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Post Checking all of the boxes

Monday February 12, 2018

There’s any number of ways to look at the success of a recruiting class. The simplest way is to add up the stars and rankings and sort them relative to the competition. That’s how we end up declaring Georgia’s class as the nation’s best. It got the best players and it got more of them. A more nuanced way to evaluate a class is to consider needs or scheme. It’s fine to sign the nation’s best group of receivers, but what if you didn’t sign that left tackle to keep your quarterback upright? You signed a great pocket passer, but you run an option offense.

Ian Boyd at Football Study Hall poses some questions to help us think through whether a team signed the “right” kind of players to succeed in the modern game. Let’s walk through them.

How does your QB handle live bullets? What does full film say about your team’s new QB(s)? In a tough game against strong defense, does he hold up? What skills does he lean on to get the job done?

We’ll let Kirby demonstrate what it’s like to watch Justin Fields during a game.

I expect Fields to have some adjustment to the college game similar to what Boyd saw in Shea Patterson. Fields was the focal point of his offense and often had to improvise under pressure. If you want to see Fields against an elite HS defense, check the film from his game against Adam Anderson and Rome – both the highlights and the rest. Like any freshman, he’ll have to learn more discipline and read progression, and he’ll have to trust his line and receivers.

Did your team get star prospects at the focal positions of the college game? In particular, did they sign any good tight ends?

Georgia continued to stockpile talent at the tight end position with the addition of Luke Ford and John FitzPatrick. Ford’s a big target in his own right at 6’5″, but FitzPatrick is a legit Leonard Pope-like 6’7″. Georgia might continue to use those tight ends differently than, say, Oklahoma, but Georgia’s tight ends still have to be adaptable enough to line up everywhere from the slot to H-back. Ford and FitzPatrick can do that.

I’d also consider it a good sign that Georgia signed elite edge defenders. James Cook was also a big get, as we’ve seen the value of a versatile back like Michel or Swift.

Conversely, did your team sign a good nose tackle?

If there’s a possible weakness in the amazing class Georgia signed, it might be along the defensive line. The Dawgs lose unheralded but valuable tackle John Atkins and also Trenton Thompson. Jordan Davis at 6’6″ and 330 lbs certainly qualifies as a big body along the defensive front, and Devonte Wyatt has been seasoned by a year at prep school and participation in Georgia’s postseason practices. Neither signee is a reach, but this is a rare position at which Georgia didn’t sign a top 10 prospect. It becomes a top priority for the 2019 class.

Can your best defenders stay on the field?

Boyd explains that “the real key is that your best players project to multiple positions so that they can stay on the field and be in the right spots at the right times to play winning, situational football.” This might be the real strength of the Georgia class. You can imagine several of these prospects in different roles. A good example is Otis Reese – he was considered a linebacker during recruiting, but Kirby Smart announced that Reese would start out as a safety. (Visions of Thomas Davis?) The Dawgs landed a fleet of guys in the defensive end / outside linebacker-ish body type. Tyson Campbell is an elite corner but is big enough to take on the star position. Certainly most of these defenders will prove more proficient at one position than another, but the athleticism and skills are there to keep the best of them on the field in most situations.


Post How a disastrous recruiting class became the nation’s best

Friday February 9, 2018

As I tried to wrap my head around Georgia’s historic 2018 recruiting haul, I kept coming back to April and May of last year. Georgia had missed out on Brenton Cox. Adam Anderson decommitted and flipped to LSU. The state’s top quarterbacks were headed to Clemson, Ohio State, and Penn State. At one point in May another decommitment left Georgia with only two 2018 pledges: kicker Jake Camarda and cornerback Chris Smith. Georgia was near the bottom of the conference with several top prospects headed elsewhere. You began to see versions of the same question being asked by media:

Those weren’t inflammatory hot takes. It was an angsty time, and Georgia’s class was actually shrinking as other programs secured some important targets.

Hope came from reports that some key prospects favored Georgia and would eventually form the cornerstone of the class. Zeus. Salyer. Hill. If they came on board, the class could be salvaged. But Georgia couldn’t afford many more misses, and even those who leaned Georgia’s way were keeping a wary eye on the 2017 season. Kirby Smart had established himself as a solid recruiter, but there was still uncertainty about the product on the field after an 8-5 debut. Prospects were getting an earful from the competition about Georgia’s ability to compete for titles. “That was my big critique about them coming into the season and overall,” explained Jamaree Salyer. “They haven’t been able to win the big games in recent history.”

Things began to happen. Zamir White committed and at least got everyone down off the ledge. Justin Fields decommitted from Penn State. Adam Anderson decommitted from LSU. Kearis Jackson committed. The season began, and Georgia finally had some on-field success to sell. Prospects like Salyer took notice. “Beating a highly-touted Mississippi State team at home was really good,” he said following that early win. Fields committed with two other five-star QBs on the Georgia roster, and that got the class and Georgia’s recruiting efforts in the news. James Cook continued Georgia’s embarrassment of riches at tailback. The class began to fill out, but several major prospects held out until the early signing period.

Christmas came early for this signing class. Lynchpin offensive linemen Salyer and Hill committed. Brenton Cox flipped from Ohio State. Cade Mays was an impressive late commitment. Georgia dominated the December signing period as just about every top target inked with the Bulldogs. If you circled a name back in spring or summer as a must-get to salvage the 2018 class, odds are they signed with Georgia. Between the SEC Championship and the early signing class, no program had a better December than the Dawgs.

With all but a handful of 2018 spots locked up, the February signing day didn’t offer nearly the drama we’ve seen most years. Still, there was work to do and important pieces to add. Tyson Campbell adds instant impact in the secondary. Tommy Bush’s size will draw comparisons to Wims on the outside. Quay Walker and Otis Reese will shore up the linebacker position depleted by graduation and the draft. Wednesday’s fantastic results gilded the lily that was Georgia’s December haul.

There’s no need this year for spinning the shortcomings in this class. It was the best. There were no reaches. It’s the kind of class necessary to keep Georgia competing for titles. It’s the kind of class Georgia will need to continue to sign to have the kind of multi-year runs we’ve seen from Alabama and Clemson. One thing already will be different about the 2019 class – with seven commitments including three 5* prospects already on board, you won’t see the words “concerned” or “worry” used very much unless you’re talking about the programs recruiting against Georgia.


Post How to mess up a perfectly reasonable price increase

Thursday February 8, 2018

Two things bugged me about Georgia’s decision to raise ticket prices. I really don’t have much problem with the increase itself. We all know what the market is like, and anyone who’s followed the Dawgs on the road has first-hand experience with the concept of premium pricing. Two things though…

Transparency

Outgoing athletics board member Janet Frick noted that the board wasn’t given the full proposal on paper until the meeting at which the proposal was approved. That implies that those who submitted the proposal expected it to sail through the approval process as-is without much consideration, dissent, or discussion. In this case, they were probably right. Even Frick admits that the proposal was “appropriate,” and there was no real objection. Frick’s larger point has to do with transparency.

“Organizations are healthier when there is time and consideration and full vetting of decisions before they happen. We need discussion and dissent. That leads to better long-term decisions. No one benefits from a “rubberstamp” mentality,” she tweeted.

There have been too many stories lately about institutions turning a blind eye to ongoing abuse within athletic organizations. There have been no such allegations at Georgia, and Seth Emerson does a good job of discussing the issue as it pertains to Georgia. These instances of abuse elsewhere festered for years in large part because the individuals and systems in positions of responsibility allowed them to continue. The coverup doesn’t have to be active, though in some horrific cases it was. Often it was enough to remain passive – to not ask questions, to kick the can down the road, or to blindly sign off on the decisions and actions of others.

Yes, it’s a stretch to mention an uncontroversial ticket price increase in the same breath as the far more serious problems that reach all the way to the NCAA commissioner. What they have in common though is some breakdown in oversight. It’s one thing to be careless with the presentation of a proposal, but I doubt Frick would raise the issue if this were the only instance of a “rubberstamp mentality” she had encountered in three years on the board. Transparency, dissent, and discussion don’t have to be contrarian. As Frick notes, they’re signs of a healthy oversight body that’s likely to be out in front of more substantial problems.

Update: I think we understand now why the proposal was rushed through the board. The administration didn’t seem prepared to present any kind of coherent case in support of the proposal to the general public, let alone to the board charged with the program’s oversight.

More for less

We know that the 2018 home schedule, especially the non-conference part, isn’t all that great.* We’re used to our biggest SEC rivalry game played off-campus. We also know that Kirby Smart is in favor of playing major programs at neutral sites to start the season. The economics favor neutral site games.

What it all means is that even with the ticket price increase we’re less likely to see Georgia’s best games included as part of the season ticket package. Notre Dame will be an exception, but that was agreed to years ago. Not only will you be paying more for your season tickets, there will also be one and occasionally two additional tickets at premium prices above even the highest $75 home ticket price. Your season ticket package will contain four, and sometimes only three, SEC opponents, Tech every other year, and whatever lower-tier nonconference games the school can negotiate.

As a friend put it, if you’re going to raise prices I want more $75 games and fewer $55 ones.

* – What happened with the 2017 home schedule was pure alchemy. 2017 was supposed to be a garbage home slate full of sleepy nooners. Somehow we ended up with an unprecedented number of late games and the opportunity to see in person:

  • Fromm’s immediate impact coming off the bench
  • The team come into its own against MSU, the darling of September
  • How the team and Fromm would respond in a shootout against Missouri
  • The team clinch the SEC East against SC
  • Sending off a legendary senior class in the home finale

Not a bad year to be in Sanford Stadium.


Post Wynn wins the Senior Bowl

Saturday January 27, 2018

Think back to about a year ago. Coming off a lackluster 2016 season, one of Georgia’s biggest questions was at offensive line. The line underperformed in 2016 and lost several starters. One of those starters was a stopgap left tackle, and the fact that Georgia’s best option at that key position was a graduate transfer from Rhode Island (with its implied “of all places”) summed up not only the state of the 2016 line but also the level of talent available to the new staff. Not only would line coach Sam Pittman have to piece together functional lines with the current roster, he’d also have a big replenishment job ahead in recruiting.

Georgia began to take care of that recruiting imperative with the 2017 class. Georgia landed three of the nation’s top 20 linemen, and analysts concluded that “no position group will receive a bigger upgrade from this (2017) class than the offensive line.” The class had depth and quality. Perhaps most important was the best collection of incoming tackles Georgia had seen in recent memory. Two of the top three freshman signees were tackles, and another signee was the #2 junior college prospect at tackle. Many, including myself, expected Georgia’s 2017 starting line to include two of these three tackles.

So when Isaiah Wynn all but declared himself the starting left tackle after the 2017 spring practice, it wasn’t taken very seriously. Wynn had been a guard on that 2016 line and at 6’2″ was several inches shorter than a prototypical tackle. It’s not that Wynn didn’t have experience at tackle. The 2015 Florida game caused many changes in the program, and an immediate reshuffle of the offensive line was among them. Wynn finished the 2015 season at left tackle (all games won by Georgia, by the way) but was moved back inside when Pittman arrived with Kirby Smart. Wynn did play at left tackle in Georgia’s Liberty Bowl win, but Georgia was dealing with an injury to the starter. Wynn was a candidate at tackle for 2017 and would start out there during spring, but the assumption was that he was there as a placeholder until one of the newcomers took over.

We know how assumptions work out. 2017 held three big surprises at the tackle position: 1) the Isaiah who became an anchor at left tackle was Wynn and not Wilson, 2) not only did Wilson and JUCO D’Marcus Hayes not claim a starting job, both redshirted in 2017, and 3) the one freshman from this class who did earn a starting job was Andrew Thomas – perhaps the least heralded of the three incoming tackles (though as a 4* and U.S. Army All-American certainly no slouch). If you had predicted those three outcomes after Signing Day, many fans (at least those who didn’t laugh in your face), would have wondered why this touted group of 2017 OL signees turned out to be such a bust.

The 2017 season of course had little to do with any shortcomings of the signing class. Wynn turned out to be an anchor. Thomas picked up the system quickly and stood out as early as preseason practice. Georgia was able to draw on its depth (imagine that!) and promote Ben Cleveland at guard. Wilson struggled with acclimation, and Georgia’s top guard signee Netori Johnson had a more serious physical issue to overcome. Both should be very much in the mix going forward. With another impressive class of linemen on the way in 2018, there will be no shortage of depth or competition for playing time.

But back to Wynn. He’s getting noticed this week at practices for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. He was named the top offensive lineman of the week and is drawing praise and attention from people in a position to earn him quite a high draft pick and a large rookie contract.

Sure enough, Wynn is back at guard this week. The NFL has enough guys at the “right” size to play tackle to take a flyer on someone like Wynn. He’s proving in Senior Bowl practice that he’ll do just fine back on the inside. But for Georgia he was just what the Dawgs needed at left tackle. He was a big reason why Georgia’s prolific running game took off and also a key to Jake Fromm’s progress and success as a true freshman quarterback.

(Since I began this post talking about 2016, how about this thought exercise? Wynn held his own at tackle at the end of 2015 as Georgia won its last five with a run-focused offense. Tyler Catalina struggled at tackle for Georgia, but he’s made an NFL active roster as a guard. Would the 2016 line have fared better had Wynn and Catalina exchanged positions? Was that a rare mistake by Pittman? Certainly there were adjustments to the new staff in 2016, and Pittman had to make the best out of the roster he had. It’s just one of those hypothetical what-ifs that fans have the luxury of asking.)


Post How playoff games are won

Wednesday January 3, 2018

It’s going to take some time to process the Rose Bowl. It’s surely a classic, and it’s place among the great Rose Bowls will have to be debated by people who have watched a lot more Pac 12 / Big 10 football than I have. And we really don’t have time to dwell on it, because the win opens up an opportunity to play for something even bigger in less than a week. When you’re in the middle of an emotional roller-coaster of a game, all you have are disjointed reactions until we have time in a few weeks to sort all of this out. Because it would take volumes to do justice to this game, it’s all I can do to focus on one player: sophomore wide receiver Tyler Simmons.

Simmons played occasionally in 2017 as a reserve receiver. He had two catches for 17 yards during the regular season and hadn’t caught a pass since the Samford game. With Jayson Stanley suspended for the game, Simmons was called on more often in the Rose Bowl. The first time we saw him was in the first quarter when he caught a first down pass just short of the marker. A subsequent penalty killed the drive and led to a missed FG, but who thought we’d get into scoring position on consecutive passes to Charlie Woerner followed by Tyler Simmons’ first reception since September?

Simmons made a bigger play in the third quarter. Georgia faced a punt near midfield and hoped to pin the Sooners deep. Stanley was often a gunner on punt coverage, and Simmons filled the role on this punt. He sprinted down the sideline and made a clean stop of a rolling ball just shy of the goal line. Oklahoma was able to punch the ball out with a couple of runs, but they remained on their side of the field due to the starting field position. Georgia’s defense bounced back with a couple of sacks, and the comeback rolled on. After a shaky start that featured a short punt and a missed field goal, Georgia’s special teams was as good as it’s been all season in the second half. Simmons’ play on that punt was one of several big moments in the kicking game.

There’s one more highlight featuring Simmons, and it’s a play we’re going to rewatch for years. Look at the receiver personnel on Georgia’s final play. It wasn’t the usual Wims, Godwin, Hardman, or Ridley. It was Crumpton, Blount, and Simmons. Three guys with a total of eight receptions between them. We’ve seen Georgia use a similar grouping on run plays throughout the season. Again Simmons took the place of the suspended Stanley in the formation. Wynn got out in front of the play. Nauta helped Baker seal off the inside. Fromm – Fromm! – sustained a block on the outside cornerback to open up the lane. Simmons, lined up in the slot, got to the secondary and disrupted a defensive back long enough for Michel to get past.

Why focus on Simmons? Georgia needed its stars to come up big, and of course they did. The Dawgs wouldn’t have won without Michel or Smith or Chubb or Fromm or Carter doing what they do. Georgia has never lacked for that star talent even in the lean years. Teams compete for championships though when their star players are augmented by others up and down the roster doing their jobs. As Georgia’s recruiting picks up, you’re going to have talented players outside of the starting lineup called on to fill roles even on special teams or in situational packages. There can be no dead weight. Every active player on this team has the opportunity to contribute. The flip side is that everyone must be ready to contribute when that opportunity presents itself. Tyler Simmons was. Tae Crowder was.

OK…one last Simmons clip from Cole Cubelic. Ouch.


Post Enjoy the first of many trips to the Benz

Saturday December 2, 2017

Matt Hinton (via Blutarsky) nailed it: “The Bulldogs are who they are; the results in Atlanta will be a matter of execution.”

12 games in, there’s no getting around the identity of this Georgia team. We know, within certain parameters, what the team is going to try to do. We also know what they’re not likely to do, or at least what they don’t do well. That was perhaps the shock of the first meeting – Georgia didn’t look like itself. They couldn’t run, couldn’t protect the passer, didn’t tackle well, had costly special teams errors, and hurt themselves with penalties. Certainly some of that had to do with Auburn’s own level of play, but some of it didn’t.

I don’t know if Georgia can overcome the deficiencies that only show up against a team of Auburn’s quality. I expect, or at least hope, that the penalties and turnovers can be eliminated, and that would lower Auburn’s ceiling. But can Georgia raise its floor? Against the two best defenses they’ve faced this year, the Georgia offense has scored 20 and 17 points. I expect it might take a score in the 20s or even 30s to win this game. That would mean being able to run well against a stout front. It would mean better protection of Fromm. It would mean a more vibrant and diverse passing game than we’ve seen. It would mean receivers getting separation. It might even take a defensive or special teams score to get Georgia’s point total over the top.

Those are many more conditionals than you’d like entering a game like this especially when the opponent’s checklist for the game is much more status quo. Auburn does have a couple of questions to answer: can they improve on their 3-2 mark away from home and, more importantly, can they do it with their star tailback limited or even out? On the lines though, where games are most often won or lost, Auburn was one of the few teams to outclass the Bulldogs. That disadvantage remains the largest hurdle to clear for Georgia regardless of the location or crowd. If Auburn can control the line of scrimmage and affect Fromm with only its front four, it’s going to be tough to find open receivers. Conversely, if Georgia has to bring defenders forward to slow Auburn’s running game, the explosive passing play is a real threat.

With so much on the line and so much to overcome for Georgia to reverse the outcome of the loss three weeks ago, I should be a nervous wreck. I’m not. I’m giddy, excited, and thrilled about getting ready to watch a meaningful game in December, but I’m not going to be any more of a basket case than I am for every other Georgia game. For one thing, I have a great deal of faith in this team and its own strengths. They’ve done a remarkable job of compartmentalizing each game, and I don’t think they’ll be any more spooked by the loss in Auburn than they will be full of themselves after crushing Tech. I don’t doubt for a second Georgia’s readiness for this game – they’ve been up for every challenge thrown their way this year.

Will Leitch had an excellent piece this week diving into the meaning of this moment for Georgia fans. Leitch is worth reading for many reasons, but I’m not sure anyone is better at tying a moment or event to the fans involved. (Even his book advocates for fans.) It’s no surprise then that Leitch, even after a few short years in Athens and as an observer and now fan of the program, has a pretty good handle on our collective angst and mindset going into this postseason.

I’m just in a different place with this team, and it has a lot to do with some of the points Leitch has raised in his piece and on the podcast with which he, Scott, and Tony do such a fine job. This isn’t a disagreement with Leitch, because I know way too many people right there with him.

Leitch is correct that at some point “you still have to break through.” It could well be today, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens. But it doesn’t have to be today, and coming to grips with that has me a lot more at ease about this game than I should have the right to be. I’m confident that with this staff and the way recruiting is going, Georgia will be back in this position sooner than later. This game isn’t Georgia’s only shot; it’s the first of many shots to come. If you’ve allowed yourself to buy into what Kirby Smart is doing at Georgia, it comes with the expectation to play in games like this.

Blutarsky writes, “If Georgia is crowned SEC champ tomorrow, it’ll feel like the Dawgs will play the rest of this season on house money.” I agree with that (especially in the context of his whole post), but to me the team is already playing with house money. They’ve met every expectation I had for this season, and now they’re in a position to wildly exceed those expectations. If in five years we’re talking about Smart’s program as the Bills or Braves of the SEC who can’t get past this preliminary step into to the playoff, we’ll have greatly misread what’s going on now.

(It’s important to acknowledge that we more than most should appreciate how hard it is to get to this point, let alone sustain it in upcoming seasons. The amazing chemistry and leadership from the seniors, the mix of coaches, the dynamics of the SEC East – all of those are fluid from year to year. So, yes, if you’ve done the work to get to this point, embrace the opportunity and don’t take for granted that there will be others. Least of all for this year’s seniors, this is their only shot, and that alone is enough reason for urgency this weekend.)

Heading into the 2012 championship, I was just hoping the Dawgs would play a competitive game. (They did that, and more.) Though the situation isn’t any easier than it was in 2012, I’m much more confident in this Georgia team. It has nothing to do with 2012 or 2005 or any other previous Georgia team on the cusp of something extraordinary. It’s about this 2017 team and how far they’ve come and where they are in the vision Kirby Smart has for his program. If that vision continues to unfold as it has in 2017, this will be the first of many opportunities for the program to take that big step forward. Why not make the first one count?


Post Georgia 38 – Georgia Tech 7: Order restored

Tuesday November 28, 2017

Consider it time well-spent: Kirby Smart admitted during the week that Georgia increased the amount of time it spent during the season preparing for the Georgia Tech offense. Whatever the plan was, it worked. Georgia looked confident, prepared, and executed well on both sides of the ball. The result was the largest margin of victory in the series since 2012 and the crowning accomplishment to Georgia’s best regular season since 2002.

I know the Tech game is small potatoes next to what’s ahead, but it’s an important game to me and deserves its due. It was also an important game to the coaching staff and the seniors stung by the loss in Athens a year ago. You saw a team that was focused on the job at hand, and that’s to their credit with such a big challenge ahead this week. A few quick points before we move on to the postseason:

Third Downs

Kirby Smart’s message going into halftime was about getting off the field on third downs. Tech was 7-10 on third down in the first half, and that’s not acceptable against any opponent. They converted two 3rd and 10 plays on their lone scoring drive. One of those plays was a rare instance of Georgia losing backside contain as Herring and Bellamy got caught inside and Marshall was able to escape pressure and scurry for the first down. Tech’s third down conversions weren’t disasters and only led to a single score, but their real cost was to limit Georgia’s first half possessions. Fortunately the Dawgs were fairly efficient with the ball and scored on all but one of their first half possessions. Had Georgia’s defense done a little better job on third downs, the game might have been out of hand by halftime. As it was, Tech was still close enough to make you a little nervous when Georgia’s first possession of the second half came up empty.

Smart’s message was received: Tech finished the game 8-15 on third down. Georgia Tech’s Department of Calculatin’ tells us that means Tech converted a single third down in the second half, and even that was on their inconsequential final possession. The Georgia defense put up consecutive three-and-outs to start the second half, allowing the Georgia offense to put up two more touchdowns and blow open the game before the Jackets moved the chains for the first time in the half. Georgia was able to flip Tech’s time of possession advantage and kept the ball away from a Tech offense that needed every possession it could get.

Defense

Georgia’s defense met the challenge of taking on this offense. They attacked the line of scrimmage, tackled well, and used their speed to their advantage. Perhaps most importantly, the defense limited Tech’s explosive plays. Tech broke only two runs of over 20 yards, and only one of those came with the outcome in doubt. Better still, Tech wasn’t able to go over the top in the passing game and catch the secondary asleep. Tech’s comeback in 2016 started with a pair of long completions that put Georgia’s defense on its heels. Though Tech crossed up the secondary on their touchdown reception, Tech got nothing through the air after halftime.

Roquan Smith compiled another highlight reel. Georgia’s defensive gameplan allowed Smith to more or less spy the action in the backfield, and his speed was often more than good enough to react and make the play. Smith flew from sideline to sideline, making life on the perimeter difficult for Tech’s offense. Smith even lined up at times behind Natrez Patrick in the defense’s version of an I-formation. But Smith wouldn’t have been in a position to make those plays without the defensive interior taking away the dive and forcing Marshall outside. B-back KirVonte Benson was held to one of his lowest outputs of the season with 12 carries for just 44 yards. Benson got no run up the middle longer than 8 yards. The defensive line had been criticized for their play in the loss at Auburn, but Georgia’s defensive plan worked as well as it did at Tech because of the work done by the line.

Offense

Georgia’s offense didn’t set any records on Saturday. No tailback came close to 100 yards. Swift’s 31-yard carry was the only run longer than 16 yards. In a bit of a role reversal, the explosive plays came through the air. Wims’ touchdown, Hardman’s 50-50 win, and Crumpton’s glorious cherry on top of the sundae all took advantage of Tech’s defense keying on Georgia’s running game. And it’s not that Georgia’s running game was stymied. The team outrushed Tech and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. The Bulldog offense was patient and efficient. There were no turnovers, so we never saw the Golden Slide Rule awarded on the Tech sideline. The Dawgs were content to grind out decent yardage on the ground and counter with big plays through the air as Tech threw bodies forward to limit even longer runs.

Fromm ended up with one of his best games statistically. His first touchdown to Wims was a perfect post pattern, but his final throw to Crumpton might’ve even been better. It was on the money 30 yards downfield from the far hash, and he hit Crumpton in stride on the corner route. It’s up there with his best passes of the season. Fromm’s start was a little shakier – at least one and probably two of his first few passes could have been picked off. Fromm hasn’t thrown a ton of passes across the middle as a true freshman, and it’s probably a wise strategy: there are a lot of defenders waiting to pick off errant passes in that area of the field. Fromm seemed to settle down with a nice strike to the goalline for Wims (amazingly not given a touchdown), and it was on from there. He had only two other incompletions after that first drive.

Extra Points

  • Big early play: Michel fighting for a first down on 3rd and 5 from the Tech 33. Michel was hit at the line and again short of the sticks, but he escaped for an 8-yard gain. Chubb scored Georgia’s first touchdown 5 plays later.
  • A big early play for the defense: Natrez Patrick stoned an inside run for a loss on short yardage as Tech was driving. The Jackets still went for it on fourth down, but Patrick’s stop made it so that the conversion wasn’t an easy running play away. Tech instead chose to pass, and Sanders made a great play on the ball, nearly coming away with a pick-six.
  • Georgia’s offense picked a good time to have their first turnover-free game of the season. Tech’s average starting field position was its own 22, and they were never given a short field by turnovers or special teams. Even when Georgia’s defense was struggling to get off the field on third downs, Tech was rarely able to sustain its drives long enough to get into scoring range.
  • The Dawgs also cut down on their penalties. Ridley’s personal foul wasn’t smart, but the Dawgs only had 2 penalties called in the game. I’ll take no turnovers and only a couple of penalties in the next game too.
  • Let the advanced stats tell you how complete a win this was: Georgia had better than a 3.5 yards per play advantage over Tech, and the success rate margin (61% to 31%) was the largest spread in the nation last weekend. Again, that’s a remarkable accomplishment of discipline and focus in a rivalry game when they could have easily been looking ahead to the SEC Championship.

Post Georgia 42 – Kentucky 13: Senior sendoff

Tuesday November 21, 2017

All better? If you expected the Kentucky game to be a bloodbath in which Georgia pounded out the frustration of the Auburn loss, it was probably a little disappointing to see a 7-6 game in the second quarter and a 21-13 game early in the third quarter. Instead we saw a team persist with the same approach that got them to 9-1 as they shook off some early Senior Day cobwebs and dispatched of another team as if they could have been any other home or SEC East opponent Georgia faced this year. Kentucky, a much better team than Vanderbilt, was indistinguishable from Vanderbilt in the end, and that’s what this Georgia team has done to most of their opponents.

It doesn’t always (or even most of the time) work out this way, but if any senior class deserved to shine on the day set aside to honor them, it was this group. Each of Georgia’s six touchdowns was scored by a senior. A senior defensive back grabbed a tough interception that led to a touchdown. Brice Ramsey handled the final snap of the game. Nick Chubb’s last carry in Sanford Stadium was a 55-yard touchdown run through a hole opened by another senior, Isaiah Wynn. Chubb’s final home game was as jaw-dropping as his first when he finished off Clemson in 2014.

Seth Emerson noted after the Florida game that “Jim Chaney told CBS analyst Gary Danielson during the week that his goal was to run the ball at least 20 times in the first half as he didn’t think Florida’s defense was as deep as last year and it would begin to tire out.” Kentucky’s line was similar: talented but not deep. So long as the defense did its job, Chaney was content to lean on the Kentucky line until it gave way, and those minimal gains became long Michel and Chubb touchdowns. The persistent runs also opened things up for the passing game, and the Dawgs were able to strike on consecutive second quarter passes for another touchdown. By the end of the game it was almost cruel: Georgia ran the same jet sweep play to a tailback three times, varying only the ballcarrier and the direction of the play. The gassed Kentucky defense had no chance.

Two big statistical advantages turned a potentially close game into a decisive Georgia win. The Dawgs averaged nearly 4 yards per play better than Kentucky. It took Georgia some time to wear down the Wildcat defense, but big gains came eventually. Georgia was also the better team converting its scoring opportunities. The Wildcats averaged 3.25 points on their four trips inside the Georgia 40. They had one touchdown, two field goals, and a turnover on downs before halftime. It was important to hold Kentucky to a total of six points on their three first half scoring chances.

Several of Georgia’s blowout wins have had situations in which things could have become much tighter. There were turnovers against Tennessee, Florida, and even Samford on Georgia’s end of the field that occurred at important points in the game. Georgia’s defense stood each time with a turnover, a fourth-down stop, and even a blocked field goal. In this Kentucky game a potentially catastrophic Fromm interception led to only three points. The defensive response here saved the team from a bigger hole right at the start of the game that might’ve been a tough mental hurdle right after the Auburn game. Limiting the damage after Kentucky’s lone long pass play preserved the slightest of leads for Georgia before the offense opened up in the second quarter.

A bigger moment though was Kentucky’s final possession of the first half. Georgia surged ahead with two second quarter touchdowns, but the Wildcats quickly moved into Georgia territory. Kentucky just missed a wheel route on third down that had isolated Snell on Reggie Carter. They elected to go on fourth down rather than try a long field goal, and a catchable pass was dropped around the Georgia 10. Had Kentucky converted there and added their touchdown out of halftime, it would have been a one-point game in the third quarter. Instead, it was an empty possession that kept Georgia up by 15 points at halftime.

Georgia fared much better cashing in on scoring chances with an average of 6.0 points on their seven trips inside the Kentucky 40. The Dawgs came away with six touchdowns and took a knee to end the game on their seventh trip into scoring range. You can’t do much better than getting a touchdown every time you cross midfield.

The biggest defensive positive from this game was limiting Kentucky’s explosive running game. The Wildcats had no running play longer than 12 yards, and overall they had a modest 4.37 yards per play. They hit one long pass play to set up a field goal, but their bread and butter is the running game. Georgia forced the ‘Cats to grind their way down the field, and Kentucky was unable to sustain all but one of its drives. It’s an accomplishment to hold a quality back like Benny Snell under 100 yards.

Georgia’s defensive flaws were again penalties and tackling. Though no missed tackles resulted in plays breaking open, you saw missed opportunities to stop a ballcarrier behind the line or keep him to a minimal gain. What should have been short gains (or losses) turned into moderate gains and allowed Kentucky to move the ball for the few scoring chances they had.

Kirby Smart said after the Vanderbilt game that “we didn’t strike up front, we didn’t tackle well.” After a statement win again Mississippi State, he was asked if he was pleased with the team’s tackling. “No” was the curt reply. At the time a lot of us chalked that tone up to Smart channeling Saban – ever the perfectionist and finding things to complain about even in the face of ridiculous margins of victory. We’ve seen though as Georgia has faced better teams in November that tackling can be an issue for this defense. Against Kentucky it was the difference between no gain and 4 yards gained. Against Auburn it was much more costly. Looking ahead to Georgia Tech where a missed assignment is the difference between an ineffective play and an explosive one, there’s an urgency to clean up the tackling.


Post From Senior Day to Seniors’ Day

Monday November 20, 2017

Saturday’s win over Kentucky was just how you’d hope this memorable group of seniors would finish their careers in Sanford Stadium. They wrapped up a perfect record at home, earned a division title, and became the first team in program history to sweep the SEC East. Chubb and Michel combined for five touchdowns. Davis notched an interception. Even Ramsey took the final snaps under center. Fans were able to spend the final few minutes and postgame showing their appreciation for these seniors and this team.

Now we’re on to a game that might have a little different motivation for these seniors:

If the Kentucky win was an opportunity for celebration and appreciation between the seniors and fans, this week is more personal for the players. It’s their score to settle and their blemish to erase. It’s tough to believe that this senior class is currently 1-2 against Tech. Worse, Nick Chubb has never been on the field for a win in this series. That needs to change, and it’s been on their minds for roughly 360 days.


Post 2017-2018 Georgia Lady Dogs Preview

Thursday November 16, 2017

There’s no question about it – Joni Taylor’s Lady Dogs overachieved last season. They were picked to finish 12th in the league, but as we noted in our season wrapup, “they finished eighth in the SEC, advanced to the SEC quarterfinals, won five games against teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and – perhaps most significantly – preserved the program’s legacy of winning records with a 16-15 campaign.”

So, yes, relative to expectations it was a successful season. But relative to the standards of the Georgia Lady Dogs program, there’s a long way to go before you can consider the program back. They remain far from the conference’s top four teams, they’ve missed the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three seasons, and they haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game or finished ranked since the Elite Eight run in 2013.

The program seems to have rounded a corner in terms of recruiting. Taylor notched a top 10 class and began to fill out a roster that’s been lopsided with either guards or forwards for several seasons.

Departures

Georgia bid farewell to three seniors: forward Halle Washington and guards Pachis Roberts and Shanea Armbrister. Roberts stepped up as you hope a senior would and led the team in scoring with 14.5 PPG on the way to second team All-SEC honors.

The Roster

Even with only three departing contributors, Georgia’s roster should see a fair amount of turnover in both the starting lineup and in playing time. The frontcourt is familiar: all-conference candidate Caliya Robinson will be a focus of both Georgia’s gameplan and opposing defenses. Senior Mackenzie Engram is fully back after a medical condition cut short her sophomore season and has the versatility to work inside or play around the perimeter. Stephanie Paul had an impressive freshman season and eventually became a starter.

The Lady Bulldogs return a pair of senior guards. Haley Clark and Simone Costa are backcourt veterans who could hold down starting roles early on but will be pushed by newcomers. Ari Henderson returns as the team’s lone walk-on.

The story of the season though is the influx of new talent. Georgia had two transfers sit out last season. 6’5″ Bianca Blanaru is a true post option to help replace Washington. Taja Cole, a former McDonald’s All-American, played as a true freshman at Louisville. Before she played a game for Georgia, Cole began taking on a leadership role. She was one of the most active and supportive team members on the bench last season as she sat out, and she was named to the SEC Basketball Leadership Council. Cole will likely step into the point guard role and lead the team on the court now.

Georgia also signed a top 10 class of four freshmen. Malury Bates, a national top 10 post prospect, was the lone frontcourt signee. She’s sidelined for now with a foot injury but will hopefully contribute this season. Guards Gabby Connally, Maya Caldwell, and Que Morrison were all national top 100 prospects who should really improve Georgia’s scoring and athleticism. Morrison might be the most game-ready at this point, but all three guards should work into the rotation with Clark and Costa providing valuable roles, especially on defense.

The team received an important transfer during the offseason. Center Jenna Staiti signed with Maryland out of Forsyth County. She was the Gatorade State Player of the year for Georgia in 2016 and a national top 20 prospect. She’ll sit out this season but will improve the team right away with her presence in practices.

Strengths/Weaknesses

For the first time in a couple of years, depth should be a relative strength. There are 11 scholarship players available with the transfer Stati providing good practice competition. That’s a step up from eight scholarship players a year ago. Even better, all 11 bring something to the table. The rotation will probably tighten down to 8 or 9 as we get into conference play, but the difference is that Taylor won’t be limited by which 8 she can play. Playing time and lineups can be adjusted based on matchups and situations. Of course mainstays like Robinson and Engram will be featured, but there are options for which combinations see the court. That depth also means that starters can take the occasional rest, and that will pay off at the end of games and also at the end of the season.

The biggest expected weakness is the inexperience of so many likely contributors. Six of the 11 scholarship players will see their first minutes as a Georgia player this year. Perimeter shooting will also start off as a weakness. Roberts and Armbrister were two of the top three outside shooters on a team that only hit 27% from outside. Engram and Robinson have the ability to stretch their games, but you’d prefer guards to be your top outside shooters. Newcomers will have to shoulder much of that responsibility.

Georgia must also establish a physical post presence. Robinson and Engram are outstanding players, but stretch players often aren’t comfortable banging inside. They’ll be matched against more traditional post players, especially on the defensive end, and must rebound and defend without getting into foul trouble. Blanaru will help with minutes off the bench, but you trade size for pace and tempo. Robinson must realize her significance to this team and manage fouls wisely.

Outlook

The first challenge for Taylor will be to find the right mix of young and old. There is a solid returning core but also a large and talented crop of newcomers. Even the best freshmen often aren’t used to playing defense at the standard Taylor sets, and there are times when Taylor might trade offensive explosiveness for more sound defense and ballhandling. The deeper bench is a net positive, but it also means that Taylor has more combinations and lineups to consider and evaluate.

The schedule lends itself to some early success as the team develops its chemistry. Home games against Texas and Georgia Tech as well as trips to Virginia and BYU highlight the nonconference slate. Other games will allow Taylor to play all 11 (and sometimes 12) and experiment with her lineup. It’s not the toughest non-conference schedule Georgia has faced, and the risk is that the team won’t be conditioned for the rigors of the SEC or have enough quality wins to merit NCAA consideration. Things get real right away in SEC play as national runner-up Mississippi State comes to Athens on New Year’s Eve. The SEC rotation is about as favorable as it can get as the Lady Dogs will only see most of the league’s heavy hitters once. Georgia’s home-and-home SEC opponents this year are Florida, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.

SEC coaches project Georgia to repeat their eighth-place finish in the conference. Those are moderately higher expectations from a year ago, but an eighth-place finish would likely leave Georgia sweating the NCAA Tournament selections. The SEC did earn eight bids a year ago, but Georgia was passed over for Auburn. It’s often a game or two that separates fifth and ninth place. Georgia did well to win enough close games to improve on their expected finish last season, and they’ll need the same kind of resolve to win the handful of games that could decide whether they finish in the top half of the SEC or on the cusp of a Wednesday SEC Tournament play-in game.

Taylor got her first squad to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, and that team avoided becoming the first Georgia team to miss consecutive NCAA Tournaments. That possibility is back on the table for 2017-2018. If the newcomers take a while to develop and Taylor can’t settle on a rotation, they’ll need to pull some major upsets within the conference to have a shot. There aren’t many opportunities to get a big win in nonconference play, so at least a .500 record against Texas, Tech, Virginia, and BYU seems necessary. If some of these talented freshmen do emerge early and Cole proves capable of running the show, we might have to revise expectations upward. At the very least, it should be some of the more fun and entertaining Lady Dogs basketball we’ve seen in Athens in four or five years.


Post Georgia 17 – Auburn 40: Humility arrived

Tuesday November 14, 2017

A big concern headed down to Auburn was how true freshman Jake Fromm would handle another tough road environment. Fromm did indeed have a rough afternoon. What came as a surprise was how much of the rest of the team would look like true freshmen. Penalties, turnovers, and an overall lack of mental toughness plagued the team from the greenest true freshmen to the senior leadership. For a team that’s made a show of breaking the spirit of their opponents, it was Georgia that lost the battle of wills and got beaten in the most fundamental of ways: Auburn was just tougher on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

It was disappointing but not surprising that Georgia’s offensive line struggled. We know this unit has made progress but was still a relative weakness of the offense. Auburn’s defensive front is the best Georgia will face in the regular season. The Dawgs weren’t able to run at any point, and Fromm faced consistent pressure on pass plays. Auburn effectively used stunts on passing downs which have given the offensive line fits all season.

As poor as the OL play was in this game, the defense’s struggles to stop the run were as shocking as anything since the 2014 Florida game. The defense is structured such that the linemen occupy blockers and the linebackers clean up. The line is never going to put up big numbers in that scheme, but it’s worked well this year and is a big reason why Georgia had been so good against the run. That approach didn’t work nearly as well Saturday. Though the usual suspects, Smith and Reed especially, got their tackles, the line was not disruptive at all. While Georgia’s backs ran into a brick wall up the middle, Kerryon Johnson was able to patiently pick his way through to the next level.

Auburn’s defensive front is outstanding and talented, but Georgia’s is supposed to be as well. Georgia’s three-and-outs on offense asked a lot of the defense, but the defensive line is one of the deeper units on the team. We’ve seen too much of this group to be anonymous in a game like this – especially with Auburn missing two starting offensive linemen. If Benny Snell and the Kentucky running game doesn’t concern you (and it should), there’s another team ahead that is more than content to pound the ball at a passive defensive line.

Georgia’s playcalling has taken a beating since the game, and I’m sure some of it’s deserved. I do wonder if some of those running plays were called with the Georgia defense in mind: they were on the field so much in the second and third quarters that a couple of quick incompletions would have made things worse. Had Georgia come out firing in the second quarter, we’d have accused Cheney of abandoning the run too soon. Of course things couldn’t have gone much worse and the dam broke eventually anyway.

I also think the playcalling flowed from a gameplan that seemed to anticipate the game proceeding along the lines of the 2016 game. It worked for a while: even at 16-9, Georgia was within reach and largely holding Auburn to field goals. The field goal decision at the end of the half had to be a byproduct of that plan: get within six points, and you’re in better shape than the 7-0 halftime deficit Georgia faced in 2016. Instead, Georgia missed the field goal, and Auburn was up 23-6 before the Georgia offense saw the ball again. The bigger problem is that this team doesn’t and isn’t built to have a Plan B when the field goals turn into touchdowns and the deficit begins to grow.

I was glad to see Georgia at least try something at the end of the first half rather than letting the clock expire. As Danielson pointed out, a few seconds of hesitation in calling timeout when Auburn had the ball proved costly. The decision to run and set up the field goal took me right back to the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2011 season.

  • I mentioned before the game the role that non-offensive touchdowns had in Georgia’s last two wins in this series. Neither team recorded a NOT, but Hardman’s muffed punt came close. What really hurt was that the defense had just forced a nice stop on Auburn’s first possession of the second half.
  • Hopefully Hardman’s fumble doesn’t set him back much. He had a strong game against South Carolina, and he took advantage of some shaky Auburn coverage units for 185 return yards. Unfortunately Georgia wasn’t able to do anything with that favorable field position, and Auburn started kicking away from Hardman.
  • I’ve seen several people suggest that it couldn’t have hurt to try Eason, but I don’t know that it would have made much of a difference. Georgia’s issues moving the ball had as much to do with line play and ineffective receivers as it did with any quarterback deficiencies, and Eason would’ve been even more of a sitting target for the Auburn rush. Fromm took his lumps, and hopefully he can take something from the experience.

The “chopping wood” mantra applies equally to losses as it does to wins. Georgia must learn from the loss and improve on the areas Auburn exploited, but dwelling on the loss is as useless as settling after a win or celebrating a midseason ranking. Georgia’s objectives might still be alive, but it starts with finishing 11-1, protecting a perfect home record, and sending these seniors out with a Senior Day win and a Governor’s Cup trophy.


Post Stray last-minute thoughts on Georgia-Auburn

Saturday November 11, 2017

This game has been analyzed to death. Might as well get mine in.

The NOT. Georgia needed a non-offensive touchdown to beat Auburn in each of the past two meetings. In 2015, Isaiah McKenzie’s punt return broke a 10-10 tie in the fourth quarter. Maurice Smith provided Georgia’s only touchdown last season with his pick six. When you face a good defense, the opportunity to score points without that defense on the field is golden.

The Dawgs have had a single NOT this year: the strip-sack at Florida recovered by Reed. They haven’t notched a special teams touchdown this year and really haven’t come close since Holyfield’s kickoff return at Notre Dame was called back for a penalty. Hardman has nearly broken a punt return or two, but “nearly” is the story of the return game this year. Auburn gave up a 72-yard kickoff return to Texas A&M last week and had a couple of field goals blocked. Is this the week Georgia gets points from its special teams? Auburn is also capable of the NOT: a blocked punt recovered in the endzone was a huge play in their win at A&M last week.

Given the value of a NOT in a game like this, avoiding them should be a priority. The teams are nearly even in turnovers gained, but Auburn has only intercepted the ball 4 times. The story on special teams is Auburn’s recent struggles. Auburn’s success blocking a punt a week ago should have Georgia’s punt protection on alert, and Daniel Carlson is a very good placekicker. After that, it’s become an adventure. They’ve had issues in each of the past three games highlighted by the blocked field goals and long return surrendered last week. A long LSU punt return was central in Auburn’s collapse in Baton Rouge. Georgia’s special teams have been solid overall if not a bit unremarkable in the return game. That’s been improvement enough, but it might be time to ask the return units to make a play.

Even if the Dawgs can’t generate NOTs, the next best thing is field position. Every Blankenship touchback is a win, and Nizalek continues to punt the ball consistently.

The RPO. Jake Fromm’s ability to execute the run-pass option (including the option of running the ball himself) has been a large part of the offense’s improvement in 2017. With defenses rightly focused on Georgia’s running backs, there are plays to be made in the passing game. Fromm, with a heavy dose of RPOs, has made his relatively few pass attempts count. There’s more to the RPO than the quick slants and curl routes to the outside though. I go back to what turned out to be a negative play for Georgia: Fromm’s fumble at Notre Dame. The play was an RPO with Nauta releasing vertically.

The pop pass to the releasing tight end is a staple of most RPO packages. It’s something we haven’t seen much from Georgia this year: Fromm’s RPO pass reads have usually been to the outside. South Carolina adjusted last week after some early Georgia success to jump some of those RPO passes to the outside and nearly came away with a few turnovers. At the very least, Fromm’s window on those passes became incredibly tight. I expect Auburn to take a similar approach, but that approach comes with its risks. There are opportunities downfield if Georgia’s receivers can beat the press coverage or get the Auburn defenders to bite on a pump fake. But if the defense is playing the run to the point that Fromm sees a chance to pass the ball, the pop pass in the middle of the field should also be available. I don’t want to go overboard and predict a breakout game for the tight ends, but the plays are there.

The red zone. In 2013 Georgia erased a 20-point deficit at Auburn to take the lead before the, um, unfortunate ending. Auburn’s offense had its way with Georgia for the better part of three quarters. The only reason the game wasn’t over by halftime and Georgia had a remote shot at a comeback was that four Auburn drives ended in field goal attempts rather than touchdowns. Georgia likewise couldn’t put Auburn away last season with a couple of second half drives and left the Tigers within a single score until the end.

We’ve seen red zone execution matter for both teams this year. Auburn had to settle for a pair of field goals inside of the Clemson 15 yard line and never got into the end zone in their 14-6 loss early in the season. Around the same time, Terry Godwin’s remarkable catch and a rare rushing touchdown against the Notre Dame defense gave Georgia just enough for their signature win.

Georgia’s red zone offense took a little hit last week with Godwin’s fumble. They also missed an opportunity to build a three-score lead late in the game and left the door however slightly open by settling for the field goal. The touchdown passes to Hardman and Wims were important conversions to open up the lead, and holding South Carolina to a field goal at 21-10 kept the fourth quarter from becoming more interesting. Scoring opportunities are likely to be at a premium for both teams. Each is capable of explosive plays that create scores from beyond the tight quarters of the red zone, but each defense is adept at preventing those big plays. The difference between three points and seven will matter.


Post Georgia 24 – South Carolina 10: Winning a different kind of game

Monday November 6, 2017

The explosive play has become a hallmark of the Georgia offense in 2017. Sony Michel is still running wild on Florida. The flea-flicker set the tone of the Mississippi State game. The play-action bomb to Godwin all but wrapped up the Vandy game. Thanks to those long gains, the offense managed to average 42 PPG over the six games heading into the South Carolina game. On Saturday we saw what could happen when Georgia doesn’t get very many explosive plays.

This was a game featuring two defenses that do well to avoid the big play. South Carolina is ranked #9 in defensive IsoPPP+, an explosiveness metric. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, Georgia is ranked #1 in that defensive category. (Looking ahead, Auburn is #4.) That means that both defenses were likely to make the opposing offense grind out their points, and the winning team would probably feature the offense that was able to sustain and finish more drives.

That team turned out to be Georgia. The Dawgs converted 8-13 third downs and also converted a fourth down to sustain an early scoring drive. South Carolina was just 4-12 on third downs and had just two drives longer than 31 yards. It seemed that South Carolina was better than 33% on third downs because 1) those conversions were clustered around their two successful drives and 2) Georgia’s defense only managed one three-and-out. But because neither defense was going to give up many long plays, that meant fewer but longer drives, fewer scoring opportunities, and the need to rely on moving the chains rather than breaking off big chunks of yardage.

Without the explosive plays it became a different kind of game. I was impressed that Georgia was able to put together several scoring drives against a good defense without the aid of field position or big plays. Each Georgia scoring drive had to go at least 69 yards, and each took at least ten plays. That’s not something we’re especially used to seeing this year, and it requires a different kind of mindset to remain patient and just keep moving the chains. The Dawgs were a fumble away from touchdowns on their first three possessions. The final scoring drive only resulted in a field goal, but that 15-play possession that ate up nearly half the fourth quarter and increased the lead to two touchdowns was enough to seal the game even if it didn’t make the final score more impressive.

The game was also different in a few not-so-good ways. We saw the season’s first red zone turnover and came away with only three points on two trips inside the 10. South Carolina was aided by Georgia’s defensive penalties. The Gamecocks found some success throwing the ball and converted two third downs of at least 8 yards to go on their touchdown drive. To Georgia’s credit, South Carolina wasn’t able to string together enough first downs to create many scoring opportunities, and Georgia held the Gamecocks to just three points in the second half.

Let’s clear one thing up: this wasn’t a poor performance by Georgia just because it wasn’t another 35-point win that obliterated the spread. It wasn’t a letdown, a team full of itself after earning a #1 ranking, or a case of a team looking ahead to Auburn. It was a good test of Georgia’s poise against an opponent determined to play a certain style of game. We’ve all seen a Will Muschamp team before. The #1 ranking might’ve been a distraction, but the Dawgs didn’t flinch at 7-7 or even in the third quarter when it looked as if South Carolina might threaten. Georgia responded to the tie game with another touchdown, and they all but ended South Carolina’s comeback hopes with a crushing 15-play drive in the fourth quarter. The Bulldogs could have been sharper in a few areas, but they never seemed tight or affected by the moment. They did do some things out of character but were sound enough to maintain control of the game.

Kirby Smart and the team won’t acknowledge it, but the SEC East title does deserve some recognition. Returning to Atlanta was the baseline expectation many of us had for considering this a successful season and, perhaps more important in the long term, for validating the decision to hire Smart. The rest of the SEC East might be a mess, but it’s been that way for the better part of five seasons with Georgia often a part of that mess. This team has done more than enough to separate itself from that clutter and clinch the division with a quarter of the season left to play. It might be a minor goal in the eyes of the team, but you can’t win the conference without first winning the division. A division title is an objective measurement of success, and Georgia has accomplished it for only the sixth time in the 26 years of SEC divisional play. Of course the team’s success has caused us to realign expectations and think about bigger goals ahead, but let’s not overlook that this team and coach delivered what we asked of them.

  • Bad news – Hayden Hurst is just a junior. The South Carolina tight end had 7 catches for 93 yards on Saturday to go along with 6 receptions and 86 yards last year. Georgia has managed to keep him out of the endzone, but he’s just been a thorn in the side of the Georgia defense.
  • I don’t think there’s any question now that Deandre Baker has become the best pass defender on the team. His late breakup of a slant was perfectly timed and ended any Gamecock comeback hopes.
  • Always good to see Christian Payne get some recognition. Those were a couple of big carries to move the chains in short yardage situations, and his kickoff tackle was textbook.
  • Mecole Hardman’s transition to receiver continues to come along. The touchdown reception was outstanding (as was the pass), but let’s also mention another reception: on a flare pass where Wims missed his initial block, Hardman had to first evade a tackle. Wims recovered to make another block, and Hardman showed a bit of toughness to finish off the run after catch for a first down. The highlight plays are great, but it’s those other receptions that turn small gains into first downs that earn a guy more and more playing time. Oh – and what great execution by he and Nizialek to down the punt.
  • It’s unfortunate that the defense wasn’t able to capitalize on the best special teams plays of the game – the punt to the one yard line and Payne’s tackle. A penalty and an unfinished sack let South Carolina escape some very poor field position that could have made it a little easier for Georgia’s offense.
  • After eight starts, Jake Fromm isn’t the inexperienced true freshman that took the field against Appalachian State. The passing game was a necessary part of Georgia’s third down success, and Fromm also hit some passes on early downs as South Carolina focused on the run. Once again Fromm’s workload was a little less in the second half as Georgia began to manage its lead and the clock. After the Dawgs scored to go up 21-7 on the opening drive of the second half, Fromm only attempted four more passes.
  • How about Fromm’s block to get Michel into the endzone? Teammates notice when their QB is willing to stick his nose in there.
  • South Carolina adjusted and began to play tighter coverage, and that made some of the curl routes Fromm was throwing a little dicier. Those quick passes are often the pass option built into the RPO plays, and Fromm flirted with an interception or two. South Carolina’s cornerbacks were put in a tough spot with so much of the defense intent on stopping the run, but they held their own – Jamarcus King in particular.
  • For a team that had rushed for over 150 yards in each of its last three games, I was surprised South Carolina didn’t at least try to get more going on the ground. Their running game was a non-factor, and even a good quarterback like Bentley will suffer without a credible rushing threat.
  • Anyone else the slighest bit curious about what Blankenship could’ve done from 61 yards out at the end of the first half?

Post Georgia 42 – Florida 7: Catharsis

Wednesday November 1, 2017

For two weeks we had been reminded that no matter how many indicators pointed Georgia’s way, we could expect the unexpected in Jacksonville. That was the most remarkable thing about what happened Saturday: with this team, we should know by now to expect the expected. No win over Florida these days should be considered routine, but that’s exactly how the game came to feel. It could have been Tennessee or Mississippi State. There was suffocating defense, a persistent run-heavy offense, uneventful special teams, and the occasional explosive play that showcased Georgia’s exceptional talent.

It was a new experience for Georgia fans, especially those who have sat through the losses over the past 25 years. Though Georgia could claim six wins since 1990, none of them involved Georgia handling the business of a clear favorite. There were the upsets in 1997 and 2007 or the nailbiters from 2011-2013, but the blowouts had all gone the way of the Gators.

Georgia’s last win in this series came in 2013, and that game was on my mind as this year’s contest entered the third quarter. In 2013 Georgia jumped out to a 23-3 halftime lead (remember this play?), and the Dawgs seemed poised to get one of those blowout wins we had suffered through too many times since 1990. But midway through the third quarter, an Aaron Murray incompletion was ruled to be a lateral recovered by Florida, and the Gators used that break to flip the game. Florida came to life and exploded for 17 straight points over the next seven minutes of game time. Georgia’s 20-point lead had been cut to just three less than a minute into the fourth quarter. The Dawgs were shut out in the second half and had to cling to their narrow lead for the final 14 minutes of the game.

I admit that Murray’s turnover crossed my mind when Jake Fromm made a poor decision on the opening drive of the second half. Georgia had been dominant, but that interception was the kind of play we all imagined when coming up with worst-case scenarios for this game. On top of that, the Georgia offense hadn’t done much since the first quarter. If Florida were able to punch it in after the interception, could the Bulldog offense hold it together?

If a 42-7 game had a pivotal moment, I suppose this was it. Florida dropped a pass in the endzone after the slightest offensive pass interference, and so Fromm’s interception came to nothing. Georgia’s offense woke up and flew down the field for a quick score, the defense quickly added a score of their own, and we’re here today talking about a one-sided win over Florida that Georgia fans hadn’t enjoyed in 30 years.

In a game in which Georgia attempted only seven passes, one of Jake Fromm’s biggest plays came with him running the ball. The Dawgs stopped Florida after the interception, but the game had become stagnant and still somewhat in reach for Florida. Fromm hadn’t completed a pass since his brilliant touchdown toss to Wims. Chubb gained a yard on first down after contact in the backfield. Georgia again looked to Chubb on a read play, but Fromm kept the ball, took off to the left, and moved the chains. That play seemed to loosen things up: Fromm found Swift isolated on a linebacker for Georgia’s first completion in two quarters, and Michel exploded for his second touchdown.

With only seven pass attempts, why not break down each one? The first pass to Swift anticipated Florida’s pressure. Fromm was calm against the rush and delivered a pass that the freshman could catch in stride, allowing Swift to use his speed to get past the linebacker. The touchdown pass to Wims was about as perfect as a throw could be. Fromm had time, stepped into the pass, and delivered it to a spot where Wims could use his size advantage to haul it in. Florida’s pass coverage wasn’t bad, even on Georgia’s touchdown reception, and they were able to break up a couple of tight passes that ended Georgia drives. The interception was just a poor decision. Fromm expected Michel to turn upfield, but even so the route was covered. Fromm’s final passes again exploited Swift against overmatched interior defenders. The first was an angle route to the inside on which Swift showed both his speed to get open and then his strength to run over a would-be tackler. The last pass of the day sent Swift outside and behind the linebackers. There was nice touch on the pass, and Swift did well to hold onto the ball while taking an immediate hit.

It’s fitting that a tailback would have 75% of the team’s receptions in a game like this. Swift’s long been established as a receiving threat out of the backfield and in the slot. He had his season low in rushing (8 yards) but more than doubled his season receiving total with 84 yards. If you’ve wondered about Michel or even the tight ends in the passing game, we present D’Andre Swift: a player who can line up at multiple spots, exploit mismatches, and also run the ball pretty darn well. Michel has been that guy for much of his career, but it’s nice to be able to bring him in fresh to do things like this. Where were the tight ends? Watch Michel’s run. There’s Jackson Harris coming across the formation as the H-back to take on the middle linebacker and open the hole for Michel. There’s Charlie Woerner from the slot leading the blocking downfield. As the receivers come to terms with blocking, so too have the tight ends.

After a couple of breakdowns against Missouri, it stood to reason that Georgia’s pass defense would be tested again. Florida wasn’t known for its deep passing attack, but they had the athletes and the arm at quarterback to try a few shots downfield. Georgia’s coverage was more than up to the task. They didn’t allow a reception longer than ten yards until the reserves were in on Florida’s final drive. Coverage also contributed to several of Georgia’s five sacks. Clark and Walker continue to earn more playing time even as the front seven welcomed back several injured players. If more disciplined coverage and an improved pass rush were points of emphasis during the bye week, Kirby Smart had to be pleased with the results.

Smart should be less pleased with the run defense. Florida’s limited success on offense came via the ground game where they amassed 183 yards (4.5 per carry). They were able to get to the edge, and Georgia’s containment wasn’t what it had been. More concerning was slippage in the sure tackling that had become a hallmark of the Georgia defense. Even the reliable J.R. Reed missed a couple of tackles. It didn’t matter in this game because the Gators weren’t able to sustain many drives, but Georgia will face better offenses in the coming weeks who can do much more damage if containment and tackling lapse again.

Georgia continues to pass the tests put in front of them: road games, quality opponents, trap games, and the biggest challenge of doing it all over again the next week. There will be bigger tests of the team’s toughness and preparation, but the Florida game has been an especially difficult mental hurdle for Georgia. Fans who got the rare treat of being able to relax and enjoy the outcome of the WLOCP are grateful that this team continues to keep its focus, execute, and win.


Post Road Dawgs on to the next destination

Wednesday October 25, 2017

As I start to pack the car for the trip down to Jacksonville, I’m reminded how much Georgia’s road crowd has become a part of the 2017 story. Georgia has almost always enjoyed strong support away from home, and bonding with fellow Road Dawgs deep in enemy territory is an experience rivaled only by a Saturday in Athens. But when Georgia fans lit up Notre Dame, the breathtaking scene of so many Bulldog fans taking over a proud cathedral of college football became nearly as big of a story as the win.

Bulldog fans followed up that strong showing with a larger-than-usual crowd at Tennessee. They again took over an opponent’s stadium at Vanderbilt. Why are so many Bulldog fans hitting the road? Now we know that 2017 is looking like a special season, but few sensed that before we boarded planes for Notre Dame. There are a few other things going on.

1) Notre Dame was a bucket list trip. I think we can consider this game an outlier. Most planned this trip well before we knew how the team would turn out.

2) The home schedule over the next two years isn’t very appealing. If you want to be in the stands to see Georgia in its biggest games, you have no choice but to travel. We got an unexpected treat by catching Mississippi State at their 2017 apex. Georgia’s next best chance of hosting another ranked opponent is probably Auburn at the end of the 2018 season.

3) Nashville’s a fun, easy road trip. There are of course better game experiences but outside of the New Orleans/Baton Rouge combo, there aren’t many better destination cities in the SEC.

4) Georgia usually travels well to Nashville and Atlanta. Georgia fans might have a higher demand for those tickets this year, but it’s not unusual to see an impressive showing of red in those stadiums where home support can range from apathetic to lukewarm. They’re smaller stadiums, so it’s a lot easier for a few thousand fans to make an impact.

The showing for the Florida and Auburn games should be interesting. The 50/50 balance in Jacksonville is always fluid, but die-hard supporters of both schools usually show up even in leaner years. Florida’s recent losses might free up some tickets on their side. Can Georgia’s road fans do much to erode the orange and blue sections of the stadium? Dawg fans failed to sell out their GA/FL allotment earlier in the year, but extras were quickly snapped up when released a couple of weeks ago. Now with a possible undefeated record and the SEC East title on the line, Georgia fans should be active in the secondary ticket market for this game.

Depending on Georgia’s success over the next three games, the trip to Auburn projects to be a quality matchup with SEC and national playoff implications. That means another prime CBS slot and ridiculous ticket demand. For the first time this season, Georgia fans looking for tickets will face a home crowd with as much enthusiasm for their own team. As with Tennessee, you’re digging deep just to get a ticket at face value, and there won’t be many available at that price.

It was a happy coincidence earlier in the season that the Road Dawgs added a fun footnote to the rise of the 2017 team. Now as the Dawgs exit the bye week and begin to deal with some very real possibilities and expectations, a lot of people are asking when it will be time to buy in on this year’s team. Georgia’s three toughest remaining games are arguably away from Athens, and the team knows that there will be a large group of fans who have already bought in and will be in the stands to see them get it done.