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Post Elegy For a Weird Pseudorivalry

Wednesday September 20, 2023

They’ve got more rivals than almost anybody I know. They really do. Traditionally, we’ve only had Clemson because we haven’t beaten anybody enough to have any more rivals. Georgia, I’ve always said, is our biggest conference rival since they’re closest to us, I think, than any other school.
— Steve Spurrier

Saturday’s comeback win over South Carolina added to Georgia’s lopsided 55–19–2 advantage in the series. Since taking charge of the Georgia program, Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are 7-1 against South Carolina with an average margin of victory of nearly 25 points. Shane Beamer’s program showed signs of life with two huge upsets in 2022, and the Gamecocks were competitive as huge underdogs in Athens this year. Unfortunately we won’t know for a while if Beamer will be able to bring competitive balance back to the series. With the eight-game SEC schedule stretched thin by the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, Georgia and South Carolina will no longer play every season. Each team will rotate on and off the other’s schedule as if they were Mississippi State or Kentucky.

Is it the end – or a pausing – of a rivalry?

Defining what makes a rivalry is a popular offseason parlor game. But for a year here and there Georgia and South Carolina have played regularly since the 1960s. Of course it’s become an annual meeting since the Gamecocks joined the SEC East in 1992, but the teams met 27 out of 30 years between 1960 and 1989. Georgia and Tennessee met only eight times during that span. The frequent games and the short distance between the schools might seem to make the Bulldogs and Gamecocks natural rivals. For those in the Augusta area, the Border Bash is an annual show of pride between the two local fan bases. As Steve Spurrier noted, though, there’s a pretty wide gulf between how fans of each school see this series. It’s not a question of disrespect. Georgia’s games with Auburn, Florida, and even Tennessee often had SEC implications. Georgia Tech was the in-state rival. By the time South Carolina traded independent status for SEC membership, Georgia’s list of rivals was extensive.

Even before the Gamecocks joined the SEC the series with Georgia had some twists and turns. Georgia forced a fumble from eventual Heisman winner George Rogers to hold on in 1980. The Gamecocks upset then-#12 Georgia in 1984 and went on to become the first team in school history to win 10 games. In 1986 Georgia’s James Jackson set the ball on the turf during a live play as the clock expired, and Georgia escaped with the win only because the rules at the time forbid advancing a recovered fumble.

There were some memorable games as the Gamecocks joined the SEC in the 90s. A Georgia loss in 1993 was a harbinger of a disappointing season, and the brash Steve Taneyhill became an instant villain in Athens. Georgia’s win in 1995 introduced Robert Edwards as the next great Georgia tailback. Still, Georgia won 6 of the 8 contests in the 1990s, and any rivalry just simmered as sights were set on more successful programs at Tennessee ad Florida.

The 1999 arrival of Lou Holtz in Columbia seemed like a novelty, but it ushered in an era of competitive, low-scoring, and dramatic games between the programs. Georgia won easily enough in 1999 and sent the Gamecocks on their way to an 0-11 season. The Gamecocks turned the tables in 2000. They intercepted Georgia five times en route to an upset of the #10 Bulldogs. The performance and loss shook the Georgia program to the core and started the ball rolling towards a coaching change at the end of the season. The Mark Richt era began with South Carolina’s first win in Athens since 1993, but the Dawgs then reeled off five straight wins – their longest winning streak in the series since the 1970s.

Those five wins didn’t come easily for Georgia. The 2002 win is remembered for the interception that immortalized David Pollack as a Georgia legend, but the Dawgs also needed a frenzied stop inside their own 10 to secure the win. 2004 was an even wilder game. The Gamecocks stormed out to a 16-0 lead, but David Greene threw two second half touchdown passes to put Georgia on top. The Dawgs had to stop South Carolina twice inside the red zone in the fourth quarter.

Holtz stepped aside after 2004, and the hiring of Steve Spurrier for 2005 took the series to another level of animosity. Georgia eked out a two-point win in 2005 with a fourth-quarter stop of a two-point conversion. The Dawgs handed Spurrier a rare shutout loss in 2006. The Evil Genius finally broke through against his foe with a 16-12 win in 2007. Georgia could only manage four field goals in the loss, and it ended up costing them the SEC East title and possibly a shot at the national title in the bizarre 2007 season.

As Spurrier took root in Columbia, the low-scoring grinds of the early 2000s began to give way to high-scoring shootouts. Between 2009 and 2015, the winning team in the series scored fewer than 35 points only once. It also became a golden age for Gamecock football. South Carolina had a 5-3 advantage over Georgia between 2007 and 2014 (including three straight from 2010-2012), and they won their lone SEC East title in 2010. The teams traded shootout wins in 2009 and 2011.

By 2012 both programs were rolling and undefeated for an early October clash. Williams-Brice Stadium was out of its mind for a night game between the #6 Gamecocks and #5 Bulldogs. South Carolina fed off the home crowd and roared to a 21-0 first quarter lead. The 35-7 rout was their largest margin of victory in the series. Georgia ended the Gamecock winning streak in 2013 with another high-scoring back-and-forth game in Athens. A deep pass to Justin Scott-Wesley provided the final margin, but it wasn’t over until the Bulldog defense got a stop on 4th-and-1 at the goal line. The Gamecocks returned the favor in 2014 with a red zone stop and an upset of #6 Georgia. A late interception returned to the South Carolina 3 set Georgia up to win the game, but a disastrous offensive series and missed field goal allowed South Carolina to hold on to the winning margin. Once again the loss cost Georgia a shot at the SEC East title.

Georgia’s lopsided 52-20 win in 2015 was one of the most enjoyable in the series for Bulldog fans. Greyson Lambert completed 24-of-25 passes in a career game that came out of nowhere. Georgia’s win wasn’t an upset, but the Gamecocks weren’t able to recover from the loss. They dropped two of their next three, and Steve Spurrier resigned in midseason. South Carolina dropped 7 of their last 8 to finish the Spurrier era with a 3-9 season.

Both programs entered 2016 with former Georgia defensive backs as head coach. Will Muschamp took over in Columbia, and Kirby Smart was tapped to lead the Bulldogs. Their first meeting in 2016 was rescheduled to a rare Sunday afternoon game due to a hurricane, and Georgia took advantage of a subdued crowd to win in Columbia for the first time since 2008. The lone South Carolina win came in 2019. The Gamecocks, 24.5-point underdogs, shocked #3 Georgia in overtime. The Bulldogs recovered to run the table in the regular season, but the loss was enough to remove Georgia from playoff consideration in 2019. South Carolina was unable to build on the win and notched just one more win in 2019. After a 2-8 season in 2020, Muschamp was dismissed and Beamer has been at the helm since 2021.

As the Dawgs took a knee Saturday, there wasn’t much sense or fanfare that whatever the Georgia-South Carolina series is will be different now. Kirby Smart definitely isn’t going to give two seconds thinking about anything but getting better for the next game. Not many Georgia fans will pine for the biennial trips to the furnace of Columbia to have Sandstorm blasted at them. Other games have and will almost always rate more important among Georgia fans. It’s always seemed a bit one-sided: Georgia has never won anything because it beat South Carolina, but more than a few times a loss to the Gamecocks came back to bite Georgia at the end of the year. But whatever it was, the Georgia-South Carolina game was often the kind of early season weirdness that gave the SEC some spice. I can’t say I’ll miss or even think about an annual game with South Carolina, but I might miss the conference it helped to shape.


Post The big 5-0

Thursday August 31, 2023

NFL rosters were whittled down to 53 players this week. It’s a point of pride just to have a lot of Georgia players drafted, but getting drafted is only the first step towards the goal of making the team. Every spot on a 53-man NFL roster is precious and scarce, and teams manage those spots ruthlessly. Surviving the NFL preseason meatgrinder and making the final 53-man squad can be one of the most challenging periods in the transition from college football to the NFL. Making a team is a test of talent, sure, but it’s also a trial of physical endurance and mental toughness. A whopping 50 former Bulldogs have made it through that process.

In total, there are 50 Bulldogs on active rosters to start the season. The team with the most Bulldogs is the Philadelphia Eagles, as six former Georgia players will suit up for the defending NFC champions. Twenty five of the 32 NFL franchises have at least one Bulldog on the team.

Half of those 50 have come out in the past two years. It was a cause for celebration to see a record 25 Bulldogs selected in the 2022 and 2023 drafts. It’s mind-blowing that 24 of those 25 are still on active rosters. (OL Justin Shaffer was cut by the Falcons this week.) We can add Kearis Jackson who made the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent after an outstanding preseason.

Georgia isn’t just turning out draftable players. They’re producing NFL-ready talent.

Think that might get a mention or two on the recruiting trail?


Post The unthinkable: how might it end?

Tuesday August 15, 2023

To no one’s surprise, Georgia was the consensus (though not unanimous) preseason #1 team in the first AP poll. It’s deserved recognition for the two-time champs, but of course preseason polls are next to worthless once the games begin. Brett McMurphy reminds us that history isn’t necessarily on Georgia’s side.

Godspeed Georgia: 17 of last 19 AP preseason No. 1 ranked teams failed to win national title. Only Alabama in 2017 & USC in 2004 overcame the preseason No. 1 jinx. Georgia also trying to become 1st 3-peat champion since Minnesota (1934-36)

Expectations are sky-high for Georgia in 2023. The Bulldogs are #1 in all major polls, early odds have them as big favorites in nearly all regular season games, and they’re picked to repeat as SEC champions. We might sometimes forget how hard it is to keep a run like this going. Count Georgia’s perfect seasons. It won’t take long. It nearly ended twice last season, and Georgia’s escapes against Missouri and Ohio State might add to the sense of being bulletproof. Georgia was able to repeat after a record draft class in 2022, so the departure of another large draft class in 2023 shouldn’t be tough to overcome, right? Even if Georgia navigates its regular season without a blemish for the third straight year, the postseason brings you up against your peers: teams that recruit, spend, and train at similar levels.

Hopefully Georgia is able to join the short list of teams that went wire-to-wire as #1. To do so would be the program’s greatest accomplishment and cement this era in college football history. If not, how might it end? Georgia’s few losses and close games in recent years suggest a few scenarios:

1) The perfect storm. Georgia’s last home loss was a sleepy noon shocker in 2019 at the hands of South Carolina, a 20+ point underdog. Combine a disinterested Georgia team, a single big play, and four turnovers, including a pick-six right before halftime, with an uncharacteristic missed Blankenship field goal in overtime, and you got just enough to hand Georgia its lone regular season loss and kept the Bulldogs out of the playoff. Kirby Smart admittedly didn’t do a good job of “getting (their) ass ready to play.” Georgia might have been able to overcome that and snap out of it in time most days. Will Muschamp’s Gamecock defense was opportunistic enough and Georgia’s 2019 offense limited enough that South Carolina stretched it out to overtime and made the outcome a crapshoot.

Georgia will have a lot of games in 2023 in which they’re heavy favorites. A weak home schedule, especially in September, will feature several games in front of sub-capacity crowds sapped by the late-summer heat. Those fans, many of whom have decided the season comes down to the trip to Knoxville, will be disappointed if the team looks anything other than dominant in its home games. The team – with visions of a threepeat and basking in its #1 ranking – will have to find its own motivation each week, and, yes, South Carolina is among the home opponents again. Avoiding “that game” isn’t just a problem for the offense: Stephen Garcia made a career for himself in South Carolina’s 2010 upset of Alabama. We know that obvious fundamentals like turnovers and special teams can give even lopsided underdogs a chance. The challenge, as always, is seeing each week as an opportunity to improve and play to the program’s standard. It’s not always so easy.

2) Waning explosiveness. Georgia’s lack of explosiveness was a major theme in 2019. Without much of a deep threat and a razor-thin tight end position, defenses swarmed the line of scrimmage and made for a compact area of the field to attack. The constrained offense (along with the turnovers) played a role in the South Carolina upset but also left Georgia in a number of close games in which they had to lean on a very good defense. It’s hard to imagine an offense with Brock Bowers and Arian Smith – not to mention Dominic Lovett, Oscar Delp, or Ladd McConkey – having issues with explosiveness, but there’s someone else on the other end of those passes. The quarterback position remains unsettled heading deep into August though the depth chart looks solid. Georgia’s next quarterback will have to be as adept as Stetson Bennett at generating explosive plays, and Mike Bobo will have to be creative spreading the ball around to a dangerous group of receivers and tight ends. If the quarterback can’t get the ball downfield consistently, an offense with a banged-up group of tailbacks will find it difficult to move the ball.

Turnovers were a minor issue at Missouri in 2022 (-2) and didn’t help things, but we also saw problems with explosiveness that had begun to creep up in the Kent State game. With Missouri playing tight to the line of scrimmage and blitzing often, Georgia couldn’t get sustained success on the ground, and the screens and short passes that were an extension of the running game earlier in the season weren’t available. Stetson Bennett completed just 56% of his attempts at an unremarkable 7.25 yards per attempt. Georgia was held to their lowest SEC scoring output of the year until that frozen, windy game at Kentucky. Fortunately the defense never broke and the offense remained composed enough to find something that worked. Georgia had too much talent to completely slip back into its 2019 shell, but a lackluster night from the offense can be enough to keep even a mid-table opponent within a score or two.

3) Overwhelmed defense. Auburn and Oklahoma 2017. LSU 2019. Florida 2020. Alabama 2021. Ohio State 2022. Even the best Georgia defenses during the Kirby Smart era have found themselves in shootouts. Sometimes, as with Alabama in 2021, you get a second chance. Sometimes, as with Oklahoma or Ohio State, the offense can keep up. But those shootout wins have been the exception. Georgia has allowed 30 points or more in ten games since 2017. They’ve only won three of those games (Oklahoma 2017, LSU and Ohio State 2022.) In Georgia’s nine losses since 2017, they’ve given up at least 35 points in seven of those games.

Giving up 30 points doesn’t happen often – ten times in six seasons and usually in the postseason – but it does happen frequently enough and with enough regularity that the possibility has to be considered. It’s true that most of these high-scoring games have come at the hands of Heisman candidates and known explosive offenses. Georgia’s defense isn’t getting blindsided by Kentucky or Georgia Tech. It does suggest what we’ve come to accept as common knowledge: really good offenses are hard to stop by even the best defenses. That realization was the root of the crisis that spurred changes in Georgia’s own offense after 2019, and during their title run Georgia featured a high-performing offense of their own.

What does one of these offense look like? Ian Boyd put it like this (h/t Blutarsky): “…if you don’t have an elite space force or the tactics to beat a team with skill, and it just comes down to trench play, Georgia will whoop you.” It’s possible that Georgia won’t face an offense with those traits until the postseason. LSU and Alabama aren’t on the regular season schedule. We saw first-hand the breadth of Ohio State’s receiving talent, and USC has a special playmaker at quarterback in a proven system, but, again, those potential challenges are still hypothetical at this point.

Tennessee jumps out as the regular season opponent most likely to challenge Georgia’s defense. The Vols lost the quarterback and top receivers that led to their breakthrough season in 2022. They still return several productive receivers and add an important transfer in Dont’e Thornton. Kirby Smart has done well to keep the up-tempo Tennessee offense in check, but it doesn’t take much for them to get on a roll. Lane Kiffin and Hugh Freeze have been known for productive and explosive offenses in the past, but they might fall short of the level of skill that has given Georgia’s defense the most trouble.


Post “Georgia fatigue” is someone else’s problem

Tuesday August 8, 2023

If Georgia fatigue wasn’t here already, the run-up to last season’s national title game gave us a taste of what it would look like:

“In a sport as silly and glorious and random as college football, why not pick TCU?”
“It’ll make for a good movie when the Horned Frogs pull it off.”
“I’d love for TCU to finish this miracle run and upset Georgia, winning the most unlikely national title in the modern era…”

Earlier this summer Ari Wasserman of The Athletic wrote, “But it’s June and it’s fun to dream that this sport isn’t predetermined and boring. Maybe Georgia or Alabama or Ohio State won’t win it all.” I don’t mean to pick on Wasserman who does good work and had a bigger point to make in the piece. It’s amazing though that two titles after a 40-year drought suddenly makes another Georgia title run “predetermined and boring.”

We went from wondering after 2020 whether Georgia and Kirby Smart could get over the hump to being the boring default so quickly that it makes one’s head spin. Don’t we get to enjoy this a little longer than two years?

I’m sure there are a lot of football fans ready to see Georgia dethroned. We all remember how it felt watching Florida in the 90s or late 2000s or Alabama since then. We remember the plays and games in which Georgia came up just short, the coaches and players whose names became nasty epithets, and oh boy do we remember how the refs screwed us. We didn’t have the titles and the rings, so we stewed about the people and forces conspiring to keep them from us. We waited in futility, and so will they.

Now Georgia has the titles and the rings thanks to Kirby Smart, his staff, and the players who turned Georgia into a championship program. It’s time for the fans of other teams to be tired of Georgia and grumble about that damn Kirby Smart. I don’t blame them: they want what Georgia has, and we’ve been there. I don’t blame the media who think it’s more compelling if someone else wins. It’s their job to be interesting, and if they stick with the odds and the obvious picks, they’re just one in a crowd. Writers want compelling storylines. TV wants ratings. Was the blowout in the title game bad for ratings? Our TV sets were on for the whole glorious thing.

I really don’t care about fans (and especially the players and coaches) of the vanquished dwelling on their teams’ losses to Georgia. It’s not my problem if fans of rivals and peers are horrified to see Georgia finally break through. It wouldn’t be sports without a writer or analyst drumming up content with a reach that’s against the grain. It’s just a wrong opinion – no one’s going to prison, son.

No one is taking away those wins, titles, and memories. As a Georgia fan there’s nothing to answer for. Believe it – the whining, griping, and pleading for Georgia’s run to end will only get louder as the wins pile up. How we react to that is up to us. Arrogance and entitlement isn’t my style, and we know that humility is only one game away. But neither is there any need to be defensive or give one care about the outside noise. Every second spent giving oxygen to that is a second not spent basking in the most successful era in program history. Each win, each title, and each season is something to be relished.

Take to heart the sage advice of Javon Bullard when asked about his overturned targeting penalty in the Peach Bowl:

“I’ll be honest. That play happened in December, and that you’re still talking about it is really not my fault. We moved on from that.”

There’s another season just ahead with the opportunity to make this special run truly historic. Georgia’s moving on.


Post Making chicken salad out of an eight-game SEC schedule

Friday June 16, 2023

The addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC in 2024 immediately raised questions about how they’d fit into an eight-game football schedule that was already stretched to its limits. We’ve learned some answers along the way. Would the SEC keep the divisional structure? (No.) Would a 16-team league mean a ninth game to improve its inventory for a new media deal? (No, for now.) Will traditional rivalries like Georgia-Florida be preserved? (Yes – at least that one.) With all of those questions answered, the big one left was the schedule itself.

Wednesday night the SEC unveiled its football schedule for 2024. Dates are still to be announced, but we know now which eight conference opponents each team will face. Here’s the league announcement, and here’s Georgia’s announcement.

I generally agree with the consensus: a nine-game schedule is still the better way to go, but this is about as good as it gets for an eight-game slate. All legacy teams will get a quick introduction to Texas or Oklahoma. Most decent rivalries seem to be preserved. (Will Georgia fans miss Missouri or, dare I say, South Carolina?) The tiered system guarantees the best programs will face several of their peers, and there are not many places for any contender to hide. The league’s TV partners should be pleased.

It’s a miss for Georgia if you expected that a better overall schedule would mean a more compelling home schedule. Tennessee and Auburn should be the highlights of the six-game home schedule, but they are teams Georgia hosts regularly. Three of the season’s most compelling and novel games (Clemson, Alabama, and Texas) will be played elsewhere. You’d hope that swings back around in 2025 (Oklahoma, perhaps?), and UCLA is set to visit in 2026. No question though that a season ticket package for games played anywhere but Athens would be far more attractive than the home games. In the past two seasons we’ve seen teams unexpectedly rise to create games of national interest in Athens (Arkansas and Kentucky in 2021; Tennessee in 2022). There won’t be many chances for a surprise with only three SEC home games, but that’s already a reality Georgia fans deal with every other year due to the commitment to Jacksonville. A nine-game schedule is really the only way out of that situation.

Divisions are gone but instead the conference split the teams into two tiers based on their conference winning percentage over the past ten seasons. It’s almost an NFL approach to scheduling. Georgia will face four teams from each tier. A program’s fortunes can change quite a bit over ten seasons, and you might not group teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Auburn the same based on a more recent history. It’s uncertain how often they’ll adjust the tiers – will it be adjusted annually using the same ten-year rolling average – but I like the implied tip of the cap to a relegation system. Will future coaching contracts include language or incentives about maintaining a program in the top tier?

This all looks good for 2024. It’s unclear how or if the format will persist into 2025 and beyond. Georgia’s announcement stated that “the 2024 schedule will be a standalone one-year schedule as Conference members continue to finalize a long-term schedule format,” so it’s possible that we’ll be doing this all over again next spring. Will this be an annual jigsaw puzzle, or will there be some attempt to put scheduling on some rules-based autopilot? Balancing rivalry games, reshuffling the tiers, and ensuring a decent rotation of other conference opponents might lead to less-attractive combinations in the future than this initial effort. The league punted on the nine-game schedule for now, but it’s still on the table, and adding another game could be enough reason to blow things up and start from scratch again.

One thing is for certain: no matter the format Georgia won’t be playing at Texas A&M.


Post Add stadium renovations to WLOCP uncertainty

Sunday May 14, 2023

A renovation of the Jacksonville stadium area has been something we’ve had our eye on for a while. Two years ago ESPN detailed plans for a $441 million development project surrounding TIAA Bank Field including a $120 million football facility for the Jaguars. That facility is under construction and should be ready in time for the 2023 NFL season. This facility is a prerequisite for something a little more relevant to us:

The Jaguars hope the project is the first step in what they are calling the Stadium of the Future for Jaguars fans, meaning eventual significant renovations — or possibly even a brand-new one — within the next decade.

We’ve learned more about those “eventual significant renovations” this week. Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry discussed plans for those renovations on local radio and laid out a timetable that could leave the Georgia-Florida game without a venue in 2025 and 2026.

Worth noting is that the mayor’s office had to clarify “that nothing is set in stone and the time period could be subject to change from two years to one.” In other words these are still fluid plans that have yet to be finalized and approved at any level. According to Andy Staples “the Gators have been operating under the impression that if the stadium renovation goes forward, it would start in 2026 and make the facility unavailable in 2026 and 2027.” On the other hand a two-year schedule for a complete down-to-the-studs renovation might prove to be optimistic. So even the timetable is up in the air. The important takeaway is that some time later this decade the Jacksonville stadium is likely to be unavailable for the WLOCP.

The news comes as the future of the game in Jacksonville itself is uncertain. The current contract between Georgia, Florida, and the city of Jacksonville runs through 2023 with a two-year option to extend through 2025. The deadline to take that option is coming up next month, but there’s still another layer of uncertainty: the SEC has yet to finalize its future scheduling format when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. Everything from 8 vs. 9 conference games, the elimination of divisional play, and the preservation of traditional rivalries is on the table. We’d hope to get some resolution to that question at the SEC spring meetings taking place at the end of May.

So a lot could be happening over the next six weeks. If we get clarity about the future SEC football scheduling format, that could inform the decision to take or leave the option to extend the contract with Jacksonville. But even that option might need to be modified if the stadium won’t be available in the final year of the deal.

Ticket crunch

Stadiums are shrinking. New stadium projects emphasize amenities over capacity. When you’re competing against a large, crystal-clear HDTV picture in an air-conditioned room, that’s probably not a bad strategy. When studies find that “70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows,” the right move is to maximize the experience for those fans over cramming another 20,000 people into bleachers. Nashville will spend over $2 billion to build a new football stadium with a capacity around 60,000 – and they plan to bid on Super Bowls and CFP games! Buffalo is looking at a new stadium with a capacity between 60-63,000. Even the massive college football palaces are hopping on the trend: work at Bryant-Denny stadium to improve premium seating will lead to a modest reduction in capacity.

Georgia and Florida already accept a smaller venue by playing in Jacksonville (or any NFL stadium.) But even that capacity has shrunk. The current contract with Jacksonville requires requires a capacity of at least 82,917 fans. Anyone who’s been to the game is familiar with the temporary seats in either endzone that got them to this number. Of course attendance was limited in 2020, and in 2021 and 2022 capacity was reduced to 76,700 with a concession of $400,000 to each school. Why? Again, premium seating. The decision was made not to put temporary seats in the north endzone in favor of a premium seating area.

The nominal capacity in Jacksonville is currently 67,814 without the temporary seating. In 2019 attendance was 84,789. Now it’s 76,700. I don’t want to presume too much about a stadium redesign that hasn’t made it to blueprints yet, but if the Georgia-Florida game is that important to Jacksonville and its stadium partners there has to be consideration for capacity. That might put Jacksonville at odds with current stadium trends, or it might require a creative solution to allow for temporary expanded capacity in a design built around the premium experience.

We’ve already seen capacity come down by about 10%. A further reduction would make this game even less accessible and more on par with postseason games. It doesn’t seem all that crazy to suggest that by 2029 10-15,000 fewer fans will have access to this game than in 2019. (And that would be about 20,000 fewer fans than either home stadium could support.)

Jacksonville or Home-and-Home

It’s been clear for some time that the financial benefits have kept the game in Jacksonville. The schools pay relatively little in terms of operating and travel expenses for the game, and there’s a handsome payout split by Georgia and Florida. That combination nets each school quite a bit more than they’d gain hosting on campus every other year. So long as that remains the case any arguments about recruiting, fairness, or a trip to the Golden Isles will be overshadowed by the windfall.

Large payouts for neutral site games are nothing new. Georgia pulled down $5 million to play Oregon in Atlanta last season and will do so again playing Clemson in 2024. It’s not hard to imagine that a marquee SEC rivalry game like Georgia-Florida would command a premium price from any of the cities Staples mentioned. (Don’t forget about the expense side of the ledger either. We hear about payouts, but remember that it also costs a good amount of money to host a home game.)

If Jacksonville is unavailable for a couple of years, the assumption would be a home-and-home series like 1994-1995. Staples reminds us that what keeps the game in Jacksonville could just as well to apply to a number of sites in Florida and Georgia.

…if Jacksonville’s stadium winds up being unavailable for two years, don’t be shocked if the game gets shopped to Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa or Miami. And if one or two of those cities bite, don’t be surprised if the price for Jacksonville to reclaim the series goes up prior to 2028.

Even with the Mercedes-Benz stadium a convenient short drive away I can’t see any other neutral venue coming close to capturing the WLOCP vibe. That seems ridiculous to say when most people’s idea of a good Georgia-Florida trip is to spend as little time in Jacksonville proper as possible. There are many ways to experience the WLOCP, but it’s hard to see the culture of “all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days” being replicated in Atlanta or Orlando. I’m willing to make an exception for my preference for home games to continue the tradition of playing this game in Jacksonville, but no thanks to turning it into just another generic neutral site game in a reduced-capacity NFL stadium. Either keep it in Jacksonville or return it to the campuses.


Post Opening the door for Stetson Bennett: Heisman finalist

Wednesday December 7, 2022

It was just a year ago – December 4, 2021 – that Georgia lost a game. Alabama’s convincing SEC Championship Game win over #1 Georgia temporarily halted any talk of a new order in college football. Beyond the bigger picture question the loss rekindled a concern and almost a panic hiding within every Georgia fan. The Dawgs had a defense that had been called generational. The offensive scheme, laid bare and found wanting in 2019, had been overhauled under Todd Monken and showed the creativity and adaptability necessary to succeed in today’s game. There were future draft picks at every position on the offense. The only question seemed to be whether Georgia had the quarterback to put it all together.

For two years the tacit understanding was that Stetson Bennett was a placeholder at quarterback. It was Jamie Newman who was supposed to lead Georgia through Monken’s offensive renaissance. Then it was J.T. Daniels. Only a highly-rated prospect seemingly on his way to the NFL could deliver the production that elevated LSU and Alabama to titles in 2019 and 2020. As recently as the 2021 Orange Bowl – even after an undefeated regular season – there was uncertainty whether Georgia would switch quarterbacks after a lackluster performance in the SEC Championship.

Stetson Bennett finally earned the trust of fans and – more importantly – his coaches for the 2022 season and has been the unquestioned starter from the beginning. Leading a team through the college football playoff will do that for you. With the confidence of an experienced starter he’s shown complete command of the offense, navigated the team through another undefeated regular season, won an SEC title, and has earned the honor of a Heisman finalist. No one saw this coming three years ago, but you can say that about nearly every one of his accomplishments. Multi-year starter? SEC champion? National champion? Heisman finalist? Pro prospect? Inconceivable.

The Heisman finalist might be the most mind-blowing accomplishment to me. Not because it’s Bennett but in part because he’s the Georgia quarterback. I’ve usually discounted the chances for a Georgia quarterback to be considered because the Bulldogs don’t throw that much – even running Monken’s offense. It’s true that Georgia has thrown more this year, but it’s pretty stunning how far the rest of the field has come back to earth. I know passing yardage is a simplistic stat, but it’s where a lot of voters start who don’t see all of the games. (Like the 1,000-yard threshold for a running back.)

Look at some recent winners: Baker Mayfield threw for 4,600 in 2017. Young threw for 4,800 a year ago. There’s Joe Burrow’s ridiculous 5,700 yards in 2019. Even Mac Jones threw for 4,500 in a shortened 2020 season.

Now look at this year’s slate: Only Caleb Williams cracked 4,000 yards passing. Stroud, Duggan, and even Hooker are all around 3,100-3,300 yards. That opened the door for Bennett to be considered alongside them even though he’s far short of Aaron Murray’s 3,900 yards and 36 TD in 2012. He has 3,426 passing yards and passing 20 TD through 13 games. His mobility is an asset, but his 184 rushing yards don’t come close to the typical dual-threat Heisman candidate. He’s been efficient and productive relative to his (and Georgia’s) baseline. He’s the cocky leader of the #1 team in the nation, and his career arc is a fantastic story. In a season with fewer players than usual boasting eye-popping numbers, it’s the perfect moment for Bennett to build a compelling case for the sport’s highest individual honor.

(On a related note – I think that’s why Brice Young wasn’t among this year’s finalists. He’s fantastic and saved Bama on more than one occasion. But he set a high bar last year and threw for nearly 1,800 fewer yards in 2022. It’s a tough sell when voters see a guy with 65% of his production from a year ago.)

I don’t know what it says about the state of QB play that production has dropped far enough for a good year by a UGA QB to be considered Heisman-worthy. These are all very good QBs – even the ones who weren’t finalists. Only four QBs this year have surpassed 4,000 yards. There were nine a year ago (including Stroud and Young.) Are defenses catching up?


Post You want a night game. You don’t want *this* night game.

Monday November 14, 2022

The 2019 Notre Dame game gave new life to night games under the lights at Sanford Stadium. The “Light Up Sanford” tradition that began some years earlier combined with the new LED lighting system made for an impressive and entertaining show. Night games also mean elaborate day-long tailgates and all that comes with them.

Georgia, though, hasn’t had many opportunities to show off their investment in the in-game experience. The 4th quarter scene at twilight during the Tennessee game gave a tease as the lights dimmed and danced, but there was still too much daylight to get the full effect. That was about as close as Georgia will get to a night game experience in the 2022 season. Students are writing heartfelt appeals for just one late kickoff to share the experience with the next generation of UGA students. The reasoning might be shaky, but the clamor is unmistakable. Night games have become the new blackouts.

We know Georgia gets fewer night games than other SEC schools. The reasons why range from the conspiratorial to the mundane. There was a climate on campus some 10-15 years ago aimed at curtailing Georgia’s tailgating and student life scene. Time has passed, and leadership has changed, so I have my doubts that someone at UGA is sliding notes to the SEC office that just say “noon” each week. There are several other factors determining Georgia’s home start times:

  • Georgia is good and good for ratings. Home games against better SEC opponents and rivals have been picked up by CBS in the conference’s top time slot at 3:30. That prime slot might change as ABC/ESPN takes over the entire SEC inventory of games.
  • Attractive non-conference games are at neutral sites. Last season’s Clemson game kicked off at 7:30 pm. It was in Charlotte. There are better home-and-home series on the books, and we’ll see if they actually happen.
  • The rest of the home schedule is weak. It’s true that Kent State or Vanderbilt could theoretically be slotted anywhere from noon to night on the SEC Network once the big networks pass on them. The vibe for a night game against a weak opponent isn’t what you’re after. The red lights of traffic leaving the stadium early rival the 4th quarter light show. If you just want the long tailgate, say so. You’ll likely be headed downtown or pointed towards home by halftime.
  • Georgia is on Eastern Time. If you hate noon kickoffs, imagine what over half of the conference thinks about 11 am kickoffs.
  • Kirby Smart isn’t as big of a fan of night games as you might think. You’d expect Smart would love to have recruits experience a rocking crowd with the lights doing their thing, and he might. But granting that most night games don’t turn out to be Notre Dame 2019, Smart seems to prefer a midafternoon kickoff for recruiting purposes.

There was one last chance for a night game, but we learned on Monday that the Tech game will kick off at noon. That’s become the norm for this rivalry game. It’s still getting a national time slot – ESPN’s Gameday will lead into the broadcast. That early start might be disappointing at first, but this was the one game on the schedule no one should want at night. Students will be away for the Thanksgiving holiday. They might be back in force if this were a compelling matchup, but few expect this game to be competitive. The 4th quarter festivities echoing off empty seats during a blowout on a chilly late-November night would definitely have been a monkey’s paw type of outcome for those dead-set on a night game. If it makes you feel better, think about how pleased Kirby Smart will be knowing he has a seven-hour head start on LSU resting and preparing for the SEC Championship Game.


Post The future will be streamed

Saturday October 22, 2022

Earlier this season many Georgia fans were sent scrambling to find out just what the SEC Network Plus was and how to get it on their TV *. Georgia’s home game against Kent State was exclusively available on the SEC’s streaming outlet, and there were no over-the-air, cable, or satellite options to watch the game. This is an experience common to fans of each SEC team: under the SEC and ESPN’s most recent broadcasting agreement, “each SEC football team will have one non-conference home game each year that is only available via streaming.”

Notre Dame’s broadcast partner NBC is also leveraging its streaming platform. This weekend’s Notre Dame-UNLV will be streamed exclusively on the Peacock subscription streaming service.

While streaming games might be a once-a-season annoyance for college football fans, it’s a way of life in other sports. Diehard soccer fans know to jump from service to service to find their games. NBC’s Peacock has the English Premier League. ESPN+ has Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. If you want to watch Europe’s best compete in the UEFA Champions League, you must subscribe to CBS’s Paramount+. With each service costing between $5 and $10 per month, subscribing to multiple services can be costly on top of a traditional cable or satellite bill. There are partnerships that help lower the cost for some customers. Comcast and NBCUniversal merged, so Peacock access is included for many Xfinity customers. T-Mobile cellular customers have access to Paramount+. For most, though, the monthly subscription (after a free trial) is the only way to access these services.

Tech companies have joined the broadcast networks with their own streaming services, and they are beginning to acquire rights to the major American professional leagues. Amazon is broadcasting Thursday night games over its Prime Video service, and fans are tuning in. While the numbers might not yet match traditional broadcasts, the NFL is blowing away other streamed content. Apple broadcasts a Major League Baseball game each Friday night on its Apple TV+ service as it looks to become more involved in sports.

The big prize is the NFL. The NFL Sunday Ticket package is up for bids as DirectTV drops out, and Apple is a player in the negotiations. Apple previous acquired the exclusive rights for all Major League Soccer games to expand its sports operation, but the conflict between the Apple way of doing things and the NFL’s preference to have multiple broadcast partners is complicating the Sunday Ticket deal.

Whether or not Apple is able to complete the deal with the NFL, it says enough that companies see enough value in the future of streaming sports to enter into negotiations worth billions of dollars on behalf of their streaming services. Even with the large deals being announced as college conferences grow and realign, college sports is still small potatoes next to the amounts paid for the NFL.

For now the broadcast rights of most college sports – whether over the air or streaming – are in the hands of traditional broadcast partners: FOX, NBC, CBS, and ABC/ESPN. The first conference to look at a more nontraditional approach might be the Pac-12. The broadcast rights of the Pac-12 are up in the air, and the chaotic state of the conference with USC, UCLA, and perhaps others leaving has the Pac-12 unsatisfied with the offers they’re getting. That might open the door for a partnership with Amazon. Fans haven’t (and won’t) beat down the door just for Pac-12 content, but perhaps when bundled with the other benefits of an Amazon Prime subscription it might mean some more Prime subscribers for Amazon.

Well-rounded fans of college sports are probably already used to navigating the streaming world. The SEC Network Plus has been a godsend to follow Georgia and SEC sports other than football. It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago to be able to tune into nearly every SEC baseball or softball game, but they’re all streamed now. (We can gripe about the costs of multiple streaming services, but that really doesn’t apply here – if you have access to the SEC Network as part of your cable or satellite package, you likely have free access to the SECN+ once you authenticate in the ESPN app.) Football games, other than the mandated one game per year, have mostly remained on the broadcast channels, but even basketball has seen a fair number of games moved to streaming. It’s an issue of inventory – there are only so many channels and broadcast slots, and those slots are increasingly overlapping and running into one another. That’s not an issue in the streaming world, and you’re set once you get the technology down and find the local manpower to produce and present the games.

We should expect more college sports – even football – to find their way to streaming platforms. As with any technological change there will be a rough period of transition. Younger and more affluent viewers are more likely to be heavily immersed in streaming already. For older viewers navigating streaming options or even cutting the cord from traditional cable and satellite can be confusing and challenging. The conceptual model of channels, networks, and the TV guide don’t apply. Costs, whether for programming or the streaming devices themselves, can also be prohibitive for those whose entertainment budget is stretched. The services and the companies who own them will consolidate, merge, disappear, or even just get out of the streaming business. It’s one thing when SEC games move down the dial from CBS to ESPN. It’s another when you have to add another $9.95 per month service because the league you follow jumped to a competing platform.

It’s an interesting time. There are more sports than ever available to watch, an audience that keeps demanding more, and technology emerging that can deliver it all. The money involved keeps growing also, and that has attracted new competitors to the broadcast marketplace. Some of these new entrants are changing the metrics involved – subscribers matter more to them than viewership. The potential Apple/NFL and Amazon/Pac-12 deals could be signs of what’s next as the broadcast rights of other leagues and conferences come up for bid. For now it’s just the Kent State game, but have that Apple TV or Roku ready for what might be ahead.


Post Sanford renovations get the go-ahead

Saturday August 13, 2022

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday July 5, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Historic draft follows historic season

Monday May 2, 2022

Sometimes a tweet is worth a thousand words:

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

Both sides of the ball

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

Sticking it out

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

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

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

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

Everything zen

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

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

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

Georgia’s 2022 NFL Draft Picks

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


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

Friday April 8, 2022

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

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

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

The competitive landscape

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

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

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

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

Recruiting

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

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

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

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

Attendance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Monken’s greatest hits

Thursday April 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

This is why it’s among my favorites:

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

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


Post Athens is getting a new arena?

Thursday March 24, 2022

A reader asks in Seth Emerson’s latest mailbag:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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