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Post Tech’s chunky offense

Wednesday November 23, 2016

“They are looking for chunk plays. You want to make them drive it through. They do; they are very methodical. They manage their down and distances really well, and they stay ahead of chains, it makes them tough to stop. So every time you try to give them a negative play or do something to put them behind the chains, you put yourself at risk. They know it’s a numbers game…The key is being sound, tackling and not giving up big plays, and that’s what our goal is, to do that.”

Kirby Smart explained some fundamental concepts of the option offense on Monday, and it’s no secret that the offense can generate a big gain on the ground on just about any play if just one defensive assignment is missed. We’ve all seen the pound-pound-pound-pound-BAM of several short dive plays followed by a devastating pitch for 60 yards when the defense cheats inside against the dive.

Last week against Virginia, Tech had 29 rushing attempts that went for a total of 72 yards. But they had two additional runs that went for touchdowns of 60 and 67 yards. Those are exactly the kind of “chunk plays” that Smart is talking about stopping.

But it’s not just big plays on the ground that the Georgia defense must watch for. Tech quarterback Justin Thomas has been especially effective hitting big pass plays. If teams start to sell out to stop the run, defense will leave receivers wide open. Tech has had at least one completion of 50 yards of more in four of their last five games, and five Tech players have receptions of at least 36 yards this season. The one game without a long pass play was against Virginia Tech – a game Thomas missed due to injury. It’s not just the wide receivers who can make big plays in the passing game. Running backs releasing from the backfield have had some of the biggest receptions. Tailback Clinton Lynch has had receptions of 45 yards or more in five of Tech’s eleven games. Lynch has six of Tech’s nine receiving touchdowns, and Georgia’s secondary must pay attention when he’s in the game.

Tech thrives on these big plays from both the running and passing games. They’re 20th in the nation in yards per play thanks to the ability to hit these explosive plays. They’re at 6.3 YPP for the season and 6.8 over their past three games. (Georgia, by contrast, averages 5.1 YPP this season.) As Smart said, Tech is content to take four or five yards per carry on the dive if it’s there, but limiting these explosive “chunk” plays is what could keep the score in a manageable range for Georgia.


Post Georgia 35 – UL-L 7: The team with McKenzie and Chubb won

Wednesday November 23, 2016

I spent most of Saturday’s game entertaining a four-year-old at his first Georgia game, and that kind of sums up the crowd that ranged from disinterested to, well, absent. It’s unfair to the players who are expected to perform at a certain level regardless of the opponent or juice from the stands, but it was a welcome change to be a little bored at a home game. The performances of McKenzie, Chubb, and the secondary notwithstanding, you’re not going to hear this game celebrated for years to come. On the other hand, it won’t be a game like Nicholls or Vandy that will provoke nausea just by mentioning the opponent’s name.

I was expecting a close game – or at least low-scoring – game because of the identity this team has developed. That’s not a criticism; it’s just what’s come to be over the first ten games of the season:

  • Georgia doesn’t push tempo. They’re content to chew clock. That lends itself to fewer possessions and plays.
  • They struggle to convert scoring opportunities. The line can’t generate much of a push for power running, and the receivers aren’t built for the fade/jump balls we often see teams use close to the goal line.
  • Georgia isn’t an explosive offense. They’re in the bottom third nationally at 5.1 yards per play. Georgia must often drive to get into scoring range, and it’s been tough for this team to sustain and finish drives.

All of that held true to form in the UL-L game with one big exception: Georgia scored three of their five touchdowns on explosive plays. The Dawgs averaged a solid 6.8 yards per play thanks to long scoring plays by McKenzie and Chubb. Otherwise things looked very much the same. Georgia got just seven points off of four UL-L first half turnovers. (To be fair, one of those turnovers came in the final minute of the half.) They had just one scoring drive longer than five plays: a nice 11-play, 93-yard series that really put things out of reach early in the third quarter. Georgia’s other long drives that led to scoring opportunities – an 11-play drive in the first half and an 8-play drive in the second half – ended on turnovers.

Credit McKenzie and special teams for putting Georgia in a good position very quickly. Reggie Davis had perhaps the best kickoff return of the season to open the game, and McKenzie cashed it in with fewer than 30 seconds off the clock. McKenzie then made his own special teams highlight with nice blocking once McKenzie shook free of the initial coverage. Playing with a two-touchdown lead isn’t a luxury Georgia has enjoyed often this year.

McKenzie’s touchdown run was a nice counter to a play that UL-L had surely seen a billion times on tape – the toss to Chubb. While the action went with Chubb and the toss, McKenzie went back against the action, got a block from Payne (fortunately not called for holding on the play), and had nothing but space in front of him.

That early lead was tested after Eason’s interception. Chubb and Lamont Gaillard hustled downfield to make sure a bad play didn’t turn into the kind of disastrous turnovers we saw against Nicholls. Still, UL-L had good field position, and it took some good defense and timely penalties to put UL-L in a position to have to go for it on 4th and long. The shutout was intact, at least for the moment, and Georgia soon added a third touchdown for some breathing room.

The defense did well with their discipline on the gadget plays UL-L showed. An early reverse was snuffed out by Aaron Davis with Roquan Smith in fast pursuit. Deandre Baker stayed with his man and had textbook coverage on a reverse flea-flicker not long after UL-L’s interception return.

Nice pick by the umpire on Nauta’s touchdown.

Chubb’s touchdown reception was one of the most encouraging plays of the game. Eason was staring down the slot receiver running a corner route, but it was covered. He checked down to the open Chubb, and Nick was off to the races. This outlet to the tailback has been there a lot this season (most notably on the pick six against Ole Miss), and it’s exciting to see Eason start to look at his options. It helped that he had time – pass protection was generally solid on Saturday.

UL-L’s garbage times scores only matter to Vegas and the coaches trying to develop defensive depth. What was more concerning was UL-L’s ability to get outside on running plays. Georgia didn’t hold the edge very well, and even solid tacklers like Parrish were ineffective once the runs went wide. Those plays become big gains against the option pitch. The defense also struggled to get off the field. A week after a superlative performance against Auburn, the defense allowed UL-L to convert third downs at better than 50%. Three-and-outs were rare: UL-L had only two drives without a first down. As a result, the visitors limited Georgia to only five second half possessions. Fortunately the Dawgs scored on two of those possessions to put the game away at 35-7.


Post Catalina: “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Friday November 11, 2016

I think this is one of the first conversations with Georgia’s left tackle I’ve seen since the season started. Tyler Catalina transferred in from Rhode Island and moved right into the starting left tackle position to replace a 5* multi-year starter and NFL draft pick. It hasn’t been a smooth season, but Catalina wouldn’t trade the experience. If anything, he’d like another year to develop after adjusting to the speed of the college game at its highest level. He and his fellow linemen will face perhaps their toughest assignment of the season this weekend against Auburn’s outstanding defensive line.

I’ll say this: I’m glad Catalina is here. The circumstances that led to him starting at left tackle aren’t his fault, and he takes the heat for the consequences of Georgia having no serviceable tackles ready to go after 2015. Unless you have reason to disagree with Sam Pittman’s evaluation of his depth chart, Georgia’s line is better off (however marginal that might be) with Catalina than it would have been without him. It’s fine to be frustrated with the player when mistakes are made that have nothing to do with ability, and Catalina has certainly had his share. But as tempting as it is, I can’t apply a standard to the position that ignores why Catalina is on the field to begin with.

I came to feel the same way about Lambert last season. All he did was come in and set personal career bests in just about every area, but he was criticized for not being Aaron Murray (or even Hutson Mason.) Georgia’s quarterback recruiting and the stunted development of Ramsey wasn’t Lambert’s fault. Just as an FCS transfer stepping into the starting left tackle position tells you all you need to know about Georgia’s recruiting and development of tackles since Theus signed, the state of Georgia’s quarterback position in 2015 was exposed when Lambert earned and then maintained the starting job.


Post 2016-2017 Lady Dogs preview

Friday November 11, 2016

The 2015-2016 Lady Dogs season ended with a first-round NCAA Tournament exit after a 21-10 season and a 6th-place finish in the competitive SEC.

First-year coach Joni Taylor took over the program under favorable conditions. The Georgia program was slumping, but it was by no means starting from scratch. Taylor inherited a veteran-heavy team that included four returning senior starters. She was able to guide the team to a strong start and held on as two starters were lost for the year to injuries. Georgia returned to the NCAA Tournament and avoided the ignominy of becoming part of the first Georgia teams to miss consecutive postseasons in over 30 years.

With those four seniors, Taylor was essentially presiding over the end of the Andy Landers era. She made some adjustments and left no question that it was her team and program now, but there was also a strong core that had bonded for three seasons under Landers (with Taylor doing her part as an assistant.) That core is gone now, and there are only a couple of players remaining on the roster for whom Landers was the head coach longer than Taylor has been.

2016 will mark new beginnings for Taylor in several areas. On the court, it will be the first team that largely bears her imprint. She paid her dues as a rookie coach and can begin to take the program in the direction of her vision. On a personal level, Taylor and her husband welcomed their first child just eight days before the start of the season. As she spent last season learning the ropes of being a head coach, she’ll now be a rookie mom and will follow the lead of many professionals who must learn parenthood on the fly while finding the work/family balance that suits them. There is no set return date, and Taylor will likely ease back into the role. Associate Head Coach Karen Lange will be the acting head coach, and a plan for handling Taylor’s absence and gradual return to the program has been worked on for months.

Departures

In addition to the four graduated seniors (Barbee, Griffin, Hempe, and Butler), two other players are no longer with the team. Three-point specialist Amber Skidgel is now at North Georgia. Walk-on guard Hannahkohl Almire has also moved on.

The Roster

The roster features 12 players, and that’s already under the NCAA limit of 15 scholarship players. Freshman post Kortney Eisenman will never play for the team after a medical disqualification. Eisenman was a national top 20 post player and was slotted to be a likely replacement for Merritt Hempe. Two other players, 6’5″ center Bianca Blanaru and guard Taja Cole, will sit out this season as a condition of their transfers.

So that leaves Taylor with eight scholarship players and a walk-on available for 2016-2017, and only six of those are returning players.

There are three seniors on this year’s squad. But unlike last year’s team whose seniors were all multi-year starters, this senior group features a number of role players who will be asked to step into a much larger leadership role. Center Halle Washington became an occasional starter last season after Engram and Barbee were lost to injury. She’s an athletic and capable post player who has improved each season, but foul discipline has been a persistent issue. With Eisenman unavailable, Georgia needs every minute they can get out of Washington. Pachis Roberts is in her third season as a wing after transferring from Syracuse. She has the ability to play on the perimeter but also pulled down over four rebounds per game. Shanea Armbrister was a JUCO transfer who saw limited time in relief of Georgia’s starting guards. Armbrister was brought in as a perimeter threat and will be looked to for offense this year.

Georgia’s underclassmen might be more familiar to fans. Junior forward Mackenzie Engram had an impressive freshman campaign, but her sophomore season was cut short by an upper respiratory illness. Haley Clark spent the past two seasons learning the point guard position behind Marjorie Butler, and now it’s her turn to run the Georgia offense. Georgia’s lone sophomore emerged as one of the brightest new starts in the SEC last season. Forward Caliya Robinson was a SEC All-Freshman Team selection who averaged nearly 15 points per game over Georgia’s last four games. Robinson averaged 8.0 points and was the team’s third-leading rebounder despite only starting one game as a freshman. Look for her to be a focal point of Georgia’s post offense and a tough interior defender on the other end.

Georgia signed two newcomers in addition to Eisenman. Stephanie Paul was the #32-ranked prospect in the country according to Prospects Nation and should earn immediate playing time behind Georgia’s frontcourt starters. Simone Costa is a junior college transfer guard with good 5’10” size who will be asked to back up Armbrister and Clark. The team recently added a walk-on guard, Ari Henderson.

Strengths/Weaknesses

The strengths and weaknesses are fairly apparent. Washington, Engram, and Robinson form a fairly good starting frontcourt, and Georgia’s offense should look to go inside-out. The backcourt is a concern. Georgia’s 173 three-pointers were 6th-best in the SEC last season, but players no longer with the team accounted for 127 of those. Armbrister (2.2 PPG) and Clark (1.4 PPG) haven’t been big scorers. It’s possible that Roberts (7 PPG) could start as the 2-guard. As a wing she’s capable from outside and can cause mismatches for smaller guards, but she’ll also be asked to defend quicker guards on the other end. Georgia can move Roberts to small forward if substitution patterns require, and Paul will be also be part of the frontcourt rotation. Costa will be an option at either guard spot. If Armbrister doesn’t start, she’ll be quick to come in off the bench especially if Roberts has to rotate inside.

The team also looks to be stronger inside on defense. Washington and Robinson can block shots, though Washington must avoid fouls. Robinson is also a solid rebounder, but Georgia will sorely miss Barbee’s work on the glass. There’s not a ton of size available especially if Washington is on the bench. Paul should bring a good shot of toughness to the frontcourt. We just haven’t seen enough of the guards to know if they can play consistent defense for the kinds of minutes they’ll see.

Schedule

Visits from BYU and Virginia highlight the home nonconference schedule, and they’ll travel to face Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, and Oklahoma State. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahama where the Lady Dogs will play Minnesota and either South Florida or North Carolina. None of Georgia’s nonconference opponents is currently ranked though several received votes.

The SEC slate is another story. Five of Georgia’s first seven SEC opponents earned a preseason ranking, and the Lady Dogs will face national title contender South Carolina twice during that stretch. The rotating SEC schedule means that Georgia will face South Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida twice. Home fans will get to see several quality teams: Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and LSU all visit Athens.

Outlook

Given the departures, Georgia either needed a loaded group of returning players or a stellar recruiting class to not miss a beat. They don’t have either. There is some talent on the roster and a couple of promising newcomers, but the depth of a well-rounded roster isn’t there. The SEC coaches pick Georgia to finish 12th out of 14 teams, and the Lady Dogs don’t place anyone on the preseason All-SEC teams. Georgia must finish at least 10th to avoid playing in the Wednesday play-in games at the SEC Tournament, and a finish in the bottom half of the league would likely mean that Georgia misses the postseason for the second time in three years.

The future is bright: Blanaru and Cole will make instant contributions after sitting out. Georgia also has four top-100 prospects already committed to a 2017 class that’s currently rated #5 in the nation. Taylor knows that the talent level has to be raised, and we’re seeing indications that Georgia won’t be down for long. In the meantime, though, it looks like a transitional year and one in which Georgia will be considered more of a spoiler than a contender.


Post Georgia 27 – Kentucky 24: “Nobody panicked.”

Wednesday November 9, 2016

I don’t think this game was a corner-turn in the sense that we’ll look back and track how different things were after the Kentucky game. It was very much in character with the rest of the season: talented but flawed defense, inconsistent but occasionally brilliant QB play, a mixed bag on special teams, and an offense that went as its running game went.

What was also in character was the calmness and lack of panic with which Georgia mounted another second half comeback and a last-minute scoring drive. We’ve seen it in four games now, and Jacob Eason is developing a good reputation for his poise at the end of close games. Eason had gone through a rough 6-of-14 stretch after a decent start, but he finished the game 7-of-9 on Georgia’s fourth quarter scoring drives.

We’ve already seen the sneers about Georgia getting excited over a win against Kentucky. Had the Wildcats won, they’d have headed into their final SEC game with a puncher’s chance of winning the division. This game was billed as a meeting of two teams on opposite vectors. The Dawgs had enjoyed a win just once in the last six weeks, and they had to go on the road to face a hot team that was motivated by a realistic chance at a title. No, it wasn’t a program-changing win over a ranked rival (hopefully we can write about one of those next week.) Instead, it was a gut check after some very disappointing losses. We can talk later about how the goals for the season have changed in a bad way, but it looks at the very least as if Georgia’s bowl streak will live on.

On a related note, if you can’t smile and enjoy the sudden viral stardom of Rodrigo Blankenship, you’re taking this all too seriously. Blankenship has nailed eight field goals in the past three games, handled the gamewinner on Saturday with ease, and has all the quirkiness you’d hope for from a kicker. The win was nice, but the spontaneous over-the-top embrace of Blankenship made the win fun, and it’s a rare moment of levity in a season without many of them. Relish it.

Defense

Kirby Smart told the sideline reporter at halftime that the game would be decided by turnovers and tackling. It’s amazing then that Georgia won the game: they turned the ball over three times and had some costly missed tackles right up until Kentucky’s final goal-to-go sequence. It’s not worth singling out individuals; few defenders really distinguished themselves with their tackling. Georgia’s run defense got one of its strongest tests of the season, and it struggled at times with Kentucky’s wildcat look. The strength of the defense was the interior line – Julian Rochester ended up leading the team in tackles in relief of an injured Trenton Thompson, and Georgia’s freshmen up front were a bright spot.

The Dawgs limited a weak Kentucky passing attack to just 103 yards and 5 yards per attempt through the air. Georgia did dodge a bullet on Deandre Baker’s interception, but they generally did well once Kentucky was forced into standard passing situations. Florida’s third down conversions were a big part of their success last week (converting 9 of 18 against Georgia.) The Dawgs did much better this week limiting Kentucky to one third down conversion all game – until the final drive. The Wildcats converted twice on their long drive to tie the game.

Offense

The move of Jim Chaney to the box isn’t very interesting to me for two reasons: first, reporters have no way of interviewing him to get his perspective. Second, I still haven’t seen any adjustment, benefit, or mistake that can be attributed to the move. Yes, the offense was more balanced and productive. It also struggled to turn scoring opportunities into touchdowns. Both the good and bad were elements of the offense we’d seen all season. If they want to use the move to the box as a talisman going forward, great.

Georgia’s running game was a big part of the story all week. No one, least of all Chubb or Michel, was satisfied with the performance at Florida. We knew Georgia would redouble their efforts on the ground in Lexington, and the Wildcats had to expect it too. Early runs were hit-or-miss. It didn’t take Georgia long to surpass their Jacksonville output, but the Dawgs had trouble sustaining drives after their initial score. Kentucky had seven tackles for loss in the first half alone, leaving Georgia behind schedule on second and third downs. At one point late in the first half, 25% of Georgia’s carries had resulted in a loss.

Whether there was a scheme adjustment or just a fire lit underneath the offense, the Dawgs finished the game with 19 straight positive rushing plays. That didn’t necessarily lead to big gains – Michel’s 26-yard scoring run was the lone explosive run – but eliminating lost yardage plays kept things manageable for Georgia’s comeback. The tailbacks helped too. Brian Herrien’s lone run came in the third quarter, and he turned contact in the backfield into a modest two-yard gain. 2nd-and-8 isn’t the best, but it looks a lot better and gives you more playcalling options than 2nd-and-13.

I had started to wonder if Georgia had abandoned the run again when Eason came out firing on six straight plays early in the fourth quarter down by five points. The spread passing attack worked to move the ball inside the Kentucky 30. With the Wildcat defense on their heels after giving up chunks of yards through the air, Georgia ran Sony Michel wide between right guard and tackle. McKenzie and Ridley made good blocks downfield against defenders dropping into coverage, and Michel had enough speed to bounce outside and down the sideline for the go-ahead score. We haven’t seen the Georgia passing game work to soften up the run defense all that often, but here it worked at the best possible time.

Sony Michel’s contribution to the final drive made the win a whole lot easier. Terry Godwin’s nice run after catch along the sideline got Georgia inside the mythical field goal range, and we’ve seen a lot of teams accept that much and settle for the field goal after a couple of centering runs. Michel was able to add an extra 22 yards on 3 runs in the final minute to turn a pressure-packed attempt of 40 yards or so into a glorified extra point.

It’s no knock on Chubb, but I wouldn’t have an issue with Michel announced as a starter.

Coaching

Kirby Smart has taken some hits for clock managament this year, but the end of this one went about as well as you could hope for. It started with the defensive timeout with four minutes remaning. Smart admitted that the timeout had more to do with some freshmen out of position than slowing the Kentucky running game that had pounded its way inside the Georgia 10. Still, the Bulldog defense stiffened on the next two plays and forced a throw into the endzone on third down that was well-defended by Parrish. Georgia had two minutes and two timeouts for their winning drive, and everything from playcalling to clock management to execution was on point. It helps that there wasn’t a sack, penalty, or long third down to strain Georgia’s cool temperament, but that’s what being in command of the moment will get you.


Post What’s a game in Columbia without extreme weather?

Tuesday October 4, 2016

There seems to be either blazing heat or a weather delay (or both!) when Georgia plays at South Carolina, and fans will want to keep an eye on the weather again this year. Hurricane Matthew currently is moving north through the Caribbean bringing catastrophic conditions to Hispaniola. The forecast for Matthew changed significantly on Monday with a pronounced westward shift in the anticipated track. Rather than curving out to sea like most Atlantic hurricanes, Matthew is now forecast to turn back to the northwest through the Bahamas and be in a position to impact the entire southeast U.S. coast late this week. The storm is forecast to be centered just off Jacksonville on Friday evening and just off Wilmington by Saturday evening.

It’s too early to tell whether Matthew will have any impact on Columbia or the game. The westward shift of the forecast track places central South Carolina in an area of concern, but there’s a large margin of error (nearly 240 miles one way or the other!) for a forecast five days down the road.

For now:

  • The official NWS forecast for Columbia as of Monday evening still calls for fair and breezy weather Saturday and Saturday evening.
  • The forecast for both Columbia and the storm will likely change several times between now and the weekend. If you’re traveling to Columbia, keep checking the forecasts and check the South Carolina website for any announcements about the game.
  • Even if the center of the storm stays offshore, there could be impacts inland including rain, wind, and severe weather. We don’t know yet whether those impacts will reach Columbia which is between 110-150 miles away from the coast.

Matthew forecast track


Post They like us – they really like us

Friday September 9, 2016

Early polls are meaningless and probably shouldn’t even be released until week 8 or so – unless you wind up in the top 10 after week one.

Not a one of the early 2015 Heisman favorites cracked the top 5 in final voting, but it’s always nice to get some deserved recognition for Nick Chubb after his improbable and triumphant return to the field.

Ordered your Orange Bowl tickets yet? Should we add some Sugar Bowl tickets as a hedge bet?


Post Richt revisionism

Saturday June 4, 2016

The Senator is correct – if you need an alternative approach to player discipline after the Baylor and Mississippi State stories this week, Dan Wolken’s piece on Mark Richt is right up your alley. Richt sometimes took some heat for his decisions, but that was because those decisions were often more transparent than they would have been at other schools. Georgia faced many of the same incidents that other programs face: drinking and drugs, weapons, and unfortunately even domestic violence. Wolken does a good job highlighting the differences in Richt’s approach that made it very unlikely Georgia would ever face the ugly consequences that Baylor experienced.

If I have one disagreement though it’s the implication that it was Richt’s approach to discipline that was a bridge too far with Georgia fans. It wasn’t the “warped mindset” of win-at-all-costs fans that brought about a change here. He’s right – many fans did take pride and “puff(ed) out their chests” because of how the program operated and the man in charge of it. At the same time, that pride all too easily became a crutch and an excuse for the program’s lack of greater success. How could Georgia compete with [] when we insisted on such higher standards? At least we do things the right way…

If only that were the problem with Richt.

Wolken presents the internal struggle faced by Georgia fans this way: “Georgia fans will forever be torn over their devotion to the so-called ‘Georgia Way'(*) and their burning desire to be a little more like Alabama.” It’s a false choice. Richt’s way of doing things was not antithetical to the effort we’re seeing from the new staff on the recruiting trail. You don’t have to sell out your values to avoid a staff on the verge of, in their own words, mutiny. There’s nothing unethical about coming to play with a full roster or consistent special teams.

Let’s put it this way: Richt was not fired for the things he did “the right way.” He was fired because he didn’t do enough of them.

Disciplinary issues were, if anything, a secondary concern. Certainly there was some frustration with Georgia players disciplined for offenses that might’ve earned them a lesser (if any) penalty at another school. It was also frustrating to see several of these players end up on opposing sidelines. Add in frustration with the administration, University policies, and local law enforcement. All of that frustration was (is) very real, but it contributed very little to the motivation behind a coaching change.

This isn’t the first time Wolken hasn’t quite hit the mark on dissatisfaction with Richt, but he’s certainly not the only one who sees the coaching change as a rejection of Richt’s way of doing things. I don’t, and focusing on the Georgia Way vs. Alabama Way dichotomy loses sight of the much more fundamental issues that led to the end of the Mark Richt era at Georgia.

(*) Just what “The Georgia Way” is deserves its own post – it’s come to represent everything from the truly good to a snarky epithet used when the program shoots itself in the foot (again).


Post The worst part of the donation/ticket increase

Saturday June 4, 2016

I’m OK with the idea of an increase – it’s been over ten years, and Georgia has lagged behind much of the SEC. The kind of program we want costs big money. And, yes, most of that increase will go to things that fans won’t (directly) see or benefit from.

The kicker to me has to do with a story from May:

Smart likes the idea of beginning a season against a top opponent to put his players on a big stage. It can also add more attention to the program than it otherwise may get to start a season.

Even as the cost to attend home games rises, many of the more attractive games going forward are likely to be off-campus. For Smart, it makes sense for the reasons outlined above. He saw the benefit of the big neutral site games while at Alabama. It also makes sense for Georgia’s bank account: neutral site games come with premium ticket prices and bring in more money than a home-and-home series would with the same opponent.

Fans will be asked to contribute more for what’s likely to be a lesser home schedule. You’ll have the usual SEC slate, and Tech will visit every other year, and more attractive opponents in Athens are likely to be few and far between. Alabama under Nick Saban has hosted only one power conference opponent at home: Penn State in 2010. (That’s no knock on their schedule; they almost always have a challenging opener.) Georgia will have a visit from Notre Dame in 2019 which was arranged before Smart took over. But if you want to see some of the better non-conference games on Georgia’s future schedules, be prepared to travel and pay on top of your increased donation and season tickets.


Post The next frontier in staffing?

Tuesday May 10, 2016

Put a few recent Kirby Smart quotes together.

First this one:

“We could literally work our window, we have a 14-day window where we can do camps, we could work every day somewhere else and never have them at our place.”

Then this one:

“What people don’t get is that you don’t have to send your whole staff. You can send one coach. You can send five coaches. We’re going to have representation at a lot of them, but which ones specifically I can’t tell you.”

And finally

“‘Where do I send my coaches. Where do I send my support staff? Where is it a priority to send them?.'” he said. “We’ve only got so many guys who can go out, so where do we send them?”

It’s pretty clear that most coaches (with a few high-profile exceptions) were just fine with the satellite camp ban. But the ban has been lifted, and coaches – Kirby Smart included – are lining up to participate, if only to play defense against rivals and competitors coming to town. As Smart explains, you have a scarce resource (the availability of coaches) and a skyrocketing supply of opportunities that will only increase under the current rules.

Smart’s mention of “support staff” interests me though. If these camps prove fruitful, bigger programs will tackle this camp issue the way they tackle most issues: money. The head coach will attend a few select camps, assistants – individually or in groups – will work several others. But for the large number of smaller camps where just having a presence would do, I could see these programs hiring dedicated staffers to represent the program. (It’s a happy twist that SEC schools would love to see the ban back in place but are among the few with the resources to hire staffers and attend more camps.)

This idea isn’t completely out of left field. Some Georgia die-hards might remember Ray Lamb who worked as the program’s director of high school relations under Mark Richt. Lamb conceded that “the NCAA reduced the role I was in to virtually nothing,” but a similar staffer (or group) charged with cultivating relationships with these camps could take on the additional duties still allowed by the rules that were part of Lamb’s job. It could be an accomplished coach from the high school ranks like Lamb who would be known among the camp organizers. It could also be a recent alum with his eye on a coaching career and a name that’s familiar to prospects.

I don’t know what NCAA regulations would have to say about this idea. Smart mentioning support staffers leads me to believe that there is at least some opening for consideration. There are of course rules about which coaches can and can’t recruit off campus, but these are instructional camps. We also don’t know if these camps will prove to be worth the trouble. I have my doubts – the real work is done on campus and during the recruiting process. But if there’s something of substance to be had there, big programs are already spending money on more trivial things than getting additional face time with prospects.


Post Georgia’s best team of the past 25 years (and an appreciation of Gary Gibbs)

Friday April 29, 2016

Bill Connelly’s gone back through at least 1991 re-ranking teams using the S&P+ metric. It’s been a fun read. There are national stories to revisit, you can chart the rise and fall of SEC powers, and of course there’s the Georgia angle.

What was Georgia’s best team since 1991? It wasn’t 2007 (10th in the national S&P+ rankings) or 2012 (7th) or even the SEC championship teams of 2005 (7th) and 2002 (5th). Jim Donnan’s best team, 1997, came in 12th, a finish that would be eclipsed in five of Mark Richt’s first seven seasons.

Georgia’s best team, according to this metric, was the 2003 SEC East championship squad (*). That team finished in a three-way tie for the division title and advanced to the title game thanks to its high BCS ranking. The 2003 Dawgs finished with three losses with two coming against eventual national champion LSU. But that team still earned a #4 spot in the S&P+ rankings thanks in large part to the best Georgia defense since…you tell me.

Connelly helpfully provides the offense and defense S&P+ rankings along with his overall list, and it’s no surprise that the 2003 defense was the second-best in the nation behind only LSU. That was a nasty defense from the opening shutout at Clemson to the dominant second and third quarters in Knoxville to Odell Thurman chugging his way 99 yards down the sideline against Auburn. That defense was packed with playmakers and future pros from the defensive line to linebacker to the slobberknocking secondary.

The 2000 rankings also caught my eye. That was a strange year with a polarizing coach and quarterback, a star tailback in the doghouse, a devastating loss in the second game of the season, midseason quarterback turmoil, and a year-end collapse that led to a coaching change. Not the most stable of seasons.

The 2000 defense was talented (hence Donnan’s infamous “55 years” comment) but still very much symptomatic of the season’s instability. It was led by the third coordinator in three years after the disaster of 1999 (61th rated defense.) It relied on a converted wide receiver to start at safety. It was put in difficult spots by an offense that ranked only 41st.

But with the offense in turmoil and the head coach under fire, the 2000 defense was still tenth in the nation (again, according to S&P+.) Things slid on defense towards the end of the year as they slid across the board, but it all comes back to the Tennessee game. The Dawgs don’t snap the decade-long losing streak without, as Larry Munson called them that night, “the beautiful defense” making stop after stop.

The defense was led that year by Gary Gibbs, a former Oklahoma head coach who had been out of coaching for several seasons. Donnan had worked with Gibbs at Oklahoma on the great Sooner teams of the 1980s and brought in a known veteran coach with a more professional reputation to follow the (putting it kindly) contentious Kevin Ramsey experiment of 1999. Hiring Gibbs worked – in just one season Gibbs improved the defense from 61st to 10th in the S&P+ ranking.

Unfortunately Gibbs’ improvement on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the unraveling on the other side of the ball. It did lay a nice foundation for what was to come. The defense only slid to 17th in 2001 in Brian VanGorder’s first season as coordinator, but it really came into its own with defenses ranked #5, #2, and #3 from 2002-2004. Since those three seasons though, only the 2011 defense (S&P+ 8th) was more highly rated than Gibbs’ only showing in 2000. He’d go on to coach an SEC champion unit at LSU in 2001 before making the jump to the NFL.

(*) – As good as that 2003 team was, it was only the 47th best team of the 2000s. While Georgia was consistently good enough to have the 8th best program of the 2000s in average S&P+ percentile rating, there haven’t been any truly great Georgia teams on the level of 2005 Texas or 2001 Miami that we hold up as some of the best of the 2000s. We talk about a few of those teams – 2002, 2007, 2012 – being a couple of plays or breaks away from playing for larger things, but even those very good teams would have been punching above their weight.


Post Gearing up for a memorable G-Day

Thursday April 14, 2016

It’s probably the most anticipated and almost surely going to be the most attended spring game in Georgia history. Fans have been looking forward to this weekend since Kirby Smart challenged fans back in December to fill the stadium. We’ve gone from “he’s kidding, right?” to a full-on commitment by the university and athletic department to prepare for a capacity crowd. Whether we get a full house or merely a very large turnout won’t be known until Saturday, but the push for 93K has been a bountiful source of energy for the young Kirby Smart era. Fans, alumni, students, players, and recruits have responded to the call, and now it’s Smart’s turn to show us what all the hype has been about.

  • How many show? Kirby Smart has challenged Georgia fans to fill Sanford Stadium. I’m cynical about these things – we’ve struggled to fill the stadium even for recent late-season SEC games. But with no cost to attend, G-Day will pull from a deeper pool of fans. I also wonder about student attendance. It’s typically low for G-Day, but students like to be part of an event (as do we all.) I think the school would be happy with anything over 70,000. That would put Georgia ahead of most SEC schools and would effectively double the usual G-Day turnout. It would give Smart the kind of environment he’s looking for. If you see the upper East stands start to fill, mission accomplished.
  • No, really, how many show? This piece mentions something that’s been on my mind for a while: Sanford Stadium doesn’t have turnstiles. Without a ticket to scan or collect, there’s no way to measure attendance. Any figure you see will be a guess.
  • How crazy does it get? UGA officials claim to be ready for a typical home game crowd. There will be differences – parking and seating will be free-for-alls. Many of us are so set in our gameday routines that there will be some scrambling if our usual tailgating spot or seat isn’t available. Fans have been encouraged to arrive early, and the later start time should help space out arrivals. I do hope people take advantage of the gates opening at 1:00 and the pregame activities going on in and around the stadium. I’d really hate to see 50,000 people expect to go through the gates at 3:45 with no clue as to where they’re sitting.
  • Pregame? A athletics administrator confirmed that “the university is looking for a musical act to perform in Sanford Stadium before the event.” So much for that. People are saying Georgia dropped the ball, but I consider this a bullet dodged. As diverse as musical tastes are, I was kind of dreading what kind of act they were going to come up with. I also wasn’t looking forward to competing for seats with people who were just coming to see (name of band.) Keep it about football.
  • What’s in it for us? This will come off like the annoying Entitled Fan, but if the fan base is going to make the effort it’s reasonable to expect a little more than the usual spring game. Smart might not agree that there’s such an obligation. Since my usual G-Day checklist starts with “no injuries,” I’m a little conflicted here. I’m not expecting a surprise cameo from Chubb, but something besides walk-ons draining a running clock is called for. Smart’s not that aloof, is he?
  • What’s different? A spring game isn’t likely to simulate the pressure of a close SEC game, but we should still expect to see some signs of how Kirby Smart has made his mark on the team. One of the lasting impressions from Smart’s introductory press conference was his pledge to be “hands on with the whole program.”
  • Who took advantage of the coaching change? With so much turnover on the staff, the opportunities for second chances abound. Maybe there was a player in someone’s doghouse. Perhaps a certain coaching style just didn’t click. I’m interested to see if there are a couple of players who were buried on Richt’s depth chart for one reason or another who found new life with a new coach.
  • What about the QBs? Speaking of new life, fans expecting Lambert and Ramsey to be put out to pasture by now will be very disappointed. Those are the two quarterbacks getting most of the work with the first team, and Jacob Eason is, as should be expected, a very talented early enrollee still making the transition. The situation might and likely will change before September, but for now it seems to be Lambert’s offense. Will a new offense and coach allow Lambert to improve enough to come out on top of a second straight quarterback competition?
  • Lineman. The departure of both starting tackles gives new line coach Sam Pittman an immediate challenge. The team will be experimenting with line combinations right up through this week, so it’s anyone’s guess who will get the starting nod on Saturday. That’s not so important since we’re likely to see many combinations of linemen for both teams. The interior of the line has the most experience but even there we’ll see experimentation especially if Wynn and Pyke move from guard to tackle.

I could go on at most every position (WRs? ILBs?), and we’ll have plenty to talk about once the film is in. But really this G-Day is about the event itself: the challenge by Smart, the response by the fans, and the commitment by the school. We’ll see how each measures up and then enjoy a little football.


Post Two cents on transfers

Monday April 11, 2016

I really need to stop getting a post 95% done and leaving it in the draft folder for a few weeks.

Georgia’s coaching change implied many things, and the repudiation of the Mark Richt way of doing things in favor of a more Alabama-style approach is close to the top of the list. We’ve seen more visible and exhaustive recruiting with a budget to match. We’ve seen the support staff grow and investment in a more experienced strength and conditioning staff. You don’t have to connect many dots to see how these changes might make Georgia more competitive.

Even some uncomfortable and controversial policy revisions might make sense in the context of a more competitive program. If certain offenses merit a suspension at one school and not another, sure – claiming a competitive disadvantage doesn’t seem a bridge too far.

Is a restrictive transfer policy one of those difference-makers for a championship program? Did Alabama reach the top thanks to Henry, a ridiculously good defensive front, and preventing a disgruntled third-teamer from looking at Tennessee or Arkansas?

On one hand, Kirby Smart’s revised transfer policy that blocks certain transfer destinations is fairly standard, and it does level this particular playing field. It’s not just Georgia dealing with these policies. Just this month Michigan had to reconsider its own transfer restriction. Louisiana Tech is deciding which course to chart with its signees after a coach resigned.

On the other hand, what’s the payoff for taking a step backwards? Is it worth this contorted rationalization? Even if this policy change is a proxy for a larger turf war, it’s at the expense of the student-athletes and their very finite resource of eligibility.

Just so we remember – almost any transfer (excepting those with rare hardship waivers) must still sit out a year. That’s true even with a release from the current school. Without a release that wait increases to two years. Unless the transfer is to a school in a lower division (FCS, Div II, JUCO, etc.), anyone who has made up his mind to transfer is already willing to sacrifice some eligibility and has accepted that price.

Georgia might seem to have taken the lion’s share of criticism for a commonplace policy, and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of us. But it makes sense – when the program takes a stance outside the norm with a policy it considered the right way to do things and walks it back, that draws attention and raises questions. Will this experience be instructive when the program reviews other controversial policies that Kirby Smart might consider a disadvantage?

Finishing on a slight tangent – it’s stories like these transfer restrictions that come to mind every time I hear coaches talk about early signing periods and the grind of having to “babysit” commitments right up through Signing Day (and, as we’ve experienced the past two years, beyond Signing Day.) Just as you start to have some sympathy for the coaches’ position, you’re reminded what signing that Letter of Intent means. Once you’re in, you’re in. Your choices can be limited for any reason up to and including the new guy wanting to mark his territory. I don’t blame prospects for considering their options as long as they can and using what leverage they might have while they still have it.


Post How to become the nation’s best passing defense

Tuesday March 15, 2016

There is no shortage of positions to discuss as spring practice opens, but the secondary seems to be pretty far down the list. Georgia has several starters returning in the defensive backfield, and it wasn’t a weakness in 2015. It’s a stat we heard and read up to and through the bowl game: Georgia has the nation’s #1 pass defense. That’s true even after giving up 281 passing yards in the bowl game: Georgia allowed only 156.5 yards per game through the air. Only five teams allowed fewer than 170 yards per game.

It’s a bit of a puzzle when you ask how Penn State came back throwing so well against that defense with a backup quarterback. Didn’t Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs throw for 312 yards? Didn’t Alabama’s Calvin Ridley have 5 catches for 120 yards against that secondary?

Surely the coaching changes had an effect in the bowl game: Pruitt was both defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. But Georgia’s schedule explains how they came out of the season allowing fewer passing yards than anyone: every passing offense Georgia faced was in the bottom half of the FBS.

There are 127 FBS teams. The “best”* passing offense Georgia faced was Alabama’s which rated 68 out of 127. The 74th-best Penn State passing offense was enough to be the second-best that Georgia faced. Five of Georgia’s thirteen opponents were 100 or lower. Teams like Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech just don’t throw often or well enough. It’s no surprise that run-heavy Tech and Georgia Southern were among the bottom five nationally in passing.

So you can be the nation’s “best”* pass defense either by defending the pass well or by the good fortune of facing a lot of teams that don’t throw all that much. In Georgia’s case, it was some of both. There were some good players: Sanders continues to be an interception machine. Parrish limits yards after the catch. Mauger has been one of Pruitt’s biggest turnaround stories.

(*) I put “best” in quotes because yards-per-game is not a very good metric for determining how well a team can pass or defend the pass. You’d rather give up fewer passing yards than not, but there are better metrics for efficiency.

The encouraging news is that Georgia did fairly well in the efficiency metrics too. Georgia allowed just 5.91 yards per pass attempt – not the best in the nation (that seems to be Michigan’s 5.41 YPA), but there were only about 11 defenses giving up fewer than 6 YPA. The pass defense was also top 10 according to the NCAA’s efficiency formula.

It’s understandable if, after all that, the outlook for the secondary takes a back seat to the larger questions elsewhere on the team. But with Smart and Tucker bringing a wealth of expertise from a defense that placed so much emphasis on the secondary, I’m interested to see how much more they can get out of Georgia’s returning players. There’s much to build on, but as we saw several times last season against opponents that were somewhat competent passing the ball, there are improvements to be made and opportunities for newcomers to make an impression on the new staff.


Post Lady Dogs return to the NCAA Tournament

Tuesday March 15, 2016

Georgia’s women’s basketball program will return to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s absence. The Lady Dogs earned the #8 seed in the Lexington Regional and will open play against #9 seed Indiana in South Bend, IN on Saturday night at about 9 p.m. #1 seed Notre Dame will host the subregional and would likely be Georgia’s second-round opponent on Monday evening if the Lady Dogs advance.

(Complete Bracket Here)

Indiana (20–10, 12–6) took a step forward this year with a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten behind Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Second-year coach Teri Moren was named Big Ten Coach of the Year after improving on a 15–16 record with some respectable wins over Chattanooga, Georgia Tech, and a nice upset of Michigan State. Moren, an Indiana native, was a part of the Georgia Tech staff towards the end of the last decade and had a large role in the improvement of that program. Indiana was a perfect 14-0 at home but, like most teams were less effective on the road: 5-7 in road games and 1-4 at neutral sites. They’re a relatively young team with only one senior, and sophomores Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill are the team’s best players. Point guard Buss was a hyped recruit who has delivered. As a sophomore she’s a first-team Big Ten honoree and already averaging over 18 PPG while running Indiana’s ball-screen offense.

Indiana very much has the feel of a young program on the rise trying to find itself with the occasional setback as it learns to win. Georgia, on the other hand, is a squad laden with seniors looking to cement their legacy. Georgia’s seniors began as members of an Elite Eight unit three years ago behind Georgia’s last large group of seniors, and it’s this group’s turn to see how far they can carry the team in the tournament.

New women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor was handed the keys to one of the nation’s most tradition-rich programs, and she faced an immediate challenge to that legacy: since Andy Landers reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1982, Georgia had never missed the tournament in consecutive seasons. Injuries led to losses in 2015 that ended a 20-year appearance streak, and preseason expectations had the team at risk for another season on the bubble.

The team started 2015-2016 with a strong 12-1 record in nonconference play. The SEC schedule started rough with three straight losses to ranked opponents. Georgia notched an important road win at Florida but was 1-4 in conference after five games. They righted the ship with six wins over the next seven games and won their final two home games to lock up a winning record in the SEC. That 9-7 record all but locked up an NCAA Tournament bid. Georgia finished sixth in the SEC and had a shot at a finish as high as fourth on the final day of the regular season.

Georgia’s season was once again shaped by injuries. Starting forward Mackenzie Engram didn’t play again after a respiratory issue in January. Leading scorer and rebounder Shacobia Barbee was lost on Senior Day with a broken ankle. The Lady Dogs went 1-2 after Barbee’s injury, and her absence was taken into consideration in Georgia’s seed. Guard Tiara Griffin was injured in a hard fall late in Georgia’s SEC Tournament loss to Vanderbilt, but she should be available for the NCAA Tournament. One positive for Georgia has been the emergence of all-SEC freshman Caliya Robinson.

The 2016 bid is the 32nd in program history – only Tennessee has more. The Lady Dogs have gone on to reach 20 Sweet 16s, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games.

Georgia is one of a record nine SEC teams receiving a bid to the tournament. They’ll join South Carolina (1), Kentucky (3), Texas A&M (4), Mississippi State (5), Florida (5), Tennessee (7), Auburn (9), and Missouri (10).