Friday November 14, 2014
Many of us are focused on the big game Saturday, but Georgia’s men’s and women’s basketball teams open their 2014-2015 seasons on Friday evening. The Lady Dogs will take the Stegeman Coliseum court at 7:00 against Morgan State. Meanwhile, the men will start the season in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, also at 7:00. The Dawgs have lost three in a row to their rivals, and this game will set the tone for a season in which the Dawgs are expected to take a step forward. The women are right back in action on Sunday at 1:00 in an important nonconference game against TCU.
Georgia’s second place SEC finish last year was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a weak nonconference performance and earn an NCAA Tournament bid. The Dawgs did make it into the NIT and hope to use that postseason experience as a building block for this year. Georgia returns all but forwards Donte’ Williams and Brandon Morris. Kenny Gaines and preseason All-SEC selection Charles Mann anchor an experienced backcourt, and freshman Yante Maten is expected to have an impact down low. The Dawgs were fifth in the preseason SEC picks. With so many players returning, Georgia should be expected to improve on their 2013-2014 season and make a case for an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Lady Dogs lost just a single player, guard Khaalidah Miller. They come off a fairly lackluster season where they finished in the middle of the SEC pack with a losing conference record. Georgia did eek into the NCAA Tournament to keep their appearance streak alive but were bounced in the first round. The Lady Dogs start the season with a jam-packed roster of 16 players. They’ll look to use this depth to their advantage by pushing a frenetic pace on defense. Erika Ford and Krista Donald are the lone seniors, and there is experience at every position. Wing Mackenzie Engram could have the biggest impact of six newcomers. One of Andy Landers’ first priorities is finding a point guard to replace Miller. Georgia is again expected to finish towards the middle of the standings, but enough experienced talent returns to make a push towards a top four finish.
Both the men and women opened the fall signing period with a pair of additions. The men welcomed Athens guard Will “Turtle” Jackson and forward E’Torrion Wilridge from Texas. Andy Landers inked sharp-shooting guard Amber Skidgel and JUCO wing Shanea Armbrister.
Wednesday November 12, 2014
Even before the season, we knew that much would ride on the outcome of the Auburn game. With the long history of the rivalry, the ending of last year’s game, and the stakes on the table in 2014, this game is being analyzed to death. Many of us started thinking about this game even before Florida (sigh…). Might as well throw my two cents in.
The performance of the front seven against the run is deservedly getting a lot of attention since the Florida game. That’s supposed to the the stronger and more experienced area of the defense, and it’s troubling when cracks show there. I want to talk about another element of Georgia’s run defense. If you look at the defensive stats from last year’s Auburn game, two things stand out from the tackling numbers: first, Ramik Wilson was a tackling machine with 18 total tackles to his credit. Second, two of the top four tacklers are no longer with the program. We remember Matthews and Harvey-Clemons for their error on Auburn’s final score, but those two had been key defenders against Auburn’s running game. Now the challenge falls to Georgia’s current safeties: guys like Mauger, Moore, and Sanders will have the unenviable job of providing support against what’s essentially an option running attack while remaining aware of Auburn’s ability to hit deep passes.
The scope of the challenge becomes more apparent when you look at the roster. Georgia’s largest safety is Moore, officially listed at 6’2″ and 206 lbs. Mauger is 6-0 / 199. Sanders is 6-0 / 187. Damien Swann occasionally moves into the star position, and he’s 5-11 / 180. Matthews wasn’t a huge guy at 6-0 and about 200 lbs, but he had a reputation as a big hitter. Harvey-Clemons was a hulking 6’5″ and had the size to take on bruising tailbacks. Assignments, gap discipline, and technique are first principles when defending any team, but sometimes it comes down to physics – can these guys bring down Nick Marshall (6-1 / 210) or Cameron Artis-Payne (5-11 / 210) and limit the yards after contact? Auburn is one of the nation’s leaders converting on third down because it sets up short and manageable third downs. Georgia’s tacklers must limit yardage on first and second down to set up longer third downs where the pass rush can have some impact.
Granting that Auburn is going to have some success moving the ball, the next best thing is to force them to accept three points rather than seven. The Tigers still jumped out to a big halftime lead on Georgia last year, but four Auburn drives ended with relatively short field goal attempts. Georgia blocked one of them. The other three attempts were good, but Auburn settling for those nine points kept the game from becoming a runaway and opened the door for Murray’s fourth quarter heroics. Texas A&M held Auburn to two field goal attempts in the second quarter of last week’s game, and the outcome of the second one changed the game. Auburn’s season high in field goals was three – against Mississippi State, a game Auburn lost.
I keep thinking about Thurman in 2003 or Rambo in 2011 (and 2009!) – can the defense find a way to make a positive contribution that changes the course of the game?
Georgia’s primary storyline will be the return of Todd Gurley. That one fact leads to several questions. With the exception of the Florida game, Georgia has continued to run the ball well in Gurley’s absence. How much can he really elevate the offense beyond what we saw without him last weekend? Does the team settle into a “Todd’s got this” mentality and leave it up to him to make the plays? More practically, can Georgia’s run game have more success against this year’s Auburn defense?
Certainly this is a much different and run-oriented Georgia offense this year. Auburn won’t hold the Dawgs to 117 rushing yards again. In part because of the nature of the game (playing from behind) and in part because of Auburn’s strength up front last season, Gurley was held to 79 yards on 15 carries a season ago. He was actually about as productive in the passing game where he put up 77 yards on 10 receptions as the offense looked for a way to counter Dee Ford and Auburn’s onslaught of pressure. Gurley’s presence will give Georgia a deeper tailback rotation which, as it has several times already this season, pay dividends in the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s problems getting going on offense a year ago started on the line. The tackles struggled, as they had a habit of doing, on the road with the pressure from the outside. Runs were stuffed, and Murray was disrupted. The line is coming off of an outstanding performance at Kentucky, and the home crowd should negate most communication issues.
I still find it hard to believe a year later, but Theus claimed that intensity was a problem. “We came out a little sluggish the first half,” he said. “I think they kind of caught us by surprise. They came out with a lot of energy and they were playing really hard.” That can’t happen again this year. The crowd will take care of the energy level, but the offense must be ready to attack from the opening kickoff. They’ll also need to sustain that attack. Even with a good start, a slow quarter or two is more than enough to let Auburn back in the game or give Auburn an opening to run away with the game.
While Chubb was the big story during Gurley’s absence, the steady play of Hutson Mason wasn’t far behind. Mason has been completing passes around a 70% clip, avoiding turnovers, and reportedly has been one of the vocal leaders getting the team focused in the midst of plenty of distraction. With Gurley and the backfield likely to draw plenty of attention again, Mason will have a role and an opportunity to make plays. Mason’s poise was a big part of Georgia’s 8-for-8 on third downs at Kentucky. Sustaining drives will again be paramount for Georgia’s offense not only to set up scores but also to keep Auburn’s offense off the field. Sans Scott-Wesley, this is the most diverse and healthy set of receivers Georgia has had all season.
We should include the tailbacks when talking about receivers. We saw what Gurley can do against an Auburn defense with ten receptions in the comeback last year. Georgia used Gurley as an outlet against intense pressure, and while Auburn doesn’t have the pass rush they did a year ago, it could still be a crowded line of scrimmage with stopping the run Auburn’s first priority. Going all the way back to the Clemson and South Carolina games, remember Sony Michel split out in the slot. That’s one way to get two of the three leading tailbacks on the field at the same time, and we know Michel can be explosive at that spot either on sweeps or inside screens.
Mike Bobo has more of his options available to him than at any point in the season. I look forward to seeing how he uses them in a game that will require another high output from the offense.
Tuesday November 11, 2014
When a win is so decisive, we tend to blow right by it, especially with such a big game up next. Kentucky has dropped several games after a fast start, but this was still a team that had defeated South Carolina and hung with the #1 team in the nation just a few weeks earlier. Georgia fans have fresh memories of close calls in Lexington, and no one knew how the team would respond after the flat performance in Jacksonville. Fortunately, the team seems to have had an easier time with that than I did. The Dawgs scored 21 points in both the first and third quarters and pulled away for a 63-21 win over Kentucky. The 63 points were the most scored by a Mark Richt team against an SEC opponent.
Nothing too organized here…just some more thoughts from a very enjoyable win.
- It didn’t take long to start seeing the differences from last week’s Florida game. A kick return unit that had blocked so poorly in Jacksonville opened up an expressway-sized lane for Isaiah McKenzie on the opening kickoff, and Georgia’s return specialist went 90 yards untouched. We hadn’t heard much from McKenzie – or the return game in general – for several weeks, so it was a nice shot in the arm to get 14 points directly from an area of the game that was pretty dismal just a week ago.
- Hutson Mason wishes every opponent wore Kentucky blue. A year ago Mason took over against the Wildcats after Murray’s injury, and Mason threw 13-for-19 with two touchdowns – one passing and one rushing. That wasn’t a bad debut for a backup who came in cold off the bench. Now the starter, Mason was efficient, smart, and accurate in his best performance yet. It wasn’t all easy tosses – Mason and his receivers tested the limits of the field, and it took a combination of precise passes, sure hands, and agile footwork to complete several of Georgia’s passing touchdowns.
- Mason made a difference from the beginning. Chubb’s first run lost yardage. Mason picked up eight yards on his own on second down to set up a manageable third down. He found Bennett in close quarters to move the chains, and the Dawgs had their first of eight third down conversions.
- It’s easy to underrate the week-to-week improvement in Georgia’s offense. Kentucky is, after all, a step down in class from Florida on defense, and the Wildcats really began to look like a team that hadn’t had a bye week since September 20th. All that said, you rarely see that level of execution even against the worst opponents, much less against a team on the brink of bowl eligibility. Georgia was perfect on third downs, didn’t turn the ball over, never punted, and got points from every drive on which they didn’t take a knee.
- Defense was a little more of a mixed bag. Georgia’s run defense still showed some of the same issues that caused them problems against Florida. Kentucky popped off a long touchdown run in the second quarter not so much because of the horrible containment we saw a week ago but because a senior inside linebacker missed the tackle. Not great, and Herrera needs to make that tackle, but also not a sign of a structural flaw in the defense. Georgia struggled a bit with Kentucky’s power formation – the diamond backfield which featured two blocking backs.
- The Dawgs had better success against Kentucky’s passing game. Kentucky posted only 139 yards through the air – just 4.5 yards per attempt. The yardage and completion percentage were season lows for their decent quarterback, Patrick Towles. Georgia’s line was able to tee off on the pass after opening a 25-point lead not long into the third quarter, but the pressure was effective from the outset.
- Even with some difficulty stopping the run, the defense had its moments. The three-and-out on Kentucky’s first series allowed Georgia to build on the momentum from the opening kickoff and establish the double-digit advantage they’d enjoy for the rest of the game. Holding Kentucky to a field goal after the Wildcats recovered a short kickoff was very important at the time and preserved a two-score lead. Of course the interception to open the second half was big. Kentucky closed the first half with a score, and they started the second half with a chance to get within four points. There was probably some luck involved on the tip, but credit to Corey Moore for being alert enough to make a difficult catch just inches from the turf. Those are plays Georgia didn’t make last year.
- I’ll be honest – I had written off Rumph. We knew he wouldn’t be redshirted, and I figured he wouldn’t see the light of day again. In his first action of the season, he led the team in receptions and yardage. We saw how his size is a big advantage on two catches: one where he used his body to essentially “post up” a defender and then later when he outjumped the defender and turned the catch into a long reception. If he’s available for the rest of the season, he’s an intriguing matchup problem on the outside.
- Speaking of impact receivers, Mitchell continues to round into form. His first touchdown of the season was a nice throw and catch in stride on a route that a healthy Mitchell will win every time. My favorite though was a tougher catch that Mitchell made low and along the sideline. That’s the reliability that made him such a dangerous target earlier in his career.
- As the Gurley suspension ends, I don’t know what more we can do to appreciate Nick Chubb. Whatever praise we give him, it seems as if it’s not enough. Even in the Florida loss, he was a bright spot and put up more yards in Jacksonville than any Georgia back since Moreno in 2007. He’s been consistently excellent even as defenses began to key on him. His 671 yards in these four games tops the season total for all but 13 ball carriers in the SEC.
- And welcome back to Sony Michel. Michel quietly posted 84 yards of his own, and it was almost cruel to see a rested Chubb trot on the field towards the end of a drive. The offense just seems to open up more with Michel available, and he can be used in the backfield or in the slot. One thing we didn’t see at Kentucky: Michel might be Georgia’s best operator of the wildcat offense.
- Dinged-up or disciplined? The theories about why Leonard Floyd saw so little time at Kentucky abound. There’s no doubt that Floyd played poorly against Florida, but he wasn’t alone. Lorenzo Carter made the most of the start; it had been a while since we had heard much from him.
- Chubb, Michel, Carter, McKenzie – all freshmen. Blazevich notched his first touchdown reception and followed it up with another. That’s going to be a nice core to have around.
Six weeks ago, the Dawgs were said to rely too much on a single player. With that player unavailable, the team went on a four-game road trip and posted a 3-1 record. A freshman tailback emerged as a star, and the senior quarterback was a steadying leader. The defense made progress but showed the frustrating inconsistencies of a unit dealing with both talent and experience issues. It wasn’t enough to keep the team in the national playoff picture, but the Dawgs return from the road and the Gurley suspension with a realistic shot at the division title. Now it’s time to put it all together and finish out the regular season at home.
Tuesday November 11, 2014
Georgia’s final two home games, Charleston Southern and Georgia Tech, will both kick off at noon. They’ll take the noon slot on the SEC Network on November 22 and November 29 and will give Georgia five appearances on the network this season.
Tuesday November 4, 2014
As expected, Saturday’s winner used an unstoppable running game, a solid defense, and superior special teams to open up a significant lead. It was just the wrong team doing those things. The style of play we had seen Georgia perfect over its five-game winning streak was turned on its head. Florida rolled up 418 yards on the ground and rolled off 31 straight points to upset Georgia 38-20. The loss ended Georgia’s three-game winning streak in the series and knocked Georgia from the top of the SEC East.
In 2010, Florida used the bye week to install an up-tempo, run-heavy offense that rotated quarterbacks and put the Georgia defense on its heels. Those Gators had lost three straight with an anemic offense, and they exploded in Jacksonville for 450 yards of offense which included 231 on the ground. The desperation worked, Florida won the game, and Georgia’s woes in Jacksonville continued.
But that Georgia team was 3-5 in the SEC, and they’d eventually post the only losing record under Mark Richt. Florida’s sudden success on offense was dramatic, but the Dawgs had already lost four games before falling in overtime to the Gators. The 2014 Georgia team that was left flat-footed on Saturday was a very different team – they had only dropped one game, they were on top of the SEC East, and they were on the periphery of the playoff contenders. For this team to be left without answers by some basic zone running plays is enough to shake the foundation of everything you thought you knew about this Georgia team and season.
So I understand why a lot of the reaction since Saturday night has been more of an existential crisis than anything resembling an actual accounting of what happened. I can only give the “Georgia being Georgia” line so much time before moving on though. There were football reasons why Georgia lost the game in all three phases, and I’m a lot more concerned with getting those fixed while there’s still time to salvage the season. The Dawgs face several good teams still, and two of them can run the ball better than Florida.
Many of us expected that kind of test of Georgia’s rushing defense from Arkansas. The first series in Little Rock wasn’t much different from what we saw in Jacksonville. But after Arkansas went to the air on their second series, they never had much of a chance to establish the run again. Turnovers and Georgia’s lead forced a different approach. Without Georgia’s offense applying much pressure to keep up, Florida could afford to be patient with a slow start, and eventually those runs started to pay off. Georgia got sloppy and allowed runs to bounce outside. They got little to no push to disrupt the runs before they got going. The turnovers on which the defense had thrived all season weren’t coming, and the offense failed to capitalize on the one turnover the defense did generate.
When Desmond Howard cautioned against putting all of our hopes in Nick Chubb, this was the kind of game he had in mind. This is what the Georgia offense looks like against a competent defense without turnovers or favorable field position priming the pump. Chubb’s fumble was untimely, but otherwise he had an impressive Jacksonville debut. The Dawgs needed contributions from elsewhere, and those were few and far between. The passing game didn’t get going until the game was in hand, the lack of tailback depth finally showed itself, and Georgia couldn’t sustain the early drives that could have opened up a larger lead while Florida was still searching for its first points. Georgia lost the game in the second and third quarters as Florida made its move, but Georgia also failed to win the game in the first quarter when bigger things were there for the taking.
In 2011, with the weight of Florida’s dominance in Jacksonville still weighing on the program, the Dawgs scored two touchdowns on difficult and risky fourth down passes. Back then it was Mark Richt supposedly coaching for his job, and it showed in the decisions that were made. “I know it was just a ballgame, but it seemed like a lot more than that,” Richt explained. On Saturday the Dawgs faced 4th and at most 3 yards to go on three occasions in the first quarter with field position near midfield or better. They punted twice and attempted a field goal into the wind. And why should they risk it? The last thing you want to do against a struggling offense is to help them out with good field position. If this was the Florida offense and Georgia defense of several weeks ago, it makes sense to take no chances with the offense and wait for the Florida offense to shoot itself in the foot. Florida made the bold and desperate moves this year – at the macro level by changing quarterbacks and the offense as well as the micro level with the fake field goal call. When Florida stepped it up after the fake field goal, Georgia couldn’t muster much of a response either on the field or on the sideline.
- The sequence leading up to Florida’s fake field goal was almost as fascinating as the score itself. On first down, Harris cleanly fielded the errant snap and gained about six yards back on his own. If he just dives on the ball or has the slightest trouble recovering the ball, it changes the rest of the series. Toby Johnson made a nice individual play to limit Harris’s gain on second down. The 11-yard gain on third down sets up the opportunity for the fake field goal. If the Dawgs stuff that run anywhere near the line of scrimmage, it’s at least 4th and 15.
- Georgia’s rushing defense came into the game one of the conference’s statistical leaders, but that position was always a little deceptive. The Dawgs hadn’t faced many teams that could run the ball well. Arkansas was the exception of course, and we’ve already discussed what happened there. But if you think back to the second half of the South Carolina game or Georgia’s difficulties with Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd – there had been some shaky moments for the Georgia rushing defense. No team had been able to stick with that approach for an entire game, but Georgia’s struggles to stop Florida on the ground didn’t happen out of nowhere.
- The one turnover that Georgia’s defense caused came on one of Georgia’s few run blitzes. Damien Swann blitzed outside the left tackle. He didn’t get in there to blow up the play, but the distraction of an oncoming defender seemed to cause hesitation for Harris at the mesh point. The exchange was mishandled, and Georgia had their lone takeaway.
- I can’t find a positive thing to say about special teams. There might’ve been a late de-cleater on a late kickoff return. I don’t know what’s up with the punters – Richt is doing one of his frustratingly vague things and not saying more than “consistency,” but even poor punting took a back seat to the return game. I try to make it a policy to avoid calling out walk-ons, but the Florida coverage unit was on Georgia’s return men after little more than token resistance.
- I’m disappointed that Georgia didn’t try to make Harris do more. While most of Florida’s runs looked like read plays, they were more likely called runs. Harris is more than capable of getting his yards – we saw that on a key third down conversion, but Georgia didn’t do much to test his decision-making or passing.
- And that 2010 Florida team that discovered an offense against Georgia? They went 2-2 the rest of the regular season, beating only Vanderbilt and App. St. With games left against South Carolina and Florida State, Muschamp is still very much on the outside looking in, and that makes this loss even worse.
Finally, this tweet really resonated. Those three straight wins seem like a distant memory now.
Wednesday October 29, 2014
This isn’t going be very popular.
Four games is an appropriate suspension for Todd Gurley, and it could have been much worse.
The NCAA announced on Wednesday that Todd Gurley will remain ineligble for an additional two games. He’ll be eligible to return on November 15th when Georgia welcomes Auburn.
(Gurley) must sit a total of four games, or 30 percent of the season, for accepting more than $3,000 in cash from multiple individuals for autographed memorabilia and other items over two years. Gurley, who acknowledged violating NCAA rules, must repay a portion of the money received to a charity of his choice and complete 40 hours of community service as additional conditions for his reinstatement.
You can’t talk about this stuff without caveats, so here goes: yes, I think a college player should be able to make money from his or her name and likeness. I support the so-called olympic model to that end. But the current NCAA rules and their hypocrisy are no shock to anyone, and especially should not come as a surprise to Georgia fans who got a good education in improper benefits with A.J. Green. It’s dumb, and at least the incident has put momentum behind institutional efforts to change the rules even as legal (O’Bannon) challenges chip away at them anyway.
The NCAA has a sliding scale of games missed for receiving improper benefits. It goes from 10% of a season for a small amount, 20% for a few hundred dollars, and at least 30% for an amount over $700. That’s why A.J. Green got four games. Most of us have the $400 figure in our heads from earlier reports and rumors, and that was the basis for a 20% (two game) suspension. If the investigation revealed payments of over $3,000, then four games would be the minimum applicable suspension. There are exceptions (see Marcell Dareus), but the NCAA considers “mitigating circumstances.”
The requirement of 40 hours of community service stood out. Usually improper benefits must be repaid in full. Requiring Gurley to repay an amount over $3,000 would have been (even in the context of this discussion) ridiculous, so the decision reduced the repayment to a smaller amount to a charity of Gurley’s choice and added the community service requirement. Unless you think Gurley can come up with a couple of thousand dollars in the next two weeks, this seems like a fairly unconventional but reasonable out.
This isn’t a legal judgment – Gurley isn’t forced to complete the community service unless he wants to restore his eligibility. It can’t be said strongly enough – the option for community service is a good thing if you want to see Gurley play for Georgia again. Had the NCAA required repayment/donation of the full $3,000+, I wouldn’t expect Gurley or any student-athlete to have that kind of money on hand, let alone part with it. The burden of the community service is harsh, but it is manageable if Gurley really does desire reinstatement.
What about FSU…
The comparisons to Winston and even Manziel are impossible to avoid. There are two key differences in the Gurley case:
- There is evidence or an admission that Gurley received money.
- This is an NCAA issue, not a legal one.
If you’re pissed that Winston can get away with a couple of arrests or criminal investigations, your issue is with the criminal justice system and FSU rather than the NCAA. There is no NCAA rule requiring a student-athlete to be suspended for being arrested (thank goodness) or for being a boorish jerk. Yes, there are tons of other players whose autographs can be purchased. We wink when they claim that they received no money – we can’t prove that they did. Unfortunately in this case that proof existed.
This is the really interesting part to me. UGA says they will appeal the decision. I’m sure that’s probably done as a matter of routine, but the basis for the appeal confuses me. Georgia submitted their findings to the NCAA a week ago. Did the NCAA act on new or contradictory facts? The NCAA indicated that they requested additional information from UGA over the weekend after the University applied for reinstatement. What came out of that additional information? If Georgia’s application for reinstatement included the admission of a $3,000 improper benefit over two seasons, the appeal doesn’t seem to have much ground to stand on. And if Georgia agreed with the amount in question, why in the world would they expect a two-game suspension to suffice?
Open records should be fun reading down the road.
Here’s where it could have been much worse. Some fans are upset that Georgia and Gurley are getting hammered for their cooperation (see the Winston/Manziel complaints), but that’s exactly the opposite of what happened. These violations allegedly occurred over several seasons, involved several parties, and involved amounts well above the minimum for a four-game suspension. Georgia won’t have to vacate any games, and they’ll have their best player back for the stretch run because Gurley was honest and the school was cooperative.
Additional withholding was strongly considered because the violations occurred over multiple years with multiple individuals and the student received extensive rules education about the prohibition of receiving payment for autographs. However, the university’s due diligence in its investigation and the student’s full disclosure of his involvement in the violations were factors in not imposing a more severe withholding condition.
…if he returns
At least the uncertainty is over. The suspension is finite and known, and the team can prepare for the next two games. The question now is whether Gurley decides to return. He could avoid the repayment and community service and just walk, and his draft status won’t suffer. The Heisman is off the table now. Gurley would be returning for his teammates and their shared goals. Selfishly, I hope that’s enough to compel him to take the steps that will be required before his eligibility can be restored. Gurley’s one of the few parties that knows all of the facts, so I doubt that the ruling surprises him. That he’s continued to practice and attend class is an optimistic sign.
UPDATE: It’s about as good as you can get without a statement from Gurley. Via Anthony Dasher, Mark Richt said today that he has “no doubt” that Gurley will return to finish the season.
Tuesday October 28, 2014
The CFP selection committee will release its first rankings this evening. There will be breathless analysis, indignation, and charges of SEC bias / antipathy. What should Georgia fans expect?
I have no idea. The Dawgs will be ranked near the top. Not at the top, not in position for a playoff spot, but not at the bottom either. It doesn’t matter.
I take that back – it does matter in the sense that the initial poll will tell us not only the teams between Georgia and a playoff spot but also the criteria and thought process the committee will use throughout the rest of the season. More interesting will be the fluidity of the rankings as the year goes on. Will the committee hold its initial top four in a king-of-the-mountain style until one of them loses, or will they be willing to move teams in and out as resumes change?
I don’t know why they’re releasing rankings before the end of the season. It’s a form of transparency I guess, and Lord knows it will create a torrent of discussion and argument. As we said when the idea of a selection committee was put forward, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. A playoff, and a selection committee to determine the participants, isn’t new ground for college athletics. It’s how just about every other college sport does it. Instead, along with the help of the playoff’s media partners, we turn a fairly bland and routine committee process into show, and we’ll do it for the next six weeks or so.
I’d recommend to ignore it all, but that’s impossible as an engaged fan. You will be hit over the head with the rankings, the evaluation of the rankings, and the evaluation (informed or otherwise) about the process of arriving at the rankings. Just do yourself a favor and don’t put much energy into it. If Georgia wins out, they’ll be a 12-1 SEC champion, and then they’ll earn a playoff position. It’s not much more complicated than that, and it’s really the only way Georgia can – and should – end up in the playoff.
Wednesday October 22, 2014
The possible return of Todd Gurley is obviously welcome news for Georgia’s chances against a tough November schedule that includes three of its biggest rivals. With the SEC East title still up for grabs, the Dawgs need every man on deck. Gurley’s return wouldn’t mean the end of Nick Chubb’s role – the two complement each other well. We saw right from the opening game of the season against Clemson that Georgia can pound with both Chubb and Gurley, and having one or the other relatively fresh for the fourth quarter is a big advantage for Georgia.
Having Gurley available also gives Georgia some options with the rest of the backfield. We can’t wait for Sony Michel to be back out there, but there’s less pressure now to accelerate his return. Mark Richt wasn’t confident about Michel’s availability for the Florida game, and we could see Michel held out until Auburn. Keith Marshall’s return has been delayed, but he’s practicing again. It’s reasonable that the backfield with which Georgia started the season could be back together by Auburn if not Kentucky.
One exciting realization strikes you as we think about the Georgia offense going forward: we still haven’t seen a complete cast of characters. When Gurley and the other backs were healthy, the receiving corps was missing some key members. Now with Mitchell and, to a lesser extent, Scott-Wesley back in action, several tailbacks have been sidelined. Mitchell hasn’t had a breakout game yet, but just his presence on the field has allowed Georgia to realign its passing game. Mason now has a full set of receivers and – coincidence or not – has looked a good deal more confident in Georgia’s last two games. He’s passed for 3 touchdowns, run for two scores, and done it at a 70% clip with no interceptions. We could soon see a backfield that features four outstanding backs as well as a group of receivers headlined by Conley, Bennett, and Mitchell. That was the promise of the 2014 offense, and I hope we can get a glimpse of it in some significant upcoming games.
If there’s some uncertainty among the backs and receivers, it’s the readiness of Marshall and Scott-Wesley to play this season. Their 2013 injuries were significant, and it’s been a long road back. Marshall, though cleared to play, seemed to struggle in limited action earlier this season. Scott-Wesley saw even less time against Missouri and didn’t record a catch. With Chubb showing that he can more than handle the job, we haven’t abandoned the idea of a redshirt for Marshall yet.
Wednesday October 22, 2014
Georgia announced on Wednesday that it would file with the NCAA for the reinstatement of tailback Todd Gurley.
It’s important to note that Gurley remains suspended until the NCAA approves or rejects Georgia’s request. It was not disclosed whether Georgia’s application will request “time served” (a two-game suspension) or whether it includes additional games.
Keeping that in mind, consensus among reporters and NCAA observers is that Gurley’s suspension will be over soon, and he’s likely to return to the team in time for the Florida game. Three reasons for that optimism:
- The NCAA often moves fairly quickly on these cases to restore eligibility if they agree with the findings.
- Georgia has kept the NCAA in the loop from the beginning, so there shouldn’t be many surprises in their application.
- The language of Georgia’s statement anticipates a quick resolution: “The University hopes for and expects a prompt ruling by the NCAA so that Todd, his coaches, and teammates can adequately prepare for our next game.”
So…fingers crossed, but it looks good.
Monday October 20, 2014
You can understand Todd Gurley’s suspension sparking Georgia to an emotional win at Missouri last week. With fewer than 48 hours to process the news, the team could ride on outrage and defiance. But with a week for the news to sink in and the disappointment and frustration of no news, there were an entirely different set of emotions to deal with. Meanwhile, Arkansas was said to have been motivated by a more primal instinct: hunger. The Hogs had come so close against Texas A&M and Alabama to ending two years of SEC futility that they were this close to breaking through.
As it turns out, “being due” isn’t enough on its own to get you an SEC win. Georgia, once again leaning on a productive ground game and an opportunistic defense, erupted for 31 points in the second quarter and coasted to the 45-32 win. Nick Chubb was once again spectacular shouldering nearly all of the carries, and he popped a few for long gains this week. Chubb became only the third Georgia freshman, after Herschel and Hampton, to have a 200-yard game in his first season. His calm and consistent production is almost enough to make you forget what he’s been asked to do.
Though Chubb ran wild on the ground, Georgia’s passing game played an important role. Following Arkansas’s opening touchdown that ate up nearly half of the first quarter, Georgia flew down the field on passes to Conley and Bennett. After Chubb had scored twice, Georgia executed a flawless play-action that found Bennett open for another touchdown. With the game drawing closer, Conley again got open down the left sideline, and Mason dropped in a perfect pass for Georgia’s final score. Hutson Mason either ran or threw for three of Georgia’s five offensive touchdowns. After a couple of shaky weeks in front of the home crowd, Mason completed over 70% of his passes with three passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and no turnovers during Georgia’s two-game road trip.
The biggest difference between last week’s beatdown and the win over Arkansas? Last week Georgia converted 12 third downs that allowed them to sustain drives and keep the ball away from Missouri for all but about 7 minutes of the second half. Georgia didn’t have a single 3-and-out in last week’s second half. That wasn’t the case at Arkansas. Georgia only moved the chains once in the third quarter on Saturday, and that was on the first snap of the half. The Dawgs converted only five third downs in the Arkansas game, and two of those conversions came on the nice 5-minute drive that ended the game.
It ended up not to matter much, but that’s a big part of the difference between a 34-0 shutout and a game that had us all a little nervous early in the fourth quarter. It was such a small play at the time, but Georgia’s inches-short fourth down attempt on their opening drive of the second half turned out to be a bigger play than we expected. Georgia was looking at at least a field goal that would have pushed their score into the 40s, and Arkansas was soon on their way to the first of four second half scores. Certainly Georgia’s defense relaxed a bit and fell back into some bad habits, but none of it diminshes an outstanding effort in a game that all but the most optimistic Georgia fans expected to be much closer.
Tyler had a good point in this tweet. If you remember the 2008 Bama game as a dominant blowout win for the Tide (and you should), you might forget that Georgia scored 30 points in the second half and only lost by 11 after trailing by 31. Georgia was never going to come back to win, but the Prince Miller return that brought Georgia within two scores at the start of the fourth quarter snapped Bama out of clock-killing mode. Bama, as good teams do, responded with scores that squashed Georgia’s comeback hopes. Similarly, the textbook Chris Conley double-move and Hutson Mason pass that provided Georgia’s only score of the second half at Arkansas let everyone know that Georgia could open things back up when they wanted to.
A few more things before we move on to the Cocktail Party…
- Pruitt’s done a wonderful job with the defense of course, but his position of responsibility is the secondary. It’s been fun to watch players like Mauger and Langley improve.
- Not many have had as much of a renaissance in the new defense as Swann. Swann’s line at Arkansas: 2 forced fumbles, 11 tackles (1 for loss), 1 sack, 3 QB hits, and one tricky interception in the endzone at the end of the first half. That pick turned out to be significant. Swann’s tackling has become so much more consistent.
- I understand the timing of Georgia’s onside kick attempt. The defense had been on the field for nearly eight minutes, and it took the Bulldog offense only 90 seconds to answer. It was a strategy that had worked well in 2013 against South Carolina, and the ball would have settled into McKenzie’s hands had it bounced a little higher.
- The defense had many bright spots in the game, but their stand after the onside kick might have been the most significant. Arkansas ran the ball so well on their opening drive, but they obliged with a couple of passes after recovering the onside kick. Georgia posted sacks on first and second down, and they were out of trouble. They did such a good job that the onside kick isn’t but a footnote in the game, but it was an important moment.
- Chubb wasn’t the only example of next-man-up on display. Taylor Maxey was sidelined with an injury, and freshman walk-on Christian Payne had to play at fullback. Payne was the lead blocker on Chubb’s long touchdown run in the second quarter and had a nice block on the play.
Wednesday October 15, 2014
The SEC released its 2015 football schedules on Tuesday evening. Here’s Georgia’s:
September 5 UNIV. OF LA.-MONROE
September 12 at Vanderbilt
September 19 SOUTH CAROLINA
September 26 SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY
October 3 ALABAMA
October 10 at Tennessee
October 17 MISSOURI
October 24 Open
October 31 Florida (Jacksonville)
November 7 KENTUCKY
November 14 at Auburn
November 21 GEORGIA SOUTHERN
November 28 at Georgia Tech
The obvious game that jumps out is the first regular season meeting with Alabama since 2008. Georgia also opens SEC play at Vanderbilt rather than the traditional South Carolina opener. There is only one bye week since the season starts on September 5th – it’s the usual bye week before Florida.
A weak home schedule is made more interesting by South Carolina and Alabama, but the three non-conference home games won’t move the needle much. Georgia avoids any extended road trip – there are no consecutive games away from Athens. That trip to Knoxville just a week after what’s sure to be a hyped Alabama game could be dangerous.
Monday October 13, 2014
Before the South Carolina game I wrote something about toughness. I didn’t think the Dawgs would face a bigger challenge of their mental toughness during the regular season. I was wrong. Thursday’s shocking suspension of Todd Gurley was an event that shook the Georgia fan base to the core. I expect it did much the same to the team.
There were a couple of ways the past several days could have gone. The team could have followed the lead of pundits and many fans and accepted that the team was lost without Gurley. The defense could have put up an average performance, and Mason could have made his own mistakes trying to compensate for a diminished running game. They’d have had a good excuse, and no one would have jumped on them too much.
We saw another possible response. Georgia rallied around their suspended star, responded to what they saw as an attack on one of their own, and took it out on their opponent. As postgame images emerged of the players holding up three fingers in tribute to their missing man, there was no doubt that Gurley’s absence brought out the best from the rest of the team. Some were motivated by the injustice of Gurley’s suspension. Others took offense to the conclusion that Georgia had nothing without Gurley.
Whatever the motivation, the results were fantastic. There are few things more satisfying in sports than being pushed by unexpected circumstances and finding out that you have what it takes. The coaches did an admirable job holding things together and keeping the team focused, but we’ll remember this win for the players who believed in themselves and their teammates when a lot of us were still hanging our heads. Kudos also to the road fans who, because of faith in the team or just sunk travel costs, stuck it out and supported their embattled team in one of the SEC’s most distant outposts.
I’m thrilled with this win, but I can’t help but look ahead. Gurley’s suspension certainly brought the team together and fired them up. How long can a team ride that kind of emotional wave? How many times can you dip into the us-versus-the-world well? Georgia was able to feed off of some very fresh and raw emotions – there wasn’t hardly time to process what happened Thursday. Was this an elevating moment like the 2007 Florida game or Shawn Williams’s challenge in 2012? Or was this the one-off combination of an emotional outburst and a vulnerable opponent?
Now with a week for everything to sink in, the reality of a very different test of toughness takes center stage. If you switched the TV over to Alabama-Arkansas after the Georgia game, you saw a very physical battle between two teams that like to run and who defend the run well. Georgia must prepare to face the largest offensive line they’ll see this year, and emotion will carry you only so far when you’re slugging it out. But a few more things about the Missouri game first…
It started with defense. I wasn’t the only one who was reminded of the 2006 Auburn game – the last time I recall seeing such an unexpected turnover-fueled dominant performance by a Georgia defense. That team had been left for dead after four losses in five games. This team had been given little chance with a crippled offense and a defense that was still trying to find its way.
A personal foul on the first play wasn’t a great start, but the Dawgs forced a punt four plays later. It was only the second time all season that the opponent hadn’t driven into scoring position on their opening drive. A week after allowing an above-average performance by the Vanderbilt rushing offense, Georgia did an outstanding job of shutting down Missouri’s running game and forcing them to throw the ball. Mike Thornton had one of his better games, and the rest of the front seven also played well. The pass rush was effective and created one turnover directly while disrupting things enough to cause one or two other turnovers.
The story of the day was Georgia’s success in the secondary. Even on the interceptions that might be credited more to luck than skill, Georgia’s defenders were in a position to take advantage of a lucky bounce or poorly-thrown pass, and they made the plays. At the end of the Vandy game, with things well in hand, Jeremy Pruitt could still be heard exhorting his defensive backs to “catch the damn ball” when an opportunity for an interception was squandered. The defense made the most of those opportunities at Missouri.
It didn’t take long for Brendan Langley to rise up the depth chart after moving back from wide receiver. He has size and skills lacked by other Georgia cornerbacks, and he looked at home on the outside. Langley’s contributions allowed Pruitt to move Swann to his preferred nickel back role. There are still important roles for Moore and Davis in certain situations, but the Langley-Swann-Bowman-Mauger-Sanders combination looked fairly comfortable in what it was doing.
Third down for what?
Georgia was able to stick to their offensive game plan for two reasons. First, the success of the defense kept the game from getting into a shootout. Even when the game stagnated at 20-0, Georgia felt little pressure to take risks and open up the offense. Second, Georgia’s ability to convert third downs and sustain drives let them maintain possession and keep the explosive Missouri offense off the field.
Georgia’s 12-of-21 success rate on third down might be as surprising as Missouri’s 0-for-7. Georgia had converted over 50% of third downs only once all season – 6-for-11 against Troy. They hadn’t converted more than six third downs in a game all season. Georgia’s 37.5% third down conversion rate entering the game was among the bottom third of the NCAA. Converting 57% against Missouri was improbable not only because of Georgia’s prior futility but also because Missouri’s outstanding pass rush was built to thrive on third downs.
The circumstances of the game couldn’t have been better for the Georgia offense. Without much scoring pressure from the Missouri offense, Georgia could be content to play their game and give the ball to Nick Chubb nearly 40 times. Georgia’s ground game wasn’t nearly as explosive as it had been with Gurley, but that’s an unfairly high standard to meet. Missouri did begin to key on Chubb, and it’s no coincidence that Georgia struggled on those drives where they didn’t gain much on first and second downs. But as a boxer throwing continuous body blows eventually opens up an opportunity to go for the knockout, Chubb and Douglas eventually found more and more space. In earlier games, that space turned into long touchdown runs for Gurley. At Missouri, it was enough for moderate gains that let Georgia take up all but two minutes of the fourth quarter.
I said on Saturday, and I still think, that this was one of Hutson Mason’s best performances. Again, the success of the run game and the lack of scoring from Missouri meant that Mason wasn’t asked to do a ton, but he delivered. It’s damning with faint praise to pull out the dreaded “manager” label; Mason had some important work to do against some of the SEC’s best pass rushers. His touchdown pass to Bennett was textbook. He executed the read option perfectly on his touchdown run.
We didn’t see much of a downfield passing game, but I expect that was a tip of the cap to Missouri’s pass rush. The Dawgs used the short and intermediate passing game to help with some protection issues. Mason, particularly early in the game, dumped it off to Chubb. Chubb’s four receptions were as many as Gurley has posted in a single game this year. It was good to see Malcolm Mitchell involved in the passing game again. Mitchell’s six receptions led the team, but they were primarily glorified handoffs on quick receiver screens to the sideline. The Dawgs didn’t have a reception longer than 14 yards. The only really long pass attempt I recall was a harmless shot into the endzone on which Mitchell was well-defended.
At first, you wondered if Georgia’s difficulties cashing in on Missouri turnovers would cost them. The Dawgs only managed a single field goal from Missouri’s first two turnovers, and at that point we were all still wary of Missouri’s offense catching fire. The two second quarter touchdowns certainly helped, but you didn’t start to feel comfortable in the outcome until midway through the third quarter. Georgia started the second half unable to do much on offense, and Missouri put together two drives that nearly matched their entire first half output. They got into Georgia’s end of the field with relative ease, but two interceptions killed both drives. After Sanders picked off a poor decision of a pass, the Dawgs finally put together a second half scoring drive that sealed the win.
If there’s one thing to pick at from such a satisfying win, it’s ball security. Georgia was fortunate to avoid their own turnover deluge. The Dawgs fumbled the ball five times and didn’t lose the ball once. Both punt returners very nearly set up Missouri deep in Georgia territory in the first half.
Friday October 10, 2014
Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely by the University on Thurday. UGA cited “an ongoing investigation into an alleged violation of NCAA rules,” and media later reported that the investigation has to do with alleged payments received for signed items.
The blame game isn’t very interesting to me. There’s outrage and culpability to be directed all over the place from Gurley himself to the people buying autographed items and fueling the market. And of course there are the ridiculous name, likeness, and image rules at the center of the story.
None of that changes the fact that Georgia is without Todd Gurley for an undetermined number of games. Focusing on that alone, these are some of the questions that will have to be answered before we see Gurley back on the field (if ever):
- Did Gurley break any rules? This is obviously the central question, but it’s still unanswered. We’re proceeding under the assumption that Gurley did receive improper benefits, but that fact hasn’t been established.
- If Gurley received cash, how much? We’ve heard reports of anywhere from $400 to thousands of dollars. The amount involved, if any, will determine the minimum length of Gurley’s suspension.
- Was Gurley truthful with investigators? Even if small amounts were involved, we know that the NCAA can be much more harsh if investigation reveals dishonesty.
- How active will Georgia’s athletic administration be in pushing for a quick resolution? Greg McGarity’s inital comments weren’t encouraging. This is the same administration that left a Hall of Fame swim coach in limbo for the better part of a season earlier this year. Will they do more for their Heisman candidate?
- On a related note, did Gurley have representation when the NCAA interviewed him? If not, why in the world not?
Tuesday October 7, 2014
With everything else going on around college football on Saturday, it was nice to spend a Homecoming Saturday on the periphery of things. We’ve seen Vanderbilt spoil Homecomings before, most recently in 2006, but this Vandy team is not nearly good enough for that to have ever been a possibility this year. Georgia was never in danger of becoming part of the carnage that took out so many ranked teams. So we got a relatively uneventful win that was wrapped up by the end of the first quarter, a weekly serving of Todd Gurley’s magnificence, and enough stumbling to make a 27-point SEC win seem unimpressive.
We saw the first glimpses of a two-quarterback system when Brice Ramsey took a series in the first half. By the end of the game, four different Bulldogs, including Faton Bauta and Todd Gurley, took snaps. Unlike some rotations in other seasons, I’m not sure what the endgame is here. Is it trying to light a spark under Mason? Is it grasping at straws to find some answers in the passing game? Is it an audition for Ramsey?
This isn’t Stafford biding his time behind JT3, nor is it Greene versus Shockley. Ramsey might be the favorite to take over the position next year (the Dawgs have a redshirting true freshman who might have something to say about that), but we haven’t seen enough of a difference between the starter and backup to have the sense of inevitability that developed around this time during the 2006 season. Shockley was a change of pace different enough from Greene to present defenses with unique challenges in preparation and execution. Other than perhaps sharper passes, Ramsey and Mason are running the same offense. If Georgia has a QB rotation that offers any real difference to defenses, it’s actually with Bauta (or Gurley) running the ball.
We saw a baffling throw from Mason on his interception and a dangerous telegraphed pass on Georgia’s first drive that should have been picked off, but Mason deserves credit for two nice throws on the touchdowns to Conley. On the first throw, Mason had good protection, and he was clearly comfortable with his pocket. He took his time, stepped into the throw, and put it right on the money. The second score required a different throw, but again Mason was accurate and put the ball high and in front of the slanting Conley where only Chris could make a play on the ball. Conley did a good job to reach for the ball and snag it out of the air.
At any rate, the job remains the same: sustain drives and value possession. Georgia’s 40% third down conversion rate in this game was actually an improvement on their season average, but it’s still not good enough. It’s still very much a feast or famine offense. Against Tennessee, Georgia didn’t face a third down on any of their four touchdown drives. Against Vanderbilt, Georgia faced only one third down on their three first quarter scores.
The game started with a positive development: the defense forced a 3-and-out on the opponent’s opening drive for the first time this season. It was an impressive series with an alert deflection by Sanders and a sack where Vanderbilt laughably left a tailback all alone to block Floyd. The defense started well enough to allow the Dawgs to jump out to a 21-0 lead and never allowed Vanderbilt the opportunity to get back in the game.
A game this lopsided doesn’t provide many opportunities to test a defense’s ability to make a stand, but there were a few important moments when the defense came through. The first was midway through the second quarter. Vandy had scored and forced a Georgia 3-and-out. They drove the ball inside of Georgia territory with a chance to make it a one-score game going to halftime. The defense forced consecutive incompletions and a punt. The Dawgs, thanks to Todd Gurley’s arm, responded with another scoring drive and opened up a 20-point lead. I was also impressed with the defense’s stand following Mason’s interception. The Commodores only gained seven yards on six plays and had to settle for a field goal. The shift in momentum from a potentially game-changing interception was limited.
The pass defense wasn’t flaming wreckage. That’s what you’d hope for against a team playing inexperienced reserve quarterbacks that hadn’t done much through the air all season. Bowman was beat deep to set up Vanderbilt’s first score, but he more than made up for it by stepping in front of a horrible pass on a bizarre play. I’m really appreciating what Aaron Davis is doing – he’s every bit an inexperienced walk-on, and it shows sometimes. He more than anyone personifies what’s going on with the Georgia secondary this year. It’s not enough that the Dawgs have to play a rookie walk-on in the secondary. It’s that such a player had had to go from safety to cornerback and, against Vanderbilt, back to safety. That’s a hard enough job for an upperclassman like Swann.
With Vanderbilt’s own haplessness limiting their passing game, the focus turned to the front of the Georgia defense. It wasn’t the best performance of the year for Georgia’s front seven. The pass rush was largely ineffective after the first series (though I think a Toby Johnson tackle for loss later in the game should also be considered a sack.) There were some near misses, but few of Vanderbilt’s issues throwing the ball could be credited to the Georgia pass rush.
More alarming was the run defense. Vandy is one of the poorest rushing teams in the nation at 111.3 yards per game. They netted 132 yards on the ground against Georgia. Not horrible, but above average for Vanderbilt. Ole Miss and Kentucky held the Commodores below average on the ground, and the Commodores had more success in both rushing and passing against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt never broke a long run – their best run went for 14 yards. The issue, and it was a fairly consistent problem, was missed tackles that let a short gain (or a tackle for loss) turn into a moderate gain. Rarely did Georgia drive a runner back. Excluding the sacks by Floyd and Johnson, the Dawgs posted only one tackle for loss against an offense they should have outmanned. All three Vanderbilt backs averaged at least four yards per carry. The Dawgs will face much tougher and varied running threats in the next two games – the spread attack of Missouri and the bruising power attack of Arkansas. Each presents a unique challenge to the defense, but the answer to stopping both teams starts with the same fundamentals – sound gap play and finishing tackles. The defense has some work to do there.
It’s enough to say that Georgia’s longest punt of the day was 38 yards – and that was with a stiff northwest wind at the punter’s back. It was telling that Erickson got the opportunity for a non-pooch punt in the second half. At least there’s one positive – the punt unit avoided the crippling error that opened the door for Vanderbilt to win in 2013.
Wednesday October 1, 2014
I guess we know now that last week’s angst was well-founded. I didn’t see it being that close, but I’m not surprised that Tennessee’s defense frustrated Georgia at times or that the Vols were able to hit some big passes. Georgia did a better job of capitalizing on turnovers, and they had the best player on the field. That was enough for a fifth straight win over the Vols and enough to even a very streaky series at 21-21-2.
Most pre-game analysis boiled the game down to a battle between Tennessee’s passing game and Georgia’s pass rush. If the pass rush didn’t get there, the Vols would have an advantage with a fleet of big, talented receivers and a quarterback capable of getting them the ball. But a young Tennessee offensive line presented a good Georgia front seven with opportunities to affect the timing and rhythm of the passing game.
That’s more or less how it played out. Tennessee’s passing game had their moments. When they got passes off, those tall receivers made plays against an inexperienced secondary and a group of linebackers whose pass coverage has never been a strong point. But Georgia’s pass rush played an important role in the outcome. It started in the first quarter when a blind side corner blitz on Tennessee’s third drive led to a McKenzie punt return that set Georgia up well inside Tennessee’s end of the field. The Dawgs regained momentum after falling behind 10-0 and put up 21 straight points of their own.
Georgia’s pressure continued into the second half. A Jordan Jenkins hit put Tennessee’s starting QB on the sideline for a crucial stretch during the half. The Dawgs weren’t moving the ball, but the Vols couldn’t take advantage of some favorable field position. Georgia increased the pressure on Tennessee’s backup and held on to a slim lead until Gurley finally broke a long scoring run.
While the game went about as expected when Tennessee threw the ball, I was a little surprised at how much the Vol running game contributed. Jalen Hurd carried for 119 yards behind a weak offensive line, and about 40% of his yards came after contact. Sack yardage meant that Tennessee’s rushing total was actually below average, but Hurd made a difference. Tennessee’s quick scoring drive before halftime was fueled by a couple of draw plays. Prevent defense doesn’t just matter in the passing game – with much of the defense bailing out to cover deep vertical routes, Hurd only had to elude a linebacker after he cleared the line. It’s likely that Tennessee isn’t as aggressive later on that drive without the initial success of those draws.
“Game manager” is a condescending label we put on quarterbacks who aren’t the focal point of their team’s offense. But even among that classification, there are standards. The distinction between game manager and just average quarterback play is an important one. 1-for-10 on third downs is offense managed about as well as the NFL’s Ray Rice debacle. Georgia’s lone conversion was a short Chubb run in the third quarter. It doesn’t bother me at all if the passing game lies near the bottom of the league stats. What we do ask though is the ability to sustain drives, value possession, and take advantage of the opportunities opened up by defenses keying on the tailbacks.
Mason seems to be very much a rhythm passer, and the offense follows suit. On Georgia’s four touchdown drives, the Dawgs didn’t face third down once. Mason was 9-for-11 passing on those drives and had one touchdown pass and one score on a keeper. He was just 7-of-14 on all other drives. The Dawgs didn’t complete a pass for positive yardage from the first play of the second half until about the 10:20 mark of the 4th quarter. Even with a dominant running game, the Dawgs are 93rd in the nation on third downs at a conversion rate of just 37%. A little more consistency will improve that conversion rate, lead to more sustained drives, and produce fewer stretches like we saw in the third quarter.
For all the heat that Mason is getting after this game, people are also asking questions of the receivers. Georgia’s most talented receiver is on the sideline. The ones on the field either lack experience or have made careers as role players. Conley and Bennett have made valuable contributions at some big moments over the past 3+ seasons. Neither has emerged as a primary target this season capable of demanding anything more than single coverage. Do I think things will improve when the injured/suspended receivers return? I’m not sure. Scott-Wesley’s impact is a little overstated. Mitchell, when healthy, will demand more attention. You’d expect Conley and Bennett to thrive a bit more when they’re able to play the supporting roles and not have to carry the passing game.
Tennessee’s onside kick proved to be an important late decision. With nearly three minutes remaining and all three timeouts available, the Vols must not have had much faith in their ability to stop Todd Gurley even knowing that Georgia would surely run the ball. As it turned out, the field position made Georgia’s fourth down decision much easier. With just a three-point lead, I doubt that Georgia attempts the fourth down conversion on their own end of the field.
That final sequence reminded me of the 2002 Tennessee game. The Vols scored late to pull within one score. They made a questionable decision to onside kick with over three minutes remaining, and Georgia took over on Tennessee’s end. Facing 4th and 2 with a chance to put the game away, Richt called a toss sweep to Tony Milton, and the Dawgs maintained possession. Once again, that’s a much tougher decision if the ball is on Georgia’s end.
Gurley’s fourth down carry was impressive enough – he met with contact two yards short of the marker and had to maintain his balance to finish the run. His third down carry was even more important. The Dawgs lost yardage on second down and faced 3rd and 12. Gurley was hit in the backfield but managed to get away and head down the south sideline for nine yards. The hold by Andrews helped get Gurley around the corner (and the clock forced Tennessee to decline the penalty), but Gurley’s effort on third down earned enough yards to give the coaches a decision on fourth down.