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Post Signing Day Wrapup

Friday February 7, 2014

Georgia signed 20 student-athletes on Wednesday to join early enrollee Jacob Park in the incoming 2014 class. The group was rated #7 nationally by Rivals.com, #12 by Scout, #9 by ESPN, and #8 by 24-7. As usual, a Top 10 class in the SEC means that you’re only keeping up – ESPN had 7 SEC schools among its national Top 10.

The class met some important needs – the tailback depth looks fantastic, the QB pipeline is replenished, the tight end position got some needed attention, there’s another outstanding pass rusher, and there is a much-needed injection of talent at cornerback. Georgia even took the interesting opportunity to sign a player specifically targeted as a return specialist.

It was a relatively small class (no SEC school signed fewer), but we expected that given a light graduating senior class. In fact, Georgia oversigned slightly and will have to have some attrition to meet the NCAA limit of 85 scholarship players. Mark Richt wasn’t concerned about that problem, and the numbers always work themselves out. 21

There wasn’t much drama on Signing Day – at least as far as the big announcements went. Georgia got their most important Signing Day target, defensive end Lorenzo Carter, and they missed out on another uncommitted prospect with whom they became involved with late.

While Signing Day itself was fairly calm, Georgia had a flurry of activity in the 10 days leading up to the big day. Georgia added nearly a quarter of its class during this late push.

  • On January 27th, Tucker defensive back Dominick Sanders committed.
  • On February 3rd, Shaquille Jones announced his flip from Louisville to Georgia.
  • Georgia added three more to the class on Signing Day.
    • We had heard about return specialist Isaiah “The Human Joystick” McKenzie earlier in the week, and he put speculation to rest early on Wednesday.
    • If there was one big Signing Day Surprise, it was the unexpected flip of in-state tight end Hunter Atkinson from Cincinnati. Atkinson is a big, physical tight end who has the frame to develop into an offensive lineman (Adam Meadows for those old enough to remember), but Atkinson has the receiving skills to be an imposing tight end at his current size.
    • The announcement of Lorenzo Carter was the most anticipated of the day, but most pundits felt confident in Georgia’s chances. The uncertainty about Georgia’s defensive staff gave Carter a reason to seriously consider LSU, but the hirings of Jeremy Pruitt and Tracy Rocker were enough to keep Carter in-state.

Those hirings helped to smooth over what could have been a very rough time for the staff. Despite turnover of the entire defensive staff, it didn’t cost Georgia a single commitment. Not only that, the newcomers to the staff solidified Carter’s preference and helped to sway Jones and Sanders at the 11th hour. Some additional effort didn’t bear fruit, but it shouldn’t go unrecognized that the new staff made up tremendous ground with a handful of additional defensive prospects.

When you have a small class, there will necessarily be areas that come up short. That’s most evident up the middle of the defense. Georgia signed one defensive tackle, one interior linebacker, and its only safety commitment signed with Marshall. That would be a concern if those positions needed immediate help in 2014, but they don’t. It does make those positions a little more important for the 2015 class, and top defensive prospects like DT Trent Thompson become high priorities.


Post Changes planned for Jacksonville endzone seating and scoreboards

Tuesday February 4, 2014

About $63 million in improvements are slated for Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, host site of the Georgia-Florida football game. The improvements include a reconfiguration of the north and south open ends of the stadium with giant video scoreboards “among the largest of their kind in the world”, a “party deck” fan pavilion, and even a water feature.

The work is expected to be done in time for the 2014 NFL season.

While the new video boards will be a welcome improvement for Georgia and Florida fans, the biggest change will be to the seating in the north endzone (opposite the river.) According to Jaguars President Mark Lamping, the project will require the removal of nearly 7,000 permanent seats in the 200 and 300 levels to build a platform that extends out over the lower-level seats. These seats to be removed are usually tarped over for Jaguar games but are needed for the Georgia-Florida game. To account for the lost seats, the stadium will remove temporary structures from the new platform and put up 7,000 temporary seats for the Georgia-Florida game, similar to those temporary seats currently used in the south endzone sections.

EverBank Field north endzone


Post Taking stock of the safety position

Tuesday February 4, 2014

With a significant number of starters returning on both sides of the ball, Georgia has only a handful of positions that should provide much preseason drama. Replacing three offensive line starters is probably the biggest job, but the depth is there to make it an area of interest rather than panic. We’ll also be watching how a number of talented players work back in to their respective positions after injuries, but those stories might not play out until August.

One position that has come to the forefront is safety. Georgia returns everyone but Connor Norman and Marc Deas, and several of the players who ended up with most of the playing time in 2013 were underclassmen. At first glance, it’s not a position where you’d expect much turnover or recruiting emphasis.

Mauger and Matthews were thrown to the fire as true freshmen, and each had the ups and downs you’d expect. Moore is the most experienced, but he now enters his senior year without a firm grip on a starting spot. Harvey-Clemons made an impact at the hybrid “star” position in his first season with significant playing time. Matthews and Harvey-Clemons have the recruiting pedigree to suggest that they’re the future of the position, but even they have some uncertainty.

The first uncertainty is size. We saw it with Alec Ogletree, eventually with Thomas Davis in the NFL, and even with Paris Bostick, a 2013 incoming freshman safety. As defensive ends sometimes grow into tackles, big safeties can become quick linebackers. Matthews doesn’t plan on moving to linebacker, but he admits that has the frame to get bigger and will have to concentrate on adding lean muscle. Harvey-Clemons is already imposing at 6’5″ and handled some linebacker responsibilities in his “star” role. If Pruitt approaches the “star” position differently or prefers a more typical nickel back, Harvey-Clemons could find himself in a tweener spot between safety and linebacker, and the reasonable course there is to put on the size needed to move to linebacker.

The other uncertainty is more unpleasant, but it’s a reality that we also had to face with Ogletree. Harvey-Clemons will miss the first three games as part of a four-game suspension that kept him out of the bowl game. He had already missed the 2013 season opener as the result of a one-game suspension. If this most recent suspension is also drug-related, Harvey-Clemons has two strikes before he’s even started his junior season. Hopefully he’ll get the help he needs and eventually graduate, but another incident could create a tough decision for Mark Richt. As it is now, Richt and Pruitt have to come up with a Plan B for at least the first three games.

During bowl practices we learned that redshirt freshman Tramel Terry would move from receiver to safety. Terry spent the 2013 recovering from knee surgery, but he was one of the bigger signings of the 2013 recruiting class. His versatility and athleticism made him a candidate to contribute on either side of the ball, a la Malcolm Mitchell. Terry spent the regular season as a receiver during his rehab. Coach Richt indicated that the move to safety was permanent – at least as far as these things go.

About the same time as Terry’s move, we learned that JUCO transfer Shaquille Fluker would leave the program in search of playing time. Georgia’s medical staff was concerned about Fluker’s condition after a seizure and would not clear him to participate. Fluker didn’t play in 2013, but his medical status and ultimate transfer cost Georgia a more experienced option at safety.

There have also been some developments in recruiting. Georgia has a single safety commitment, Kendall Gant of Lakeland, Fla, alongside three and possibly four cornerback commitments. Gant is reported to have academic concerns and might be headed for prep school. Since the arrival of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the Dawgs have turned up the heat on a couple of safety prospects. Tavon Ross is a Missouri commitment from Bleckley County who has emerged as a priority. The Dawgs are also trying to make a late push with Tampa’s T.J. Harrell but will have ground to make up against Louisville and Michigan St. Georgia just recently offered and got a commitment from Tucker’s Dominick Sanders who could play either cornerback or safety but is most likely a cornerback. Whether it’s the uncertainty of Gant’s academics or a need perceived by the new staff after evaluating the current roster, the addition of another safety to the recruiting class has become a priority.

Improving the secondary is one of the biggest tasks for Pruitt as both the coordinator and the defensive backs coach. Due to suspensions and injuries, we saw new combinations at safety in nearly every game. We’ll see more of that in the first month of the 2014 season as Harvey-Clemons serves his suspension. Beyond that, can Pruitt bring some consistency to the position and develop the kind of sustained production we’ve seen from some of Mark Richt’s better secondaries?


Post Pruitt introduced as defensive coordinator

Thursday January 16, 2014

Mark it down – it doesn’t happen often: the Bulldog Nation is in accord about not one but two points on the hiring of Jeremy Pruitt as Georgia’s defensive coordinator.

1 – It’s a fantastic hire. Everyone – from the players to the media to the crustiest “FIRE THEM ALL” fans – seems to love this news. About the only thing you can say to temper the enthusiasm is that expectations on the defense will be unfairly high right away.

2 – It’s too good to be true. Even after you parse the relationships involved, note the terms of the contract, and account for the fact that Mark Richt is a pretty good guy to work for, there’s near-universal bewilderment that the first-year coordinator of the national champion would make a lateral move to an 8-5 program stuck right in the middle of the nation’s toughest conference. Yes, the hot girl just dumped the quarterback and would rather be with you. Georgia fans, used to being played for salary increases by unserious candidates, couldn’t believe it until they saw the press conference.

But here we are. It’s official. Pruitt was introduced on Wednesday as the new defensive coordinator at an event that will leave Georgia fans with a smile that will last until September. The quotes are pure red meat to fans. It doesn’t sound as if it’ll take much to get the defensive players to buy in.

A lot of fans insitinctivly went for Kirby Smart when the position came open. I get the appeal, but I wasn’t as sold on the preference as much as a lot of people seemed to be. One of the concerns about Smart was the fact that he hadn’t proven himself apart from Saban. Pruitt had the opportunity to do that last year at FSU. With Jimbo Fisher’s background on offense, Pruitt’s defense was built in his image. While the personnel and opponents will be different in Athens, we at least have a better understanding with Pruitt of how he’ll go about things.

Pruitt will have a chance right away to make his mark on the Georgia program. Though Mark Richt left the door open for Georgia’s two remaining defensive position coaches to remain on the staff, it appears as if Kirk Olivadotti and Chris Wilson will take positions elsewhere. Those moves make Pruitt, in his second day on the job, the senior man on Georgia’s defensive staff. Pruitt will oversee defensive backs, so that leaves openings on the defensive line and at linebacker. With a 3-4 scheme, you’d expect one defensive line coach and then two linebackers coaches (for inside and outside.)

It didn’t take long for the giddiness over the arrival of Pruitt to turn to a more sober realization that the work starts right away. All of the advantages Richt counted on with the continuity he stressed when it looked as if the staff would remain intact are long gone, though at least the basic scheme won’t be changing much. The ability to assemble an ideal staff is a tremendous opportunity (it’s more or less what FSU had to do last year.) But with less than three weeks until Signing Day, there’s also a small bit of urgency to bring in a group of coaches that will not only bring about improvement on the defense but also finish the job of recruiting. Pruitt sounded as if he was already quite familiar with Georgia’s recruiting board, and he’ll take some time evaluating the current list of offers. This is a fairly light weekend for official visits, but things really ramp up over the next two weeks. We should expect to have a staff in place and on the ground by then.

  • Georgia will remain a 3-4 defense. Pruitt noted the need to be multiple and versatile based on the varied offenses they’d face and the need to get the best people on the field. Different alignments and personnel groups out of the base 3-4 were common under Grantham as well.
  • Though Pruitt offered to help with Georgia’s struggling special teams, Richt guessed that the staff would add someone with “a string special teams background.” That wouldn’t be a prerequisite for the job, but now with three openings Pruitt and Richt will have a little more flexibility to add a position coach with some special teams expertise.
  • “If you can’t execute it, we’re not going to call it.”
  • “We want be sound, we want to be aggressive, but we want to make the other team earn it.”
  • “We’re gonna be simple enough where you’ll be able to turn it loose and play football.”

Only a few weeks ago, fans were not in a very good place after an 8-5 season. Sure, there were injuries to consider, and everyone expected that a new and inexperienced defense would struggle. It helps that those 8 wins included the opponents they did. But the whole “continuity” theme seemed to be stretching it, and it was hard to get excited about more of the same on defense when so many little things were slipping. The universal praise of Pruitt’s arrival seems to have jolted not only the fans but also the players out of their postseason doldrums. That excitement will have to turn into a great deal of hard work and tough decisions over the next seven months, but the first step has been taken, and it’s on very solid ground.


Post Tumultuous Grantham era comes to an end

Monday January 13, 2014

As first reported by ESPN on Sunday afternoon, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is leaving the program after four seasons to take the same position with Bobby Petrino’s new Louisville staff. You can almost hear the collective shrug of the shoulders from the Bulldog Nation.

Grantham was hired for the 2010 season to turn around a defense that had finished 63rd in the nation in scoring defense in 2009 and 38th in total defense. Georgia reached out to Grantham for his NFL experience and his knowledge of the 3-4 scheme that was coming back in style thanks to Alabama’s ascent.

The 2010 season was a transition year, and the Dawgs didn’t quite have all of the pieces to implement the 3-4 yet. Grantham won fans over with a confident and aggressive tone even as the Dawgs started 1-4 and finished with the only losing record posted by a Mark Richt team. The development of Justin Houston into one of the nation’s top pass rush threats showed the promise of the new scheme.

Grantham also began hitting the recruiting trail hard in 2010, forming relationships that would bear fruit with several key defensive signings in the 2011 “Dream Team” class. Most importantly for Grantham, that class included JUCO defensive lineman John Jenkins. Jenkins was a prototype nose guard for the 3-4 and would anchor the interior of the defense for his two seasons in Athens. With a year of experience in the system and more pieces in place, the 2011 defense finished #5 in the nation in total defense and helped lead the team to the SEC East title. Jarvis Jones became an All-American outside linebacker, and Georgia’s defense was among the ten best in takeaways. After allowing 80 points in the first two games, the Dawgs only allowed more than 20 points once over the rest of the 2011 regular season.

The return of key draft-eligible underclassmen for 2012 sent expectations through the roof, and Grantham received a hefty extension heading into the season. That heralded defense failed to materialize thanks to a slew of off-season incidents that left defensive starters suspended through, in some cases, the first four games of the season. As a result, the Dawgs gave up at least 20 points in each of their first seven games with the exception of a dominant performance against Vanderbilt. Georgia survived a shootout with Tennessee, got embarrassed at South Carolina, and narrowly escaped at Kentucky.

It took a passionate appeal from senior safety Shawn Williams to turn around the under-performing defense. Georgia held opponents to an average of 8.6 points per game over the final five regular season games, including a shutout of Auburn and a six-takeaway, nine-point effort against Florida. Grantham’s defense had come into its own, and Georgia went from a midseason flop to a national title contender.

But as impressively as the regular seasons ended, the 2011 and 2012 postseasons weren’t kind to Grantham’s defenses. The 2011 defense faded in the second half of losses to LSU and Michigan State. In 2012 the defense yielded an average of 294 rushing yards to Alabama and Nebraska. These difficulties with a loaded roster against good opponents were enough to plant the seeds of doubt that turned into quite a bit of discontent in 2013.

Georgia had some issues with injuries and suspensions on defense in 2013, but the wholesale inexperience of the unit was the big story. There were new starters at nearly every position, and several freshmen saw starts and significant minutes out of necessity. The defense struggled from start to finish, and Grantham – right or wrong – took the heat. The defense generated alarmingly few takeaways, struggled when put on the field after a “quick change” situation like a turnover, and gave up several memorable long conversions. Fundamentals like tackling were inconsistent, and signs of improvement throughout the year were sporadic.

From the start there were questions raised about the complexity of Grantham’s scheme. NFL coaches have much more time to work with players than college coaches. That became less of an issue with the more veteran defenses in 2011 and 2012, but confusion reigned in 2013. Defenders began to hear from alums in the NFL about less-complex playbooks at the next level. The team struggled to get lined up, blown assignments were common, and timeouts were spent at key moments.

Following the season Mark Richt cited the inexperience of the defensive roster and stressed the benefits of “continuity.” He had faith that another year of development under a stable staff would yield improvement in 2014.

With the departure of half of the defensive staff in the past week, that continuity is out the window. Even if the rest of the staff is retained, three of the four defensive coaches will be in their first or second year with the program.

Since the eventual hire is rarely on the lists of candidates that everyone comes up with (no, Bud Foster or Ed Orgeron will not be Georgia’s defensive coordinator), we won’t try our hand at speculation. There are a few things to think about, though:

  • Scrap the 3-4? Grantham’s results with the 3-4 were mixed. (To be correct, Georgia’s defense was multiple and often used five defensive backs due to the number of opponents running spread offenses.) At the same time, Richt is counting on the experience of the past season paying off as young players develop. Do you look for someone with 3-4 experience who might do a better job relating it to college players, or do you take the hit and bring in a new scheme? With what’s at stake in 2014, I can’t see Richt writing off another transition year.
  • What about the rest of the staff? The new defensive coordinator will likely have the opportunity to build his staff, but should the two remaining position coaches be retained? The defensive line was one of the strong points of the 2013 defense, and first-year line coach Chris Wilson got positive reviews. He might even be a candidate for the coordinator position. Football aside, it would suck to see Olivadotti let go just as his family begins to see light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Special teams? Again, new arrivals on the staff offer the potential for new outlooks on Georgia’s under-performing special teams units. What can new blood do in those areas?
  • How soon? Signing Day is just a little over three weeks away. Georgia’s new defensive staff will have to shore up current commitments and continue to the work to close on several important uncommitted prospects. The sooner that work can begin, the better.

Post Defensive backs coach Lakatos resigns

Friday January 10, 2014

Georgia defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos has resigned, citing “personal reasons.” Lakatos intends on coaching elsewhere next season, so hopefully those personal issues can be worked out in the meantime. We wish him great success and luck wherever he ends up.

Lakatos came to Georgia during the defensive staff reorganization in 2010. Hiring a northeastern coach with few connections to the Georgia area was a head-scratcher for Georgia fans, but we soon learned of the connection between Lakatos and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. It’s tough to separate the secondary from the entire defense for evaluation, but Lakatos helped continue what has become a golden age of Georgia defensive backs. Even with a good deal of attrition, the unit has produced several NFL players. There was a step back in 2013 of course, but injuries and suspensions to a young group made consistency difficult.

Lakatos states that “there’s no story here,” but there might be one if we step back and look at the entire staff. Lakatos’s personal issues, whatever they are (and we can leave it at that), are serious enough to make him step away from a fairly stable staff and take on the uncertainty of a job search and move. The Olivadotti family has faced their own trial over the past few years. Thankfully there is wonderful news to report on that front, but anyone who has faced a similar ordeal knows how life gets turned upside-down. You saw the emotional strain get to Mark Richt after the LSU game in the aftermath of Paul Oliver’s death. To paraphrase Bull Durham, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff here.

Hardly anyone knows the extent to which these serious events distracted the coaches or impacted their ability to do their jobs, but I wouldn’t blame any of them if it did. These jobs are demanding, stressful, and require a lot of time outside of 9-to-5. I hope even the most passionate fan can appreciate that football becomes a secondary priority when someone or a family member is going through a serious life event. So of the three defensive position coaches, you had a new defensive line coach and two others going through significant personal battles. That’s not to lay the performance of the 2013 defense on distracted coaches, but it’s not the recipe you’d follow for a cohesive and focused group.

The search to replace Lakatos will also be an interesting story. How much input is Grantham allowed in the decision? Certainly you want the position coaches on the same page with the coordinator, but Lakatos was hired almost solely on the recommendation of Grantham. While Grantham might not be as bulletproof as he was when he arrived, he’s still the coordinator with a very clear vision of what he wants his defense to be. If Grantham is working the phones with “NFL guys”, he might be taking the lead in the search. That would give us a hint as to the influence of Grantham within the program four years in, and it would also do a lot to squash persistent rumors about Grantham’s future with the program.


Post Ready for some 2014 preseason polls?

Tuesday January 7, 2014

You can campaign all you want for the first official polls to be released mid-season, but the positioning for the 2014 season started last night:

The consensus is already building and the narratives are already forming.

(Both of those polls have Georgia around 10 or 11. With the returning talent on offense, a year’s growth by the defense, and a more favorable schedule, that seems like a good starting point.)


Post Getting reacquainted with Nebraska

Monday December 16, 2013

Dawg fans got a lesson in bowl politics when both their likely destination and opponent changed last Sunday evening. A Georgia-Michigan pairing in the Gator Bowl had been a possibility since Georgia’s loss at Auburn in mid-November. On Sunday we began to hear rumors of renewed interest by the Chick-fil-A Bowl in a Georgia-Miami matchup, especially if the Outback Bowl chose Texas A&M.

The ACC reportedly applied pressure on the bowl to take its runner-up, Duke, knocking Miami down to a lesser bowl. With the Georgia-Miami game no longer possible and LSU headed to the Outback Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl chose to extend a bid to Texas A&M. It’s the Aggies’ first trip to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and it will likely be the final collegiate game for Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel.

That dropped Georgia to the Gator bowl which is 1) what we had expected and 2) reasonable considering Georgia’s record. The surprise was Georgia’s opponent. The final Big 12 results pushed Kansas State to the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Arizona with Nebraska the expected opponent. The talk is that Kansas State coach Bill Snyder objected to a pairing with Nebraska (he and Bo Pelini have some bad blood), so the bowl selected a Big 10 team with a worse record, Michigan. That left the Gator with little choice but to arrange a sub-optimal rematch between Georgia and Nebraska.

Fun stuff, right? Two bowls that could have had interesting pairings – the Snyder/Pelini angle in Arizona and a rare Georgia/Michigan battle in Jacksonville – instead end up with games that no one wanted. Fans and players alike responded with outright repulsion, and administrators were left to contort themselves into ridiculous half-hearted sales pitches for a game with higher ticket prices than Georgia-Florida.

That was last week. Georgia still has a game to play. This time of year, more emphasis (probably too much) is put on motivation. Which team wants to be there, and which team has one eye on the swag their buddies in the BCS bowl got? Georgia might seem at a disadvantage there, but Nebraska isn’t in great shape after being passed over for the bowl they expected to get. Add in the instability of their coaching situation, and the Huskers also have some things to work through with their therapist over the break.

Both teams have changed a good bit from the last meeting. They’ll each be without their starting quarterback. The Murray-Martinez rematch is now Mason versus whichever backup Nebraska goes with. The Georgia defense that struggled to stop Nebraska’s offense a year ago is gone, and its replacement has had its own issues. That Nebraska offense is different, too, with the quarterback injured, dynamic back Rex Burkhead gone, and turnovers a big problem.

The Huskers now lean more than ever on outstanding tailback Ameer Abdullah. Abdullah had 6.9 yards per carry while sharing the load with Burkhead against Georgia last year, and he’s put up over 1,500 yards this season as the featured back. He put up over 120 yards and 5.6 yards per carry against an incredibly good Michigan State defense just a few weeks ago, and he’s rushed for at least 100 yards in 10 of Nebraska’s 12 games.

Georgia has played the tougher schedule by far – Nebraska has faced only two ranked opponents (UCLA and Michigan State) and lost both by double-digits. In fact, it’s been a rough stretch for the Huskers since midseason. They started the year 5-1 but are just 3-3 since as they’ve had to go three deep at the quarterback position. Those three wins include a Hail Mary pass to beat Northwestern, an ugly 17-13 win over a struggling Michigan team, and an overtime win against overmatched Penn State. As you might expect with uncertainty under center, turnovers have become an issue – Nebraska has turned it over 10 times in their final three regular season games.

Nebraska’s late-season problems might seem to give Georgia the advantage, and the Dawgs are about a 10-point favorite as bowl practice begins.


Post Beware the Tuberville Effect

Friday December 6, 2013

From a Georgia perspective, we know that there are two good teams going at it in Saturday’s SEC Championship. Both Missouri and Auburn raced out to big first half leads against the Dawgs, gave them up in the second half, and pulled out fourth quarter wins. I’d say that Missouri’s win was slightly more impressive and more all-around complete, but it’s not enough to give them a clear edge in the championship game. Both teams have explosive offenses and dangerous pass rushers. I’d give Missouri an advantage in the defensive backfield, and that could be enough to make a difference.

Intangibles? Auburn has to believe they are destined for the title after their past two games. That belief can make a team play above their talent, and they’ll fight until the end confident that the ball will bounce their way. Missouri comes in with a bit of a chip on their shoulder – the outcome of the Iron Bowl was so shocking that Missouri’s business-like handling of Texas A&M was all but overlooked. Mizzou has to be a little irritated at the Auburn what-if game being played at their expense all week.

That brings me to this – call it the Tuberville Effect. In October of 2006, Auburn was undefeated and ranked #2 in the AP and #3 in the coaches. Tuberville started complaining about the unfairness of the BCS, anticipating another Auburn snub. He went so far as to say that a playoff system was just about the only thing that could give an SEC team a shot at the BCS championship game. “We all understand in our conference how tough it is,” he explained. “In our conference, that’s about the only chance we’d have to make it.”

We know how that season – and Tuberville’s whining – turned out. Auburn soon got drubbed by Arkansas and later by Georgia, ending any concerns about Auburn in the 2006 BCS. The SEC’s chances in the BCS championship also took a bit of a turn in 2006, and that run of success might’ve been ended by, of all teams, Auburn last weekend.

Now Auburn is back in the spotlight with a bit of work to do for an improbable shot at the national title game. To Auburn AD Jay Jacobs’ credit, it’s at least conference championship weekend and not early October. But there he was earlier this week dutifully making the case for a 1-loss SEC team to jump an undefeated team from a lesser conference into the title game. Missouri, for their part, only has one game on their mind.


Post Georgia volleyball back in the NCAA tournament

Friday December 6, 2013

Congratulations and best of luck Georgia’s volleyball team as they begin their first NCAA tournament in nine years tonight. The volleydawgs won 8 of their final 11 matches to finish with a 22-9 record and earn an at-large bid. Coach Lizzy Stemke has done an impressive turnaround job in three seasons.

They’ll face American in the opening round and, with a win, advance to likely face host Duke on Saturday. It’s one of those random things, but a couple of us road-tripped to Durham in 1994 to support the volleyball team in the NCAA tournament against Duke. Hopefully Durham is kinder to them this time around.


Post Georgia 41 – Ga. Tech 34: “We kept fighting.”

Tuesday December 3, 2013

I have to admit that beating Tech is usually a lot more about relief than joy to me. Occasionally there are the routs like 2002 or 2012 that you can allow yourself to enjoy, but I fall squarely in the camp that considers this the one game Georgia can’t lose. Fortunately the team is rarely as uptight about the Tech game as I am. Georgia leaned on every bit of patience and resolve it had to erase a 20-point deficit and earn a 41-34 double-overtime win over Georgia Tech, Georgia’s fifth-straight win in the series.

Tech had to consider this a great opportunity to notch a win. They had over two weeks to prepare for the game with only a throwaway Alabama A&M warm-up between Clemson on November 14th and the Georgia game. The Dawgs didn’t have a bye week or an option team like Georgia Southern this year ahead of Tech week, and so they’d have to prepare for this offense in less than a week. Tech knew that the Georgia defense was likely to give up yards and points, and when Aaron Murray went down…the stars were aligning.

Whether Tech was licking their chops over all of that or it was just my internal pessimistic monologue, the first quarter did little to hurt Tech’s confidence. Spotted a lead of 17 (and eventually 20) points, Tech had an offense built to chew clock, and Georgia was forced to all but abandon the running game.

As if to prove how tough it would be just to get the ball back in the hands of the Georgia offense, Tech’s first drive of the second quarter was a typical water-torture march that took up over half the quarter. Adam Erickson (who had a solid game) pinned Tech on their own 8 with a 52-yard punt. Georgia’s defense couldn’t take advantage of the field position, and Tech began a 15-play drive that covered 87 yards and used up over 8 minutes.

But the end of that drive began the slow turn of momentum back in Georgia’s favor. Facing a 1st-and-goal, Tech fumbled and recovered on first down. A dive was stuffed on second down. The third down pass was thrown away out of bounds, and for the first time this season Tech didn’t turn 1st-and-goal into a touchdown. The field goal still hurt, but the Georgia defense gained a small amount of traction. They forced a punt on Tech’s next possession and left the offense enough time to finally put a scoring drive together. Tech would only have one more sustained scoring drive in the game, and Georgia’s offense (barely) got the possessions they needed to take the game into overtime.

Offense

I hope people got a chance to hear Hutson Mason’s post-game interview on the Fifth Quarter show. A friend summed it up this way: if Murray talks like a coach, Mason talks like a player. The unfiltered joy and blunt honesty in Mason’s comments took us right into the head of a guy starting his first game, and it helped to explain what we saw. Mason noted that Tech put in a few new twists and stunts that didn’t help things early on. He also revealed that it took some time to get used to game speed – experience that can’t be simulated in practice or even in mop-up duty.

When asked to nail down when things began to settle down for him, Mason pointed to the scoring drive before halftime. After a 4-of-8 start that included an interception and three drives ending with punts, Mason led Georgia on five straight scoring drives to take the game into overtime. The first four of those scoring drives each covered at least 63 yards, and the three touchdown drives each went for at least 74 yards. He completed everything from screen passes to a deep ball to Lynch, but he really made his living throwing the 15-yard out.

Mason’s biggest issue was trusting the protection. As he admitted in that post-game interview, he was a bit too quick to give up on plays, and it got him into trouble. But that’s all part of the learning curve. With Tech’s defense intent on bottling up the run and facing an early deficit, Mason had to cram an entire season’s worth of experience into a quarter or so. The running game carried the load in overtime, but Mason had very little margin for error leading the comeback in the second half. He made the throws, had decent protection, and the receivers made enough catches to keep the momentum going.

If Georgia fans were looking to the Tech game as a sign of how the Georgia offense might perform in the post-Murray era, they had to like what they see. Add back in Mitchell, Scott-Wesley, Marshall, and a healthy Gurley – not to mention any newcomers – and Georgia should have another potent offense in 2014.

  • What was with the drops? Certainly there’s an adjustment with a new quarterback and the overturning of a long completion to Bennett was just an awful call, but Georgia’s receivers had an unusually tough time coming down with balls they looked to have caught.
  • Bennett’s double move on his third quarter touchdown was sick. It was about as effective a fake as Stafford’s pump that freed up Massaquoi in 2006.
  • Prior to his injury in the LSU game, Todd Gurley had five receptions through four games for 42 yards and 1 TD. In the five games since his return, he’s posted 25 catches for 302 yards and 4 TD. He’s tied for third on the team in receptions and tied with Wooten and Lynch for the most receiving touchdowns. The last few opponents have tried (and mostly succeeded) to limit Gurley’s impact in the running game, but credit to he and the coaches for finding other ways to make big contributions. He’s too good not to be involved in the offense.
  • I’m glad to see Gurley nearing some important milestones despite missing so much time. He’s already at 10 rushing touchdowns, and he needs just under 100 yards rushing in the bowl game to post another 1,000 yard season. Let’s get it for him.
  • Georgia’s caught some tough breaks with injuries this season, but it was good fortune that both Bennett and Conley were able to come back from their injuries. The Dawgs don’t win this game without them.

Defense

I know the story is Tech catching Georgia off-guard by passing the ball, but reality is much more simpler. Tech’s first two passes – a 68-yard completion and a 43-yard completion that accounted for 111 of their 232 passing yards – came on obvious passing downs. These were 3rd downs of 8 yards or more. It wasn’t some unexpected wrinkle of the Tech offense to throw it on 3rd and long; it was the same situation in which the Georgia defense has struggled all season. The only big pass that might be credited to Georgia overplaying the run was the touchdown pass on 1st-and-10 following Mason’s interception and Drew’s facemask.

When it came to actually defending the option, Georgia’s defense wasn’t that poor. Tech was in those 3rd-and-long situations because the defense had put Tech behind schedule after first and second down. Tech had a few big runs but no knockout blow touchdowns. The Dawgs frequently blitzed the middle, and they made several plays behind the line. There was some serious work being done by the front seven – Herrera was great, Floyd and Jenkins were active when the plays went outside, and Chris Mayes backed up his pregame talk. It was that pressure that forced a poor throw in the fourth quarter in the direction of Josh Harvey-Clemons. Harvey-Clemons soared and secured the interception that eluded him at Auburn, setting up Georgia’s game-tying field goal.

Georgia’s biggest shortcomings were, to no one’s surprise, in the secondary. The unit was down two starters, and Tech attacked those areas. It wasn’t all on Dawson – the safeties didn’t do much to support the corners on slant passes. On the other side, Swann had one of his better games. Georgia has called some maddening timeouts before big third and fourth down plays this season, and they called one as Tech faced 3rd and 7 from the Georgia 40 inside of a minute to go. Perhaps Georgia wanted to get a look at Tech’s formation, but it’s also worth noting that Dawson was lined up on the boundary receiver. When the teams lined up after the timeout, Swann had the coverage. Swann kept tight coverage on the play and what looked to be a back shoulder pass fell harmlessly incomplete. Tech was forced to punt, and we were set for overtime. Swann’s best moment might’ve come on the final play. The tipped pass looked to be headed into the arms of Godhigh, but Swann came over the receiver and batted the ball back out of the endzone to end the game.

It’s frustrating that three of Tech’s four biggest pass plays came on 3rd and 7 or longer and led to 17 of their 27 points in regulation. You’d expect these issues that were so prevalent in September to have been cleaned up by the last game. They haven’t been, and so we are still talking about the inconsistency of a defense that can make so many good plays in isolated moments and then reliably fail to get off the field.

  • I still don’t know how Mayes didn’t recover the second quarter fumble inside of Georgia’s 10. The defense managed to hold and force another field goal, but those were an important three points. Great play by Mauger to strip the ball.
  • Once the defense got out of the first quarter, you can point to several individual moments that helped keep the game in reach. Ramik Wilson covered a third down pass just well enough to force Tech’s first punt late in the second quarter, and Georgia posted their first score on their next possession.
  • As big as the final play was, it wouldn’t have happened without the third down that preceded it. Needing just two yards, Tech went wide to the left side. Swann fought off his block and cut off the outside. Floyd shot to the ball. Drew and Harvey-Clemons joined in pursuit. The loss of three yards meant that Tech could no longer consider the dives or keepers that they like to use near the goal line. Georgia hadn’t been great against the pass, but you’d still take Tech passing on 4th and 5 over an option play in short yardage.
  • Anyone else fairly certain that Tech would’ve gone for two had they punched it in there?

Even with all of the shortcomings on defense and injuries, Georgia fans will remember this team for its fight. There wasn’t the lifeless blowout loss like the 2012 South Carolina game. Its four losses – and several of its wins – were tense fourth quarter battles. With the season’s goals ended at Auburn, with the starting quarterback added to the pile of injuries, and especially facing an early 20-point deficit, I’m sure a lot of people expected that Georgia would rather just put this season to bed and regroup for 2014. I’m glad they didn’t. I’m glad this game means something to the coaches and the players, especially the seniors who will now receive their personal Governor’s Cup replicas.


Post Georgia will face Arkansas in Little Rock

Tuesday November 26, 2013

We learned earlier in the fall that Arkansas would take LSU’s place on the 2014 football schedule as Georgia’s second SEC West opponent. TV station KATV in Little Rock is reporting that the October 18th Georgia-Arkansas game will be played at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock rather than on campus in Fayetteville. Arkansas had a contract to play two “home” games per season in Little Rock, but the reworked SEC schedule meant that the Hogs could have had as few as two SEC games in Fayetteville under the existing agreement with Little Rock. Under a new agreement that extends the arrangement to 2018, Little Rock will get one game per year.

It will be Georgia’s first game in Little Rock. It’s a bit unfortunate for those hoping to take in the Arkansas campus, and the school has done a nice job with its facilities including Reynolds Razorback Stadium. War Memorial Stadium seats 54,120 versus 72,000 in Fayetteville. On the plus side, it will be a new experience for the road fans, and travel should be much easier. Little Rock is much more convenient to Memphis for those flying and about three hours shorter than Fayetteville by car. With back-to-back trips to Missouri and Arkansas in 2014, any break in travel is welcome.


Post Georgia 38 – Auburn 43: Ouch

Wednesday November 20, 2013

Is this how it works? We trade 1996 and 2002 for 2005 and now 2013?

Defense

Auburn didn’t offer much new for the Georgia defense. The read plays and jet sweeps are the bread-and-butter of the Malzahn offense. As CBS pointed out so well, you could place Auburn’s plays from 2010 side-by-side with these and just plug in new players. Georgia wasn’t unprepared, but they were slow to respond and attack. It’s great if your linebackers are racking up tackles, but you’d rather they not get them chasing the play in the style of Keith Brooking.

Setting aside missed tackles and coverages that led to some big gains, the biggest problem for the defense was the lack of negative plays. Auburn was content to stay on schedule and chew up ground and clock. Georgia’s defensive front has been a positive and a reason why they had defended the run well recently, but they got little in the way of a push to disrupt Marshall’s reads. The outside containment was tested right from the first play, but even when assignments were correct, the plays were blocked well and Georgia’s front didn’t do much to get through or around those blocks.

If there’s one thing to be said for the defense in the first three quarters, it’s that they held on just enough to force four short field goal attempts. Auburn was certainly on pace for at least 35 points in the first half and had a chance for the knockout blow early in the fourth quarter. Getting nine points and a blocked field goal rather than 28 points from those drives gave Georgia the faintest glimmer of hope.

Offense

I have to credit Herbstreit here. It’s not that it’s a new insight about this team, but he made it a point to focus his preview on the performance of Georgia’s offensive tackles on the road. That proved to be a huge story in this game whether it was problems handling the speed rush from the opening series, false start penalties, or, well, this:

“We came out a little sluggish the first half,” Theus said. “I think they kind of caught us by surprise. They came out with a lot of energy and they were playing really hard…I got beat off the edge and I realized they ain’t no joke. No. 30 (Dee Ford) was a great rusher and had a lot of speed. I realized then I had to pick it up and as the game went on I thought I did better and better.”

I appreciate the honesty, and Murray did have a little more time as the game went on, but…yeah. There are many ways we can dig in to that juicy quote, but I hope it’s just a guy searching for an explanation of why he struggled so much early in the game. I agree that Georgia’s OL coach has to answer for the inconsistent line play, but a line that starts four upperclassmen can’t be surprised than an SEC defensive front will challenge them – especially a defensive line whose position coach might’ve had a little extra motivation for this game.

  • Auburn’s playcalling on their penultimate series opened the door for Georgia to take the lead. With momentum draining away to the Bulldogs, an Auburn team that put up 323 rushing yards went away from their advantage and called three consecutive passing plays. Georgia brought pressure on all three plays and came away with incompletions and a sack. Even with the time lost after Wilson’s sack, the drive only ate up a little more than a minute and left plenty of time and good field position for Georgia’s offense. (Of course in hindsight it also left enough time for Auburn to have one more shot.)
  • Georgia faced a 4th-and-1 from around their own 35 towards the latter part of the second quarter. I was a little surprised to see the decision to punt made as quickly as it was. In hindsight, the poor punt makes the decision that much more questionable. That might’ve been a spot to roll the dice.
  • Georgia’s stop on Auburn’s late two-point conversion needs a mention. It was a tricky play to defend, especially considering what the mental state of the defense must’ve been. But Georgia defended it well and gave the offense the tiniest chance to win the game outright.
  • As good as Wiggins has been against the receiver screen this year, it was jarring to see him miss two opportunities in the flat in the second quarter.
  • Murray spread the ball around to eight receivers with seven of them getting multiple catches. Gurley’s impact running the ball can’t be overstated, but he’s becoming a dangerous target out of the backfield. He had the important touchdown against South Carolina, the catch and run to counter Florida’s blitz, and led the Dawgs with ten receptions at Auburn.
  • The contrast of kickoff styles couldn’t have been more black and white. Still, Georgia’s coverage unit was outstanding.
  • Rumph was in the game at some key moments, but his inexperience is still obvious. His miscommunication with Murray on a fourth down attempt in the third quarter cost the Bulldogs a possession.
  • Speaking of that third quarter series, what a catch by Wooten on one of Georgia’s few deep passes. His touchdown reception was another tough grab in close quarters cut from the same cloth as his game-tying catch at Tennessee.
  • I hate that Murray didn’t have a clean look on the final play. With the way things had been going, he was going to find someone. Most of all, I hate that such a brilliant performance had to be wiped out by a defense slow to adjust and an offensive line that wasn’t ready to play.

The sooner I can put this game in the rearview, the better. Three things going forward (and, yes, I’m already thinking about Tech):

  1. Did the defense gain important experience against this type of offense? Georgia Tech and Auburn don’t run the same offense, but many of the concepts and assignments will be similar as will the downfield threat of play action. Georgia’s defense began to attack rather than respond as the Auburn game wore on, and they got some key stops. Did they learn the value of staying in gaps and finishing tackles, or will they have to make the same adjustments again?
  2. Will the road difficulties of Georgia’s offensive tackles continue in Atlanta? Just so they’re not caught by surprise or anything, Jeremiah Attaochu is a pretty capable defensive end.
  3. The Auburn game was Georgia’s third game out of its last five without a takeaway (bad calls notwithstanding.) The Dawgs are 121 of 123 teams in generating turnovers. Auburn didn’t really have a reputation for turnovers, but Tech does. They’ll put the ball on the ground. It was a Rambo strip near the goal line that established some early momentum last year.

Post Dawgs looking to get their mojo back

Friday November 15, 2013

I don’t want to play the “no respect” card here, it’s been amazing how little emphasis has been placed on this game in Auburn’s inevitable march to the winner-take-all Iron Bowl. Georgia’s gone from being a dinged-up title contender with two top-10 wins under its belt to “pesky.” While Georgia still does have a division and conference title to play for, the buildup to this game has as much to do with momentum than anything else.

Auburn is the team that went into College Station and beat A&M. Georgia is the team that lost to Vanderbilt. Auburn hasn’t lost since September. Georgia spent October in the emergency room.

I don’t begrudge Auburn the attention or anything else that’s come their way. They’ve earned it with a one-loss record, and it’s one of the most impressive turnarounds I’ve seen in any sport. I’m thinking more about Georgia. This was a team sure of itself at the end of September – confident enough to shrug off an injury to their starting tailback and still survive a shootout with LSU. It was mentally tough enough to watch player after player fall at Tennessee and piece together a last-second drive to force overtime.

Georgia has paid the price for its midseason setbacks, and the team is far from healthy. Still, the defense is more or less intact, and the offense has as many of its pieces available as it’s had since the first half of the Tennessee game. The challenge posed by Auburn is significant, but Georgia spent the first month of the season facing similar challenges.

The difference now is the context. For the first time this season, Georgia enters a game as the underdog. We all want to know whether the defensive improvement is real and sustainable, but it might be even more important for the offense to remind everyone why Georgia started the year where Auburn currently resides. With a win, Georgia can make sure that the spotlight is back on the Bulldogs.


Post Georgia’s linebackers put to the test

Friday November 15, 2013

I’m going to be watching the outside linebackers as one position that can make or break Georgia’s defense against the Auburn running game. Drew, Smith, et. al. are going to cause problems up the middle, and the inside linebackers are both among the top 4 in the SEC in tackles. You’ll get occasional run support from the safeties (though hopefully that’s by choice rather than a sign of the front seven not getting it done.) But it’s going to be the job of the outside linebackers to set the edge and force Marshall, Mason, and the other ballcarriers back inside to the strength of the defense.

If there’s one area where Georgia’s otherwise stout rush defense has been vulnerable, it’s a tendency, especially for Floyd, to get caught inside and allow those plays to bounce outside. Jordan Jenkins outlines their job:

“We’ve just got to try to not get ourselves out-leveraged by the quarterback (Nick Marshall),” Jenkins said after practice Wednesday. “If I do, and he goes inside, I can’t go inside because I’ve got other guys helping me. If he goes outside, it’s just me and one other person. He can get me on the edge. (Marshall) is a fast cat.”

It sounds clear enough, but it’s easier said than done. When you’re a top-level pass rusher whose instinct is to fly to the ball and get after the quarterback, that aggressiveness can be used against you by teams that have read or option plays. The discipline to trust an assignment or a gap can seem counter-intuitive and has to be practiced and mastered.

And as if these guys don’t have enough to worry about in the running game, guess whose job it often is to cover the dreaded wheel route?