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Post Fans disappointing coaches, a continuing series

Monday April 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post 2018 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday February 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

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

The Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Checking all of the boxes

Monday February 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversely, did your team sign a good nose tackle?

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

Can your best defenders stay on the field?

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


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

Friday February 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post How to mess up a perfectly reasonable price increase

Thursday February 8, 2018

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

Transparency

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

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

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

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

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

More for less

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad year to be in Sanford Stadium.


Post Saban’s calculated gamble

Thursday January 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post A trip to remember

Friday September 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Rejoice, couch potatoes

Wednesday August 16, 2017

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

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

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

Of course it’s not perfect or for everyone:

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

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


Post It’s the football, dummy

Monday July 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Why would you sign early?

Wednesday May 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Basketball teams active in spring recruiting

Wednesday May 10, 2017

Hoop Dawgs add two in spring signing period

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

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

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

Lady Dogs add impressive transfer

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

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

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


Post Bottom line says to keep the game in Jacksonville

Tuesday May 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday May 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Potential talent drain adds urgency to 2017

Friday April 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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


Post You had to bring up the 2013 Auburn game

Wednesday April 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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