Georgia’s women’s basketball program will return to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s absence. The Lady Dogs earned the #8 seed in the Lexington Regional and will open play against #9 seed Indiana in South Bend, IN on Saturday night at about 9 p.m. #1 seed Notre Dame will host the subregional and would likely be Georgia’s second-round opponent on Monday evening if the Lady Dogs advance.
Indiana (20–10, 12–6) took a step forward this year with a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten behind Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Second-year coach Teri Moren was named Big Ten Coach of the Year after improving on a 15–16 record with some respectable wins over Chattanooga, Georgia Tech, and a nice upset of Michigan State. Moren, an Indiana native, was a part of the Georgia Tech staff towards the end of the last decade and had a large role in the improvement of that program. Indiana was a perfect 14-0 at home but, like most teams were less effective on the road: 5-7 in road games and 1-4 at neutral sites. They’re a relatively young team with only one senior, and sophomores Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill are the team’s best players. Point guard Buss was a hyped recruit who has delivered. As a sophomore she’s a first-team Big Ten honoree and already averaging over 18 PPG while running Indiana’s ball-screen offense.
Indiana very much has the feel of a young program on the rise trying to find itself with the occasional setback as it learns to win. Georgia, on the other hand, is a squad laden with seniors looking to cement their legacy. Georgia’s seniors began as members of an Elite Eight unit three years ago behind Georgia’s last large group of seniors, and it’s this group’s turn to see how far they can carry the team in the tournament.
New women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor was handed the keys to one of the nation’s most tradition-rich programs, and she faced an immediate challenge to that legacy: since Andy Landers reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1982, Georgia had never missed the tournament in consecutive seasons. Injuries led to losses in 2015 that ended a 20-year appearance streak, and preseason expectations had the team at risk for another season on the bubble.
The team started 2015-2016 with a strong 12-1 record in nonconference play. The SEC schedule started rough with three straight losses to ranked opponents. Georgia notched an important road win at Florida but was 1-4 in conference after five games. They righted the ship with six wins over the next seven games and won their final two home games to lock up a winning record in the SEC. That 9-7 record all but locked up an NCAA Tournament bid. Georgia finished sixth in the SEC and had a shot at a finish as high as fourth on the final day of the regular season.
Georgia’s season was once again shaped by injuries. Starting forward Mackenzie Engram didn’t play again after a respiratory issue in January. Leading scorer and rebounder Shacobia Barbee was lost on Senior Day with a broken ankle. The Lady Dogs went 1-2 after Barbee’s injury, and her absence was taken into consideration in Georgia’s seed. Guard Tiara Griffin was injured in a hard fall late in Georgia’s SEC Tournament loss to Vanderbilt, but she should be available for the NCAA Tournament. One positive for Georgia has been the emergence of all-SEC freshman Caliya Robinson.
The 2016 bid is the 32nd in program history – only Tennessee has more. The Lady Dogs have gone on to reach 20 Sweet 16s, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games.
Georgia is one of a record nine SEC teams receiving a bid to the tournament. They’ll join South Carolina (1), Kentucky (3), Texas A&M (4), Mississippi State (5), Florida (5), Tennessee (7), Auburn (9), and Missouri (10).
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There are two firsts of note as the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament gets underway on Wednesday: it’s the first time the event will be held in Jacksonville, and it’s the first time a team other than Tennessee has navigated SEC play without a loss. South Carolina repeats as the regular season champion, and they improved on a 15-1 record in 2015 the only way you can: a perfect 16-0 mark. That record might hint that everyone else is playing for second, but several teams came close to knocking off the Gamecocks, and anything can happen in the tournament. The #2 and #3 seeds lost to South Carolina by 1, 6, and 7 points during the regular season.
It could be a fun first few rounds. Each of the four bottom seeds has knocked off at least one of Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri. Tennessee will be looking to make some noise from the #7 seed. Even Auburn or Missouri coming from the 8-9 game won’t be an automatic win for the top seed. While South Carolina’s dominance has been the story, all other teams have at least five conference losses. Almost every team has been vulnerable in some way, and each team has a quality win under its belt.
There’s been quite a bit of mobility in the standings from one year to the next. Florida, Auburn, and Georgia all took a step up this season. Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU took a tumble. That’s made for some unexpected scores during the season, and it could lead to some new faces in the semifinals. Nine teams are currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament, so fans should expect competitive and quality games with a few surprises.
Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Thursday / Second Round: #6 Georgia vs. #11 Vanderbilt or #14 Ole Miss: ~8:30 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #3 Mississippi State: ~8:30 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:30 p.m. ET. ESPN Complete Bracket Here
1) South Carolina (16-0, 28-1): Three straight regular season titles have established Dawn Staley’s program as the newest SEC dynasty. They followed a regular season title in 2014 with the tournament title in 2015 and carved out a little more history for themselves this year with the perfect conference record. It hasn’t been a cakewalk – 7 of their 16 conference games were decided by fewer than 10 points. It’s to their credit that they’ve learned how to grind out those close wins, and only a handful were really in question at the end. That experience should serve them well during the tighter competition in the postseason.
The Gamecocks feature arguably the nation’s best frontcourt, and it’s no surprise they lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots. That interior defense and the ability to hold opponents to one shot is a big part of what they do. Wilson and Coates would be enough for any team, but the depth provided by Imovbioh and others puts South Carolina over the top. Tiffany Mitchell is a versatile scorer from the wing and is the leader of the team. I could go on – Sessions, Roy – there are contributors up and down the roster which is what you’d expect from a national contender.
2) Texas A&M (11-5, 21-8): Team Courtney is once again back near the top of the standings. Seniors Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker are the only Aggies scoring in double-figures, and they’ve been enough to lead A&M to a second place finish. The Aggie formula hasn’t changed in a few seasons: they don’t shoot much from outside but rely on defense, transition, and a ton of mid-range jumpers (which happens to be the Walker’s specialty.) Two of A&M’s four conference losses have come to South Carolina, and no SEC team has come closer to knocking off the champs. A pair of close road losses to Arkansas and Florida were their other setbacks, but on a neutral court A&M could be considered a slight favorite in Jacksonville to earn a third shot at the Gamecocks.
3) Mississippi State (11-5, 24-6): Vic Schaefer’s rebuilding project has reached maturity. Despite the departure of a talented senior class, MSU has posted consecutive 11-5 seasons and third place finishes, and their best player is only a sophomore. Victoria Vivians has taken over leadership of the team and at 6’1″ can score from anywhere in the offense. Chinwe Okorie has established herself inside, but the Bulldogs also have a dangerous outside game with six players hitting at least 10 three-pointers. Morgan William, another sophomore, has become an effective point guard with a knack for getting to the foul line. They’ve lost six games all season, and all six have been to likely NCAA Tournament teams with only one bad blowout loss to Kentucky.
4) Florida (10-6, 22-7): The Gators have been a surprise this year bouncing back from a losing record a year ago. This is a young and athletic team that likes to run, but their pressure defense can be feast or famine. They lead the conference in steals thanks to that pressure, and their transition offense puts them at the top of the league in scoring with 79 points per game. If teams can handle that pressure, they can find some easy scoring opportunities, and that’s been an issue in Florida’s losses. Ronni Williams is an impressive wing made to play in this up-tempo system. Freshman guard Eleanna Christinaki made an immediate impact, and the team benefits from the experience of senior guards Carlie Needles and Cassie Peoples.
5) Kentucky (10-6, 21-6): It’s been an odd season in Lexington. Kentucky spent most of the season in the top 15 nationally, but it took a late push to finish this high in the SEC standings. An early February loss to South Carolina left the Wildcats at 4-6 in the league after an undefeated nonconference run. They’ve won six straight to enter the tournament as one of the hotter teams in the SEC, but even that momentum wasn’t enough to carry them to a top four seed after the slow start. Junior Makayla Epps helped the Wildcats overcome the loss of a deep senior class, and JUCO Evelyn Akhator has been an impact newcomer inside. But what makes Kentucky dangerous is the ability of almost any player, including Maci Morris, Alexis Jennings, and Janee Thompson, to stand out. That, combined with Kentucky’s trademark frenzied defense, makes them a team that can advance in the postseason. Their path to the SEC finals though likely goes through two teams, Florida and South Carolina, that handed Kentucky 3 of their 6 conference losses.
6) Georgia (9-7, 21-8): It’s largely been the same cast of characters for a couple of seasons, so what Georgia tries to do shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s still a team that leans heavily on defense and doesn’t shoot especially well in the halfcourt offense. First-year coach Joni Taylor has made sure that the Lady Dogs are self-aware when it comes to their strengths and weaknesses, and the need to create offense from that defense has been an emphasis all season. The result has been a defense that’s top 20 nationally and a record that surpassed the preseason consensus.
For the second straight season, the Lady Dogs will enter the postseason without their leader Shacobia Barbee. Her injury just a week before the end of the regular season leaves Georgia without one of the nation’s best rebounders and defenders, and that’s a big concern when Georgia relies on rebounding and defense to generate offense. Georgia is actually without two starters – forward Mackenzie Engram, a 2015 SEC All-Freshman team member, hasn’t played since early January. Engram’s absence has tested Georgia’s frontcourt depth, but one of the positive developments has been the emergence of freshman post Caliya Robinson. Robinson has won SEC Freshman of the Week honors multiple times and is beginning to show confidence in her range and defense.
Georgia, even without Barbee, starts a trio of seniors who have been in their roles for multiple seasons. Hempe, Griffin, and Butler all need a good tournament for Georgia to advance. Griffin has been shooting well but was bottled up by Tennessee. Hempe and Washington must watch their fouls as they work inside. Butler must handle defensive pressure and look to attack. The injuries have left Georgia thin on the bench, but minutes from Robinson and reserve guards Clark and Armbrister will have to be productive.
7) Tennessee (8-8, 16-12): The Lady Vols get credit for playing the nation’s toughest schedule, but eventually you have to win some of them. Though they took a big hit during conference play, Tennessee likely won enough during the early part of the season to secure an NCAA bid. Losses to bottom four teams Alabama and LSU had the Lady Vols in some peril before they found some answers against Georgia (of course.) There’s plenty of talent – former #1 prospect Mercedes Russell, phenom Diamond DeShields, experienced seniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore, and steady role players like Andraya Carter. For whatever reason, that talent has had trouble meshing this season, and scoring can be tough to come by. Still, Tennessee’s eight conference losses have been by an average of 4.5 points. This is a team inconsistent enough to lose their opening game to Arkansas, as they did in Fayetteville in January, or compete with 2-seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals, a team they played to within five points on the Aggies’ home court. As usual, we should expect a partisan Tennessee crowd to give their team a little edge.
8) Missouri (8-8, 21-8): The Tigers made a splash this year thanks to the arrival of SEC Freshman of the Year Sophie Cunningham. They quickly earned a spot in the national rankings and stayed there for much of the season. Cunningham’s biggest impact has been to transform Missouri from a team that relied almost exclusively on the outside shot. They’re still second only to Ole Miss in three-pointers attempted, but opponents have had to respect other elements of the Missouri offense like junior forward Jordan Frericks. Missouri has become more well-rounded and, as a result, more consistent and dangerous.
9) Auburn (8-8, 18-11): Auburn was 3-13 a year ago but was one of the surprise teams of 2016. They posted impressive wins over Kentucky and Florida en route to an 8-5 SEC start. Junior Katie Frerking has emerged as a dangerous scorer to go along with Brandy Montgomery. Their press and matchup zone has them among the best in the nation at generating steals, and the transition points can come in waves. Those two upsets were enough to separate Auburn from the lower half of the conference and keep them in contention for a top-four finish until the final week of the season. The Tigers have hit a bit of a wall though and have dropped their last three games. Their game against Missouri could be very important for Auburn’s postseason fate.
10) Arkansas (7-9, 12-17): The Hogs were also a surprise team after a poor nonconference showing. They pulled off an unexpected surge in January with four wins in five games that included some impressive scalps: Texas A&M, Missouri, and Tennessee. That momentum cooled down a bit in February, and Arkansas, like most teams, proved to be a little less potent on the road. Junior wing Jessica Jackson continues to be an impressive and dominant player able to score inside or step outside. Senior forward Melissa Wolff is another frontcourt player who can stretch defenses outside, and quick guards like Devin Cosper and Jordan Danberry can create off the dribble. This is a young team with only one senior that should be improved next season.
11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 16-13): As the program awaits the arrival of a heralded recruiting class, they’ve suffered through a second-straight difficult season. There have been some noteworthy successes including road upsets of ranked Kentucky and Missouri teams, and they’ve been frustratingly close in several losses to quality opponents. Consistency has been an issue, and only one player, Christa Reed, averages in double-figures. Guards are the team’s top three scorers, and Reed and Rebekah Dahlman are two of the SEC’s top seven in three-point percentage. Post Marqu’es Webb can cause problems if teams pay too much attention to the perimeter game. Vandy lost eight straight down the stretch until ending the season with a nice road win at Missouri. Was that enough to reverse their momentum heading into Jacksonville?
12) Alabama (4-12, 15-14): Alabama doubled their SEC win total – a good sign. They were 4-4 at home, including wins over Georgia and Tennessee, and a controversial call at the end of the Texas A&M game cost them another home win. The bad news of course is that Alabama has been winless on the road, and they’ll have to leave home to play in the tournament. Hannah Cook leads the team in scoring and steals, and she’s second only to center Nikki Hegstetter in rebounds. Alabama can be effective with their tough interior defense but struggles when opponents are knocking down outside shots.
13) LSU (3-13, 9-20): The Tigers plummeted from a fourth-place finish in 2015 to match the program’s record for most losses in a season. The team can point to injuries, starting with All-SEC guard Raigyne Moncrief. Another All-SEC guard, Danielle Ballard, was dismissed from the team. The depleted roster is led by forwards Alexis Hyder and Akilah Bethel, and much of the offense flows through guard Rina Hill who has played an astounding 1,000 minutes this season (nearly 35 min/game). Wins over Tennessee and Georgia show they can be a threat in the early rounds.
14) Ole Miss (2-14, 10-19): The Rebels fell quite a bit from their 17-12 WNIT campaign a year ago. They haven’t been able to replace some good talent from that team, especially forward Tia Faleru. The highlight of their season was an upset of then-#9 Kentucky in January, so even the last-place team has some punch. The Rebels depend on the outside shot – no team, not even Missouri, has attempted more three-pointers. The bad news is that they’re only tenth in three-point percentage. If the outside shots are falling, they have the ability to steal a win.
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It turns out Kirby Smart isn’t a miracle worker, but he and his new staff are damn fine recruiters. Given about six weeks with which to recruit, they turned in a top ten class that rates as the best in the SEC East. It was one of the most outstanding results for a first-year coach, and that Smart in this short time pulled off a class every bit as strong as the typical Richt class gives us a reason to expect even more from a full recruiting cycle in 2017.
Credit is due to the previous staff – most of the prospects signed in this class were either commitments or had strong interest in Georgia due to the efforts of those coaches. Smart and the new coaches did an excellent job maintaining and strengthening those relationships.
That said, there was some tweaking of the class by the new staff. They were able to pull off a few flips. They also won a few head-to-head battles for some uncommitted prospects. At the same time, Georgia lost a handful of commitments who might’ve been encouraged – directly or indirectly – to look elsewhere.
The strength of the class is clearly the defensive line. Carter, Clark, Manac, Marshall, and Rochester are all big-time prospects who should, along with returning players, give Georgia nice depth up front. Manac might end up as more of a DE/OLB like Jordan Jenkins, but the defense could use depth there too.
Aside from the defensive line, the class is also noteworthy for its blue chips. 13 out of 20 signees were rated 4* or better by Rivals and were among ESPN’s nationwide top 300 prospects. The lone 2* signee was a punter selected to the U.S. Army All-American game. History tells us not everyone will pan out, but there aren’t many spot-fillers in this class.
If there was a disappointment with the class, it’s the offensive line. Georgia’s three line signees are all strong prospects – this is a quantity issue. Smart addressed that shortcoming and admitted that the offensive line and tackle position specifically would be an emphasis in 2017.
While the staff works on the numbers, we’re interested to see what Pittman can do with the linemen already on campus. Not to build the man up too much, but his reputation suggests that there should be improvement just from better coaching.
One of the consequences from the attrition in the 2013 class is that there won’t be a ton of seniors in 2016. Smart wasn’t going to fill up the roster with reaches in his first signing class and have that limit what he could do in his 2017 class.
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With Signing Day upon us, it will soon be time to start talking about how all of these new pieces will fit into the program. The larger trend – and our own 2015 experience – is for more and more true freshmen to see playing time. The combination of incoming talent and opportunities on the depth chart lead you to think that the trend will continue at Georgia in 2016.
Quarterback is one position where opportunity and talent have fans looking to a newcomer. Now that Jacob Eason has enrolled, the next question seems to be when, not if, he becomes the starter. There’s been some idle offseason talk on the radio and message boards about the best way to proceed – do you throw him to the wolves right away, or do we see a gradual transition (with the obligatory mention of 2006)?
At the same time, we’re all watching the recovery and rehab of Nick Chubb. While we have no indication that the process is anything but on-schedule, Georgia’s coaches might face a similar decision: even if cleared to play, do you ease Chubb back in with someone like Michel getting the bulk of the carries, or is Chubb the workhorse out of the gate?
Whatever your own thoughts on those topics, I think most of us would admit that there is a nonzero chance that Georgia begins 2016 without Eason and Chubb in the starting lineup.
How does that possibility affect your outlook for 2016? If you saw a backfield of Lambert and Michel trot out against UNC, would your expectations change? What if September – with UNC and two SEC road games – came and went before Eason and Chubb were starters?
The Chubb situation seems to be straightforward: if he’s physically able, he’ll be in there. That doesn’t just mean that the knee is sound – he’ll also be playing catch-up with conditioning. It could be, say, the Ole Miss game before he’s able to carry the load of 20+ carries. Knee injuries are unpredictable, and the range of possibilities is everything from a full recovery to the dreaded scenario where he never regains that highest level of performance.
Eason’s path to the starting job could be a little less linear. Fans expect it’s sooner than later. The process will play itself out in spring and summer. Coaches will use the term “best chance to win.” All quarterbacks – Eason, Lambert, and, yes, Ramsey too – will have a chance to impress the new staff.
Why might the coaches hold Eason back? Start with Greyson Lambert throwing just two interceptions in 2015.
If Brian Schottenheimer deserves credit for one thing, it’s this: Lambert went from a 10/11 TD/INT ratio at Virginia to a 12/2 ratio at Georgia. That improvement wasn’t accidental. Now it’s true that this improvement came at the cost of severely limiting the passing offense – Lambert wasn’t asked to make Aaron Murray’s throws, and the passing game wasn’t nearly as productive. He also threw a few suspect passes that would’ve/should’ve/could’ve been picked off, but they weren’t.
Given a good defense, the coaches chose and eventually settled on the quarterback who didn’t make the back-breaking mistake. It wasn’t enough to get Georgia a championship, but it did get them to 10 wins. That approach carried the team through the turmoil of the second half of the season and led to five straight wins to close out 2015.
So if you’re Kirby Smart coming over from the ultimate game-management program, you’re conditioned to appreciate a quarterback who won’t put your defense in a tight spot. (You also appreciate championships and quarterbacks who can make plays.) That’s part of the decision: if you think you can navigate Georgia’s tough early schedule by minimizing mistakes (at the expense of production) in the passing game and get by following the 2015 model, Eason might not be the best choice. If, though, you anticipate that the offense is going to have to win a couple of these games, you might risk the inexperienced gunslinger.
Chubb’s availability could also factor into the quarterback decision. With Chubb, the running game could be the focus of a fairly productive offense. Without Chubb, Michel and Douglas are the only returning backs with experience. There will also be some changes on the line. Michel proved himself to be a capable 1,000-yard back, but the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was when Michel’s versatility was on display in the first month of the season. Without Chubb and a deep pool of backs, you might need to ask for more from the passing game right away and accept the risks that come with it.
We often see teams change over the course of a season. Sometimes (2013) it’s for the worse as injuries or off-field incidents cut short a promising season. Other times (2007) teams find themselves and make a run late in the season. Unless the Dawgs get fairly lucky and both of these playmakers are ready to go on September 3rd, the identity of the 2016 team could change in a big way. How late (or early) in the season that transition occurs and how well the team and coaches manage it will have a lot to say about how we remember Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach.
The gimmicks get the headlines, but beneath the surface there is real work being done. Smart and his assistants are blanketing their top prospects and doing it in a very public way. Any new coach is in a tough spot – you have little more than a month to either establish or repair relationships with prospects that other programs and coaches might’ve cultivated for years. Georgia might or might not pull some big names on Signing Day, but it won’t be for lack of effort.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the tireless recruiting going on now just brings Georgia up to par. Within the past week we’ve seen Notre Dame park a semi truck in front of a prospects house. We’ve seen Nick Saban dancing. We’ve seen Michigan enlist Ric Flair – Florida fan – for some Signing Day wooooing. Again, the stunts aren’t really the point. It’s that other top programs and staffs have also been pulling out the stops, working around the clock, and sending some high profile coaches into the same living rooms. There’s not much new under the sun – Lane Kiffin was doing the helicopter thing six years ago.
On Sunday at a reception, retired Georgia basketball coach Andy Landers talked about the recruiting landscape. He pointed around Georgia’s state-of-the-art practice facility. Everyone has one of these now, he explained. Every school subscribes to the same recruiting scouting services to identify talent. Doing these things just gets you in the game, and it’s up to you to stand out among a crowded and competitive field.
It might be enough that Georgia is now in the ballpark with the rest of these programs in terms of effort and resources. It might be real progress just that Georgia is willing to spend on what might seem like extravagances in the name of recruiting. Georgia doesn’t get a particular edge relative to the elite programs, but it does allow Smart to make these recruiting battles competitive. The helicopters, the planes, the bulldogs, and all of the gimmicks open the door for Smart and its staff to get to what really matters: contact with their top prospects and the ability to discuss Georgia and the opportunities it offers.
Georgia’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have each played three conference games, and the teams have a combined one win between them.
For the men it’s been a story of home and away. The Dawgs looked out of their element in the conference opener at Florida, and Ole Miss used the frenzied crowd of a new arena to pull off a mild upset. Georgia’s lone home game was a relatively easy dispatching of Missouri. Though there were some defensive lapses, Georgia’s shooting has let them down on the road. The Dawgs shot 35.6% at Florida, improved to 54.7% at home against Missouri, and dropped back to 36.2% at Mississippi. If there’s been one consistent good sign, it’s the play of Yante Maten inside. Freshman Derek Ogbeide has started to contribute also and should see his minutes increase.
Georgia’s next chance at a road win isn’t until next week at Missouri, and it’s definitely one Georgia should be expected to handle. The men enjoy two straight at home, and Saturday’s game against #21 Texas A&M will be an important opportunity for a quality win. It’s critical that Georgia holds serve at home against Tennessee and A&M. After this week’s homestand, the Dawgs will play three of four on the road including difficult trips to LSU and Baylor.
It’s been even tougher going for the women. The Lady Dogs began the season 12-1 in nonconference play and were on the cusp of the top 25. The SEC schedule hasn’t been kind: Georgia’s first three conference opponents were ranked, and the Lady Dogs weren’t able to notch any upsets. They came closest in Thursday’s loss to Missouri: Georgia fought back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the visitors closed the game on a run of their own.
The woes for Joni Taylor’s team are familiar ones. Georgia hasn’t had much from transition against SEC opponents and has had to get points from the halfcourt offense. That isn’t and wasn’t expected to be a strength of the team. When the defense leads to offense, as in the third quarter comeback against Missouri, the team shows signs of life. But that productive quarter was combined with first and fourth quarters in which Georgia bogged down in the halfcourt and scored 6 and 8 points.
Taylor’s players continue to fight, and they clawed back to make the Kentucky loss a competitive one. Their next attempt to get an SEC win will be a road trip to face a Florida team that has beaten FSU and Tennessee to earn a spot in the top 25. It would definitely be a quality win, but at this point any victory is important.
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Tracy Rocker didn’t go into specifics, but he did confirm that there was something to all of those rumors flying around late in the season:
When you play a game like this and you have — I’ll call it — a bit of a mutiny; well, it IS mutiny — it’s important that you bring the kids together, and I thought it was important we did that.
It was obvious that there was dysfunction on the coaching staff. You don’t put out a tweet like this when everything is honky dory. Rocker’s comments help us understand why the status of a successful defensive coordinator was even in question. It’s also reasonable to conclude that this dysfunction was used against Mark Richt as justification for the coaching change.
Many of us would just rather forget the 2015 season and move on. There won’t be many highlight DVDs sold for this season. I’d like to remember it for what the players accomplished despite whatever was going on among the staff. Yes Rocker, McClendon, and the remaining interim coaches deserve credit for “bringing the kids together,” but it was those players who kept it together and closed the season with five straight wins while their coaching staff was imploding around them. The 10 wins and 40 wins for the seniors meant something to them even as fans and coaches chose to close the book on a season that went south fast. We thought that the motivation for the bowl would have to come from within, but it turns out that much of the second half of the season was played under those conditions. The guys paid six figures were able to plan their escape routes and soft landings as they squabbled, but the players with no choice but to stick it out did just that. They should be proud of that, and we should be proud of them for it.
“There’s nothing more that’s going to help me at the University of Georgia than winning a national title at the University of Alabama.”
I understand and respect Smart’s decision to stay on through the playoffs, but I can think of a few things off the top of my head besides a couple of Alabama wins that Georgia’s head coach could do which would be more beneficial to Georgia.
He’s been Georgia’s quarterback of the future for about a year and a half now, and Jacob Eason reaffirmed on Tuesday that he’ll still enroll at Georgia in just a few short weeks. It’s pretty amazing that a top prospect from the opposite side of the country would stick through two coordinator/position coach changes and even a head coaching change. That speaks to many things, but it’s a special feather in the cap of Mike Bobo and Mark Richt to have built such a solid foundation in recruiting Eason that it could survive these events. They didn’t just sell Eason on themselves; it was the whole package – the school, the town, the current players, and even the other prospects considering Georgia.
It also speaks to Eason’s levelheadedness. He didn’t jump ship when Richt left or when the offense struggled in 2015. Many fans assumed that Eason wouldn’t stick through the Bobo departure and certainly not through the head coaching change. Yes, he considered his options. That was the prudent thing to do – it would have been foolish not to have had a plan B if Georgia went a different direction with its coaching and scheme. He covered his bases, gave Smart and Chaney an opportunity to make their case, enjoyed a visit with future and prospective teammates, and concluded that “it all got cleared up.”
And so he’ll enroll for spring semester and enter the competition at quarterback. I expect most fans will find spring practice both fascinating and frustrating. All eyes will be on Eason, but I’d be surprised if a 2016 starter emerges.
Then there’s the 2016 season itself. Most of us expect Eason to emerge as the starter, but when? Eason is fabulously gifted, but he’ll have plenty of bad habits to break and a much more sophisticated offense to learn. Even Zeier and Stafford – two quarterbacks similarly heralded – didn’t claim the job exclusively until October of their respective freshman seasons. Smart, with the experienced help of Chaney, will have to manage the transition while avoiding the distraction of a quarterback controversy. Public pressure to play Eason will begin as soon as Eason takes the practice field.
Ideally you’d want a schedule that allowed Eason to ease into the role. 2015 would have been a best case – two easier SEC opponents and two light nonconference games. That’s not the case in 2016 – Georgia starts the season against an ascendant UNC program and will play two SEC road games in September. The Dawgs will need a poised and capable quarterback right from the opener. Do you let Eason take his lumps with the hope that he’ll have figured things out in time for the trip to Oxford?
There have been a few recent developments that might affect Georgia’s quarterback roster. First, Oklahoma reserve Trevor Knight will be a graduate transfer and is considering Georgia. Knight’s track record might look a little too similar to that of Greyson Lambert: former starter, gave way to another quarterback, graduate transfer. Knight was more accomplished as a starter than Lambert though, and he might be a good player to have on the depth chart.
The second development is one reported earlier this week by UGASports.com($). With Brian Schottenheimer no longer a part of the program, Brice Ramsey might have a renewed interest in playing quarterback and could even play in the bowl game. It’s not unheard of for coaching changes to breathe new life into stagnant careers, and a player expected to start the 2015 season might jump at the chance for a fresh start.
The possibility is there that Eason could have a good enough spring and camp that the coaches throw him right into the fire against the Tar Heels. A more likely outcome is that someone else starts the season – be it Ramsey, Knight, or, yes, Lambert. Smart’s experience suggests that he’ll place an emphasis on ball control and a lack of mistakes, and that might not be the strengths of a true freshman. With a capable set of running backs and a good group of defenders returning, coaches will have to consider what attributes at the quarterback position give the team the best chance to win.
Georgia was selected for the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville. The game will be on Saturday January 2nd at noon with ESPN providing the broadcast. Bryan McClendon will lead the Dawgs into the postseason as the interim head coach. This is the first meeting between these storied programs since the 1983 Sugar Bowl where Penn State knocked off #1 Georgia 27-23 to deny the Dawgs and Herschel Walker the 1982 national championship. Dawg fans of a more recent vintage will recognize Penn State coach James Franklin whose Vanderbilt team upset Georgia in 2013 in Franklin’s final season in Nashville. If you need a score to settle, pick 1983 or 2013 – whatever works for you.
Penn State finished the regular season 7-5. The Nittany Lions have two wins over bowl teams – Indiana and San Diego State. Georgia’s win over Auburn was their only victory over a bowl team. After a 7-2 start PSU lost their final three games against a back-loaded Big 10 schedule.
Both teams will be going through transitions. Georgia of course will play without their 2015 head coach and both coordinators. Penn State dismissed their offensive coordinator after a disappointing season despite having NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Freshman tailback Saquon Barkley has been the most consistent element of the offense. Still, the PSU offense has struggled due to a weak offensive line that’s allowed a glut of sacks and negative plays.
Ordinarily we’d relish the thought of Georgia’s pass rush going against a paper-thin offensive line and a pro-style quarterback who had been sacked 39 times in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors and NFL-bound juniors haven’t mentally checked out, this could be one nice last showcase for someone like Floyd or Jenkins. That’s a big if though – some stars mentally collecting NFL checks playing uninspired ball without their beloved coordinator could do more harm than good. Hopefully they’ll make the most of one final live audition for the scouts.
As good as Georgia’s pass rush could be, Penn State leads the nation in sacks with 44. Senior DE Carl Nassib is the Big 10’s defensive player of the year. He’s been limited down the stretch, but it’s expected that he will play in the bowl. Georgia looks to put up a little more resistance, allowing just 13 sacks in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors on the offensive line want a taste of what they’ll face at the next level, they’ll be going up against some top NFL talent on the Penn State defensive front.
So both teams feature stingy defenses and some big questions on offense. Predictions of a low-scoring game make sense. Turnovers, special teams plays, or an explosive play by a healthy Michel, Mitchell, or McKenzie could put Georgia over the top in a close game.
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If there’s a lesson here, it’s just business. Once Mark Richt was fired on Sunday, he was under no obligation to Georgia fans or even Georgia’s players. I don’t begrudge him (and definitely don’t blame him for) jumping at an opportunity to get away from the awkward situation that was on full display in Monday’s press conference.
Part of me is glad that Richt is taking the Miami job. It would have been nice to have had him around the program to continue his developmental and networking programs, but a figure that beloved and successful would have cast a long shadow. It was similar with having Vince Dooley around in the 1990s, but at least Dooley was the athletic director with the accepted chain of command that comes with the AD position and – more importantly – had left coaching more or less on his own terms.
I understand that it takes some time to process change, and the great man Richt is makes it even more difficult. But he has moved on, and so should we. If he hasn’t already, he’ll soon be on the phone to prospects to build Miami’s recruiting class. When that happens, he becomes the competition – perhaps not to the extent he’ll be going up against Florida and FSU and other ACC programs, but Miami and Georgia have frequently been involved in recruiting battles. Georgia has had some good results bringing players out of South Florida, and Richt will be attempting to lock down that area.
We wish him well and will always respect him and possibly even pull for him (especially against Tech!), but those well-wishes have to stop where his interests conflict with ours – and they will. I was and will remain a fan of Richt, but I’m a Georgia fan first, and Mark Richt no longer represents our program.
I wasn’t in favor of dismissing Mark Richt. I recognized that the investment in the program at the end of the 2014 season was going to take some time to begin to pay off, and I believed that Richt had earned the right to coach through that period.
The past few weeks have been a heavy case of deja vu. I remember standing in the parking lot tailgating for the Belk Bowl and the rampant rumors of retirement and whether the bowl game was a referendum on Richt dominated the conversation. With that game in hand, it looked as if Richt had “won.” The program received an infusion of staffers, reorganized the strength program, and it went out and spent money on an offensive coordinator – money that it oddly wasn’t willing to offer outgoing coordinator Mike Bobo. Even if these investments were made grudgingly after a semi-public showdown between Richt (with Pruitt as a proxy) and the administration, it still looked as if Richt had bought himself some time.
Yet less than a year later, here we are again. The program again stumbled in October, but by winning out (even if by the narrowest of margins), it looked as if Richt had steadied the ship. But there was still unrest under the surface. For different reasons, neither coordinator was on solid ground. The horrible experiment and gameplan for Florida with the division title on the line seemed to be the breaking point, and not even four straight wins to end the season could reverse a decision that had been set in motion weeks ago.
A justifiable decision
Even those of us who might disagree with the move must admit that there’s solid reasoning for it. It starts with titles, and there have only been a couple of division titles in a weak SEC East since 2005. Georgia’s performance against ranked teams – those it would consider peers – has dropped off in recent years.
Richt’s desire to become more hands-on with an offense and its quarterbacks was palpable in his Monday press conference, and it was no coincidence that some of the more mundane details that a CEO-style coach must manage were some of Richt’s weaker points as a coach. Roster management has long been an issue, and it was rare that Georgia’s best offenses synced up with its best defenses. Special teams, a strength of Richt’s first few teams, developed maddening inconsistency.
One of the more important administrative details a head coach must handle is assembling a staff. You can go all the way back to the decision to elevate Willie Martinez to defensive coordinator. You can point to the tumultuous years with Todd Grantham. Most recently Brian Schottenheimer proved to be the wrong choice to replace Mike Bobo – even those who expected Richt to stick around did so with the understanding that there would be more changes to the offense after just one failed season with Schottenheimer. A series of poor hires after 1997 brought down Jim Donnan much more quickly, and once again the composition of the staff proved to be a key factor in the downfall of another head coach.
A high bar
It isn’t just that Mark Richt had a career winning percentage of 74% or nine (and possibly ten) 10-win seasons. He’s dominated several of Georgia’s biggest rivals. His success against Tennessee and Auburn was more in line with Georgia’s historical performance against Georgia Tech, and he took the Tech series to a whole new level.
Fans might be accustomed to Georgia winning two out of three against UT and AU and nearly every Tech game now, but it would be a noticeable decline if any of these series returned to “normal.” (Though of course the new coach still has work to do to bring the Florida series back in line.)
Some of the more predictable reactions to the news have come from outside the program – the media and fans of other teams claiming to be shocked or even offended that Georgia would part ways with such a successful coach and great man. Those crazy Georgia fans with their unreasonable expectations. Let’s not pretend that many of these same pundits and reporters haven’t been pushing Mark Richt Hot Seat stories for so long and with such frequency that it became a running gag. Be surprised that Georgia finally pulled the trigger or be sad for the man, but don’t kid us that a move you’ve discussed and debated for over six years is suddenly beyond the pale.
Richt made it a point to draw from and highlight Georgia’s rich football tradition. Some of it was very visible – the Dawg Walk became the focal point of the game day experience. Other actions were less public but just as important. He brought back honorary captains to connect current players with some of Georgia’s greats. He made a big deal out of the Governor’s Cup and took that rivalry with Tech much more seriously than some fans might. Other new coaches, whether out of insecurity or ego, make a clean break to avoid being overshadowed by the past. Richt used Georgia’s legacy to help grow a championship program.
For the wins and losses, complaints and praise, it’s moments like this that defined Georgia football under Mark Richt and why many fans are having a hard time taking the news.
No one does it better than Georgia. Mark Richt made sure of that.
It’s no surprise to Georgia fans, but Tennessee has had to answer for the condition of its field after recent home games against South Carolina and North Texas. Maybe they’ll have it figured out before Georgia’s next visit in 2017.
You haven’t heard this much about containment outside of Cold War foreign policy. Yes, setting the edge and avoiding last year’s staggering failure against the run is important. Georgia’s done fairly well over the past couple of games limiting a couple of capable tailbacks. Jalen Hurd was held to 80 yards, and Russell Hansbrough was a non-factor.
The issue then becomes Treon Harris. While Georgia was bottling up Hurd in Knoxville, Josh Dobbs ran for over 100 yards and accounted for over 400 yards of total offense. He did his damage on straight running plays but also bought himself time until receivers came open. Harris, while not as experienced or polished as Dobbs, is capable of similar production if Georgia pays too much attention to Kelvin Taylor.
Harris wasn’t asked to do much against Georgia last year, and why would he have been? His backs were doing just fine. Harris still ended up with 5 yards per carry on six rushing attempts. You’d expect him to be a little more involved this year in an improved Florida offense. With the running game struggling against LSU, Harris threw for 271 yards against a suspect Tiger secondary. He was aided by his receivers turning receptions into long gains: all six Florida players who caught a pass had at least one reception over 15 yards, and three players had a reception go for at least 30 yards.
Georgia received some good news along the defensive front this week – Jordan Jenkins, Chris Mayes, and John Atkins seem likely to return to action. Leonard Floyd turned it up at the end of the Missouri game and seems to be back home outside. The shoulder that limited Floyd at the end of 2014 was already a factor in the 2014 Florida game, but he’s in good health now. There’s quality depth too: Bellamy, DeLoach, and Bailey are veterans, and Trent Thompson seems to get better weekly.
The Florida offensive line is a bit of a miracle considering the shape they were in during the spring, but there still have been some issues with consistency. The line was a big part of their win over Ole Miss, but they’re near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed. Early physical play from the Georgia defensive front, especially freshman Jordan Jenkins, set the tone for a hard-fought win in 2012. Georgia didn’t take advantage of a patchwork Tennessee offensive line, and there won’t be many bigger opportunities for redemption.
While Georgia’s performance against the run cost them the game last year, it was the 9th time in 14 games that Georgia had scored 20 or fewer points in Jacksonville. The Dawgs are 4-1 against Florida under Richt when breaking 20 points and 1-8 when they don’t.
The Dawgs got out to a 7-0 lead last season and looked to be rolling, but they couldn’t extend the lead. A 3rd-and-2 Chubb rush at midfield was stuffed. Georgia then forced and recovered a fumble but missed a field goal. Florida took the momentum with their fake field goal and ripped off a quick 14 points. This was still a 14-7 game at halftime, but Georgia’s offense never got going again while the Gator rushing attack took over in the third quarter.
Meanwhile back in 2015, Georgia’s offense hasn’t contributed more than 17 points in a game since Southern a month ago. They’ve had a few weeks now to sort out the approach to the running game without Chubb. Michel was dinged up against Missouri but still ran fairly well and is healthier after a few days off last week. The Dawgs missed those explosive runs though, and hopefully Michel’s hip pointer was the difference. They’ll also have to do a better job of getting to the edge, whether with Michel or with receiver sweeps, and perimeter blocking needs to take a big step forward.
It’s anyone’s guess what we’ll see from the passing game. Not to harp on the midseason injury thing, but Reggie Davis hobbled off after the opening kickoff against Missouri and limited Georgia’s deep threat. Isaiah McKenzie should be back too, and we’ll see if he can contribute anything beyond special teams. Malcolm Mitchell could draw extra attention from Vernon Hargreaves, one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. Both teams have talented sets of tight ends, but Florida’s TEs have been far more productive.
It will be a significant challenge to break that 20-point barrier against this Florida defense. The Gators are top four in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense. Their line, anchored by standout Jonathan Bullard, is third in sacks and will be a stiff test for a Georgia offensive line that has allowed only eight sacks this season.
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The Super Detergent Salesmen from Tusculoosa will visit the Sanford Kennels to try out a new Flea and Tick Soap on Vince Dooley’s K-9s, and if the Dogs ain’t ready for this wash job they could get a sudsing they’ll remember for a long time. The Water Walker from Alabama is famous for puttin’ a hurtin’ on the Bulldogs, and he has the equipment to do it again, but the Bear might be surprised by the new Bulldog Breed he’ll run into on his trip to Athens. The Red Clay Hounds are hungry and fond of Elephant meat, so I’m inclined to think the Pachyderms will get lightened up considerably in their hind quarters. Leonard’s Loser: Bama by 7