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Post Joni Crenshaw introduced as new Lady Dogs head coach

Thursday April 16, 2015

After what athletic director Greg McGarity called a “national search,” he only had to look down the hall to find Andy Landers’ successor. Associate head coach Joni Crenshaw, a four-year member of the Lady Bulldogs staff, has been promoted to head coach.

At 36, Crenshaw is a grizzled veteran compared to when Andy Landers took the job at age 26. Crenshaw played her college ball at Alabama and has spent time as a key assistant and successful recruiter at, among other places, Alabama and LSU. She’s been with Georgia four seasons and was quickly promoted to associate head coach. She understands the standards set for the program and said that Georgia has the “resources, facilities, and support to do things on a national level.” Competing on a national level is exactly what’s expected of her.

For those who have been around the program during the past four seasons, this is a popular hire. Joni is well-liked, sharp, engaging, and exactly the energetic woman you’d want as the face of a program. She’s been impressive and a fan favorite breaking down opponents during the pregame “chalk talk” with boosters. She’s made many friends in Athens in her brief time at Georgia, and she has the relationships with other coaches and the media that you’d expect of the recruiting coordinator of a major program. We’ve heard that a bloc of Lady Dogs alumni were squarely in Crenshaw’s corner, and that’s a significant endorsement.

With that popularity in mind, it’s difficult to get an objective read on the promotion. Everyone is thrilled for her, and they should be. This is a tremendous opportunity and payoff for someone who has worked hard towards this moment. Both McGarity and Landers praised her “character” and “deep-rooted values and morals,” and those have become important traits for this program. Crenshaw called Georgia basketball a “people program,” and she has the personal foundation to keep it that way. Georgia fans can be confident that the emphasis on doing things the right way from the gym to the classroom will continue under Crenshaw.

The message implied by this promotion though is that the program was in good shape. Deputy athletic director and Lady Bulldog alum Carla Williams, a point person in the coaching search, said plainly, “The program’s not broken.” Andy Landers put things differently when he retired. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do,” he concluded.

True, a program two years removed from the Elite Eight isn’t a flaming wreck. If things were that bad, it would have been much easier to take action. What happened at Georgia was more gradual and prone to rationalization. Georgia hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1999, but they still made the tournament and occasionally advanced to the regionals. They didn’t have All-Americans but still had several quality all-conference candidates and occasionally had a WNBA draft pick. Georgia went from a title contender to, as Landers put it, “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC.” Many teams would be happy with a fourth-place SEC finish, but it wasn’t what Landers had built and worked for. For better or worse, Crenshaw has been a part of that. It might be a positive that she’s had a front row seat to identify some of the issues, but she’ll also have the challenge of untangling herself from the inertia that led to the gradual decline of the program.

Some of that decline came in recruiting, and Crenshaw was brought on board in part to help shore up recruiting. She contributed to top 10 classes at both Alabama and LSU, but it’s been a while since Georgia has had a class like that. There has been some progress: the Lady Dogs signed two top-100 players a year ago and have another on the way in 2015. Still, Georgia has been on the outside looking in for some elite prospects in the state and region, and one of Crenshaw’s first tasks should be to reevaluate and rework the recruiting process in which she has played a major role.

To her credit, Crenshaw didn’t waste much time addressing one of the biggest recruiting deficiencies. “I want to talk directly to recruits in the state of Georgia,” she said in her opening statement. “You are our first priority.” With that stake in the ground, it will be interesting to see what actions take place beyond what the program was already doing. At the very least, there’s one opening on the staff with possibly more to come *. Crenshaw will have an early opportunity to make this a stronger staff and begin the tough job of marketing Georgia against some very stout competition.

* Though Crenshaw’s future husband is an accomplished assistant coach for a successful South Carolina program, do not expect him to join Georgia’s staff. Williams said such a possibility “wasn’t even asked about,” citing Georgia’s nepotism laws.

Promoting a program’s top assistant isn’t uncommon, but it’s often tough to follow a legend. Holly Warlick has managed several SEC regular season and tournament titles since replacing Pat Summitt, but even Warlick has faced criticism for a lack of Final Fours and national titles. Georgia has gone down this path several times whether it was with Ray Goff or Ron Jirsa or Jay Clark. While it’s unfair to project those results on Crenshaw, that’s the lens through which many Georgia fans will view this hire.

Crenshaw’s cultural fit is outstanding, and she has over a decade in the business to qualify her for the job. Whether she was the best candidate available or considered is another question with less clear answers. We don’t know who else was interviewed or even offered the job, though Williams confirmed that Georgia spoke with candidates participating in the Final Four. Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey was rumored to be a top candidate as well as Connecticut’s Shea Ralph and a couple of successful mid-major head coaches.

I really hope that this process didn’t come down to money. We’ve been through this with the football program, and the stinginess of the athletic department is a favorite hobby horse of Georgia bloggers. It was unlikely that Georgia was going to throw Dawn Staley money around and make that kind of a high-profile statement, though a major commitment to restore one of Georgia’s most successful programs wouldn’t have been beyond the pale. It would be more troubling though to learn that Georgia’s offer wasn’t even enough to attract assistant coaches from top programs, let alone successful head coaches.

It does Crenshaw no favors to compare her against hypothetical candidates. She was the best choice for the deal Georgia was willing to offer. It’s enough that she’ll be measured against the standards set by her predecessor. She’s correct that Georgia’s coach will have the “resources, facilities, and support” to get the job done in a state full of good basketball talent. Georgia’s returning roster is good enough to get her head coaching career off to a positive start, and a little early success will go a long way to raise her profile.

Post Andy Landers steps down after 36 seasons

Thursday March 19, 2015

I might as well start here: I wouldn’t have met my wife had Andy Landers not given her a graduate assistantship. My reaction to his unexpected retirement on Monday isn’t going to be very impartial. So it’s been with much of the reaction I’ve seen this week – everyone has a story, a connection, or a personal memory.

As we reflect on Landers’ career, the relationships rise to the top. He has such a magnetic and ebullient personality that it’s impossible to start with anything other than the relationships. When you’re reading things like this from the media that covered the team, let alone the players he coached, you begin to get a sense of the presence that Landers developed in his 36 years in Athens.

For me, though, the relationships came later. The Red & Black writes that “Andy Landers will be remembered by his legacy as a leader and a man, not as just a coach. That’s true, and it’s the kind of sentiment you naturally turn to in these eulogistic pieces, but the “just a coach” part was what got me to follow the program.

He could coach. That seems silly to write about a guy pushing 900 wins, but it’s easy to get caught up in the caricature of Landers as the folksy cow farmer with the scowl on the court and the wry sense of humor off the court. He built his empire of over 850 wins, 20 Sweet Sixteens, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games by developing, teaching, and demanding that his teams play an uncomprimising style of basketball. His well-known tirades weren’t random outbursts; they were the consequences of falling short of the expectations of Georgia basketball. Landers knew when his players were capable of more, and almost always they were.

Basketball is what drew me to follow the team, and an appreciation of the game played and coached at a high level earned my respect long before I met the coach. I was hooked during the SEC Tournament run in 1993 when longshot Georgia knocked off highly-ranked Tennessee and Alabama on consecutive days to reach the finals. I was fortunate to be there during the march to the Final Four in 1995. I’ve seen the heartbreak in 2004 and 2013 when teams worthy of the Final Four came up just a possession short. Before you even get to know about the man on the sideline, this was a fun brand of basketball to watch and be around. For a basketball fan at Georgia looking for a taste of success, the men’s program was a perpetual tease. Landers delivered.

Two things stand out to me about Landers’ teams at their best: guard play and relentless pressure defense. I don’t mean to short the great forwards and posts to come through the program: Harris and McClain of course, Henderson, Thomas, Robinson, Humphrey, and others I could spend the rest of this post listing. But special guards became the hallmark of the program. It starts with Edwards. Roundtree and Holland were outstanding in the mid-90s. They were followed by the amazing backcourt of Nolan and the Miller twins. Sherill Baker was one of the best defenders you’ll ever see. Even towards the end, Houts and James developed into the backbones of their teams.

These guards and athletic forwards were essential not only for their scoring and floor leadership but also for executing Georgia’s press defense. The press went hand-in-hand with a tight man-to-man approach. Georgia’s bread-and-butter press was the 2-2-1 described here. As Landers noted, the press was an effective counter that made Georgia a difficult opponent. “Because most teams do not press, we do. By pressing, we upset offensive tempo, create excellent scoring opportunities, and win on off-nights.”

That formula worked for most of Landers’ career. With his best teams it was devastating, and his other teams could gain an advantage that helped them “win on off-nights” and pull some memorable upsets. So what’s changed? First, Landers’ observation that “most teams do not press” isn’t the case anymore. Enough teams run variants of press defenses either in their halfcourt defense or as a full-court press that it’s not an exotic experience to see pressure. Presses can be and are still effective even when you prepare for them, but it’s something teams face more often than not now in games and in their own practices.

The second change has to do with the roster. For several years Georgia has lacked the depth and the talent to run their preferred press, often falling back into a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt. Landers’ attention to defensive fundamentals has made Georgia a capable defensive team even in the leanest years. The difference has been the team’s ability to “create excellent scoring opportunities” as Landers described in his rationale for running the press. A team playing even an active 2-3 zone isn’t going to create the same turnovers and transition chances that you’ll get from full-court pressure. When your team thrives on those transition points, and especially when you struggle to generate points from your own halfcourt offense, getting away from the press is going to affect wins and losses.

We dug into the talent issue back in 2009, and many of the same points still apply. Georgia isn’t recruiting at the level it once did, and that’s limited what Landers has been able to do using the strategies that led to so much success. When he said that the past few seasons have been about “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC,” it’s a by-product of recruiting. Elite talent has gradually given way to above-average talent that’s been good enough to make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a top-four SEC finish. It hasn’t been good enough to compete for titles at the national or even conference level, and that was the vision Landers had for the program. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do, and that responsibility is mine,” he admitted. I give him tremendous credit for that admission. Many people with the accomplishments and accolades that he’s earned have enough of an ego and enough sycophants around them that the situation can be rationalized. As Landers put it, he tried to spin the situation as human nature leads us to do, but it wouldn’t spin.

Though the ultimate responsibility does lie with Landers, it’s worth peeling back a few layers. We’ve used the 2003 departure of assistant and recruiting coordinator Michael Shafer as a dividing line. Georgia hasn’t appeared in a Final Four or won an SEC title since. That has less to do with Shafer than it does with the management of the program. Georgia has had difficulty finding and then retaining assistants who can perform at the level you’d expect of a national contender. It’s affected both recruiting and player development. Georgia’s current staff has been together about three years now, and that’s long enough to just start gaining traction after so much ground had been lost.

(A related thought: When you look at successful programs, a great head coach is often supported by at least one long-term assistant who’s as highly regarded among assistants as the head coach is among his or her peers. Every staff has turnover, but how many top programs have that one key experienced associate coach? Chris Dailey at UConn. Holly Warlick at Tennessee under Summitt. Nikki McCray-Penson at South Carolina. Amy Tucker at Stanford. Vic Schaefer at Texas A&M during their national title run. Carol Owens at Notre Dame. Bob Starkey at LSU. Georgia simply hasn’t had anyone in that league. As Georgia’s assistants have struggled with inexperience and a lack of continuity, Landers had to be much more hands on, and even the best coach can’t do it without a strong staff.)

To use Landers’ phrase, it shows how “spoiled” we’ve become to dissect a perennial NCAA Tournament program like this. But it was his vision and legacy that the program would have higher standards, and no one recognized the state of the program better than the man who built it. He didn’t need the athletic director or any of us to tell him that things had slipped from the expectations he had set. He just reached a point where he didn’t see a way back under his leadership.

It’s going to be tough going for Landers’ successor. There’s the whole following a legend thing, but there are more concrete concerns first. While the program won’t be starting from rock-bottom, any new coach will have to deal with the inertia of a very established culture. He or she won’t have to start from scratch teaching the expectations of winning or hard work, but there are bound to be conflicts against the inertia of a 30+ year way of doing things. Georgia has a capable group of rising seniors, and getting buy-in from that leadership from the start will go a long way for the sake of continuity.

Recruiting will be what makes or breaks the new coach, and he or she can have immediate success by improving Georgia’s in-state recruiting. The number of top prospects leaving the state is too long to list, and with powerful programs nearby at Tennessee and South Carolina, it will be a big but necessary job making Athens a destination for Georgia’s best. For the right coach, the Georgia position has much to offer: a talent-rich home state, a high-profile and competitive conference, an established and supportive fan base, outstanding facilities and resources, and the deep pockets of a successful SEC program. The tools are in place for a capable coach to attract (or keep home) the kind of talent it will take to reestablish Georgia as an SEC contender.

Those deep pockets will be put to as much of a test with this hire as they were during the football offseason. This isn’t the athletic department of 1994 when it took the threat of a lawsuit to properly pay its women’s coaches, but Landers still wasn’t on the cutting edge of compensation. Attracting a quality head coach and assembling the type of staff we described above will likely cost more than it did to retain the outgoing Hall of Fame coach. The wallet opened up for the football program after the 2014 season, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive the offer is to find Landers’ successor. South Carolina famously caused a stir when they offered Dawn Staley $650,000 in 2008, but that risk has paid off with a top 5 program.

I have no idea in which direction Georgia will or should go. There’s the sentimental instinct to look for someone with ties to Landers. Do you look outside the program for a fresh approach? Do you look for another young coach out of relative obscurity with the possibility of another decades-long run, or do you look for the security of an established veteran? When Andy Landers has been the only coach the program has known, there just isn’t a precedent to follow.

It’s been a sad few days reflecting on this inevitable transition. With any change though there’s the excitement and optimism that a new direction is the answer. Lady Dogs fans can look to the legacy of Andy Landers to know what’s possible at Georgia, but that same legacy will set some high expectations for the next coach. With a solid returning roster, some key pieces working back from injury, and some talented incoming freshmen, the opportunity is there for an immediate impact.

Post 9th Annual SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 4, 2015

The SEC women break the Nashville/Duluth cycle this year and head west to Arkansas this week for their 2015 tournament. North Little Rock has hosted the tournament three times already, most recently in 2009. While there is a clear favorite this season, the battle to make it to Saturday and beyond is a toss-up.

At the top of the standings, it’s been pretty much as expected. South Carolina and Tennessee finished with a single conference loss each, and no one would be surprised to see them square off for the championship. There have been some interesting developments in the next tier of teams. Mississippi State has been a great story. LSU could be considered a bit of a surprise as well after disappointing nonconference results. Texas A&M and Kentucky are used to finishing a little higher than they did, and each has been vulnerable. With so much SEC Tournament experience between those two teams, you almost expect one of them to make a little noise from the 5 and 6 seeds.

The bottom of the field has also seen some shifting. A slew of midseason injuries left Georgia, once comfortably among the top third of the league, fighting just to avoid the ignominy of playing on Wednesday. Missouri put together a run and a couple of upsets at the end of the season to merit the 7 seed. Vanderbilt has had a season below their standards while Ole Miss took a nice step forward. Alabama and Auburn rose to the middle of the pack last season but have returned to the bottom.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #10 Georgia vs. #7 Missouri: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 Tennessee: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:30 p.m. ET. ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

1) South Carolina (15-1): If last season’s SEC regular season championship announced the arrival of Dawn Staley’s program, this year’s campaign showed the conference that the Gamecocks liked it at the top. The next step for Staley? An SEC Tournament title. Despite the regular season crown in 2014, South Carolina fell in the semifinals and didn’t play for the tournament title. They’ve been the league’s most dominant team all season, though recent challenges from Tennessee and Kentucky shows that the champs have plenty of work to do before they’re crowned in Little Rock. They won’t have to face either of those teams until the championship game on Sunday.

As with any champion, the Gamecocks are talented, well-coached, and confident. There’s a slew of experienced players returning starting with All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell. Senior forward Aleighsa Welch is the team’s leader and sets the tone with an incredible work rate around the basket. A stellar freshman class including forward A’ja Wilson and lightning-quick point guard Bianca Cuevas has elevated the team to contend for the national title.

2) Tennessee (15-1, 23-4): While South Carolina deservedly enters the tournament as the favorite, how can you overlook the team that’s won four of the last five tournaments? Tennessee has dropped three games outside of the league to very good opponents, but they’ve only fallen once in conference play: a very competitive loss at South Carolina that went down to the final possession. Tennessee still thrives on relentless defense and aggressive rebounding, and that will do against most teams.

The Lady Vols took a big hit recently when center Isabelle Harrison was lost for the season, but the team showed at South Carolina that they can still be dangerous without her. There’s still a tremendous amount of talent, and forwards Cierra Burdick and Bashaara Graves can step up in place of Harrison. Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter lead a veteran backcourt. Tennessee doesn’t go that deep, so they’ll need big production across the starting five to repeat as tournament champions.

3) Mississippi St (11-5, 26-5): No team has made a bigger jump this season. MSU has improved from 13th a year ago to third under third-year coach Vic Schaefer. They raced out to an 18-0 start against a typically weak schedule, but they’ve held it together in conference play. Their 11 SEC wins and 26 overall wins are both program records. If a loss at Vanderbilt can ever be considered a bad loss, that’s their only blemish. MSU has knocked off three teams ranked at the time – Georgia, West Virginia, and Texas A&M. They’ve yet to claim a top 10 scalp, though they went to two overtimes against Kentucky. With the Wildcats their likely Friday opponent, that rematch could be one of the more entertaining quarterfinal games.

The Bulldogs can shoot, hitting more three-pointers than anyone but Missouri. But they succeed by doing the little things well: they’re near the top of the league in rebounding, free throw percentage, and blocks. Martha Alwal remains one of the league’s most well-rounded post players, but she’s had some help this year from freshman wing Victoria Vivians. There’s a deep and experienced pool of guards that make it difficult to key on the posts or on any one shooter.

4) LSU (10-6, 16-12): Heading into conference play, the Tigers were a flat 6-6 with some head-scratching losses. An early-season suspension for leading scorer Danielle Ballard turned LSU into a very ordinary team. Ballard returned soon after the SEC schedule started, and the Tigers have rebounded to become a contender for an NCAA bid despite their overall record. They have impressive wins against Kentucky and Mississippi State, but some inconsistency down the stretch is troubling. They beat a short-handed Texas A&M team to close the season, but that win snapped a streak of three losses in four games including an ugly loss at Arkansas. The Tigers are guard-focused with Ballard and Raigyne Moncrief carrying most of the load. If they can get addtional outside production from DaShawn Harden or any inside production, it’s a bonus. The win against A&M earned them the double-bye, and they’ll likely have to face the Aggies again to make the semifinals.

5) Texas A&M (10-6, 22-8): It’s a familiar place for A&M: they’re not at the top of the standings, but they’re comfortably among the next group. The Aggies weren’t competitive with Tennessee or South Carolina but have an additional three losses by a combined 6 points. They lost point guard Jordan Jones for the season last week against Missouri, and they’ve dropped two straight games without her. A&M is the anti-Missouri, attempting few outside shots, and they depend on that point guard position for penetration and passing inside the arc. Jones is also one of the league’s top defenders. The absence of Jones likely won’t cost them in their first game, but Friday’s game would be a rematch against LSU – a team that just beat the Aggies by 17 on Sunday.

6) Kentucky (10-6, 21-8): The Cats have been highly-ranked all season, but they’ve found it tough to stay near the top of the SEC. They missed a chance to upset Tennessee in Lexington, and there’s no shame in any of their losses. They also have an impressive set of wins over ranked teams, and they captured the biggest win of the season with a Senior Day upset of South Carolina. Their frenetic defense and pace is enough to give them a chance against any opponent. They took a graduation hit in the frontcourt, but a strong senior class led by guard Jennifer O’Neill has plenty of postseason experience. Kentucky was able to knock off top-seeded South Carolina in the tournament last season, and Sunday’s upset of the Gamecocks was a reminder that even the 6-seed could make a deep run in this tournament.

7) Missouri (7-9, 17-12): Three! No SEC team is more dependent on the three-pointer. They don’t shoot the league’s best percentage, but no other team attempts or makes more than the Tigers. When they’re falling, they’re able to beat Texas A&M in College Station. They’ve had some success against the bottom of the conference (not to mention the upset of A&M), but the more talented teams of the league have been able to match up against their guards. Mizzou has been hot down the stretch, winning five of their last six games, so an appearance in the quarterfinals isn’t out of the question.

8) Ole Miss (7-9, 17-12): Their in-state rivals might be the SEC’s most improved team, but the Rebels aren’t far behind. In three seasons, Ole Miss has gone from the disgrace of postseason ineligibility to a last-place finish a year ago to a very respectable middle-of-the-pack result in 2015. It hasn’t been smooth sailing: they started SEC play 4-1 but lost seven straight before righting the ship. They’ve knocked off Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, and Kentucky in Oxford but haven’t done much of note away from home – always a concern for the postseason. Forward Tia Faleru is the league’s best rebounder.

9) Arkansas (6-10, 16-12): When you’re (re)building a program, you want to see a team that’s improved over the course of the season. That’s what you’ve got with Arkansas. The Hogs started out 1-6 in the SEC under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes, but they won five of seven games to get back into the discussion for an NCAA bid. A rout of red-hot LSU shows that this is a team to avoid in your bracket.

10) Georgia (6-10, 18-11): On January 22nd, the Lady Dogs pulled off a mild upset of #10 Texas A&M. It was a low-scoring, defensive battle – the formula that had worked to propel them to a 5-2 SEC record, 17-3 overall. Georgia then dropped a competitive game at Tennessee, but it was the loss of the team’s best scorer and defender, Shacobia Barbee, that changed the season. The tight games that had gone Georgia’s way became close losses, and a litany of injuries piled up as Georgia dropped eight straight and went winless in February. Georgia’s young players have made progress since the injuries afforded more playing time, and they were able to break the losing streak in the season finale at Florida. Georgia’s 20-year NCAA Tournament streak seems to be over, and they’ll have to make do in a spoiler role here.

Georgia’s been led by the backcourt in the past few seasons, but that’s changed a little this year especially without Barbee in the lineup. Merritt Hempe has continued to improve at center, and her return will help the team. Senior forward Krista Donald continues to be a warrior, and All-SEC freshman Mackenzie Engram has been a nice addition. Halle Washington has stepped up in Hempe’s absence.

Guards have struggled with consistency, and it starts with the point guard spot. Freshman Haley Clark has earned more and more playing time and a couple of starts down the stretch, but it’s been tough when so much of the offense runs through the point. Tiaria Griffin, Erika Ford, and transfer Pachis Roberts are all capable of big nights but are just as likely to be ice-cold. Fortunately their defense has been more consistent, but that defense has had little margin for error as the team has struggled to score.

11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 14-15): It’s the dreaded rebuilding year for Vandy. They’ve retooled with a taller but very inexperienced lineup that’s taking its lumps. That doesn’t mean they’re toothless: Vandy has knocked off Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas and could be a dangerous first or second round opponent. But as an inexperienced team, they’re just as likely to bow out on the first night.

12) Florida (5-11, 13-16): A year after squeaking into the NCAA Tournament, Florida has taken a step back. Florida was unspectacular in nonconference play, and their best conference win was a comeback in Athens during the Georgia collapse. The Gators feature their guards, but consistency, depth, and frontcourt production have been problems.

13) Auburn (3-13, 12-17): A dismal season got even worse after a midseason brawl with rival Alabama. The fallout from the brawl led to the dismissal of leading scorer Hasina Muhammad, and the Tigers seemed headed to a winless SEC season. They turned some heads with a comeback and near-upset against Ole Miss, and they finally broke through into the win column with a win at Georgia and closed the regular season with three straight wins. Guard Brandy Montgomery has stepped up, and the team’s pressure defense can be maddening. They’re not a sure one-and-done team at this tournament.

14) Alabama (2-14, 13-18): The Tide have lost quite a bit of ground from their surprising 7-9 campaign a year ago. Narrow wins over Auburn and Missouri are all that separate Alabama from a winless season, and the upsets that got them to seven wins in 2014 didn’t happen this year.

Post UGA and UNC to open the 2016 season in Atlanta

Friday February 20, 2015

Georgia and North Carolina will open the 2016 season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome on September 3, 2016.

It’s been a long time coming. Georgia and Carolina have played 30 times with Georgia holding a 16-12-2 advantage. Outside of current SEC members, only Georgia Tech and Clemson have been more frequent Georgia opponents. In fact, the Dawgs have faced North Carolina more times than they’ve faced four SEC West schools. But the Dawgs and Tar Heels haven’t met since the 1971 Gator Bowl when brothers Vince and Bill Dooley squared off in a 7-3 Georgia win.

Rekindling the series has come up several times in the 40+ years since, most recently in 2009 when talks were underway for the 2010 and 2011 Kickoff Classics. UNC ended up playing LSU in 2010, and of course Georgia opened with Boise State in 2011.

Personally, this is the best matchup I could ask for – the team I grew up supporting against my alma mater. My only quibble is that this was a missed opportunity for a series. The history between the two programs is there. Athens and Chapel Hill are iconic college towns with two top public Southern universities. The stadiums even share a common heritage. Kenan Stadium isn’t huge, but its picturesque setting among the pines is worth visiting. It was built by T.C. Atwood who then designed our own Sanford Stadium. I’ve said my peace before about giving up home games for neutral sites, but it especially applies for these two teams: fans of both schools are giving up the chance to visit another classic college town and stadium in order to close down a soon-to-be abandoned dome in downtown Atlanta.

I get why a home-and-home would have been tough to do. Georgia is headed to South Bend in 2017, so the return trip wouldn’t happen any time soon. The neutral site game gets us off the hook at the cost of a 2016 home game against a lesser opponent. Neutral site games also charge a premium for tickets, so there will be a minor financial windfall. Georgia received $1.7 million for the 2011 game against Boise State, so we’d expect at least $2 million this time around. Those 2011 tickets were $55 – higher than a $40 home game but still towards the low end of neutral site games.

If this is the only way to make a game between UGA and UNC happen, so be it. I hope it’s a starting point to consider an on-campus series in the future.

Post A possible indoor facility compromise – at what cost?

Tuesday February 17, 2015

Discussion of Georgia’s eventual indoor practice facility (IPF) has always come back to this tough choice: do you sacrifice existing outdoor practice fields for the on-campus location, or do you sacrifice convenience to build exactly what you want out on South Milledge Ave?

Seth Emerson, previewing a Tuesday Athletic Board meeting at which an IPF will be on the agenda, suggests that another location has emerged as a possible compromise that provides both a convenient location and a way to retain the outdoor fields. This location though raises another set of concerns. Emerson writes:

…one site has emerged as a possibility: The area just beyond the existing outdoor practice fields, off of Lumpkin Street, leading up to Stegeman Coliseum.

Other locations had not been ruled out as of last month: An off-campus area off Milledge Avenue, or tearing up one of the existing outdoor fields and building it there. But the location off Lumpkin seems a good compromise, keeping the existing facilities but not having it far from the Butts-Mehre building.

That location, “just beyond the existing outdoor practice fields,” is the block bordered by Lumpkin Street, Carlton Street, Sanford Drive, and Smith Street. It’s the site of the Hoke Smith Building, the Hoke Smith Annex, and a large parking lot that serves the Hoke Smith complex as well as athletic events during off-hours.

The location is ideal until you consider the buildings already occupying the site. Displacing typical academic buildings would be a tough enough sales job to the University community. These buildings house the University’s Cooperative Extension Service – essentially the state’s home base for CES outreach and 4H. It’s not as if these services would go away, but relocating them would draw statewide interest.

The political cost is just the start. The expense of a new CES location would obviously add to the cost of the practice facility. Would UGA or the athletic department foot that bill?

Would there be a way to preserve the buildings? Not realistically. If you try to shoehorn in a facility with the exact footprint of a practice field, the hulking football facility would just about touch the buildings and require the closure of Smith Street and Sanford Drive. And of course the facility will take up more space than the outline of a practice field.


So we’re left with this: if you take over the block completely, there seems to be ample space for a full-size indoor field with a nice buffer of greenspace around it. Personally, as someone who attends a lot of events at Stegeman, I’m not looking forward to losing those parking spaces, but that’s something I’ve said every time a new University building goes up. It’s worth pointing out that this solution is just one of several being considered, and we’ll learn more as the board discusses the future facility.


Post Georgia names Brian Schottenheimer as new offensive coordinator

Friday January 9, 2015

The Georgia football program announced on Wednesday the selection of Brian Schottenheimer as the team’s new offensive coordinator. Schottenheimer will replace Mike Bobo who took the Colorado State head coaching position back in December. Schottenheimer, who served as the offensive coordinator for the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams, had considered other opportunities to coach college ball in the South and finally pulled the trigger when the Georgia position became available.

I have to admit that my first reaction was reflexively negative – perhaps it had to do with an aversion on principle to NFL coaches, or as Dawg Sports put it, “Schottenheimer joins the ranks of other NFL offensive coordinators who have gone on to have great careers as offensive coordinators in the SEC, such as ________. And _______.” Or, in the words of Blutarsky, “Bobo’s departure doesn’t come as a relief.” I was in no rush to see Bobo leave the program and would have been just fine paying him Schottenheimer-level money* to keep the status quo.

(* – We don’t know yet the terms of Schottenheimer’s deal, but this was a guy making $1.5-2 million as an NFL coordinator. He might be willing to take a cut to get his foot in the door of the right situation if coaching college ball is his objective, but he still figures to command a deal worth more than Georgia has been paying its coordinator. It will be interesting to learn, if we ever do, whether Bobo was indeed offered a similar deal to remain in Athens or if the rumors that Georgia didn’t do much in the way of a counter-offer are true.)

So after the mixed results with Grantham and after watching Weis flame out at Florida, we are understandably jaded about plucking another coach from the NFL. He might well be the exception to the rule – I am only aware in the most general sense of his track record in New York and St. Louis, the personnel issues he dealt with in both situations, and the coaches for whom he worked. One benefit of our Grantham experience is the learned lesson that an NFL resume in itself is no talisman. The college game has its own unique demands and challenges, and there’s not much to go on when we try to map Schottenheimer’s experience to our expectations for what he’ll do at Georgia.

One of the key dynamics to watch will be the Schottenheimer-Richt collaboration. Schottenheimer’s head coaches in New York and St. Louis were defensive guys who (within reason) delegated the offense. It’s the opposite at Georgia. Richt has (again, within reason) been hands-off with his defense and even allowed fundamental scheme changes like the switch to a 3-4 system in 2010. That’s not happening on offense. Richt was clear heading into this hire that “were gonna continue to do what we do offensively.” Though Richt may have handed over playcalling over eight years ago, he still has very specific expectations for the offense, and anything Georgia runs will have Richt’s stamp of approval and oversight.

Will that dynamic constrain Schottenheimer or will it allow him to grow? Richt has always run a “pro-style” offense, but that vague label has applied even as the offense evolved during the Richt-Bobo partnership. Of course there was plenty of the usual I-formation or shotgun, but we’ve also seen the use of pistol and wildcat. We’ve seen the use of tempo as a strategy. Those are just a few of the wrinkles that gave Georgia the flexibility to go from featuring one of the conference’s most prolific passers to producing eye-popping results on the ground without skipping a beat. So even as Richt insists on a certain identity, there’s still room for creativity,innovation, and growth within that framework.

With scheme more or less settled, there are a few other challenges for the newcomer.


Jeremy Pruitt has gone on a tear restocking the defensive side of the roster. He’s pretty much had to – attrition and recruiting shortcomings had left things in a state where walk-ons and freshmen have been forced into action. Schottenheimer comes into a better short-term situation. The tailback position looks great, there are returning veterans at receiver and tight end, the line will be about as seasoned as it gets, and there will be a good pool of quarterback candidates.

Schottenheimer will have a similar opportunity to recruit the next wave of stars for Georgia’s offense, but, again, Richt has established the parameters. “The skill sets that we’ve recruited for, they have nothing to worry about, because we’re gonna use them to their fullest.” Schottenheimer’s first job is holding together some important 2015 and 2016 commitments, and Richt’s promise is a none-too-subtle message to reinforce Georgia’s position with those commitments and prospects. The recruiting services have already reached out to those prospects, and the responses have been positive for Georgia and Schottenheimer.

Bobo’s role as a recruiter was about as important to Georgia as his playcalling role. The Thomasville native had the connections to make deep inroads for the program into South Georgia. Bobo wasn’t only involved with quarterbacks and other offensive skill prospects; he was Georgia’s man for many high-profile South Georgia defenders from Ray Drew to Trenton Thompson. It’s going to be tough for Schottenheimer to take over without the same homegrown network, and it’s going to take a collaborative effort to maintain Georgia’s advantages in that important area of the state.


As the quarterbacks coach Schottenheimer will be asked to continue what’s become the golden age of Georgia quarterbacking. Four of the seven quarterbacks who started for Bobo and Richt earned an NFL roster spot, and even in the transitional seasons of 2009 and 2014 Georgia won at least nine games. Georgia’s top five quarterbacks in terms of career efficiency have all been from this era (Murray, Mason, Shockley, Greene, Cox). Georgia might be blessed with a fleet of tailbacks, but it’s no coincidence that Richt found a coordinator with experience working with quarterbacks. Modern offenses require competent quarterback play first and foremost, and Schottenheimer has a high standard to follow at Georgia.

Former boss Jeff Fisher calls Schottenheimer an “excellent teacher.” Even though that’s said in the context of defending an embattled coordinator, it’s worth something that Fisher would single out that attribute. Similarly, Schottenheimer is praised for his organization, and he’ll have to be organized to get the most out of limited practice opportunities. He’s worked with some of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and he’s been able to involve new talent (like Tre Mason this season) quickly.

There are adjustments for an NFL coach making the transition to college. Near the top of the list is the understanding that most college players don’t start with a basic fluency in fundamentals. When Pruitt began a year ago, he had to spend time stressing even the most mundane details. The time required just to build that fundamental foundation means that what’s build on that foundation can’t be particularly complex. Adding to the time crunch are the built-in NCAA time limits, the requirements and distractions of college life, and the fact that you’re instructing nearly twice as many players as you would with a 53-man NFL roster.

A year ago, there was nearly universal accord for Georgia’s new defensive coordinator. We were ready to move on from the predecessor, and Pruitt had done exactly the same job for the national champion. There seems to be a lot more wait-and-see with this hire, and we’ve outlined some of the reasons for that above. Considering the recent success of the Georgia offense, I imagine that anyone hired to follow Bobo would make us a little nervous. In his favor, Schottenheimer is more than qualified for the position. He’ll have some of the best talent in the nation with which to work and all of the resources he’ll need. He’ll have input into the hiring of a new offensive line coach. If Schottenheimer is ready to prove himself at the college level, he’s set up for success.

Post Bauerle case resolved – it could have been worse

Wednesday December 17, 2014

Finally some closure in the saga of Jack Bauerle. If you need a refresher, start here. The story revolves around the eligibility of a male swimmer and the steps taken to get a passing grade in a course during fall semester 2013. Bauerle has remained on some form of suspension since January when the UGA compliance staff discovered the incident. University officials met with the NCAA in October (at the same time as the Gurley investigation), and the NCAA Committee on Infractions issued their ruling today.

You can read the NCAA’s summary here, but the penalties (all directed at Baurle and not UGA) boil down to:

  • A $5,000 fine and repayment of legal fees.
  • A continued suspension lasting for the first nine meets of the current season.
  • A show-cause penalty that prohibits Bauerle from recruiting through the 2014-2015 season.

With the facts of the case generally accepted as reported back in April, the panel ruled that Bauerle “failed to promote an atmosphere for compliance.” Bauerle argued that this academic course of action was available to any student and didn’t constitute an improper benefit. The panel disagreed, noting that Bauerle pulled some strings with “a psychology professor, whom he had known for a long time, and asked that professor to permit a
freshman student-athlete to add an upper-level independent study.” Further, Bauerle “should have allowed the academic
and athletics compliance staff to address the student-athlete’s situation without his interference.”

The panel concluded that the incident involved “Level II violations” which lie somewhere between secondary violations and the “egregious” violations that could bring the program down. The report states that mitigating factors – Georgia’s prompt acknowledgement and self-reporting of the incident as well as “exemplary cooperation” – got the University and athletic department off the hook. The penalties are in line with those findings: there is no reduction in scholarships or probation for the program, and the weight of the penalties will come down on Bauerle.

As we noted back in April, few, if any, Georgia programs have produced more academic standouts than swimming and diving. This past year alone Georgia had five Academic All-Americans. This wasn’t a culture opposed to academic standards or success. In this instance though Bauerle went against both policy and advice, and it resulted in a serious NCAA infraction that could have put his position and 30+ year legacy in jeopardy. The good news though is that Bauerle is cleared to remain as Georgia’s coach and will be available for the SEC and NCAA postseasons.

Post Georgia-Louisville set for the Belk Bowl

Tuesday December 9, 2014

If there was a common dread after the Tech game (other than the whole losing to Tech thing), it was a resignation that Georgia had cost itself a spot in one of the new “access bowls” whose participants would be parceled out by the playoff committee. Instead, it looked as if Georgia would slip back into the familiar world of a Florida bowl versus a Big 10 opponent, and jokes about a rubber match against Nebraska seemed a lot less funny. Greg McGarity even had to take to the news and assure us that Georgia would not be facing Nebraska nor playing in Jacksonville again.

Georgia did more than avoid Nebraska and Jacksonville. They’ve managed to avoid Big 10 conference and the state of Florida entirely this bowl season. The Dawgs will instead head to Charlotte to face Louisville in the Belk Bowl on Tuesday evening, December 30.

So instead of complaining about the same old, same old in Florida, those Georgia fans can now gripe about being passed over for New Year’s Day bowls in warmer climes for an earlier bowl with a lower payout.

The stories generate themselves instantly. Grantham. The slew of players dismissed from Georgia who are now sitting out their transfer season at Louisville. A planned series between the two programs was shelved a couple of years ago so that Georgia could play Boise State in 2011. Georgia finally gets to face Louisville in a new bowl, new stadium, and new city. For everyone tired of the bowl rut, here you go.

Personally, I’m more interested in this game than I would have been in a game against, say, Minnesota or Wisconsin. If prestige is an issue, things have changed: with the Peach Bowl becoming one of the new “access bowls,” this is the new Peach Bowl. You have two ranked teams from the ACC and SEC. The payout and everything else needs to catch up, but most of the payout gets split by the conference anyway. It’s a reasonable 4-hour drive from Atlanta and Athens, and the Dawgs will play a game in the state that’s given the program Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Jeb Blazevich, and Mohammed Massaquoi – among others. Certainly the weather won’t be as nice as it would have been in Florida – hopefully we can get something a little more typical of a November home game rather than something more like the 2001 Music City Bowl.

Though you’ll hear more than you can stomach about Grantham, know that this is a talented defense mostly recruited and trained by Charlie Strong. They have a sound rushing defense and lead the nation with 25 interceptions, mostly thanks to safety Gerod Holliman who tied the NCAA record with 14 picks in 2014. As we saw in 2011 and 2012, Grantham can get results with a talented roster, and Louisville has played solid defense for much of the 2014 season. Football Outsiders has their defense rated 5th best in the nation.

But as much as we’ll hear about Grantham, I’m almost more interested in the other coordinator matchup: Petrino vs. Pruitt. Each has had a season to re-tool his side of the ball in his own image, and there will be challenges for both of them. Louisville lost starting quarterback and Georgia native Will Gardner late in the season but have still finished strong, scoring 31 and 44 points in the final two games of the season. Pruitt has had to piece together a secondary still hemorrhaging players, and the Georgia defense has managed several impressive performances against some quality opponents. Georgia’s secondary hasn’t been tested by a strong passing attack since perhaps even the Tennessee game, so I’m looking forward to seeing how Pruitt and Petrino scheme against one another. Louisville’s 37 sacks allowed ranks near the bottom of the FBS, so Georgia’s pass rush will be a big part of the game plan.

Post Green to transfer to Tech

Tuesday December 9, 2014

Georgia has given J.J. Green his unconditional release, and that’s a good policy – student-athletes aren’t chattel. It’s a tough policy to stomach though when, as the Senator points out, that policy isn’t reciprocated and puts Georgia at a disadvantage. Where have we heard that before?

As for Green, he was an important part of the story in 2013 and a big reason why Georgia won at Tennessee. But considering the course he’s said to be choosing, that’s about as far as the pleasantries will go.

Post Georgia 24 – Georgia Tech 30: Talking to myself

Tuesday December 2, 2014

Like many, I stood there unable to move for several minutes after Huston Mason’s interception ended the game. Going back and watching the scene on the broadcast confirms what I remember: a stunned crowd and team trying to make sense of what happened. I’m still trying. To help focus myself, I’ll reply to a handful of tweets I sent out just before the game.

I asked this question for two reasons: first, big pass plays helped Tech jump out 20-0 on Georgia last year. I wondered if Johnson would test Georgia’s secondary again. Second, Tech came into the game with one of the top-ten rated passing attacks (a spot ahead of Georgia, in fact.) Though they were completing just over 50% of passes, they were getting a lot from the passes they did complete.

As it turned out, Tech’s passing game played only a minor role in the outcome. They completed 6 of 16 passes for just 64 yards and one score coming at the end of the first half. But it’s the split that tells the story. Tech attempted just two passes after halftime. As with Florida completing just 3 of 6 pass attempts, Tech didn’t need to throw in the second half because their running game was functioning so well.

The Georgia defense did a fair job against the run in the first half, but they couldn’t sustain it. Whether it was fatigue, the return of bad habits, or Tech finding and exploiting a weakness, Georgia’s line was overmatched against the dive. Though Ray Drew played the game of his life, the dive often went off-tackle to the side opposite Drew where the defensive linemen were less effective. Georgia’s interior linebackers recorded a staggering number of tackles, but many of those came chasing down a guy who had broken through the line. Tech put together a string where five out of six drives went at least eight plays. Georgia had only three possessions in the entire second half (true, there was a nice fumble return in there too.) That’s a lot of time for the defense to be out there, and they just couldn’t get off the field. It became classic option water torture.

Oh did turnovers play a part in the game. Georgia’s three red zone turnovers were crippling. Tech’s two fumbles led to 14 Georgia points. I’d go so far as to consider the blocked placekicks by both teams as turnovers. There were huge swings in momentum all day. It must’ve made for an entertaining game for neutral watchers. Tech and Georgia fans had to be dizzy. For Georgia, both fumbles came when backs made extra effort near the goal line. With so many fumbles bouncing back Georgia’s way throughout the season, the ledger adjusted itself at the worst possible time.

Both sides of the coin in that tweet. Yes, Georgia got out to a much better start this year. They marched down the field with relative ease, scored, and then forced Tech to punt. Georgia’s defense was playing well enough that the Dawgs had a fair chance to go up by three scores in the first half. They never trailed until late in the 4th quarter. But then there’s the “make the most of every possession” detail. Georgia had seven possessions inside of the Georgia Tech 40 that generated a total of 17 points. Five of those possessions resulted in only three points. The three red zone turnovers are obvious enough, but two other scoring chances were significant. The outstanding field position earned on the possession after Swann’s fumble return resulted in two yards gained and a blocked field goal instead of a two-possession lead. The five futile cracks at the endzone after Morgan’s brilliant fake field goal set the stage for the dramatic finish.

Ugh. Is it a cop-out to say that Mason’s legacy is still incomplete? Or would ambiguous be the better choice of words? It would have been much more tidy of course had Georgia’s final touchdown held up, but the interception that ended the game is burned in our memories now – never mind that it was his first interception since Vanderbilt. Even before those moments, the game was a mixed bag for Mason. He missed a couple of third down throws that should have extended drives. But given the ball with two minutes and incredible pressure, he orchestrated what should have been the winning drive.

A year after Mason passed for nearly 300 yards in Atlanta, Georgia’s approach to the passing game on Saturday was much different. Pass plays were short and intermediate and heavy on screens. That was fine so long as the running game was working – the space was there for a short pass to turn into more as it did for Chubb on the opening drive. But as Tech tightened up against the run (and Georgia’s line became less effective), there wasn’t much of a response from the Georgia offense. We didn’t see a real test downfield until an incomplete pass just beyond Conley well into the third quarter. We didn’t even see Conley targeted until the third quarter. Georgia’s senior receivers – Bennett and Conley – combined for 12 catches, 182 yards, and a touchdown in Atlanta a year ago. On Saturday Conley didn’t record a catch until Georgia’s final drive of regulation, and Bennett was shut out. Not to take anything away from Malcolm Mitchell’s outstanding game (holding on to that go-ahead touchdown was no small thing), but I just can’t process that two accomplished senior receivers weren’t a bigger part of the plan. I don’t put that on Mason or Bennett or Conley, and it’s not as if the final passing stats were that far from a typical 2014 Georgia game. And, again, the offense generated enough scoring chances to win. The approach just had a very strange feel to it.

Post Georgia 55 – Charleston Southern 9: All tuned up

Monday November 24, 2014

Not much to note from the game, and that’s a good thing. Georgia tidily put the game away by the end of the first quarter. While that seems like a minor point and probably doesn’t mean much going forward, it’s more than some playoff contenders can say for their performance on Saturday. You mainly want to come out of these games intact, and Georgia seems to have dodged a bullet on the injury front. We’ve got bigger fish to fry this week, so we’ll make this quick.

  • We’ve secretly replaced Lee Greenwood with Kenny G. Let’s see if anyone notices.
  • I was glad to see Charleston Southern bring the band and let their whole program experience a game at Georgia. The Western Carolina coach was passionate about what these games mean to FCS programs, and we know there were several Georgians on the CSU team for whom this opportunity had extra meaning. We haven’t seen any whining “open letters” yet from the CSU camp, so we hope they all enjoyed the day.
  • We only saw Chubb for a brief moment, but the long touchdown and the abuse of a would-be tackler was all anyone needed to see before it was time to go back in bubble wrap.
  • Speaking of physical runs, Hicks made the most of his single carry. After he bounced off the line and went outside, Hicks wasn’t going to be denied the endzone.
  • Charleston Southern didn’t record a sack, but Mason several times had to elude an oncoming defender and make a play on the run. His touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley was such a play – Mason was flushed to the right by a defender who had gotten past Jay Rome, and Mason led Scott-Wesley nicely for an easy catch.
  • Mason looked as sharp as he has all season, and it was good to see him take a few shots downfield. It would have been nice to connect with Mitchell a few times – that combination seems like the missing piece for a Georgia offense that’s already very potent, but it just hasn’t come together yet.
  • Ramsey (8-for-12) also looked better than he did in his other extended action versus Troy (4-for-8). The interception wasn’t a great throw, but his touchdown pass to Rumph had some nice touch.
  • Enjoyed seeing Rumph and Scott-Wesley make the most of their days with touchdown receptions. Scott-Wesley had his first receptions of the season after a long road back from ACL surgery, and Rumph showed some nice elusiveness on an early catch that he turned into a first down.
  • The day belonged to Conley. After some disappointing drops against Auburn, the senior had two touchdown receptions including what could likely be Georgia’s catch of the year. The Redcoats saluted him with the Star Wars theme – a very nice touch.
  • We all know how electrifying McKenzie can be in the return game, but he’s still making some freshman mistakes. The returners had to be frustrated by the rugby punts, but it would have really sucked for the top returner to go down with a bad injury trying to field a meaningless second-half punt. He’s also dropped some very catchable passes in back-to-back games, and those are plays he’ll need to make to avoid being pigeonholed as just the return guy.
  • Jordan Jenkins had another disruptive game. There aren’t many Bulldogs playing better right now.
  • The starting defense performed well and largely kept the option offense from generating many big plays. They were forced to adjust after Sanders went out, and it was a small silver lining that Parrish and Bowman got a lot of work against that kind of offense.

Finally, thank you to all of the veterans in attendance on Saturday and also to those involved with the ceremonies and tributes. Fans were impressed, moved, and humbled by the stories of valor and sacrifice.

Post What are Georgia’s chances of winning the East?

Wednesday November 19, 2014

We know Georgia needs Missouri to lose one of its final two games. But how likely is that to happen?

Thankfully, the Football Study Hall has put hard numbers to the likelihood of Missouri running the table. The Tigers have a 22.1% chance of going 2-0 against Tennessee and Arkansas which means that Georgia has about a 78% chance at this point of winning the East. Not a sure thing, but very strong odds.

There’s more: they also run the numbers for the three contenders remaining in the West and give Alabama a 79.2% chance of coming out on top – even slightly higher than Georgia’s odds in the East. When you combine the likely outcomes in both divisions, we currently have about a 62% chance of a Georgia-Alabama rematch in the Dome.

Post Georgia 34 – Auburn 7: The defense strikes back

Tuesday November 18, 2014

If the Kentucky game last week was Mike Bobo’s magnum opus for this season, Auburn was Jeremy Pruitt’s. The Georgia defense has played statistically better games and shut out two other opponents, but they’ve never come up so big against an offense of the quality they faced on Saturday. With nearly everyone expecting a shootout, this was instead every bit the overwhelming Georgia win that we saw the last time an Auburn team running the Malzahn offense visited Athens in 2011.

At the risk of sounding nonchalant about another stellar rushing performance, Georgia’s offense lived up to their end of the shootout. It would have been news if Chubb and Gurley weren’t spectacular. They didn’t score quickly with explosive plays (not for lack of trying), but it was more of a steady, consistent buildup towards the final score. Once Georgia got the opening they needed thanks to a fumbled punt return, the Georgia running attack began its stranglehold on the game. Blocking on the edge was excellent from the tackles, fullbacks, tight ends, and receivers, and a national audience now knows who David Andrews and Greg Pyke are.

Georgia was able to take a more deliberate approach to its offense as the game wore on thanks to the defense. Everyone buckled up for the anticipated track meet following Auburn’s opening drive, but the Georgia defense started making stops. There were several big moments for the defense, but the most important might have been Auburn’s second possession. Auburn’s early success and the bad breaks and penalties that cost Georgia three scoring opportunities on their first possession had me a little concerned that we’d soon be looking at 14-0 and digging out of a hole for the rest of the game. After moving the chains, Auburn got seven yards on a first down carry to set up 2nd and 3 – a distance which is almost an automatic conversion for this offense. Instead, Georgia stuffed Cameron Artis-Payne on second down and stopped him just short of the marker on third down. Facing 4th and 1 from their own 37, I was honestly surprised when Malzahn sent the punter out. The Dawgs won a small victory against this offense, and Auburn didn’t cross midfield again in the first half.

It’s water under the bridge now, but things really did seem to hang in the balance midway through the first quarter. You can see Georgia’s slow start in the win probability, and no points from their first two possessions didn’t bode well when we all expected that Georgia would have to keep pace in a high-scoring game. That first defensive stop and then the fumble recovery gave the offense the cover and then the spark they needed to post three straight scoring drives to end the half and gain control of the game. Most of us expected Auburn to catch fire at any time and get back into the game, but the Georgia defense did an outstanding job of making sure that never happened.

One of my big concerns coming into the game was Georgia’s ability to stop the run with a smaller secondary. Georgia had both the plan and the execution to defend the run:

  • The line had one of its best games occupying blockers so that the next level of defenders could, in the words of Mark Richt, “clean up.” The skill players often get the credit in an explosive offense, but we saw how important a dominant lineman like Greg Robinson was for Auburn. Florida’s offensive line was able to push the Georgia front around, and Auburn wasn’t. There’s more to the defense than that, but it’s an essential starting point.
  • With the line doing its job, the linebackers had to actually make the stops. Last year Ramik Wilson had a remarkable 18 tackles at Auburn. He was a little less productive this year, but he and Herrera still combined for 20 tackles. Herrera, with 12 tackles, one tackle for loss, and an interception, was outstanding.
  • Pruitt addressed three problems by using Leonard Floyd at times in the “star” role usually played by a defensive back. First, he found a way to get Jenkins, Carter, and Floyd on the field and use that abundance of talent and speed at outside linebacker to counter Auburn’s elite skill position talent. Second, the move changed the nature of Floyd’s assignment – he was less responsible for containment, something with which he struggled against Florida. Third, the move shored up Georgia’s lighter back five by putting a 6’4″ 230 lb. outside linebacker where we usually see a 6’0″ sub-200 lb defensive back.

You can see the results in the stats: last year, two of Georgia’s top four tacklers against Auburn were safeties. This year, only one of Georgia’s top five tacklers (Swann) was a defensive back. Jordan Jenkins from the outside and Toby Johnson from the inside each accounted for six tackles. With Herrera and Wilson cleaning up what got past the line, there was a lot less pressure on the secondary to provide run support.

Auburn really missed leading receiver Duke Williams. Not only did his injury limit what Auburn was able to do downfield – they didn’t complete a pass longer than 20 yards until garbage time – but the diminished passing threat let Georgia risk Floyd at star to bolster the run defense where he might’ve struggled in pass coverage. Auburn was able to hit a few passes in the middle of the field to move the chains, but the deep balls that had been so effective for them earlier in the season weren’t there.

Just a few more things…

  • The staff let us know right away that we wouldn’t see a repeat of the timid approach to the Florida game. They surely anticipated a higher-scoring game as well and came out swinging. It wasn’t just the fake punt (really nice play, by the way). The deep pass to McKenzie on third down was a high risk/reward play. 15 of Georgia’s 19 pass attempts came in the first half, and several of them were shots into the endzone.
  • Georgia’s two most exciting plays of the night were touchdowns that were called back. Gurley’s kickoff return put a cattle prod to a crowd that had been deflated by Auburn’s first score, and the crowd had no reason to pipe down for the rest of the game. Chubb’s touchdown-that-wasn’t was the kind of individual highlight that moves a guy from the Best Supporting Actor category to leading man status. Chubb paid homage to that effort with another tackle-shedding stroll on the final touchdown of the night.
  • Going back to Chubb’s touchdown-that-wasn’t, the play featured Chubb and Gurley in the backfield. We had seen that earlier in the game with Chubb at the fullback spot in an I-formation, but on this play each flanked Mason in the shotgun. Gurley sprinting to the left drew a lot of attention, and Chubb was open on the middle screen with a path down the right sideline. It was a very nice play that took advantage of the attention that must be paid to Gurley while getting the ball to Georgia’s other backfield weapon.
  • Malcolm Mitchell’s two catches for 13 yards might be the most unassuming significant contribution of the night. With other receivers struggling to hold onto the ball, Mitchell came up with two very difficult catches that led to 14 of Georgia’s 17 first half points. Mitchell’s touchdown reception came on a quick slant where the safety leaned inside just long enough for Mitchell to come open underneath the cornerback. Georgia needed a play to cash in on Auburn’s fumble and tie the game, and they turned to their best receiver. It took a perfectly-thrown pass, and Mitchell still took a good hit before falling into the endzone. Mitchell’s second catch didn’t score points or even move the chains. On 3rd and 7, Mason was flushed from the pocket and rolled right to avoid pressure. I thought he was trying to throw the ball away, but he found Mitchell low and along the sideline to pick up six yards. That tough completion turned a sure field goal attempt into a fourth down decision for Mark Richt, and Nick Chubb soon thundered into the endzone to give Georgia a 7-point lead.
  • Malkom Parrish started the game with a big hit on the opening kickoff and all but finished the game with a forced fumble. It was more of him than we’ve seen in a while, and it’s always a good thing to have a guy in the secondary who likes to hit. And if we’re talking about hitting, it’s a joy watching Tim Kimbrough make tackles. Every time.

Post Basketball season tips off Friday night

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.

Post Getting ready for Auburn

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.