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Post 21 questions for the 2021 Georgia football season

Friday September 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post SEC vs. the field

Sunday August 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Happy NIL Day

Thursday July 1, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Framing the preseason Heisman hype

Thursday June 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday June 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday May 27, 2021

An interesting development in the world of college basketball:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Making Athens a basketball destination

Wednesday May 26, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post What it takes to get us off the couch

Thursday May 20, 2021

Couldn’t describe my 2020 viewing habits better:

A number of fans were introduced to the pleasure of attending Man Cave Stadium last season and found easy access to things like restrooms and refreshments to be something of a pleasure.

As much as I hated to break my home game streak and go without one of the things I enjoy most, I have to admit that it was nice to set up in the backyard with all of the comforts of home steps away. Can’t even begin to calculate how much money I saved, too.

So why am I so excited to get back? I wrote this about opting out last fall:

For many of us the social element of gameday is as important as the action on the field. It’s an opportunity to bring together friends and groups from around the state (and beyond) and rekindle family bonds and traditions that span generations.

That’s the advantage the in-person experience has over watching at home. With the social aspect of gameday significantly (and necessarily) curtailed last year, it made it a fairly easy decision to watch from home. Now that it’s looking like 100% capacity and a fairly normal experience on tap for the 2021 season, I’m more than ready to be back.

I do agree that Barrett Sallee might be stretching it a bit saying fans will “never take the joy of watching a game in person for granted again.” It might not take that long either – ask me about joy around the second half of a hot September guarantee game against UAB.


Post Georgia’s talent pipeline flowing into the NFL

Monday May 3, 2021

I called last year’s NFL draft results “decent but not great” for Georgia. Georgia did have seven players drafted, but several of the higher-profile draft-eligible Dawgs went later than expected. We saw LSU’s dream season pay off with a record-tying 14 picks, and Alabama had nine picks in the first three rounds. Those were extraordinary results, but those are the programs against which Georgia competes on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Thursday’s first round of the 2021 draft got off to a slow start. It wasn’t a surprise to see Eric Stokes selected in the first round, but it was a little unexpected that he would be the only Dawg who came off the board on Thursday. The news got much better on Friday as Tyson Campbell and Azeez Ojulari were drafted early in the second round, and three more players followed in the third round. By the end of the seventh round on Saturday a program-record nine Bulldogs had been drafted. Six were drafted in the first three rounds. As usual, several undrafted players quickly signed free agent deals and will report to an NFL camp.

With the nine Bulldogs selected in 2021, 29 Georgia players have been drafted in the four drafts held since the national title game appearance. That’s the best four-year run of draft picks ever for the Bulldogs. There have been other clusters of years with strong draft results: 15 players were drafted in 2012-2013 and 2002-2003. No other time period in program history has seen this quantity (29) or consistency (at least 7 each year) of draft picks. That’s what you’d hope for as a string of highly-rated signing classes becomes draft-eligible. We can’t quite close the book on the Mark Richt era yet, but it’s fair to say that the Kirby Smart recruiting machine that kicked into gear in 2017 is now producing its share of draft picks.

I focus on the first three rounds since those players are more likely to make rosters, start, earn more, and have lasting NFL careers. Of course there’s value to be had in later rounds (and even UDFAs) – just ask Tae Crowder. But just as the odds are better for highly-rated recruits to be drafted, you’d rather be drafted earlier. It’s one thing to claim a high number of draft picks, but it’s better to have those picks concentrated higher in the draft. Having a top pick doesn’t guarantee a title (Stafford), but championship teams produce high draft picks. LSU’s remarkable 2020 draft class had five first-round picks. Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. It was encouraging, then, to see Georgia have twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3).

The next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round while maintaining at least seven picks per year. Georgia has recruited as well as anyone over the past four recruiting cycles, and the talent pipeline seems to be just as full for the future. This is what I touched on after the national title game. Then we wondered how very good players become elite Heisman-quality performers. Now we ask how do obviously talented and draftable players become elite high-round draft picks?

This might seem like a secondary concern for Kirby Smart since job #1 is winning football games getting whatever production he can out of these players while they’re in Athens. Two things are true though: first, Georgia promotes not only the number of players playing in the NFL but also their earnings. Higher draft picks earn more at first but also have a better shot at sticking around in the league long enough to sign higher-paying contracts once they prove themselves. Second, while a single elite pick might not say much about a team’s success, a slew of such picks probably means you had a pretty good season. LSU and Alabama are the extreme examples, but it’s also not much of a coincidence that the most Georgia first-round picks (3) came after they played for the 2017 national title. More early draft picks will be a lagging indicator that Smart got it done on the field.

This is a discussion at the margins, but marginal differences distinguish championship programs. Once you get to the point at which talent and resources are no longer roadblocks, so much time and energy is spent coaxing out the fractional improvements that matter against the best opponents. Entire fields of study using terms like “Pareto analysis” and “80/20” have been built around all that goes into getting that last bit of improvement out of a system. If you look at the final SP+ rankings of 2020, you see that the margin between the #25 team and the #10 team is as wide as it is between the #10 team and the top four.

That’s where we are with draft picks. It’s difficult and a tremendous accomplishment to be drafted at all. We’re thrilled to see a record number of Bulldogs drafted, and the year-over-year continuity shows what we all know to be true: Georgia is a consistently strong program with consistently strong recruiting. It already produces draft picks at a clip better than all but a handful of programs. Just as the Georgia program is trying to make the difficult incremental improvements to move from a perennial top 10 program to a regular playoff participant, those efforts will pay off with Georgia’s draft picks coming in earlier rounds in better and higher-paying situations for those players. Six early-round picks in 2021 is a good start. If Georgia puts together another title run, the results on draft day could be even better.

Georgia’s 2021 NFL Draft Selections

  • DB Eric Stokes: Green Bay Packers (1st rd, 29th overall)
  • DB Tyson Campbell: Jacksonville Jaguars (2nd rd, 33rd overall)
  • LB Azeez Ojulari: New York Giants (2nd rd, 50th overall)
  • LB Monty Rice: Tennessee Titans (3rd rd, 92nd overall)
  • OL Ben Cleveland: Baltimore Ravens (3rd rd, 94th overall)
  • TE Tre’ McKitty: Los Angeles Chargers (3rd rd, 97th overall)
  • DB Richard LeCounte: Cleveland Browns (5th rd, 169th overall)
  • C Trey Hill: Cincinnati Bengals (6th rd, 190th overall)
  • DB Mark Webb: Los Angeles Chargers (7th rd, 241st overall)

Post SEC takes a prudent step forward

Wednesday April 28, 2021

From ESPN:

The SEC will not require fully vaccinated individuals who are asymptomatic to participate in the league’s surveillance testing program, according to an updated version of its COVID-19 protocols. As long as they have approval from their local health authority, fully vaccinated SEC staff and players also will no longer have to quarantine following an exposure to someone with COVID-19.

This is good news and a strong message from the SEC. Vaccination is our best path out of the pandemic, and there need to be clear benefits for those who choose to get a vaccine. This updated policy reflects the reality of what it means to be vaccinated and recognizes the growing understanding that vaccinated individuals are at much lower risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. It’s also an incentive for those who might be hesitant about getting the vaccine. Any temporary and minor effects of the shot pale next to constant testing and lost time due to quarantine.

Of course any vaccine isn’t 100% effective, hence the allowance for “asymptomatic” individuals. It does mean, though, that a rare positive and symptomatic infection won’t cause vaccinated teammates to have to quarantine. Those quarantined close contacts, many of whom didn’t test positive themselves, wiped out entire position groups and were a big driver of reduced roster numbers and canceled games in 2020.

Hopefully other conferences adopt this policy change soon while continuing their diligence. Though not all will be able or willing to receive the vaccine, the goal is for near-universal coverage to prevent a single case from becoming a larger outbreak. Widespread vaccination will not only mean full stands this fall, it will also protect student-athletes, staff members, support personnel, and others who come in contact with the program. It will reduce, and hopefully eliminate, the weekly uncertainty and disruptions that ruled the 2020 season and ensure the likelihood of a full season.


Post Taylor’s next challenge: doing it all over again

Saturday April 10, 2021

It was a much-needed season of vindication for Joni Taylor. The canceled 2020 NCAA tournament spared Georgia the ignominy of missing consecutive tournaments for the first time in program history. The 2021 squad was picked to finish where it ended 2020: ninth in the SEC.

The 2021 team, led by a strong senior class, blew past those expectations. The team finished 4th in the SEC, reached the finals of the SEC tournament for the first time since 2004, and received the program’s best NCAA tournament seed since 2007. Taylor, for her part, was named SEC Coach of the Year and earned a contract extension and increase.

The trick though is sustaining that success and progress. Taylor wasn’t able to build on Georgia’s last trip to the NCAA tournament in 2018, and two disappointing seasons followed. Her contract extension says more about belief in Taylor for the future than it does about rewarding recent accomplishments. This can’t be as good as it gets, and no one in the program should feel that Georgia basketball is finally back. To be fair, the fact that we’re mentioning dates like 2004, 2007, 2001 (the last conference title), or even 2013 (the last Sweet 16 and Elite 8 appearances) suggests that the program hasn’t met its own standard for some time. Taylor took over a weakened program, but embracing Georgia’s legacy and making it her own has been a big part of her message. She deserves credit for a season that reminded Georgia fans of past greatness, but these successful seasons can’t be the exceptions.

Sustaining success begins with personnel, and there’s been great news on that front. Two of Georgia’s four key seniors have elected to return for an additional season as allowed by the NCAA. Jenna Staiti and Que Morrison were named honorable-mention All-Americans. Staiti was second team All-SEC, and Morrison was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year. The return of a dominant post player and the team’s best defender will go a long way towards stability and success in 2022. These two returning post-graduates will join a top-15 recruiting class – the best incoming group since the 2017 class that featured Morrison.

With the return of Staiti and Morrison, Georgia will lose only two of their four key seniors. Maya Caldwell was a capable wing who showed good versatility later in the season dropping down to a more interior role. Georgia has options there: Mikayla Coombs and Sarah Ashlee Barker should see more playing time. The remaining hole is at point guard. Gabby Connally was an extension of Joni Taylor on the court and ran the offense for the better part of her four seasons. There isn’t an obvious replacement lined up, and the solution could come from one of four possibilities:

  • Next man up. Chloe Chapman was recruited as a five-star point guard, but she’s struggled to find playing time while splitting attention between basketball and soccer. There’s no questioning her athleticism, speed, and stamina, but her development as an offensive weapon has been slow. If she’s ever going to become a regular member of the rotation, this seems to be the window of opportunity.
  • The committee approach. Georgia might not have an obvious heir to the point guard position, but they do return several experienced guards. Even incoming freshman Reigan Richardson could contribute to the role.
  • Position change. Georgia’s assists leader last season wasn’t Connally; it was Que Morrison. Mikayla Coombs also had more assists than Connally. That might speak more to the nature of the Georgia offense – Connally often got Georgia into its halfcourt offense, but Georgia’s other guards were more keen to attack the basket. Morrison and Coombs did have issues with turnovers. An offseason dedicated to the nuances of point guard could help either Coombs or Morrison reduce turnovers and make better decisions with the ball.
  • Look for a transfer. The transfer portal is flush with players, and several have point guard experience. Georgia hasn’t been shy about taking an impact transfer (Coombs, Staiti, and Davenport.) Morrison and Staiti won’t count against scholarship limits, so there should be room to bring someone on if there’s a good fit out there. Georgia’s scholarship numbers might be fine, but adding another player creates a very crowded bench. Who comes off the court?

Georgia will enter the offseason with the same staff it’s had since Taylor became head coach. The continuity and stability of Georgia’s coaching staff is almost contrarian and refreshing in a very fluid profession, but it means that fresh ideas and improvement will have to come from within. The SEC won’t stand still, and changes will take place aimed at Georgia’s spot in the standings and their Coach of the Year. Georgia’s position is fragile; a handful of points separated them from an outcome more in line with modest preseason expectations. To their credit, they won those games, and there are plenty of players returning who understand how to compete and win in the SEC. Expectations will be much higher now than they were even a year ago, and exceeding them will be much more difficult. This is an inflection point for Taylor and the program: will the success of the 2021 season be the foundation for growth, or was it another peak in a series of valleys?


Post Smith transfers in: the sequel

Wednesday April 7, 2021

One of Kirby Smart’s first roster moves as Georgia’s head coach was securing the transfer of Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith. While graduate transfer rules had been around for a while, Smith’s desire to move within the conference developed into a dispute between Georgia, Alabama, and the SEC. The Bulldogs eventually prevailed, and Smith joined the Bulldog secondary in time for the 2016 season. Smith only played at Georgia for that one season, but he was an important piece of that 2016 defense and helped ease the unit’s transition into its dominant 2017 form. If that’s not enough, he made the play that turned around the 2016 upset win over Auburn.

Smith was successful at Georgia in large part due to his familiarity with the defensive system Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker brought with them from Alabama. That familiarity allowed him to step right in without much learning curve and make the most of his limited remaining eligibility. What’s more, he was able to help teammates understand what the coaches were trying to communicate and expect as those teammates got up to speed in a complex new defensive scheme. For his contributions on the field and as a leader, Smith was named one of the 2016 team’s four permanent captains despite spending less than a year as a member of the team.

Georgia again finds itself thin in the secondary heading into 2021. And as in 2016 Kirby Smart is banking on an experienced transfer named Smith to make a difference. West Virginia defensive back Tykee Smith announced that he’ll transfer to Georgia. Smith was a two-year starter for the Mountaineers and earned third team All-American honors in 2020 when he had two interceptions and 61 tackles (eight for loss.) Should the NCAA approve a blanket one-time transfer exemption for 2021 as expected, Smith would be immediately eligible at Georgia.

Like Maurice Smith, Tykee Smith projects as a Star (or nickel) defensive back at Georgia. The Bulldogs have questions and inexperience all over the secondary, but Star is a particular need. Mark Webb graduated and Tyrique Stevenson transferred, and the situation was dire enough that coaches were giving outside linebacker Adam Anderson a look at the position. Anderson is a gifted athlete, but covering slot receivers might not be his optimal role. We know that defense is evolving to feature more nickel looks to counter modern offenses heavy on the pass and RPOs. Being able to plug in a proven defensive back makes that evolution a little easier for Georgia without putting them in awkward personnel situations.

There’s another parallel to 2016: Georgia isn’t bringing in a new staff and scheme, but they are welcoming a new defensive backs coach. Jahmile Addae was Smith’s position coach at West Virginia, and their history together made Georgia a logical landing spot for Smith. Though Addae won’t be installing a new scheme, he’ll likely have his tweaks to technique and how he coaches his players. Smith can help his teammates anticipate what Addae expects. At the same time, Addae will understand how to coach Smith and should make Smith’s transition to Georgia’s system easier than it would be for a player arriving without a rapport with his position coach.

If Tykee Smith can have the impact Maurice Smith had on Georgia’s defense, it will have been a very worthwhile addition to the roster. Maurice Smith provided stability and leadership while a revamped defense found its stride. If Tykee Smith can do the same, it might be enough to keep a young secondary from holding back a team with championship aspirations.


Post Lady Dogs return to the NCAA tournament

Tuesday March 16, 2021

The #10-ranked Lady Dogs earned a #3 seed for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament – the program’s highest seed since 2007. Georgia returns to the tournament for the first time since 2018 and for the 34th time in program history. It’s coach Joni Taylor’s third trip to the tournament in six seasons at the helm, and the program is seeking its first Sweet 16 appearance under Taylor and its first deep tournament run since 2013. Usually a top-4 seed means that Georgia would be hosting the first two rounds of the tournament, but NCAA pandemic protocols have moved the entire tournament to the San Antonio, TX area. Georgia will head to Texas and remain in isolation there for the duration of their stay in the tournament.

Georgia received their high seed after a 20-6 season and a fourth-place SEC finish. They defeated eight teams in the NCAA tournament field and have won seven of their last nine games with losses coming to ranked Kentucky and South Carolina teams. Georgia beat Texas A&M and pushed South Carolina to the final minute in the SEC tournament, and they look very much like a team peaking at the right time. As you’d hope, the experienced senior class of four players leads the team and is largely responsible for the team’s success and better-than-expected results. Even with the strong starting lineup, Taylor will play a deep bench and has relied on bench contributions in big wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Team health is generally good, though guard Gabby Connally injured an ankle in practice recently.

The Lady Dogs will open the tournament on Monday at noon on ESPN2 against 14-seed Drexel. The Dragons won the CAA automatic bid by winning their conference tournament and upsetting top-seeded Delaware. Georgia should have a significant size advantage against Drexel. The Dragons have no player taller than 6’2″ on their roster. Jenna Stati and the other posts should be able to feast if they can stay clear of foul trouble, and Maya Caldwell could also have a big game around the basket in her newer role at the 4 spot. Drexel’s offense is led by guards Keishana Washington and Hannah Nihill. Washington had back-to-back 30-point games to lead Drexel to a CAA conference tournament title. Drexel, like Georgia, will look to be disruptive on defense. Opponents average over 18 turnovers per game against the Dragons, and Drexel gets nearly 17 points per game off those turnovers. Georgia has been turnover-prone this season, and unforced errors could keep the score down and keep an outmatched opponent hanging around. Georgia ideally will use their own stingy defense to create transition opportunities and not allow the Drexel defense to set up.

If Georgia advances, they’ll face the winner of 6-seed Oregon and 11-seed South Dakota on Wednesday. Oregon was a national contender a year ago behind national player of the year Sabrina Ionescu. The Ducks ended up with three of the top eight draft picks in the 2020 WNBA draft. The remaining cast played a tough shortened Pac-12 schedule this year and have a trio of single-digit losses to very good UCLA and Stanford teams. Injuries, especially to point guard Te-Hina Paopao, have seen the Ducks fall in the polls, but they’re a different team with everyone available. South Dakota is no pushover – they hung with South Carolina and Gonzaga and have won nine straight entering the tournament. Down the road Georgia could face national powers Louisville and Stanford.

SEC teams received seven of the 64 bids. They’ve had more bids in the past, but the seeding this year shows how top-heavy the SEC was. No SEC team is lower than a 7-seed, and six SEC teams earned a 4-seed or better. If chalk holds, the conference would have over a third of the Sweet 16 teams.


Post 2021 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 3, 2021

The 2020 women’s conference tournaments were among the last pre-pandemic events to be completed. There was an awareness and even a suspicion of COVID-19 in Greenville, but there wasn’t a fear or much change in behavior. We still packed into the arena next to fans from around the conference, enjoyed the restaurants and bars of downtown Greenville, and loudly supported our teams without much thought to the droplets and aerosols we were contributing to the air around us. In the two weeks between the end of the conference tournament and the scheduled start of the NCAA tournament, the pandemic hit in full force. The wholesale cancellation of the NCAA tournament was unthinkable, but a lot of unthinkable things became unpleasant truths as the end of March ushered in our present reality.

For teams like South Carolina, the sudden end of the season meant that an outstanding year ended with no national title. The Gamecocks concluded the season as the consensus #1 team and would have been the overall top seed and a favorite in the NCAA tournament. Deprived of the opportunity to earn a title on the court, the Gamecocks hung a banner for finishing the season ranked on top. That was good enough for football teams until the BCS, and not many teams had a better case than South Carolina as the nation’s best squad last season. For Georgia, the cancellation of the NCAA tournament was a reprieve. The program had never missed consecutive NCAA tournaments, and that fate was all but assured after another lackluster season. The program faced the humbling decision of accepting a WNIT bid and reconsidering their prideful policy of NCAA-or-nothing. LSU was likely headed for its first NCAA tournament since 2017, and that would have been an important turnaround for Nikki Fargas.

A 2021 season wasn’t always a given, and getting back to Greenville has been a bumpy ride for several programs. Some won’t make it at all – Vanderbilt opted out of the season in January. The standings show a range of 12 to 16 conference games played by each team with COVID and weather-related cancellations affecting nearly everyone’s schedule. That’s raised questions about everything from NCAA tournament eligibility to conference tournament seeding, and of course that’s not only an SEC problem. Even when games could be played, depleted rosters and the occasional absence of key players led to some unpredictable results that affected the standings.

What was normal and predictable was the 2021 regular season coming down to the final day. All four of the top seeds and the conference title were undecided entering Sunday. Texas A&M beat South Carolina in a battle of national top 5 programs to earn their first SEC regular season title. Tennessee easily handled Auburn to claim the #3 seed. While Georgia pulled away from pesky Florida, Kentucky lost its second game of the season to an improving Ole Miss team. The Kentucky loss knocked them out of the top four and moved Ole Miss safely out of Wednesday’s play-in game. Arkansas out-scored Alabama to settle the #6 and #7 seeds. Much of this season has been that competitive, and that could make for one of the more entertaining tournaments in years even if attendance will be limited.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday: Bye
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. FLA/AUB/UK: ~1:15 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 4:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

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

1) Texas A&M (22-1, 13-1) (LY-4th, PS-3rd): It’s not quite another example of the Ewing Theory: few expected A&M to drop that far without Chennedy Carter. An experienced and successful group of players returned, and they were selected third in the preseason poll. The 2021 Aggies have proven to be a well-rounded team with strengths at most positions, and they don’t have to rely on a prolific scorer like Carter. Gary Blair’s stamp is all over this team. They’re fundamentally sound, rebound and defend well, and attack the basket rather than stand around the three-point line. A&M has earned a reputation, like their coach, for not being flashy or exciting, but that’s only if style points matter more to you than winning. The Aggies understand what they do well, play to their strengths, and have few weaknesses to exploit. That style allowed them to remain in the background for much of the season both in the SEC and nationally, but that’s over. They enter the postseason under a glaring spotlight as SEC champs and a likely NCAA #1 seed.

A&M’s stat sheet is a study in balance and roles. Five players average between 9.2 and 13.2 points per game. Rebounds and assists are shared. The Aggies shoot almost half the three-pointers that their opponents attempt, but with a percentage over 39% they make those outside attempts count. Leading scorer Aaliyah Wilson has had a long journey coming back from a season-ending injury in 2019. She was primarily a reserve a year ago and has stepped up as a senior to be among the team’s top three in scoring, rebounding, assists, steal, and blocks. N’dea Jones averages a double-double and has pulled down 71 offensive rebounds this year. Guard Kayla Wells has only hit 13 three-pointers this year but is much more dangerous attacking the basket. Ciera Johnson is a true post who can do a lot of the dirty work inside on both ends. Jordan Nixon is the lone non-senior starter but is still an on-court leader. Destiny Pitts comes off the bench and has hit over 40% of the team’s three-pointers. Everyone brings something to the table, and the pieces fit together.

The Aggies have been in enough close games to look like a possible upset candidate in Greenville, but they’ve been dealing with that disrespect all season. They continue to find ways to win. A quarterfinal rematch against LSU, their sole loss, could be interesting, and everyone is anticipating a finals rematch with South Carolina. Will things be different now that the Aggies are the hunted? A lot can happen before we get to Sunday, but A&M has already done more than enough to earn respect as the SEC regular season champion and one of the best teams in the nation.

2) South Carolina (19-4, 14-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): The Gamecocks became the national title favorite a year ago by blending two senior leaders with the nation’s top recruiting class. Those freshmen are now veterans and form the core of the Gamecock team. Aliyah Boston averages a double-double and is a force on both ends of the court whether shooting, rebounding, or blocking shots. She’s extended her range beyond the arc and can deftly pass out of a double-team. Guard Zia Cooke leads the team in scoring and can hit from anywhere on the court. Speedy junior Destanni Henderson brought frenzied energy to the point guard position. Dawn Staley often sticks to a rotation of seven with Laeticia Amihere and Lele Grissett providing most of the depth.

But South Carolina hasn’t been as dominant as they were a season ago. Boston can have moments of dominance but rarely carries games from end to end. They’re extremely good at getting transition baskets, but they are prone to scoring droughts if forced to play extended stretches in their halfcourt offense. They’ve scored an average of 57 points in their four losses, and even layups can be tough to come by. Tennessee was able to match South Carolina’s length and physicality, and Texas A&M was able to control tempo and halt the South Carolina transition offense. The Gamecocks have had to replace key players several times during their time atop the conference, but the departure of point guard Ty Harris has been underrated both from a production and leadership standpoint.

Still, this is a team with a championship pedigree loaded with talent. With the tournament in their home state, it’s tempting to consider the Gamecocks the favorites to win the tournament. To do so, they’ll likely have to face the two teams that handed them their SEC losses. Those losses were no flukes and exposed some very real issues with this South Carolina team.

3) Tennessee (15-6, 9-4) (LY-6th, PS-6th): The Lady Vols haven’t reached the SEC semifinals since 2016. The Lady Vols haven’t played for an SEC tournament title or been a top four seed since 2015. Kellie Harper’s second season has the program back in more familiar territory. Tennessee ended South Carolina’s 31-game SEC winning streak and handled a very good Indiana team. They took UConn down to the final minute. They did drop four SEC games, but all of those losses were to top five seeds. The Lady Vols avoided the inexplicable losses to teams closer to the bottom of the standings that marked the past couple of seasons. With a double-bye and a win over South Carolina already on the books, no one would be surprised to see Tennessee make a run into Sunday.

The Lady Vols have impressive size across the board and use that length to their advantage rebounding and on the defensive end. Senior guard Rennia Davis is a classic Lady Vol leader who can take over a game. The story of the season though might be the emergence of wing Rae Burrell as the team’s leading scorer. Burrell played well in the tournament last season and now commands as much defensive attention as Davis. But Davis and Burrell are the only two Lady Vols averaging double-figures. Tamari Key and Kasiyahna Kushkituah give Tennessee an inside presence but are stronger on the defensive end and on the glass. Jordan Horston has built on a nice freshman season but has struggled with consistency. Tennessee has to get good production from a third player as they did when Horston scored 12 in the upset of South Carolina. Four Lady Vols scored in double figures when they knocked off Arkansas earlier in the year, and they’ll need that kind of output if the teams meet again in the quarterfinals.

4) Georgia (18-5, 10-5) (LY-9th, PS-9th): As a highly-rated 2017 signing class matured into this year’s senior class, it was reasonable to expect a payoff season. But the pieces hadn’t quite come together after three years, and a repeat of last season’s ninth-place finish was the preseason prediction. Exceeding that expectation was critical for Joni Taylor as the program sought its first NCAA tournament bid since 2018. Fortunately the program did blow past those expectations, and Georgia has the second top-four finish in Taylor’s six seasons at the helm. The improvement has been marginal: Georgia’s three wins over ranked opponents came by a total of five points, and another win came in overtime at Alabama. A few points the other way would have Georgia down around that #9 seed, but you can play that game with the record of many teams. Georgia made the plays to win those close games, and they overcame decades of futility in doing so. Georgia’s win at Tennessee was their first since the 1996, and their season sweep of the Lady Vols was their first since 1985.

The improvement goes hand-in-hand with the health of guard Que Morrison. Morrison has struggled with injuries since her sophomore season, but she’s managed a full season as one of the SEC’s best defenders. With increased stamina and confidence, Morrison’s offense has come along also. Fellow seniors Gabby Connally, Jenna Staiti, and Maya Caldwell have all had important roles and contributions to Georgia’s success. Staiti is among the SEC’s leader in blocks, and any of the four seniors are capable of scoring 20+. UConn transfer Mikayla Coombs and freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker have been sparks off the bench. Depth has been a strength this year, and Taylor has reached far down the bench for big minutes in key games.

Georgia remains one of the league’s top defenses. Morrison can often lock down the opponent’s best scorer, Staiti can protect the rim, and Coombs resembles a defensive back taking errant passes back the other way. Georgia is excellent at creating turnovers and transition offense. Halfcourt offense has been more inconsistent, and the team is often its worst enemy. Even the seniors have struggled with turnovers, many of them unforced. Four or five players can do damage from outside, but there have been games in which perimeter production has been ice-cold. Georgia is at its best with Connally and at least one other player scoring from outside. With the defense extended, Staiti has often been unstoppable inside. Foul trouble has sometimes disrupted Taylor’s substitution patterns. Morrison can be aggressive with her defense, and Staiti has to be careful going for blocked shots or hedging high ball screens.

To avoid an early exit, Georgia will likely have to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats won in Athens less than a week ago. The Lady Dogs had 17 turnovers, shot 3-18 from outside, got just 5 bench points, and Staiti and Morrison both sat during the first half with foul trouble. Kentucky star Rhyne Howard went off for 27 points on 10-16 shooting. Georgia should relish the thought of a rematch, but they’ll need a much better effort on both ends of the court. The Lady Dogs are looking for their first semifinal appearance since 2018, and a high NCAA tournament seed might depend on it.

5) Kentucky (16-7, 9-6) (LY-3rd, PS-2nd): The Wildcats were rocked by the sudden retirement of successful coach Matthew Mitchell in November. Assistant Kyra Elzy, since promoted to head coach, has done a fine job holding things together and maintaining Kentucky’s usual position among the top half of the SEC. Her job is made easier by the presence of player-of-the-year candidate Rhyne Howard. Howard has been the defensive focus of opponents for three seasons, but it hasn’t mattered. She remains the league’s best and most consistent scorer and has frequently put the team on her back. But the attention paid to Howard has opened things up for teammates. Explosive 5’5″ point guard Chasity Patterson averages around 13 PPG, and forward Dre’una Edwards cleans up inside. Elzy’s team continues to play the tight press defense that became Mitchell’s trademark, and that approach has led to wins over Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee. A season sweep by Ole Miss showed that the Cats need production from more than just Howard and Patterson, and those contributions from the rest of the roster will determine how far Kentucky can advance.

6) Arkansas (19-7, 9-6) (LY-5th, PS-4th): After a strong 2020 season and deep run in the 2019 SEC tournament, Arkansas won’t catch anyone sleeping anymore. That might be to their detriment. The fearless Hogs scheduled – and won! – high-profile nonconference games against Baylor and UConn, but SEC teams have been more prepared for the up-tempo offensive onslaught of the Razorbacks that we’ve seen for the past three seasons. Seven seniors enter their final postseason leading a team confident that it can out-score anyone. Chelsea Dungee leads the team in scoring at 22.2 PPG, but this is a multi-pronged attack. Dungee, Amber Ramirez, Destiny Slocum, and Makayla Daniels have each attempted at least 113 three-pointers, and all four hit at least 37% of those attempts. Interior play has been a tag-team of Taylah Thomas and Erynn Barnum, but there’s no mistake that the offense flows through its guards. Arkansas took it on the chin early in the SEC season with a 2-5 start, but they enter the SEC tournament winners of 7 of their last 8 with the sole loss a 2-point setback at Texas A&M. They’ve been mortal away from home with a 7-6 record outside of the state. Teams that have been able to beat Arkansas have found a way to slow down an offense that prefers to be scoring around 90 points per game. A possible quarterfinal showdown with Tennessee could be one of Friday’s most anticipated games.

7) Alabama (15-8, 8-8) (LY-8th, PS-8th): A 7th-place finish on the heels of an 8th-place finish a year ago establishes Alabama firmly in the middle of the pack. That’s a step up from a couple of years ago, and this year it should be enough to get the program back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. They’re lead by a trio of accomplished seniors. Jasmine Walker, Jordan Lewis, and Ariyah Copeland account for 68% of the team’s scoring. A sweep of Mississippi State and a win over LSU highlight their accomplishments, but they’ve dropped two in a row to end the regular season. Copeland and Walker are formidable inside players capable of scoring and rebounding, but they need more consistent outside play and ballhandling to advance. Missouri’s new-found outside shooting success could tax Alabama’s ability to keep up.

8) LSU (8-12, 6-8) (LY-7th, PS-7th): LSU seemed to be a lock for the lost NCAA tournament of 2020, but they’re likely back on the outside this year. That’s disappointing for a team, like Georgia, that was counting on a strong senior class to pay off. Khayla Pointer leads the team with over 16 PPG. Faustine Aifuwa and Awa Trasi are physical post players, and Jailin Cherry has become a dangerous scorer later in the season. The Tigers had a very poor nonconference showing as they were slow to find an identity. Things improved as soon as the Tigers started SEC play, but they have been on the wrong end of some very close games. The month of January shows how tight things have been for LSU: a 5-3 record with two overtime games and the rest decided by no more than 8 points. LSU has wins over Texas A&M and Georgia and lost to Tennessee and South Carolina by a combined 5 points. A bad loss to Florida might have put the Tigers in a position to have to win the tournament or at least reach the finals in order to have a postseason. This is a team that has the experience, poise, and talent to do that, but it’s a very tall order.

9) Mississippi State (10-8, 5-7) (LY-2nd, PS-5th): The Bulldogs had a rougher transition with their new coach than Kentucky. Vic Schaefer departed for Texas, and Nikki McCray-Penson inherited a team with some talent but which was also on the backside of the program’s glory years. Few programs (other than Vanderbilt of course) were disrupted as much as MSU this year. The Bulldogs only played 18 games overall and just 12 SEC games. The dearth of games left them few opportunities to notch quality wins. They defeated Georgia, LSU, and…not many other teams of note. MSU is just 2-3 since the beginning of February, but the latest bracket projections still have them in the field. Rickea Jackson and Jessika Carter return to provide an impressive 1-2 punch, but the supporting cast hasn’t been as strong as it’s been in recent seasons. The Bulldogs can be dangerous if they get outside production from Aliyah Matharu or Myah Taylor.

10) Missouri (9-10, 5-9) (LY-11th, PS-10th): During their peak years in the mid-2010s, Missouri lapped the field in the number of three-pointers attempted. That identity changed last year as the program began to build around forward Aijha Blackwell. Blackwell remains a force, but the Tigers began to reestablish their dominance from outside towards the end of this year. They’ve attempted at least 20 three-pointers in four of their last five games and at least 28 three-pointers in each of their final three games. Five Tigers have attempted at least 50 three-pointers this year, and all five are hitting at least 30% from outside. Blackwell’s sophomore classmate Hayley Frank leads the charge shooting almost 45% on 78 three-point attempts. You still need a post presence, and LaDazhia Wilson has thrived as defenses are forced to extend beyond the arc. Mizzou is a dangerous offensive team that, like Arkansas, can simply shoot an opponent out of the building as they did at Mississippi State in the regular season finale. They’re not quite at Arkansas’s level though, and more athletic teams have found ways to outscore them.

11) Ole Miss (10-10, 4-10) (LY-14th, PS-11th): It might seem odd to highlight a four-win team as one of the SEC’s most improved, but Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s squad has taken a step forward. Ole Miss was winless in the SEC a year ago but had several close losses. Coach Yo hit the recruiting trail, enticed a McDonald’s All-American to come to Oxford, and Ole Miss now packs a punch. They got a breakthrough win against Kentucky and beat a good Alabama team on the road, and they’ve been competitive in many more games than not. They proved the win over Kentucky was no fluke by beating the Wildcats again on the last day of the season to avoid the play-in game. Shakira Austin has emerged as a tough inside presence who has scored 20+ points against some of the SEC’s best defenses. Georgia transfer Donnetta Johnson has become the team’s second-leading scorer. Freshman Madison Scott is averaging over 10 PPG and is a legitimate freshman of the year candidate. There are still holes, and they’re still gaining experience as one of the nation’s youngest teams. You get a sense though that things are headed in the right direction, and it should be fun watching this team grow over the next few seasons.

12) Florida (10-12, 3-11) (LY-10th, PS-12th): Florida took a step back this year but were still competitive in most SEC games thanks to a productive offense. A solid win at LSU looked to be a breakthrough, but a day later they announced the loss of their leading scorer. Lavender Briggs built on an impressive freshman campaign and was challenging for the conference scoring title before a nagging injury ended her season. To their credit, Florida responded with tough games against Kentucky and Alabama and led Georgia at halftime, but there wasn’t enough in the tank to come away with wins. Guard Kiki Smith has stepped up to lead the offensive attack and isn’t far off Briggs’ average, and the rest of the Nina Rickards and Danielle Rainey are capable of big nights.

13) Auburn (5-18, 0-15) (LY-13th, PS-14th): The Tigers languish near the bottom of the standings for the second year in a row, and that can’t be good news for coach Terri Williams-Flournoy. This once-proud program went winless in conference play, but they feature one of the SEC’s best players. Senior Unique Thompson easily averages a double-double and is among the nation’s best rebounders. She is the kind of consistent high-producer that should have a long pro career. Unfortunately the surrounding cast hasn’t been up to par. Baylor transfer Honesty Scott-Grayson has been a nice addition and quickly became the team’s second-leading scorer. After that duo production has been spotty. Auburn’s trapping defense causes opponents to turn it over around 18 times per game, but Auburn has struggled to turn those turnovers into points. Thompson deserves a moment of glory as her Auburn career comes to an end. Can it come in the tournament?

14) Vanderbilt (4-4, 0-3) (LY-12th, PS-13th): We hardly knew them. Vandy’s first three games were canceled, and two more around Christmas were canceled. The Commodores managed five nonconference games and three SEC games before deciding to opt out of the rest of the season. COVID issues made it impossible to get much of a read on this team, but they saved their best for last: what was left of their roster nearly upset Kentucky. Vanderbilt made the smallest bit of progress last year with four SEC wins, but not much was expected of them this year. This would have been Stephanie White’s fifth season at the helm with the program still firmly in the SEC basement.


Post 2021 SEC schedule released – hopefully for the last time

Friday January 29, 2021

With much fanfare, the SEC released its 2021 football schedule on Wednesday. We already knew the opponents, and just the dates were left to be filled in. Unfortunately the SEC is reverting to the eight-game conference slate, so this is a return to a fairly typical schedule and the previous SEC West rotation. After the scheduling chaos of last season, it has to be said that we’re still not out of the pandemic woods. We hope things are to a point where all games get played as scheduled, but a lot has to happen over the next six months. We can feel pretty certain about the SEC’s readiness, but playing a complete schedule depends on a stable enough situation that teams across the country, including FCS schools like Charleston Southern, can field and travel full squads. So here’s the schedule – as it is now:

Sept. 4: Clemson (Charlotte)
Sept. 11: vs. UAB
Sept. 18: vs. South Carolina
Sept. 25: at Vanderbilt
Oct. 2: vs. Arkansas
Oct. 9: at Auburn
Oct. 16: vs. Kentucky
Oct. 23: BYE
Oct. 30: Florida (Jacksonville)
Nov. 6: vs. Missouri
Nov. 13: at Tennessee
Nov. 20: vs. Charleston Southern
Nov. 27: at Georgia Tech

The opener against Clemson will be one of the bigger nonconference games in the nation in 2021. There will be no shortage of hype or analysis of that game, and it will set the tone for both programs. A win by either team arguably sets them up as a playoff favorite, and a loss means they’ll have to run the table. There will be plenty more to say over the next seven months.

What stands out about the rest of the schedule is how many new coaches Georgia will face. Six of Georgia’s eight SEC opponents will have first- or second-year head coaches. All three of Georgia’s SEC road games will be against first-year coaches. That doesn’t mean the games are gimmes – they’re still SEC road games, and while these coaches might be new at their current gig they’re not inexperienced nor new to big-time football.

It’s also glaring that the best games on the schedule are away from Athens. There are two neutral site games, and Auburn, Tennessee, and Tech are all on the road. It says a lot about the quality of the home schedule when the highlights are the return of Sam Pittman and Shane Beamer, the whole Muschamp storyline in week 3, and a possible trap game against a decent Missouri team. I’m doubtful that this year turns into 2017 when a lightweight home schedule became a little interesting. We’re in that home scheduling lull between Notre Dame in 2019 and some fun home-and-homes later this decade.

After Clemson, the biggest tests left on the schedule are anyone’s guess. At this point it looks as if Georgia will be favored in every game after the opener, but there’s often a team or two that surprises and becomes a much more difficult challenge than we expected. It’s tough to imagine South Carolina or Vanderbilt getting their acts together that early in the season. Tennessee might have some things figured out by November, but there’s so much to rebuild there. It’s possible that Bo Nix thrives under new management, and a trip to Auburn is rarely routine. Missouri was respectable with a first-year coach and QB, and they will be a popular pick to finish in the top half of the SEC East. Georgia won’t have much time to dwell on whatever happens in Jacksonville. Of course we underestimate Florida at our peril. They probably won’t be the team they were last season, but you can’t imagine Georgia being an SEC or national contender without winning that game.