of turnover that can happen in a competitive league as resources begin to equalize, media coverage becomes universal, and a new wave of ambitious coaches tries to take what once belonged to the conference’s old guard.

Vic Schaefer took over Mississippi State in 2012-2013 and is already the program’s 2nd-winningest coach. He took two seasons to rebuild the program, posted consecutive 11-5 conference records in 2015 and 2016, and came up just short of the regular season title in his fifth season. That follows on the heels of Dawn Staley’s own meteoric rise as she built the Gamecocks from an afterthought into the four-time defending regular season champions.

The top of the league has been fairly airtight this year, but some cracks are showing. South Carolina and Mississippi State distinguished themselves early, and the only question was which team would win the regular season title. The Gamecocks won the head-to-head meeting, but Mississippi State had a chance to win at least a share of the title until the final game. The biggest upset of the season might be Missouri over South Carolina, but Mizzou has been ranked (or close to it) all season. Tennessee’s win at South Carolina was also a shock, but is a Tennessee win ever really an upset? South Carolina should be expected to be playing for the title on Sunday, but can Mississippi State snap out of a recent funk to join them? That side of the bracket could get wild if the #2-seed Bulldogs can’t refocus.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #8 Georgia vs. #9 Auburn: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field:

1) South Carolina (14-2, 24-4) (LY-1): Their odds of winning the conference seemed long after an upset loss at Missouri, but they bounced back to win their final two games while Mississippi State faded. After the dust cleared Sunday, the Gamecocks won their fourth consecutive regular season conference title. Only Tennessee from 1998-2004 has had a longer run at the top. Now the team looks for a third-straight SEC Tournament title – a feat previously only accomplished by, you guessed it, Tennessee.

Any discussion of South Carolina must start with the frontcourt of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson. The duo has been dominant even though Coates has battled foul trouble and injuries. Few do the high-low game any better. Consistency at guard has been an issue for the Gamecocks. Transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are known as prolific scorers, but they’ve disappeared at times or, worse, contributed to inefficient offense with poor shot selection. Bianca Cuevas-Moore is an x-factor who can dart to the basket or pull up for a big outside shot.

South Carolina has cranked out the wins again this season, but they’ve been tougher to come by. One reason is depth. They really need Coates and Wilson on the court at the same time to be at peak production. I don’t know if “leadership” is the right word, but the team has missed the steadying influence of a veteran like Tiffany Mitchell. Wilson is the often the best player on the court, but she has to get the ball. Make no mistake: this is an extremely talented team, and they’re the favorites to repeat as champions for the third time. South Carolina now occupies the territory Tennessee once held. They’re used to taking everyone’s best shot and have the most experience making deep tournament runs. They’re only 100 miles from home and should have plenty of crowd support. I wouldn’t bet against them, but you wonder who’s going to get the ball at the end of a close game.

2) Mississippi State (13-3, 27-3) (LY-3): A week ago Mississippi State had an outright lead for the regular season title and a probable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They dropped their final two regular season games, lost out on even a share of the conference title, and they’d have to win the conference tournament to have a chance at a top NCAA seed. Did they wilt under the pressure? That’s possible, but they also faced a pair of good teams. The Bulldogs started 20-0, and a controversial close loss at South Carolina was their only blemish until the final week of the season. MSU rolled through much of their schedule, and they have impressive wins against Texas and at Tennessee.

Junior forward Victoria Vivians has been a top performer since she arrived in Starkville. Vic Schaefer has built up the surrounding cast, and defenses can’t focus solely on Vivians. Morgan William is a slashing guard who can get to the rim and draw fouls or hit the occasional outside shot. The frontcourt of Teaira McCowan, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson is formidable. This is a deep squad that can spread it around featuring seven players averaging at least 7 PPG and ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. At crunch time, though, Vivians wants the ball and more often than not can make good things happen.

A couple weeks ago there was no hotter team in the SEC. It’s been a rough past two weeks though with a pair of close calls against Georgia and Texas A&M and then the losses to Kentucky and Tennessee. The Bulldogs will still earn a high NCAA seed, but they’ll need a strong showing in Greenville to gain back the confidence and momentum they’ll need for a deep NCAA run. They arguably face the easiest path to the championship game of the four top seeds. It will take much better play than they’ve shown lately to get there.

3) Missouri (11-5, 21-9) (LY-8): A five-game winning streak propelled the Tigers to a double-bye and their best finish as an SEC member. They’re arguably the hottest team entering the tournament. As with other recent Mizzou teams, they’re productive from the outside. Robin Pingeton has an experienced team that plays sound basketball. They lead the league in free throw percentage. Once again no SEC team has attempted more three-pointers, and they’re hitting almost 36%. In terms of SEC WBB, Missouri is the new Vanderbilt.

Sophie Cunningham was SEC Freshman of the Year last season and has only improved as she matures into a team leader and an SEC star. She has help: Cierra Porter is an impressive presence inside who will make teams pay for focusing on outside shooters like Sierra Michaelis who has attempted nearly 200 three-pointers. Missouri’s success is even more remarkable considering they lost a pair of veteran forwards to injury prior to the season. Jordan Frericks was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Cunningham, and Porter has done a fantastic job anchoring a depleted frontcourt.

The Tigers have been in and out of the rankings all season, but their current winning streak featuring an upset of South Carolina has them trending up. Missouri’s problem has been finding success away from home. The Tigers are a stellar 15-1 at home but just a pedestrian 6-8 in other arenas. They have won two road games during their current winning streak. Whether they’ve figured out how to play at a high level will be tested right away. They’ll probably face a good Texas A&M team on Friday, and Missouri won that regular season meeting by just two points in Columbia.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 20-9) (LY-5): We’re used to seeing the Wildcats at or near the top of the standings. Matthew Mitchell’s squad is once again among the class of the league, and it’s been a pretty remarkable coaching job to have them among the top four this year. The Wildcats were hit with a slew of transfers during the offseason, forcing Mitchell to adapt his style of play. The Cats aren’t especially deep due to the attrition which hinders the frenetic pace and trapping defense that Mitchell prefers, but this team can still do damage in a halfcourt game. Kentucky hasn’t faltered against the lower two-thirds of the conference, and they’ve notched wins over Missouri and Mississippi State. Seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are just the kind of dependable and productive players you want your seniors to be, but Taylor Murray, Maci Morris, and Jaida Roper are a trio of underclassman guards providing important contributions to balance the scoring. No one will have a tougher path to the finals with Tennessee and South Carolina in their way.

5) Tennessee (10-6, 19-10) (LY-7): It’s been a maddeningly inconsistent year for the Lady Vols. They’ve managed wins over four top ten teams yet lost to Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Auburn. This follows a year in which the Lady Vols made a run to the Elite Eight after coming close to missing the tournament. The wins show that they have the talent to compete with anyone, and the losses show some serious issues with depth beyond a few key contributors. Diamond DeShields has improved each season and is good enough to carry this team deep into the tournament. This is her team. Mercedes Russell is an elite talent at center. Jamie Nared is the kind of scrappy and clutch player you often associate with Tennessee. If the Lady Vols can get production from those three (and occasionally Jordan Reynolds), they can beat most teams. They won at South Carolina with their three key players scoring 64 of the team’s 76 points. If that production isn’t there, they can struggle.

Tennessee will have their usual large tournament crowd behind them, and they know how to play in big games. If they advance to the quarterfinals, they’ve defeated the three teams likely standing between them and the championship. Then again, they’ve lost to their most likely second round opponent (Alabama). It’s been that kind of year. Still, would anyone be surprised to see them playing on Saturday or even Sunday?

6) Texas A&M (9-7, 19-10) (LY-2): A&M has sort of faded from the national scene after challenging for the conference title a few years ago, but they’re still hanging around and capable of advancing to at least Saturday in the tournament. An early win over 2016 national runner-up Syracuse stands out, but that came a day after a loss to Dayton. They’ve notched wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, but they enter the postseason on a four-game slide that knocked them out of a double-bye all the way down to the 6-seed. Gary Blair will have his team ready to play their trademark tough defense, but they’ll have to pull out of their tailspin quickly to advance beyond Thursday. Danni Williams is the team’s leading scorer and gives the Aggies an outside threat. Forward Khaalia Hillsman adds over 16 PPG inside. Curtyce Knox is another scoring threat at guard, and Taylor Cooper is hitting nearly 42% of her three-pointers.

7) LSU (8-8, 19-10) (LY-13): The Tigers have been quietly competent this year after a 13th-place finish last year, though some late losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia pulled them back to the middle of the pack. The offense flows through a pair of talented guards. Raigyne Moncrief and Chloe Jackson can score anywhere inside the arc and aren’t afraid to get to the rim. You won’t see many three-pointers from these Tigers – Auburn and Missouri have attempted about four times as many. This isn’t a tall team, but forward Alexis Hyder is a physical presence inside. LSU will show token pressure, and their lack of size means that they must be aggressive in halfcourt defense. The Tigers lead the conference in steals, but opponents can have success inside if they handle the pressure.

8) Georgia (7-9, 15-14) (LY-6): It’s been an impressive coaching job by Joni Taylor to have her team in this position. The Lady Dogs were picked to finish 12th preseason as they faced the challenge of replacing a strong senior class with a limited roster of only eight scholarship players. A 2-6 start in league play seemed to validate those preseason expectations, but Georgia turned it around by winning five of their final eight games. Georgia has lived on the edge: three of those five wins came in overtime, and the Lady Dogs are 6-1 in close games. Does that mean they’ve won a few that could have gone the other way? Sure, but Georgia made the plays to win those games, and the emergence of some key players led to those wins.

Wing Pachis Roberts took an important step forward as a senior, more than doubling her 7 PPG average a season ago. Roberts had big games before this season, but she’s been much more consistent and now leads the team in scoring. Sophomore Caliya Robinson adds 14 PPG and continues to show flashes of the talent that led to her SEC All-Freshman selection last season. Robinson can be a dominant forward and has taken over several games this season, but she also struggled with some midseason consistency and can take herself out of games with foul trouble. Taylor has settled on bringing Robinson in off the bench and starting Georgia’s lone freshman Stephanie Paul. Mackenzie Engram is back from the ailment that ended her sophomore season, and she can also put up big numbers as a versatile forward that can run the court, post up, or hit the outside jumper. Georgia is at their best when Roberts and Robinson are productive, and it usually takes at least one more player having a good night for Georgia to be successful. Often that’s Engram, but wing Shanea Armbrister can come up big too.

Even with their best players contributing, Georgia leans on their defense. The Lady Dogs are last in the league in scoring at 62.8 PPG, and they need the score to be in the 50s or low 60s in order to have a chance. That defense has been a big part of Georgia’s better-than-expected finish, though the biggest weakness for a team with such a thin bench has been foul trouble. Turnovers can also be a problem for this team as guard play isn’t a strength. That’s a concern in their opening game: they turned it over 22 times in this season’s win at Auburn.

9) Auburn (7-9, 17-13) (LY-9): One of the mysteries of the season has been the disappearance of the Auburn offense. The Tigers averaged nearly 75 PPG in their five SEC wins, but they struggled to reach 60 during a long slump towards the end of the year. They won two in a row at the end of the season after dropping eight of nine. Few teams are as top-heavy as the Tigers. Guards Katie Frerking, Brandy Montgomery, and Janiah McKay combine for 43 of the team’s 63 points per game. No other player averages more than 4.2 PPG. Auburn’s guard-heavy offense shoots more three-pointers than any team but Missouri, but Auburn is shooting less than 30% from outside. The spotty Auburn offense is often helped by their defense – a tough press that falls back into a tight matchup zone that extends beyond the arc. This frenzied defense often leads to turnovers and points: Auburn is second in the nation in turnovers forced (>22 per game) and also second in turnover margin. Auburn is clinging to the NCAA Tournament bubble, and that desperation could be an extra edge.

10) Ole Miss (6-10, 17-12) (LY-14): With wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M, the Rebels clearly can punch above their weight. That said, they’ve also been on the wrong side of several blowouts and can give up a lot of points. They’ve won only two games away from home, but a strong 15-3 home record was just enough to earn a first round bye and avoid playing on Wednesday. There’s no real standout player, but the Rebels will need big games from Madinah Muhammad and Shandricka Sessom. Alissa Alston can do damage off the bench, and Taylor Manuel and Shelby Gibson can push around teams without physical post players of their own. Ole Miss is near the top of the league in steals and forced turnovers, so their opening game against LSU should provide a good contest between teams who depend on their ability to generate turnovers.

11) Florida (5-11, 14-15) (LY-4): The Gators started the season ranked, but the December departure of leading scorer Eleanna Christinaki sent Florida reeling. They lost their first five SEC games and were just 2-8 after ten conference games. They finished 3-3 down the stretch and gave Missouri and Tennessee close games in a losing effort. They managed to sweep two games against Georgia but have no other wins against teams outside of the play-in games. Senior Ronni Williams took the team on her back and gets nearly 20 points per game. They’ve asked a lot of freshman Delicia Washington, and Washington has responded with over 11 PPG. Brooke Copeland can get hot from outside. Forward Haley Lorenzen can rebound and extend defenses with her range. The Gators have struggled with turnovers, leading the league with over 18 turnovers per game.

12) Alabama (5-11, 17-12) (LY-12): Alabama notched wins over Missouri, Tennessee, and a sweep of Ole Miss. Their 17 wins is the high water mark under coach Kristy Curry, but they’ve had difficulty turning those few noteworthy wins into more sustained success. Meoshonti Knight leads the Tide in scoring, but no player averages over 11.3 PPG. Scoring is spread around with seven players averaging over 6 PPG. Hannah Cook is a very good all-around player who can drill nearly 35% of her three-pointers and also pull down over 5 rebounds per game. Guard Jordan Lewis has been one of the top freshman in the SEC, starting every game and taking home SEC Freshman of the Week honors five times. Forward Shaquera Wade was a key recruit two years ago and is capable of a big game. Alabama isn’t a very big team, but everyone contributes on the glass. They’re second only to Tennessee in total rebounds.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 14-15) (LY-11): It was a tough initiation into the SEC for new coach Stephanie White. The Commodores lost their first seven league games, but only their loss at Tennessee was a true blowout. They finally posted a win against Alabama. This is a young team that brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes along with their new coach. That young group began to figure some things out towards the end of the year and closed with three wins in their final five games. Erin Whalen is one of those freshmen and took home the season’s final SEC Freshman of the Week honor. Scoring has been a team effort: the Commodores have just one player, Rachel Bell, scoring at least 10 PPG, but nine players average at least 5 PPG. Senior forward Marqu’es Webb continues to be a physical presence inside, but this is a team that lives and dies with the three-pointer. Only Missouri has made more, and the Commodores hit an impressive 39.1% of their outside shots. Their inexperience shows up in their ballhandling: only Florida turns the ball over more.

14) Arkansas (2-14, 13-16) (LY-10): Star forward Jessica Jackson can only carry them so far. The Razorbacks made it through nonconference play with an 11-2 record, but those two losses were to Oral Roberts and Missouri State. Reality soon set in during the SEC schedule, and they dropped their first four league games. Arkansas showed signs of life with consecutive wins in mid-January, but they’ve lost ten straight to end the season. There have been a few close calls – six of the losses on their current losing streak were by seven points or fewer – but the breakthrough never came. Jackson’s had yet another impressive campaign in her senior season and scores about 15 PPG. She leads the team in rebounds, three-pointers made and attempted, and foul shots made and attempted. Malica Monk, Keiryn Swenson, and Jailyn Mason provide scoring from the guard position.


Post 2017 signing class one for the ages

Thursday February 2, 2017

Certain recruiting classes are touchstones for those who follow Georgia recruiting. 1982. 1998. 2011. It will be a while before we can place the 2017 class in the proper context (hello, 2013), but at first glance Kirby Smart’s first full class was a blockbuster. Rivals considers the class the nation’s third-best, and other recruiting services are in the same neighborhood.

The class is anchored by one of Georgia’s best offensive line hauls in program history. Massive 5* offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson and guard Netori Johnson are the headliners, but it’s a deep group of six with several future starters. Wilson and JUCO signee D’Marcus Hayes have the opportunity to help out immediately at either tackle position.

You don’t get a top-five class without quality across the board. The offensive line stands out, but Georgia landed blue chip players at quarterback (Jake Fromm), tailback (D’Andre Swift), receiver (Jeremiah Holloman, Trey Blount, and Mark Webb), defensive end (Robert Beal and Malik Herring), linebacker (Nate McBride and Jaden Hunter), and defensive back (Richard LeCounte and Deangelo Gibbs). Not everyone from the class will pan out – such is the nature of recruiting – but there aren’t many reaches in the group.

Could the class have been even better? Sure. Jamyest Williams and Aubrey Solomon heading elsewhere rates as a disappointment mainly for wishful thinkers. It would have been nice to land either – or both – but Georgia shouldn’t have been considered the favorite for a player committed to another school or one for whom Georgia didn’t rate an in-home visit. If there was one surprise that went against Georgia, it was Markaviest Bryant heading to Auburn. Georgia was a near-lock for Bryant for much of the process and still an overwhelming favorite until just recently. Some even expected Bryant to go public with a commitment to Georgia around the time McBride did, but LSU and eventually Auburn were able to muddy the waters and capture his attention.

In some years a decision by a player of Bryant’s caliber would put a serious dent in the overall quality of the class. This year, while a mild disappointment, Bryant’s decision hardly moved the needle to the extent that, say, Derrick Brown did a year ago. That speaks to the magnitude of the rest of the group, but the disappointment is also mitigated by the return of Bellamy and Carter. The team still needs to stockpile outside linebackers in future classes, but 2017 will be fine with those two veterans leading the position.

The departure of Rico McGraw and Juwuan Briscoe made the depth situation at defensive back a little more dire, so it’s no surprise that the team also loaded up there. Gibbs and LeCounte jump off the highlight reel, but William Poole III, Latavious Brini, and Ameer Speed will provide nice depth over the next four years. Georgia should have an experienced group starting at defensive back, but with McGraw and Briscoe gone several newcomers could see the field in reserve roles.

One surprising name from Signing Day was David Marvin. Though he won’t show up on the list of signees, Marvin is a graduate transfer from Wofford who expects to compete for placekicking duties. Georgia has had graduate transfers step into starting roles since 2015, and Marvin might be the player who kicks off the 2017 season.

A stellar signing class can form the core of some memorable teams. Mark Richt’s initial success in 2001 and 2002 wouldn’t have been possible without the buy-in, leadership, and ability of the standout 1998 class. Georgia has seen exceptional classes before, but Smart can distinguish himself by making the quality of the 2017 class the rule rather than the exception. We’ve seen what a recruiting lapse of a couple of years can do to a program (and its coach). Smart was brought in to improve on a fairly high level of success. It’s going to take more recruiting classes like this one to get there. Smart, at least in his first full recruiting cycle, has proven his ability to deliver such a class.


Post What’s a preferred walk-on?

Wednesday February 1, 2017

Since most of Georgia’s 2017 signing class is either already committed or waiting until Signing Day to announce, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of weeks. There have been some important visitors each of the past two weekends, but the biggest splash has come from a 2019 commitment.

With the nice-to-have problem of finding enough spots in a stellar recruiting class, this is the time of year when we start to hear all of those “roster management” terms that we use as shorthand to talk about how teams allocate their 85 scholarships. At Georgia, the past week has brought a flurry of “preferred walk-ons.” What makes certain players preferred walk-ons?

The important thing: “preferred walk-on” (PWO) is meaningless as far as the NCAA is concerned. They’re simply non-scholarship players. It’s a term without any kind of formal or standard definition. It’s up to each school how they distinguish one walk-on from another – if at all. Each school runs its own walk-on program differently guided only by the limits of 85 scholarship players and 105 total players on the roster. Though most coaches are up-front about the path to a scholarship, some choose to avoid creating a distinction among their walk-ons. Depending on the program, being a PWO might mean:

  • They are recruited and invited by the staff. The PWO is recruited like any scholarship player but with the understanding that he will not be on scholarship. Coaches may promise the opportunity to earn a scholarship down the road if one becomes available.
  • They are all but guaranteed to make the 105-man roster. Not every walk-on who comes out for the team will last, but preferred walk-ons don’t have to go through a cattle-call tryout. This seems to be the minimum consensus definition of a PWO.
  • They are involved in all team activities – meetings, community service, Fan Day, etc.
  • They have access to team perks. This includes gear, access to the weight room and training facilities, and academic support. They also have access to team meals and the dining hall but must pay for meals.
  • They may travel to the bowl game. Walk-ons (and even some scholarship players) don’t travel with the team to road games. The rules are looser for bowls, and walk-ons receive the same travel stipend, per-diem distributions, and bowl swag as the scholarship players.

Kirby Smart identified Georgia’s walk-on program for improvement back in the spring. True to his word, Smart has been very active lately adding walk-ons to the 2017 class. Vince Dooley’s grandson is among them. There will even be another Frank Sinkwich on the team. The Dawgs added another pair of walk-ons on Sunday, and they continue to roll in on the eve of Signing Day.

We’ve seen PWOs at nearly every position at Georgia. This year alone the Dawgs have used PWOs to add to their depth at linebacker, punter, fullback, quarterback, and receiver. They even hosted an offensive lineman currently committed to Harvard as a possible walk-on addition. This year, thanks in some part to the visibility of the Blankenship story, the most high-profile PWO commitment to date might be that of Greater Atlanta Christian kicker Brooks Buce. Georgia had interest in several kickers who were weighing walk-on offers against scholarship offers at smaller programs, and Buce signed on. He’ll compete with Blankenship and the rest of the kickers on the roster, but his best chance to make an early impact is as a kickoff specialist.


Post A Georgia fan watches the championship game

Tuesday January 10, 2017

I thought the game itself came down to two things: first was Bama failing to capitalize on Clemson turnovers. Alabama’s ability to convert turnovers into scores (often without the offense taking the field!) became the stuff of legends this year. They created two turnovers in this game – both on Clemson’s end of the field. But not only did Clemson prevent those non-offense touchdowns that had become Alabama’s calling card; they also kept Alabama’s offense out of the endzone after those turnovers. The Tide had to settle for a net of three points off those two turnovers, and that wasn’t nearly enough of a knockout blow.

The last Clemson turnover came early in the third quarter, and Alabama led 17-7. From there the story was Clemson’s offense wearing down the Alabama defense. With Bo Scarbrough injured, the Tide found it difficult to sustain drives, and the Alabama defense was called on again and again until it broke down to the tune of 21 fourth quarter points for the Tigers. Clemson ended up running 99 plays due in large part to an effective defense of their own and an Alabama offense that couldn’t put together any kind of a sustained drive until they fell behind.

Georgia fans naturally thought of the end of the 2012 SEC Championship. This time the Tide didn’t stop the last-minute drive. The difference of course is that the 2012 Dawgs had to have a touchdown while this Clemson team would have survived with a chip shot field goal if it came to that. I think that difference changes playcalling quite a bit, and of course the issue of the running clock in 2012 also factors in.

I supported the Tide in this game. It wasn’t out of any SEC loyalty, a concept I’ll never understand fully. I saw a Bama win as the best outcome for Georgia. We’ve more or less become numb to Alabama titles, and I didn’t want Clemson adding a national title to their recruiting pitch. The Dawgs have enough of a challenge recruiting against their SEC rivals, but two of the last four national champs are ACC schools from neighboring states. That doesn’t make Kirby Smart’s job any easier.

Clemson won though, and three of the last four national champions border Georgia to the south, west, and now the northeast. It’s not news that the recruiting competition in this part of the country is cutthroat, and Clemson’s win will only make it moreso. Seeing yet another neighbor hoist the trophy, especially one with whom Georgia has such deep history, only increases the desperation of Georgia fans to see their program win a title. Clemson had waited since 1981, but Bulldog fans can do them one better.

Dabo’s path to the top hasn’t been linear and certainly hasn’t been conventional. His elevation from interim coach in 2008 wasn’t seen as a home run, and his program was nearly short-circuited after a disappointing 2010. Swinney made some changes and brought in outstanding coordinators – first Chad Morris to overhaul the offense and then Brent Venables to build the defense. The turning point was Clemson’s comeback upset of LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers have lost only seven games in the four seasons since. More, they’ve survived and even improved after the departure of Morris and a wave of talent that salvaged Swinney’s career.

Georgia’s 2013 and 2014 games against Clemson were battles of fairly evenly-matched teams. Clemson won a tight game in 2013 as Tajh Boyd bested Aaron Murray in a contest of senior quarterbacks. Georgia’s dominant running game was the story in 2014 as Gurley and Chubb took over and blew open a close game. A secondary story of that 2014 was how both teams managed to replace Murray and Boyd. Georgia was positioned better in the short term with Hutson Mason, but it took one throw to realize that Clemson’s long term answer was a very special true freshman.

I was surprised but certainly also glad that Clemson didn’t stick with Watson in that game. We had our own experience breaking in a true freshman quarterback this season, and I’m sure Swinney had his own developmental plan for Watson in mind. It didn’t take long for Watson to win the starting job, and he came back from a knee injury to lead his team to consecutive national title games. He’s been an outstanding player and has to be in the discussion of the best players who never won the Heisman.

No one imagined after that 2014 game in Sanford Stadium that Georgia had run all over a team that would play for a national title the next year and win it just one one year later. I also doubt many expected the two programs to head in such different trajectories.

As Kirby Smart rebuilds the Georgia program, he knows that the team’s foundation is as important as the superstars. That realization is evident in the current recruiting class, especially on the offensive line. It’s true that Georgia also must keep top talent like Watson in state, but Georgia has had exceptional individuals like Stafford, Green, and Gurley with no titles to show for it. It’s the supporting cast that needs the most work, and it isn’t hard to imagine how much better even a true freshman like Eason would look having a target like Williams or a left tackle like Hyatt.

What we saw last night was an outstanding player in Watson that could push a program over the top as well as a program in a position to take full advantage when that player came along. Swinney did well to land a transformational player like Watson, but he’s a championship coach because the rest of the ingredients were in place and came together. Even Watson couldn’t do it alone, and it took a fleet of receivers like Williams, Renfrow, and Leggett making tough catches along with a line that largely held their own against Alabama’s standard pass rush to produce those magical fourth quarter drives.