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Post Preparing for an elite draft weekend

Thursday April 28, 2022

A year ago I watched the Alabama-Ohio State title game and came away wondering what Alabama and other recent champs had that Georgia didn’t. Georgia’s recruiting for several years had been on par with or better than championship teams. Georgia had caught up in the facilities race, and there was no resource that the program lacked. As LSU produced a Heisman-winning quarterback and Alabama a Heisman-winning receiver, I kept coming back to this question: how do you get peak performance from your best players? How do you turn good talent – which Georgia had in spades – into the best players in the nation who will lead you to a national title?

Similar questions helped to frame the 2021 season. Did Georgia finally have its elite quarterback in J.T. Daniels? Could the offense perform at a high level without George Pickens? Was Todd Monken’s system going to deliver the evolution that propelled Alabama and LSU to their recent success? Kirby Smart made the point more abstract and blunt with a phrase most of us could recite by heart now: “you’re either elite or you’re not.”

The mistake I and others made was thinking about these questions only in the context of offense. It’s been beat into the heads of Georgia fans for the past five years or so that its approach on offense was holding the program back. If Georgia wanted the success and titles enjoyed by Clemson, LSU, and Alabama, they’d need to find their Lawrence, Burrow, or Tagovailoa – not to mention the fleet of future NFL receivers on the other end of those passes. They’d need an offensive system willing to turn the passing game loose.

Defense, after all, had done all it could do. Georgia’s defense was rated #1 by ESPN’s SP+ metric after both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. If the top-rated defense couldn’t do much to slow down the 2019 LSU offense or the 2020 Alabama offense, it was clear that a stout defense wasn’t the key to reaching the top. Georgia’s imperative would continue to be the transformation of the offense into something comparable to those other recent champions.

I hadn’t really considered that we could see a defense dominate the way recent offenses had. Georgia’s had wonderful defenders from Azeez Ojulari to Roquan Smith, but even that didn’t prepare us for entire dominant defensive line and linebacker groups. These units were to the Georgia defense what the LSU and Alabama passing games were in 2019 and 2020: difference-makers not only in September and October but against the best teams on the schedule. Yes, they were top-rated by SP+ again, but that can’t quite capture what it was like to watch Jordan Davis track down a player from behind, watch Travon Walker drop back into pass coverage, or see Channing Tindall fly in to make a tackle like a missile. The defense, which only had one representative on the preseason All-SEC first or second teams, were talked about it ways we’d only seen used to describe offenses in recent years.

While we were focused on the quarterback and offensive scheme, Georgia’s defense became the elite unit that the program needed to put it over the top and claim a national title. ***

Of course within an elite unit there are elite individuals. Georgia got peak performance from several defenders and made names like Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean as recognizable as some Heisman finalists. “Elite” is a squishy superlative, and it’s not quite right to apply that label to just anyone who happens to have contributed to a national title. We can use stats or awards to attempt to make “elite” more objective, and maybe the NFL Draft is as good of a tool as any. There are draft misses all the time, but at least we have teams willing to put money on their evaluations. Georgia is in the middle of its best run of draft picks in program history, and that speaks to recruiting and the rising talent level in the program.

But even within the draft there are tiers. I wrote after last year’s draft that “the next step for Georgia is to have more of its players called even earlier in the draft and especially in the first round.” Again, there are first round busts every year, but on the whole these are the prospects judged most worthy of the NFL’s largest investments. LSU had five first round picks after their national title in 2019, and Alabama’s 2020 championship team produced six first-round picks. Georgia’s program-best three first round picks came after the near miss in 2017.

That next step is likely to happen this weekend. Georgia’s defenders are expected to come off the board early and often – perhaps as soon as the top overall pick. They might not match the first round totals of LSU or Alabama, but Georgia should still have heavy representation across the lucrative first three rounds. It won’t just be the defenders in the spotlight – offensive standouts like George Pickens, Jamaree Salyer, and James Cook will hear their names called.

After seven rounds we could see a record number of Bulldogs drafted. More importantly we could see records fall for Georgia players selected in the first three rounds. Georgia had twice as many early round picks (6) in 2021 as they had in 2020 (3), and there should be even more in 2022. As more Bulldogs move into the elite draft positions, it will be recognition certainly of their individual hard work but also of Kirby Smart’s recruiting and talent development. The top-rated classes that have enrolled since 2018 made the most of their college careers and are now among the top-rated draft prospects.

To bring it full-circle, perhaps the most gratifying development of the 2021 season for me was seeing a large number of Georgia players become the difference-makers that we had coveted in other recent champions. The national title was a by-product of those performances, and having that accomplishment in hand makes it much easier and more enjoyable to send these individuals off to the next level without the familiar pains of asking what might have been. Now it’s time for them to receive their individual recognition and reward at the sport’s highest level.

(*** – The defense’s special season shouldn’t be seen as a rejection of the need for change on offense. Georgia’s offense might have been overshadowed by the defense, but it still topped out as the nation’s #3-rated offense by SP+. Todd Monken stayed true to Georgia’s advantages in the ground game, but the passing attack wasn’t ignored. Monken found ways to use the versatility of James Cook and Kenny McIntosh, featured a new and unique threat in Brock Bowers, and put Stetson Bennett in positions to succeed and make the most of what Bennett brought to the position. The offense pulled its weight without the presumed starters at receiver and quarterback and the two players most would have considered key to the offense taking a step forward. If the defense takes a step back from superhuman to pretty damn good, I expect that the focus will shift somewhat back to offensive production. Fortunately Georgia is well-positioned to continue its evolution on that side of the ball.)


Post Georgia women’s basketball reboots for the first time in 40 years

Friday April 8, 2022

When Joni Taylor took over the Georgia women’s basketball program in 2015, the implied message was one of continuity. Of course Taylor went right to work putting her own mark on the program. Even as the lead assistant you’re not the one with the ultimate authority in a program’s operation. But the people and approach remained comfortably familiar. Two of the four coaches from Andy Landers’ final staff, including Taylor, remained with the program. The roster was largely unchanged and only had the usual attrition from graduation. The program’s daily operations weren’t interrupted or restructured. Then-deputy athletic director Carla Williams explained, “the program’s not broken.” Taylor had the cultural fit, was a favorite of fans and basketball alumni, and had the endorsement of Landers. It’s possible, without discounting the personal touches Taylor brought, to consider her seven years as an extension of what came before it.

With last week’s introduction of Katie Abrahamson-Henderson as Georgia’s next coach, nearly 40 years of continuity in Georgia basketball has ended. Yes, Coach Abe began her playing career at Georgia over 30 years ago and so understands its history and tradition, but that’s the extent of the connection. As a coach she is relatively unknown to Georgia fans. Her last four rosters at UCF have had one player from the state of Georgia. She will bring in her own assistants, and they have less coaching or playing experience in Georgia than Coach Abe. Only a few administrative staffers might remain to bridge the transition. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you believe that the program needed a fresh approach in order to take the next step. But it does hint at the amount of work ahead of the new staff if the program is to reach a third straight NCAA tournament.

These are just some of the challenges awaiting Abrahamson-Henderson as she gets down to work:

The competitive landscape

When you take a job in the SEC, you know what you’re getting into. Women’s basketball is taking on a higher profile. There are national TV broadcasts, and the best players and coaches are building recognizable and effective personal brands through the college game. The SEC is leading the way, and the competitive energy required to keep up is intense. The conference has been active since Georgia last hired a coach: 9 of the 14 schools have changed head coaches in the meantime. High-profile hires have driven up the cost of doing business, and staff salary pools have had to keep pace. Increased media coverage means that nearly every game is broadcast and scrutinized. Nearly everyone is trying to get better and investing more in their program. Georgia must decide if it wants to ride this wave, and Coach Abe will have to hold the school accountable for its commitment to the program.

South Carolina has a stranglehold on top of the SEC, but the rest of the league has proven fairly transient as coaching changes took root. Kim Mulkey was able to elevate LSU from the middle of the pack to a second place finish in 2022. Mississippi State went in the other direction – from national title game appearances in 2017 and 2018 to out of the NCAA tournament in 2022. Texas A&M won the regular season title in 2021 but dropped into the bottom third of the league this season. New coaches at Ole Miss and Florida breathed new life into programs trapped in the conference cellar. That’s encouraging in one sense. The ceiling for the best SEC teams is the national title. On the other hand, it’s unsettling: it doesn’t take long to be passed by after a couple of sub-par recruiting classes, a rash of injuries, or an ineffective hire.

Another direct competitor Georgia fans might overlook is Georgia Tech. The series historically dominated by Georgia has taken a sharp turn towards parity. Tech rebuilt their program with foreign talent mixed with quality prospects from across the south. Georgia’s inability to lock down the state in recruiting (more on that below) aided this effort and has made Tech a thorn in Georgia’s side. In fact, Joni Taylor had a losing record (3-4) against the Yellow Jackets, and Georgia has dropped 3 of the last 4. Retaking control of this rivalry that was once an afterthought would be small but visible progress that any Georgia fan can appreciate.

Any discussion of college sports these days has to acknowledge the transfer portal. Georgia has been a popular transfer destination with standouts like Taja Cole, Mikayla Coombs, and Jenna Staiti joining the program. This coaching change might make the portal a little less popular among Georgia fans. The Lady Dogs have already seen a couple of players and prospects signal their intent to explore a transfer. The 2023 team was already going to be thin in a couple of spots before any attrition, so Abrahamson-Henderson will likely need to be active herself in the transfer market. Attracting transfers could have a lot to do with her success out of the gate before her more traditional recruiting operation kicks into gear. Speaking of recruiting…

Recruiting

As Georgia’s associate head coach from 2012-2015, Joni Taylor was already heavily involved with recruiting. That experience didn’t immediately pay off once she became head coach and revamped Georgia’s recruiting in the era of social media. Her first impactful infusion of talent came in 2017 with the nation’s #9 class that included recent stars like Que Morrison and Gabby Connally. Another top 20 class followed in 2019, but Georgia didn’t string together consecutive top 20 classes until 2021 and 2022. Georgia’s brand is national; the strong 2017 class featured three out-of-state players, and 5* prospects like Chloe Chapman (Maryland) and Reigan Richardson (North Carolina) have been added since. The bigger problems left for Abrahamson-Henderson to solve are consistency from year-to-year avoiding unbalanced classes and improving recruiting results right here at home.

It’s not news that the state of Georgia produces as much women’s basketball talent as it does for other sports. Recruiters flock to the state, and competition is fierce. Peach State talent is spread across the SEC. Only four SEC teams didn’t have a Georgia native on their roster last season, and more than half of the SEC had a Georgia native start a game. In 2019, 12 of 14 SEC teams had a player from Georgia. Both of this year’s national title game participants started a Georgian.

We often hear about Georgia’s difficulty recruiting in-state with men’s basketball. But many of those same issues have plagued the women’s program over the past 10-15 years. Georgia can always count on signing homegrown players, but it’s been tough to convince the state’s very best to stay home. Top prospects from Georgia have signed with schools as disparate as Stanford, Maryland, Duke, and UConn. Georgia signed the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Since 2005 only two others – Anne Marie Armstrong and Sydney Bowles – have signed with Georgia out of high school. (Georgia will hope that Bowles remains committed through the coaching transition.) Two others, Staiti and Coombs, signed elsewhere before transferring to Georgia. Georgia’s slide from national and even SEC contender status has gone along with this struggle to attract the state’s best players to Athens.

The ascendency of South Carolina has only made the job more challenging. Before Bowles the previous two Georgia Gatorade Players of the Year inked with Dawn Staley. To buck that trend, a Georgia coach needs her version of A’ja Wilson: the elite player who could have signed anywhere and showed faith in the local program. Georgia began to show signs of progress in state with commitments over the past two years from Jillian Hollingshead, Janiah Barker, and Sydney Bowles. It remains to be seen whether those individual signings hold up through the transition, but the larger point is that Georgia was making some headway where it needed to. Abrahamson-Henderson and her staff won’t be starting completely from scratch, but establishing their own in-state connections and recruiting network must be a priority. Hopefully it won’t take 5+ years to do so.

Attendance

Forget the lazy excuse that Georgia fans just won’t support basketball. Tom Crean’s program set consecutive attendance records in 2019 and 2020 without a quality product on the court. That rising tide never lifted women’s basketball attendance, but that’s not to say that the program has never been a big draw. The top 10 women’s basketball crowds at Georgia, including five sell-outs, all occurred more than 10 years ago.

Attendance under Taylor grew modestly from just under 3,000 per game in 2017 to a high of 3,830 per game in 2019. It slid a bit in 2020 to 3,411 during a sub-par couple of years and of course took a nose-dive in the pandemic season of 2021. Fans cautiously made their way back to Stegeman in 2022 with an average of 2,861 per game. The season’s attendance high naturally came against South Carolina with 5,461 fans of both schools turning out. The Tennessee game drew 5,117 fans.

It might seem a little premature to talk about filling the seats before the program returns to the Sweet 16 and beyond. But the one thing that Crean got right is that fans can be a part of the rebuild. It’s easier to recruit if prospects can imagine themselves playing in front of large and energetic crowds. Networks want to put not only successful programs but bigtime environments in their best time slots. Those programs driving the growth of the sport are bringing in fans who might not have even considered women’s basketball 10 years ago. Attendance can’t be an afterthought that must wait until everything else falls into place.

There’s been a core group of fans that found the program during better years, but as they’ve aged and reduced in number there hasn’t really been a large inflow of new fans to replace them. Last season the school introduced an Enhancement Fund for women’s basketball comparable to funds used for other sports. Season tickets were tied to this new fund, essentially doubling the price of season tickets for the most loyal fans. That’s life in modern college athletics, but it also made the job of courting new seasons ticket holders that much more difficult.

This coaching transition is as good of a time as any to reevaluate how Georgia markets women’s basketball. What are some actions that might help Abrahamson-Henderson draw larger crowds to Stegeman Coliseum?

  • Win. Duh. The simplest way for Abrahamson-Henderson to grow the Georgia fan base will be to produce a consistent winner. Of course that’s the goal of any coach, but it works and is what built Georgia’s foundational fan base.
  • Play a compelling style of basketball. Georgia’s calling card over the past decade has been solid defense leading to more wins than losses, but often even the wins were as fun as a trip to the dentist. Coaches will tell you wins are wins, and purists can appreciate defensive battles. Unless you have the defense of the 2021 Georgia football team, low-scoring defensive grinds can be a tough sell. Abrahamson-Henderson pointed out the importance of a lock-down defense to the national title contenders and makes that a focus of her coaching, but she also promised an aggressive, up-tempo energy that should be entertaining.
  • Shamelessly self-promote. How did Georgia gymnastics become and remain Stegeman Coliseum’s top draw? How did Tom Crean set attendance records during some miserable seasons? They asked for it. Constantly. Suzanne Yoculan was a natural salesperson who made her meets must-see events as the program became the nation’s best. Crean hit the road during his first off-season energizing fans and student groups. Attendance was already on the way up when Anthony Edwards arrived, and that sent attendance to another record high.
  • Make growing the fan base a priority of the athletic department. Self-promotion can get you so far, but the effect can be multiplied by leveraging Georgia’s extensive resources. Cross-promote with other sports and season ticket holders – and that means more than waving to the crowd during a football timeout. Support and resources from the athletic department will be important in many areas; marketing is only one of them.
  • Develop and market star players – and build around them. Elite players will draw curious fans. Georgia hasn’t had a WNBA first-round pick since 2008. Jenna Staiti was only the second first-team All-SEC selection since 2016. Of course Georgia has had plenty of good players over those spans, but the program has struggled to produce the household names that fans will tune in to watch and buy tickets to see in person.
  • Engage students. There’s no question that the fan base trends older. Women’s basketball games are also popular with families and especially families with young daughters. It’s an inexpensive family entertainment option. It’s even less-expensive (free!) for Georgia students to attend, but that’s been a tougher group to reach. There have been giveaways and other promotions, but the bigger challenge is making women’s basketball games social events where friend groups want to congregate.

The almost-daily frenzy of news following Taylor’s departure will die down soon, but Coach Abe will be a whirlwind of activity over the next six months before preseason practice begins. Among other things she’ll have to evaluate Georgia’s returning players, get what she can out of the spring recruiting period and transfer portal, set up her own recruiting operation to catch up on the 2023 class and beyond, establish her offseason program, hold summer camps, and provide input on everything from her new office to next season’s schedule. It helps that she’ll have a familiar set of assistants who can anticipate her expectations and preferences, but they’ll also be making their own adjustments. It also helps that she’s done this before with great success. Whether that experience can translate to the SEC is the big question, and we’ll begin to see around October what this new era of Georgia women’s basketball will look like.


Post Monken’s greatest hits

Thursday April 7, 2022

Blutarsky posted what he considers his favorite Todd Monken play calls from the past two seasons. They’re great. The entire Michigan gameplan was a work of art.

Thinking about my favorite Monken plays I keep coming back to this one from the 2021 UAB game:

1st & 10 at UGA 11
(1:14 – 1st) Stetson Bennett pass complete to Brock Bowers for 89 yds for a TD, (Jack Podlesny KICK)

Here’s another look at it. The play is technically 11 personnel, but the tight end is split out to give a 4-wide look. The TE motions inside the receiver. While the receiver runs a post route to clear out the safety, the TE runs a wheel route to go back outside. A fake toss to the tailback on the play side draws in the linebackers and causes the defensive back covering Bowers to hesitate. With no safety help over the top, Bowers slips by the defensive back and gets behind the defense with a clear path to the endzone.

This is why it’s among my favorites:

  • Brock Bowers scores his first touchdown. We’d heard the buzz about him during spring ball and watched him at G-Day, but at the start of the season the bigger question was how Georgia would cope with Darnell Washington’s injury. Bowers scored twice against UAB and began to emerge as a key part of Georgia’s offense, and this play showed it all – his versatility to line up anywhere, his route-running, his hands, and of course his speed.
  • Years of preseason chatter about using the tight ends had become a running gag among Georgia fans. This is the year – we mean it this time! A big play from a tight end wheel route was pure catnip to these fans. Little did they know that this freshman tight end would be Georgia’s leading receiver on a national champion team.
  • What distinguishes the play isn’t just Bowers scoring. It’s the play itself offering multiple options to put the defense in a bind. Later in the game Monken came back to the same play flipped to the other side. Carson Beck fakes the tailback pitch and draws in a safety. This time the tight end, Seither, is covered on the wheel route. The other safety is held just long enough by a dig route coming across the middle. Justin Robinson settled into the vacated opening, and Beck found him for the easy score.

Yes – most plays from even the most pedestrian play callers have options and levels. Monken didn’t invent this stuff. It was still thoroughly enjoyable to see a play that 1) was well-designed, 2) was well-executed, and 3) made use of the skills of a talented playmaker to create an explosive scoring play. It was even more enjoyable to see the same concept score again with an entirely different set of personnel later in the same game.


Post Joni Taylor leaves Georgia with a mixed and unfinished legacy

Wednesday March 23, 2022

Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor has accepted the head coaching position at Texas A&M. Taylor was 140-75 (62-48 SEC) in seven seasons as Georgia’s head coach, took four teams to the NCAA tournament, and was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2021.

Taylor was a bold choice to follow Hall of Fame coach Andy Landers. Landers won over 800 games in 36 seasons at Georgia. Taylor had an extensive background as an SEC assistant, including several season as Landers’s lead assistant, but had no head coaching experience. The risky move seemed justified as Taylor was named National Rookie Coach of the Year in 2016. The next year Georgia signed a top-10 class featuring four top 100 players. They followed that up in 2018 with a top-16 national seed and finished tied for second place in the SEC.

It’s been an uneasy path forward since. Georgia missed the postseason in 2019 and would have in the 2020 season prematurely ended by the pandemic. The Lady Dogs narrowly avoided the program’s first losing season as an NCAA school, and Georgia had never missed consecutive NCAA tournaments. Georgia bounced back in 2021 as that 2017 recruiting class had its swan song. They finished fourth in the SEC, made the conference tournament finals, and earned a high seed in the NCAA tournament. 2022 was an ever-so-slight step back, but the team still won 20 games and earned a consecutive NCAA tournament bid for the first time in Taylor’s seven seasons.

Taylor is easy to like and even easier to respect, and that’s what makes her departure most hard to take. Taylor identified and built on core traits that she considered fundamental and unique to Georgia. There’s no mistaking that she is the child of two devoted educators: she is principled, driven, and commands attention. She carries herself with a no-nonsense demeanor that leaves no doubt about who is in charge, but she cares deeply about the personal development of the student-athletes she leads. Three of Taylor’s players have been named SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year. She can relate easily with the women on her team. Her “Beyond Basketball” outreach has been groundbreaking and a paradigm of professional and personal development for women. On top of it all, Taylor has started a family since becoming Georgia’s coach. She’s been a model of balancing family and career with a high-profile position in the public eye.

In short, Taylor would be the perfect coach if things went as well on the court.

Success can be relative: had Tom Crean or Mark Fox matched Taylor’s record over the past seven seasons, it would be among the best seven-year periods in Georgia men’s basketball history. Georgia women’s basketball though has a much richer legacy and tradition, and Taylor was quick to acknowledge and embrace that standard. When introduced as Georgia’s coach, she noted that Georgia has the “resources, facilities, and support to do things on a national level.” It’s debatable whether Taylor performed to that standard. Georgia missed as many NCAA tournaments in Taylor’s seven seasons as they had in all prior seasons. 20 of Georgia’s first 31 NCAA tournament teams advanced to the Sweet 16. None of Taylor’s four NCAA tournament teams did, and three times Georgia lost to a lower seed in the first or second round. Only two of Taylor’s seven teams finished higher than 6th in the SEC, and only those two teams advanced to the SEC tournament semifinals.

It’s incorrect and unfair to put the struggle to maintain the program’s standard completely on Taylor. When you begin asking “when was the last time Georgia….” many of the answers fall well before Andy Landers stepped down in 2015. Georgia’s successful 2021 campaign ended with a trip to the SEC tournament finals – a feat not accomplished at Georgia since 2004. The team’s 3-seed in the NCAA tournament was the program’s best since 2007. Georgia hasn’t produced an All-American since Ashley Houts in 2010. The program has produced no first-round WNBA picks since Tasha Humphrey in 2008. Let’s not pretend that Taylor inherited a national power full of All-Americans. Taylor had to address a long slide in recruiting and perception that began as programs like South Carolina and even Georgia Tech were on the rise. It could also be argued that Taylor had something to do with that slide – she was a top assistant coach and responsible for recruiting and player development during several of those seasons.

Are there signs that Taylor was finally starting to make some headway? Seven years can be an eternity to wait for results in college sports, but patience can sometimes pay off. It’s a positive development to reach the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. Recruiting has also picked up. The current freshman class was rated #14 nationally, and the incoming class is rated #7. Those indicators at least are pointing in the right direction. That patience though came with its own problems. Taylor’s teams have never been especially proficient on offense, and there hasn’t been much urgency to change the approach that made it difficult to compete at the highest level. Taylor kept the same staff throughout her entire time at Georgia – a stability that seemed to reinforce her message of family but which also seemed more and more stagnant after seven seasons. The big payoff never really arrived.

It might seem to Taylor like a logical time to make a change. Her most successful recruiting class from 2017 has exhausted its eligibility, though Malury Bates has the option to return. The next wave of talent at Georgia is still young or yet to arrive, and a transition season might be ahead for Georgia. Her children haven’t reached school age yet. She’ll face a familiar situation and standard at Texas A&M. Gary Blair, like Landers, was a longtime successful SEC coach. Blair led A&M to the 2011 national title, the 2021 SEC regular season title, and the Aggies just named their court for him. The local recruiting landscape will be fierce with Baylor, an ascendant Texas program, and Kim Mulkey next door at LSU. Expectations will be high, but these are not new challenges for Taylor after seven seasons leading a program in the SEC.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that “the women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for (Josh) Brooks” relative to the other programs that call Stegeman Coliseum home. The men’s basketball program was so far gone that a coaching change was the obvious way forward. Taylor’s program isn’t remotely in that situation, and that was the puzzle for Brooks. It made no sense to replace Taylor, but at the same time the program didn’t seem on the verge of adding to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners. The problem to solve was getting more out of the program under its current leadership and approach. Whether that solution involved a staff shakeup, outside consultants to bring in new ideas, or additional resources, getting incremental improvement from a program that’s already performing relatively well is an extremely difficult task.

In a way, Taylor made it easier for Brooks by leaving. Brooks still has the great responsibility of finding a replacement, but he’s also able to start fresh and work with a new coach on a vision for the program. That’s a tremendous opportunity, but of course any change brings risk. The caution is becoming a program like Alabama, Vanderbilt, or Auburn – once-proud and successful programs that slid into years of losing seasons and cycles of coaching changes that never gained traction. That was always a possibility after Landers retired, and Taylor, to her credit, at least kept things from cratering. Georgia could easily go either way. Attrition and transfers will determine what the new coach has to work with: the foundation of a very good team is in place with the incoming recruiting class, but the talent level isn’t deep enough to survive the loss of those key signings or next season’s likely starters.

There’s no point naming a list of possible candidates since it should be a long and exhaustive list. A program with Georgia’s resources and legacy in women’s basketball should be able to attract some of the top names in the sport. During Taylor’s time at Georgia, the rest of the SEC has not stood still. LSU was able to hire Kim Mulkey away from Baylor. Dawn Staley has fortified her position at South Carolina. Promising hires at Auburn, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt look to pull those programs out of the cellar. As I noted, Georgia is behind its peers when it comes to spending on basketball, and that impacts everything from the recruiting budget to hiring staff. It might have even had something to do with Taylor’s decision to leave. Brooks’s commitment to support the program with the full backing of the athletic department and its resources will be as important as the identity of the next coach.

Taylor’s charismatic leadership makes it tough for many Georgia fans to see her leave. A reset might be best for both parties though. She’ll be able to start the process again at Texas A&M using the experience she gained at Georgia. The Bulldogs can try to find a head coach more capable of elevating the program to the standard Taylor embraced when she accepted the position.


Post Stegeman’s unchanging banners an opportunity for Josh Brooks

Thursday March 10, 2022

It’s unfair to say that Josh Brooks has had an easy first year as Georgia’s athletic director. He’s already had to appoint three new head coaches under very different circumstances. He’s supervised the ongoing expansion of the Butts-Mehre facility to serve the football program and other sports. He’s listened to fans and made incremental improvements to the fan experience at Georgia sporting events. Brooks has been a busy man and a visible administrator.

It’s also true that Brooks came into the job at perhaps the best possible time. The school’s flagship football program is the best in the nation. Happy fans are buying tickets and merchandise, and the Hartman Fund donation numbers should be a sight to behold this year. Brooks, as befits his role as athletic director, was right there to join in all of the back-slapping and celebrations that went along with the national title. The months since the national title haven’t been as cheerful for Georgia’s winter sports, and Brooks might soon have to transition from posing for pictures with the CFP trophy to less pleasant duties and press conferences.

Stegeman Coliseum’s banners hang from the west end of the arena, and you can’t help but notice them while facing the flag during the performance of the national anthem. As you’d expect, Georgia’s historically strong gymnastics program claims most of the accomplishments (and only national titles) celebrated on those banners. The women’s basketball program adds its five Final Four appearances and eight SEC crowns. We know that championship seasons for men’s basketball have been few and far between, but they too have their place with a Final Four run in 1983 and three SEC titles.

What stands out is that none of the banners have needed an update since 2009. Stegeman’s winter occupants haven’t brought home an SEC title, much less a national title, since the GymDogs sent Suzanne Yoculan into retirement by rallying for another national championship in 2009. The only other schools without SEC titles in basketball or gymnastics since 2009 are Arkansas and Missouri. Are any of these sports close to adding to their banners?

Stegeman Banners

Men’s Basketball

The fate of the 2021-2022 men’s basketball season was sealed last spring. Tom Crean was retained after an unremarkable year. Nine players transferred out. The current roster was cobbled together from a few remaining players, a low-impact signing class, and whatever Georgia could scrape together from the transfer portal. The nature of Crean’s contract buyout essentially placed the program in hospice for a year. There was little doubt how it would end. The only questions were “when will it end?” and “how bad would it get?” We know the answers are “now” and “historically bad.”

Success in men’s basketball has been the white whale of Georgia athletics. Everyone has an idea how to fix things, but they all boil down to recruiting. Almost every year someone points out the Georgia natives enjoying postseason success elsewhere. This year we’ve been reminded weekly how several key members of the 2021 Georgia team have important roles for contenders. Recruiting is more than getting an isolated signature: it’s a sustained process of assembling and retaining a competitive roster year after year. Anthony Edwards was a recruiting coup for Tom Crean, but no one followed. Sahvir Wheeler and KD Johnson were above-average guards who left for better opportunities when a more competitive frontcourt couldn’t be built around them. Just assembling a quality roster and holding it together long enough to build something has been too much to ask.

Because of the transient nature of the 2021-2022 roster, the next men’s basketball coach won’t start out in a good position. There won’t be much of a splash in the spring recruiting period. There will be some typical attrition. Perhaps a handful of contributors from the current squad stick it out through the transition. Georgia will again be reliant on incoming transfers for a good chunk of its roster next season while the new staff gets its recruiting operation into gear. It’s likely to be an ugly, messy situation for a year or two – and that’s the lower limit if the next coach can gain recruiting traction within a year. Will that challenge make Georgia a less-attractive destination for a promising coaching prospect?

Gymnastics

North Carolina women’s soccer. Iowa wrestling. Arkansas track and field. Few schools are fortunate to host a college sports dynasty, and Suzanne Youculan’s ten national titles from 1987-2009 made Georgia gymnastics a national powerhouse. Yoculan went out on top with five straight national titles from 2005-2009 before she retired. Dynasties end, and it’s never easy going replacing a legendary coach. Jay Clark struggled to sustain the program’s success and has had much better results at LSU. Danna Durante managed three Super Six appearances from 2013-2016 but couldn’t bring home titles. With Yoculan’s blessing, Courtney Kupets Carter – one of Georgia’s superstars during the five straight titles in the 2000s – was brought in to recapture Georgia’s former glory and has been at the helm for five seasons.

Unfortunately Kupets Carter hasn’t returned Georgia to the level of the Yoculan era. The program has even slid from Durante’s time. Georgia finished 2021 ranked #18 and will finish the 2022 regular season out of the top 20. Meanwhile, programs like Florida, LSU, and even Auburn have taken steps forward. Top-ranked Oklahoma will be joining the SEC soon.

There is much more sentimental attachment to Kupets Carter than there is to someone like Crean. Kupets Carter is a beloved figure in Georgia sports history and one of its most accomplished athletes. She took over with a hearty endorsement from Suzanne Yoculan. Yoculan even assisted for a season while Kupets-Carter found her stride as head coach. There has been some bad luck with injuries, but the program shows no signs of returning to SEC contender or national Super Six status anytime soon.

Women’s Basketball

The women’s basketball program might present the most difficult situation for Brooks. Joni Taylor took a team to the SEC tournament final in 2021, was named SEC coach of the year, and is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. That’s not a floundering program. Yet, due to Dennis Felton’s improbable run to the SEC tournament title in 2008, the women’s basketball program has gone the longest without adding to its Stegeman Coliseum banners. It’s been over 20 years since Kelly Miller’s buzzer-beater gave Georgia the 2001 SEC tournament championship. Georgia got as far as the NCAA Regional Final in 2004 and 2013 but came up just short of the Final Four. They haven’t returned to the Sweet 16 since.

Taylor’s results have been inconsistent over her seven seasons. This year marks just the first time she’s been able to string together consecutive NCAA tournament bids. Georgia has earned two top 16 national seeds in Taylor’s seven seasons, but they’ve been unable to sustain that level of play in the subsequent seasons. Last season’s SEC final appearance fizzled out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A promising 2022 season that had Georgia approaching the top ten ended in an early-round exit at the SEC tournament. Recruiting seems to be on the upswing: Georgia will welcome the #7 signing class after inking the #14 class a year ago. Getting more out of these signing classes must be a priority.

The trap is complacency. The program has not come close to the futility of the men’s program, but neither has it met the standard Taylor embraced when she took over from Andy Landers. Georgia’s staff has remained unchanged since Taylor took over for the 2015-2016 season. The rest of the SEC has not stood still. Georgia shows signs of stability and even some progress in recruiting, but you also don’t want to plateau as a program that just makes it into the NCAA tournament and struggles to finish in the SEC top four. That was the state of the program when Landers decided it was time to step aside. Taylor’s program might be the closest of the three to adding another title, but are there steps Brooks can take to help Taylor get her program to the next level? How do you send the message that good should be better?

A common thread?

Recently ESPN’s Mark Schlabach went in-depth about the persistent issues with Georgia men’s basketball. The points are familiar ones to UGA basketball fans, but the details about Georgia’s recruiting approach in particular are still bewildering. Schalabach also brings up Georgia’s facilities. The practice facility was state of the art when it opened 15 years ago and is still a strong resource with dedicated practice, training, and locker space for all three programs. Stegeman Coliseum itself received a major facelift just a few years ago with improvements to the seating bowl and concourses. There is only so much that can be done to Stegeman without replacing it completely, and Georgia is close to that limit. A new facility is a separate discussion, but Georgia has invested quite a bit in capital improvements for these sports over the past two decades.

But capital spending is only one type of investment in the programs. The annual budgets provide the resources to operate day-to-day in those facilities. In 2015, Georgia’s football expenses were about $2 million below the SEC median. By 2020 Georgia was spending $7 million more on football than the median SEC school. Kirby Smart led a significant increase in the football support staff, recruiting resources, and other expenses to go along with capital projects like the West Endzone, indoor practice facility, and Butts-Mehre expansion.

Spending has increased on Georgia’s basketball programs, but they still lag relative to their SEC peers. For the reporting year 2020, Georgia spent $8.3 million on men’s basketball. LSU spent $9.3 million, Tennessee spent $13.1 million, South Carolina spent $8.2 million, and Kentucky blew everyone away with $19.1 million in men’s basketball expenses. For women’s basketball, Georgia spent $4.4 million. LSU spent $4.7 million, Kentucky spent $5.3 million, South Carolina spent $6.9 million, and Tennessee spent $7.3 million.

It’s not about the head coach’s salary. Crean earned $3.2 million, making him one of the 20 highest-paid coaches in the nation in 2020. Taylor likewise is paid well relative to the market. As with football, the annual budget allows a program to increase the support staff, have a larger pool of funds with which to attract better assistants, and provide better meals, travel, and other quality-of-life benefits for the players. Of course there’s not a direct relationship between spending and success, but Georgia’s relative thriftiness here isn’t done out of virtue. It’s no surprise though that Kentucky men’s basketball and Tennessee women’s basketball are among the biggest spenders. Kirby Smart made the case for an expansion of the football budget when he took the job. Will the athletic administration be as receptive if a new basketball coach makes a similar case?

The fans are already there

Tom Crean implored fans to pack Stegeman during his first two seasons, and they responded with sellouts in an unmistakable show of faith in the new coach. Georgia basketball was a hot ticket during the Anthony Edwards season even without a winning team on the court. Support has waned as the program failed to live up to its end of the deal. The GymDogs still draw large crowds and sold out a recent meet with Auburn as the large fan base built by Yoculan’s tireless showmanship persists through some lean years. Even women’s basketball drew large crowds during their championship and Final Four seasons. Georgia is indeed a football school, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a large number of Georgia fans who would like to see more from the winter sports and who are willing to show up and support those programs.

Fans will be watching how Josh Brooks handles the men’s basketball transition. It’s not only an opportunity to reverse the decades-long fortunes of that program. It’s also going to be a signal to fans of all of Stegeman’s occupants. What will be the standards for success? What level of investment and support can these programs expect? Can the same combination of institutional vision and resources that led to a title in Indianapolis also align to finally add more dates to Stegeman Coliseum’s banners?


Post 2022 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 2, 2022

The 2021-2022 SEC women’s basketball season continued the return of college sports to normalcy. Crowds were back, and the league managed a complete 16-game conference schedule despite some midseason hiccups. Teams like Arkansas and Ole Miss had to play three games in the final week of the regular season to accommodate earlier cancellations. Nearly every team had to deal with players and coaches entering safety protocols during the midseason COVID wave, but no one looks to be leaving anyone at home for the postseason.

The 2022 SEC tournament returns to Nashville this week after three years in Greenville, and an unrestricted crowd welcomes hometown Vanderbilt back to the festivities. The Commodores played only three SEC games a year ago before opting out of the remainder of their season. They’ll be excited to return to the tournament and might be an interesting early-round team to watch. One thing to keep an eye on each year is how the crowd ebbs and flows with the success of individual schools. South Carolina has owned Greenville recently, but Nashville has always been Tennessee country. Kim Mulkey has been filling LSU’s arena – will a legion of purple and gold follow her to Nashville? What about surprising teams like Ole Miss or Florida – have the fan bases had time to catch up with their unexpected success?

Two recent NCAA rules changes had a big impact on the women’s basketball season. Allowing seniors to return for an additional season meant that some of the league’s top players were back for another go. No team made better use of this rule than LSU who rode their super-seniors to a second place finish. The transfer portal and one-time transfer allowance remade women’s basketball rosters as much as they did for football and other sports. Teams added important pieces to their roster, but a couple of teams also had key players decide to transfer out mid-season. There was change on the sidelines as well: four schools introduced new head coaches, and each improved their program’s win total from a year ago.

Some developments were more predictable. South Carolina secured another regular season SEC title after finishing second in 2021, and they spent most of the year as the nation’s top-ranked team. Dawn Staley’s next wave of talent are upperclassmen now, and they’ve been joined by the nation’s top recruiting class. The Gamecocks were denied a postseason in 2020 by the pandemic, came up just short in the national semifinal in 2021, and have their sights set on nothing short of the national title this year. They will be the overwhelming favorite in Nashville, but an upset loss early in the year at unranked Missouri reminds the Gamecocks that they can’t be looking ahead to bigger goals just yet.

The rest of the bracket should have some entertaining uncertainty. Some of the more recent blue bloods struggled but have the firepower and coaching to advance in the tournament. Teams have battled injuries and attrition throughout the season, and several have had to make up games late in the year. Every team is banged up and fighting fatigue this time of year, but some might be feeling it more than others. The daily format of the tournament might be too much to ask for some of the contenders. Several schools are playing for a possible NCAA tournament bid. Even last-place Auburn knocked off Tennessee and Georgia during the regular season and came within a few points of four or five additional wins. There are several new teams in the upper half of the conference who might stay in the tournament much longer than we’re used to seeing. Last year Georgia made news by advancing to the title game from the four seed. This year another relative newcomer like Florida, LSU, or Ole Miss wouldn’t be a surprise finalist.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. ALA/AUB ~9:30 PM ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. TENN: ~9:30 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

(LY – last year’s finish, PS – coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (15-1, 27-1) (LY-2, PS-1): A loss to Texas A&M on the final day of the 2021 regular season denied the Gamecocks another SEC title, but they recovered to claim the tournament championship. This year South Carolina won the regular season going away and are the overwhelming favorites to repeat on Championship Sunday. Titles are old hat now for South Carolina’s junior class – that’s right, they’ll be back – and they’ve added tremendous depth that’s shored up just about any weakness they might have had. South Carolina’s success isn’t limited to the SEC. They had a perfect nonconference slate with wins over strong teams like NC State, Oregon, UConn, Stanford, and Maryland. As strong as the record is and as complete as the roster looks, it hasn’t been a cakewalk. They had to rally to beat UConn and Stanford. The sole loss to Missouri was a head-scratcher, but a handful of other SEC teams have pushed the Gamecocks. A 12-0 run put away Ole Miss in a tight game in their most recent game. That’s generally been the theme this year: there have been scoring droughts that allowed opponents to hang around or even get out ahead, but South Carolina has almost always had an answer at the end of games.

Likely national player of the year Aliyah Boston was a star after two seasons but has worked to become even better. Most any broadcast will note how she changed physically in the offseason, and the results have been evident. Boston enters the tournament with an SEC record 21 double-doubles, and she’s notched many of those points and rebounds before halftime. Boston’s junior classmates Zia Cooke and defensive specialist Brea Beal have also been standouts since their freshman seasons. South Carolina isn’t without senior leadership: Destanni Henderson is one of the SEC’s assist leaders but also shoots 40% from outside. Victaria Saxton is a multi-year captain and starter averaging over 5 points and 5 rebounds a game.

It’s the depth that really makes South Carolina special. The reserves could start for most teams, and Dawn Staley has barely had to dip into the nation’s top recruiting class. Laeticia Amihere is the type of tall, athletic forward any coach would like to have. 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso was the ACC freshman and defensive player of the year at Syracuse. Destiny Littleton can come off the bench and shoot 37% from outside. Last year Staley stuck to a rotation of about seven or eight players. That’s expanded this year. South Carolina only has one player (Boston) among the SEC’s top 25 scorers, but that’s a byproduct of the team’s depth and balance.

2) LSU (13-3, 25-4) (LY-8, PS-8): Kim Mulkey has fans of 12 other SEC schools asking why a coach in her first season can elevate LSU to a top-ten national ranking and a solid second place SEC finish. Of course Mulkey is no ordinary coach, and LSU is no ordinary team. The Tigers benefitted more from the additional COVID year of eligibility than just about any other program. LSU had four players decide to return for a fifth season, and three-year Vanderbilt starter Autumn Newby transferred in as a graduate student. That core of experience returning has been a big part of LSU’s success, but it was still a group that finished eighth last season. It took Mulkey to get the most from them, and anyone hoping that there would be an adjustment with Mulkey taking over in Baton Rouge is very disappointed. Most impressively, LSU has taken on their coach’s fearless personality in big games. LSU is 6-1 against teams ranked at game time, and the sole loss was a narrow setback to South Carolina. Mulkey has reenergized support for LSU women’s basketball with crowds of nearly 7,000 for routine SEC home games and a sellout for an important late-season showdown against Florida with second place on the line.

Khayla Pointer made a strong statement to return after her aunt was dismissed as head coach, and Faustine Aifuwa, Awa Trasi, and Jailin Cherry followed. Pointer, Aifuwa, and Cherry are three of the team’s top scorers, and Trasi provides experienced depth off the bench. Alexis Morris is another experienced senior transfer now in her fourth program. Morris earned a starting role and is another of the team’s leading scorers, but she’ll likely be unavailable in Nashville after spraining her knee in the final week of the season. The Tigers should have enough depth and experience to overcome the absence of Morris, but it could hurt their chances in a rematch against South Carolina.

3) Tennessee (11-5, 22-7) (LY-3, PS-3): Tennessee went without a top-four finish from 2015-2020, but Kellie Harper brings the Lady Vols in at #3 for the second straight season. They looked to be headed for a much higher finish after leaving Athens with an 18-1 record and a top 4 national ranking. February wasn’t as kind: the Lady Vols are 4-6 over their final ten games with some bad losses to teams like Alabama, Auburn, and Florida sprinkled in among setbacks to UConn, South Carolina, and LSU. Some key injuries haven’t helped. Reserve forward Keyen Green was lost for the season at Georgia hurting Tennessee’s depth inside. Leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston suffered a serious arm injury at Alabama. Tennessee survived an earlier injury to wing Rae Burrell, but she hasn’t been 100% as the team leans more on her with Horston out. Tennessee should have their usual raucous partisan tournament crowd in Nashville, but even the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena haven’t been a safe haven this year.

The Lady Vols have limped to the finish line relying on their core strengths: using their size advantage at most positions to play frenzied and menacing defense and control rebounds on both ends of the court. Offense has fallen off: Tennessee has shot under 40% six times since winning at Georgia, and they’ve only won one of those games (Arkansas). Rebounding totals that were often over 50 and as high as 60 against Arkansas have been below 45 in five of their last eight games. So long as the team has the scoring of Burrell and the size of Tamari Key inside, they can compete with most teams and took LSU down to the wire in the regular season finale. Guard play can be hit or miss – Tennessee has four or five guards capable of hitting big shots, but Tennessee averages over 17 turnovers per game and has turned the ball over 100 more times (497) than their opponents (397).

4) Ole Miss (10-6, 22-7) (LY-11, PS-6): What a story. Ole Miss was winless in the conference two years ago. It was an accomplishment to finish 11th in 2021. They continued their progress and finished 2021 with a trip to the WNIT title game. Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s program hit the bigtime this year with a top four SEC finish, and national ranking, and a certain NCAA tournament bid. The Rebels stormed out of the gate with a 17-2 record and finally drew enough national attention to crack the rankings just in time to play South Carolina. They lost four out of five midseason including three losses to ranked teams, but they finished well with four straight wins and a competitive loss to South Carolina in the regular season finale. It would be another step forward for the program if they can advance to Saturday’s semifinals for a third crack at the Gamecocks.

The Rebels channel Coach Yo’s energy into frenetic defense – they’re second only to Vanderbilt in steals and turn opponents over almost 19 times per game. Lashonda Monk and Madison Scott alone have 100 of the team’s 277 steals. That defensive intensity has been a constant over the past couple of seasons. A maturing offense has helped move Ole Miss up the standings. Shakira Austin is a gifted post player poised to be a high WNBA draft pick in a few weeks. Scott continues to develop as one of the more exciting wing players in the conference. The team needs help from Angel Baker and Snudda Collins from the shooting guard position as Donnetta Johnson was injured late in the season.

5) Florida (10-6, 20-9) (LY-12, PS-11): You’d never have guessed in January that Florida was headed for a national ranking and a tie for fourth place. The Gators made an unexpected coaching change over the summer and elevated assistant Kelly Rae Finley to interim head coach. They had an unremarkable nonconference performance (which has held back their prospects for a higher NCAA tournament seed.) They dropped their first two SEC games. Then leading scorer Lavender Briggs left the team for good after returning from the transfer portal. They responded by winning 10 of 11 games with only a loss to South Carolina breaking up the streak. Their winning streaks included five defeats of ranked opponents including a 84-59 demolition of Tennessee followed by a rare win at Georgia. Finley deserves a ton of credit for Florida’s resiliency, but a fleet of guards did the work on the court. Kiki Smith, Nina Rickards, and Rutgers transfer Zippy Broughton are quick, slashing guards capable of scoring from anywhere. Forward Jordyn Merritt is a matchup nightmare who, at 6’3″, leaded the team with 30 three-pointers and shoots over 40% from outside. Florida had a shot to finish in second place, but three straight losses to end the season brought them back to earth. The question heading into the postseason is whether this group picked to finish 11th was punching well above their weight.

6) Georgia (9-7, 20-8) (LY-4, PS-4): The Lady Dogs caused a bit of a stir last year with a 4th place finish and a run to the championship game. Joni Taylor was named coach of the year, and prospects for another strong season were bolstered by the return of two eligible seniors. Center Jenna Staiti and guard Que Morrison have had huge fifth seasons – they are Georgia’s leading scorers and top defenders, and it’s not a pleasant thought what this season would have been without them. One eligible senior who didn’t return was Gabby Connally, and Georgia has missed her in a couple of ways. Georgia doesn’t start a true point guard – the duties usually fall to Morrison, but the team has taken a committee approach with mixed results. Connally was also the player you wanted with the ball in late-game situations, and there really hasn’t been a player to step into that role this year. Buzzer-beater isolation plays for Morrison have rarely been effective, and more complex plays tend to fall apart when seconds matter.

Defense remains Georgia’s calling card. It’s truly a team approach that relies on traps, double-teams, and intelligent rotation and help. Opponents only average 58.4 points per game against Georgia. The Lady Dogs are at their best creating turnovers and getting out in transition. Senior Mikayla Coombs is outstanding at intercepting passes, and Morrison often has to lock down the other team’s best scorer. Halfcourt offense can be an adventure, and both turnovers and long scoring droughts have been big problems. Staiti is a reliable scorer, but she’s also the focal point of opponent defenses. Georgia’s challenge has been finding complementary players and outside shooting to free up their top scorer. Lately that answer has come from freshman Reigan Richardson, but it’s been a nightly test for Joni Taylor to discover who has the hot hand. Georgia is deep in that they’ll play many players; the trick has been finding effective lineup combinations without much scoring dropoff. In some games its been the starters who struggled to score while bench players provided the spark. This offensive inconsistency has cost Georgia several winnable conference games that would have had them comfortably among the top four.

Georgia started the season strong with wins away from home against NC State, Notre Dame, and Texas Tech. A 4-2 start in the SEC had Georgia ranked as high as #13 and listed as an NCAA top 16 seed in the initial bracket reveal. A close home loss to then-#5 Tennessee slowed Georgia’s climb up the polls, and a midseason three-game losing streak took Georgia out of the national spotlight. There was still a shot at a top four SEC finish, but a disappointing loss at last-place Auburn sunk those hopes. Georgia did respond with nice wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M to close the season and avoid falling further down the standings. A win at then-#24 Ole Miss was Georgia’s only conference win over a ranked opponent. Small mistakes become magnified against better competition, and Georgia has struggled to make the big plays in tight games against the top half of the conference. In many respects, it’s been a good season – Georgia will win 20 games in consecutive seasons and make consecutive NCAA tournaments for the first time under Joni Taylor. But repeating last season’s SEC tournament run will require a much different mindset and execution in the fourth quarter, and there were some signs against Arkansas and A&M. The postseason can produce its own stars – will Georgia have someone step up as its leader late in games?

7) Kentucky (8-8, 15-11) (LY-5, PS-5): Each year there seems to be a team further down in the standings that no one else wants to play. Kentucky is that team this year. Few teams were hit by midseason absences more than the Wildcats. A combination of illness, injuries, and a suspension tested the roster and coach Kyra Elzy’s creativity and ability to hold things together. December was an especially trying period for the team, and they went more than two weeks over the holidays before finally opening their SEC slate with an upset of Georgia. The Wildcats lost eight of their next nine SEC games to fall from the rankings and out of postseason consideration. As the team’s health improved during February, the results followed. Kentucky enters the postseason winners of six straight that include big road wins at Arkansas and Missouri. We should tap the brakes a bit – none of these six wins were against a ranked opponent, and all of them came against teams that finished lower than Kentucky in the standings. Still, an 8-8 finish after starting 2-8 is enough to have Kentucky back in the NCAA tournament conversation and gives them plenty to play for in Nashville. A quarterfinal rematch against LSU might be one of the more interesting Friday games.

Everyone knows about Rhyne Howard, and the two-time SEC Player of the Year has been the one constant this year amidst a shifting roster. Howard might not repeat as POY again but still is Kentucky’s leader and most important player. Their most valuable player might be someone else: forward Dre’una Edwards served a four-game suspension that coincided with Kentucky’s losing streak, and her presence makes Kentucky a much different team. Edwards is Kentucky’s second-leading scorer, pulls down nearly 8 rebounds per game, and can step outside and shoot from the perimeter. She is averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds per game during Kentucky’s six-game winning streak and gives the Wildcats just the complement they need to draw defensive attention away from Howard.

8) Arkansas (7-9, 17-12) (LY-6, PS-7): It’s been a bit of a rebuilding year after losing a couple of first round picks in Chelsea Dungee and Destiny Slocum. There’s still no question what to expect from Arkansas. There are still plenty of players capable of executing Mike Neighbors’s up-tempo offense. The youth of the roster might have meant less consistency than the past two seasons, but this is still a fun team to watch and should be among the NCAA field of 68. Amber Ramirez and Makayla Daniels continue the legacy of sharpshooting guards. Ramirez is a threat to score as soon as she crosses halfcourt. Daniels has slowly worked back in after a scary leg injury in early February but might be rounding back into form with 17 PPG in the past two games. Samara Spencer, Rylee Langerman, and Sasha Goforth have stepped forward as underclassmen, and Jersey Wolfenbarger is a 6’5″ freshman forward who can sprint the court and gives the high-flying Razorback offense an inside presence who can keep up with the pace. The sum of the parts might not be fully baked yet, but when it comes together – as it did for 90 points in a win over LSU – watch out.

9) Missouri (7-9, 18-11) (LY-10, PS-10): Missouri opened SEC play with an upset of #1 South Carolina and finished it with an upset of #23 Florida. In between it’s been a bit of a mess as the team struggled to put together many quality wins. Their identity hasn’t changed much – the Tigers still are up near the top of the league in three pointers attempted, and no one shoots a better percentage from outside. Hayley Frank and Aijha Blackwell both average around 15 points per game. Frank, at 6’1″, is a matchup nightmare shooting over 47% from outside. LaDazhia Williams is again the team’s top post scoring threat but doesn’t rebound at the rate you’d expect of a 6’4″ player. Blackwell remains a scoring and rebounding machine in her third season, but she hasn’t taken the next step to SEC stardom. She has even been left home on a couple of road trips this year for disciplinary reasons. Four players, including Blackwell, were recently suspended for a game against Kentucky. That unsettled dynamic hasn’t helped the team’s record, and coach Robin Pingeton has taken the hit to uphold the team’s accountability standards. Missouri might have the most at stake in Nashville – a loss to Arkansas could knock them off the NCAA bubble.

10) Mississippi State (6-10, 15-13) (LY-9, PS-9): Call them the poor man’s Florida? Like the Gators, Mississippi State had a sudden and unexpected coaching change before the season. An interim coach, Doug Novak, has guided them through the season. Their leading scorer, Rickea Jackson, decided to transfer out mid-season. MSU didn’t have quite the season that Florida did, but they performed better than expected given a depleted roster. Dominant center Jessika Carter sat out this season tackling mental health issues but is expected to rejoin the program next year. The remainder of the roster showed good fight and notched a satisfying win over rival Ole Miss. That win had MSU at 6-5 in the SEC and still hopeful for an NCAA bid, but they dropped their final five games. They’ll need to beat Kentucky and likely LSU to have any shot, but a WNIT bid is possible. Anastasia Hayes has taken over as the focal point of the offense, and Myah Taylor has been an effective backcourt mate. JerKaila Jordan has scored in double figures in seven of the past nine games and will have to have another strong game to have a chance against Kentucky.

11) Alabama (6-10, 15-12) (LY-7, PS- 12): Alabama returned to the NCAA tournament a year ago for the first time in over 20 years and advanced to the second round. They lost a trio of seniors from that breakthrough season and have taken a step back this year trying to replace the production. Guards are the team’s top four scorers, and it’s no coincidence that the team is second-only to Arkansas in three pointers attempted. Such a reliance on the outside shot has brought their overall percentage down, and they can be streaky. Brittany Davis leads the Tide in scoring and has been on a tear lately averaging 26 points per game over the last four. Alabama is 3-1 over that stretch with wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Davis isn’t just a spot shooter – she’s the team’s leading rebounder and has several double-doubles. While the Tennessee win is the only real quality win on their schedule, they’ve come close against Georgia, Kentucky, and LSU and are playing well entering the postseason. Post production could be a problem, but guards Davis, Megan Abrams, and JaMaya Mingo-Young can carry the team if they’re all on. Their potential path through the tournament brings them up against Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee – teams they’ve either beaten or come within four points of beating.

12) Texas A&M (4-12, 14-14) (LY-1, PS-2): It hasn’t been a pleasant farewell tour for Gary Blair and his defending SEC champions. A sizeable chunk of talent departed after last season, and that might’ve been a more appropriate time for a coaching legend to ride off into the sunset. Blair returned for one more year with a number of contributors from that championship squad, and coaches thought enough of the roster to predict a second place finish. Loss after loss began to pile up, and the Aggies find themselves in the position of needing a win over Vanderbilt just to qualify for a WNIT bid. A midseason three-game winning streak over Arkansas, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt gave hope of a turnaround, but the Aggies head to Nashville on a five-game slide. What happened? 2021 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Destiny Pitts, Jordan Nixon, and Kayla Wells were key members of the 2021 team that couldn’t quite replace the lost production from a deep senior class. Another change is that the departure of Ciera Johnson and N’dea Jones took away a formidable inside presence. A&M has had to become much more of a perimeter-oriented team. Shooting percentage is down, and opponent rebounds are up from a year ago. If they get past Vanderbilt, they’ll face Florida. That earlier meeting produced a 2OT thriller, and a rematch could be one last shot at glory for Blair.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 13-17) (LY-14, PS-14): First-year coach and former UConn star Shea Ralph took over a program that hadn’t won more than four conference games since 2018. Last season the Commodores pulled the plug on the season after just three conference games. Ralph has already equaled Vanderbilt’s best conference record since 2018 and took down Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida. The team continued to improve towards the end of the season even if it wasn’t reflected in the record. Losses to Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Alabama in the final two weeks were all within reach late into the fourth quarter. Ralph likes to go deep into her bench: ten players see at least nine minutes per game and have appeared in at least 15 games. Guards Brinae Alexander and Iyana Moore lead the scoring and shoot around 36% from outside. Senior guard Jordyn Cambridge is a fierce competitor who can attack the basket, get to the foul line, and distribute the ball to open teammates. Cambridge also leads the team in steals and defensive rebounds – in fact, Vanderbilt outrebounds opponents by a slim margin but does so by committee without a true post presence.

14) Auburn (2-14, 10-17) (LY-13, PS-13): For the first time since 2019, there won’t be a winless team at the conference tournament. Auburn earned their way into the win column with impressive home upsets over Tennessee and Georgia. A win over a top-20 Georgia Tech team highlighted nonconference play. New coach Johnnie Harris and her impressive staff made good progress in Year One and came close to several more SEC wins – including a pair of near-misses against first round opponent and rival Alabama. Aicha Coulibaly has taken over from Unique Thompson as the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, and focal point. Guard Honesty Scott-Grayson is again the team’s second-leading scorer but can be up or down. In wins they’ve received contributions from Sania Wells, Annie Hughes, and Jala Jordan to go along with big games from Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson, and they’ll need some outside shots to fall.


Post Georgia 45 – Georgia Tech 0: Pursuit of perfection

Tuesday November 30, 2021

You demanded perfection. Now, I ain’t saying that I’m perfect, ’cause I’m not. And I ain’t gonna never be. None of us are. But we have won every single game we have played till now. So this team is perfect.
Remember the Titans

For nearly two weeks, the season-ending game at Georgia Tech has seemed like a formality. Once Georgia took care of Tennessee, most Georgia fans began looking ahead to the upcoming SEC championship game. The impatience to get these last couple of games over with and get on to the postseason has been palpable. Georgia’s in-state rivalry game had all the build-up of a September guarantee game. Around the tailgate we looked forward to what we might see in the game as if we were talking about objectives for an intra-squad scrimmage: get Pickens a few reps, work on the running game, get experience for some younger players, and stay healthy.

This wasn’t the first time a Kirby Smart team was a big favorite in Atlanta or that there was little doubt about the outcome. But even those games offered some reasons to tune in. The 2017 game was part of the “Revenge Tour” series after a disappointing loss in Athens to end the 2016 season. Georgia had increased the time spent preparing for Tech’s option attack, and the payoff was a convincing 38-7 win. With dominant interior play from Malik Herring among others and ball-hawking linebackers like Roquan Smith, Georgia’s two-year project to dismantle Georgia Tech’s offense was underway. Less was expected of Tech in 2019 as they unwound from a decade of the option. Georgia though was going through a bit of an identity crisis on offense and closed the season with some low-scoring wins. With the high-flying LSU offense just ahead, the Tech game was one last chance to work out some kinks.

The difference in 2021 was the indifference. Georgia fans turned out in strong numbers to see their #1 team, but the sense of rivalry was muted. I even heard some express “pity” for the state of the Tech program before they thought better of it. The color palette of the stadium revealed the apathy of Tech fans. Assured of a three-win season and the return of their head coach, Tech fans wanted nothing to do with this game. The sarcastic cheer for Tech’s initial first down summed it up: how much energy could you put into a rivalry when it’s all you can do to move the chains?

It’s to the credit of Kirby Smart and his team that they didn’t take a perfunctory approach to this game. Instead Georgia looked focused and intent on getting better en route to the big game next week. The Bulldogs had no penalties or turnovers and allowed no points to wrap up an undefeated regular season with a 45-0 shutout win. Smart will point out that this result was far from perfect, and of course he’s correct. Tech had some (relative) success running the ball. Georgia’s interior running game continue to be hit or miss. Still, Georgia did not slop their way through this noon kickoff. Smart wanted to see the team come out strong despite the early start on a holiday weekend, and they did: Georgia scored on its first four possessions and only punted once. Tech’s first four possessions went for a total of 22 yards. Apart from the punt, the Bulldogs added points on every other possession that didn’t run out the clock. This was no contest from the start, and it didn’t look like a team that had let its focus wander.

Georgia has completed its first undefeated regular season since 1982. It’s the first time Georgia has been 12-0 since 1980. There’s still the postseason and hopefully three challenging games left to play which will influence how we end up remembering this season. It’s still worth acknowledging that the team was perfect against the schedule put in front of it, and that hasn’t happened often around here. Congratulations, Dawgs. But they’re not done yet…

I can never overlook or discount a win over Tech – the game means too much to me personally. I admit though that I was ready to have it over with. The old line in Tombstone “Get to fightin’ or get away!” felt like it applied here. Tech – from its fans to its team – had no interest in putting up a fight. That took the fun out of an historic rivalry game, and it made this just another nonconference laugher. Lest I veer towards pity for the White and Gold, Georgia still has a ways to go before it holds the longest winning streak in the series. Keep choppin’.

  • I didn’t do much of a recap last week but did mention that none of the quarterbacks really looked sharp. That wasn’t the case Saturday. Stetson Bennett did it all – the precision downfield pass to Burton, quicker passes into tight spaces, a sideline fade to Bowers in the endzone…Bennett had complete control of the offense.
  • The distribution of receptions shows the growing number of options at Bennett’s disposal in the passing game. Bennett’s 14 receptions went to 10 different receivers. Eight of those players had a reception of at least 11 yards.
  • Of course it was noteworthy that one of those receptions went to George Pickens. Georgia’s star receiver has had a long road back from a spring ACL injury, and we held our breath as he drew contact on the little swing pass that got him in the stat sheet. We’ll see how much his role can grow if not this week then into the playoff. Just seeing him out there stirred the Georgia crowd.
  • I have a half-baked theory that Bennett needs to run once or twice early to get the juices flowing. Georgia got a field goal on their opening possession, but two modest Bennett runs on the second possession started a string of three straight touchdowns. Just saying…
  • Monken’s deployment of the tight ends in the passing game isn’t just about getting them the ball. Washington and Bowers command enough attention now that they can clear out entire areas and leave receivers with at most single coverage. That’s handy with Pickens working back into the rotation. On Burton’s touchdown reception, a Bowers wheel route attracts two defenders leaving no help over the top to cover Burton. Bennett could afford to put some touch on the ball because the only defender in the area was trailing Burton.
  • One of those nagging imperfections Kirby Smart will notice is third down conversions. Georgia faced only five third downs in the game and converted just two. The Dawgs had a sub-par 25% success rate on third down which was night and day from the wizardry that occurred on first and second down. Georgia is a respectable 15th in the nation with a 45.76% conversion rate on third down for the season, and they’ve hovered around that level since the Kentucky game.
  • James Cook’s higher profile this year is going hand-in-hand with his improvement as a tailback. He’s always been a versatile player, but now he’s breaking tackles, showing patience, and gaining yards with strength. I don’t think you see him extend a run with a stiff-arm two years ago. That makes him much more than a situational utility player.
  • Back-to-back tackles for loss by Wyatt and Carter to end Tech’s modest second quarter drive. Just stifling.
  • I liked Bowers and McConkey opening up scoring plays for each other: Bowers had the key block as McConkey turned a swing pass upfield and into the endzone. Then on Bowers’s jaw-dropping touchdown sprint, McConkey created the opening to allow Bowers to explode past six Tech defenders that had him surrounded.
  • Getting Mitchell back in sync with the passing game seems like a priority this week. He was right there with McConkey earlier in the season making tough catches to extend drives. That was the lone element of the passing game that didn’t seem quite right Saturday. He is too valuable as a possession receiver for that to go uncorrected.
  • It was against a tired defense that had checked out, but here’s my weekly appreciation of how tough Edwards runs.
  • It wasn’t a busy day for the secondary, but what an impressive tackle by Dan Jackson on a short swing pass. Jackson’s sprint from the safety position to make a tackle for loss was Tindall-worthy.
  • Tech’s top two backs gaining 4 and 5 yards per carry won’t sit well. Georgia didn’t allow any explosive runs beyond 15 yards, but Tech did have several decent gains through the interior of the Georgia defense.
  • This was a slow game – Tech showed no urgency to get back in the game, and Georgia was content to take their time scoring. Each team ran only 51 plays. Georgia’s defense has only faced more than 75 plays once (@ Tennessee) since the Florida game.

Post Georgia 56 – Charleston Southern 7: A sendoff

Monday November 22, 2021

I started in on a typical recap post and quickly realized how pointless it would be to dive into such a lopsided game. Not that there weren’t some things to talk about. No quarterback really covered himself in glory. Yet another stall from the one-yard-line without the aid of defensive linemen made me wonder just what Matt Luke is doing in terms of development.

Instead I’d rather focus on the theme the team chose for the game. As Kirby Smart explained:

“I told them I wanted them to name the next chapter, because I didn’t want it to be a boring or monotonous chapter, and they said ‘sendoff.’ That was the name of the next chapter to send these guys off right, at least in Sanford Stadium.”

The starters did their job well enough: a 49-0 halftime score ensured that any and every available player would see the field. But there was no sendoff quite like this one:

Every few years we have to send off our favorites – maybe it’s a universally-loved star like Nick Chubb or maybe it’s a lesser-known reserve we got to know personally in some other way. I don’t know that anyone has ever had a sendoff quite like Jordan Davis’s farewell on Saturday. The formation shift that signaled a handoff to Davis on the goal line caused a anticipatory crowd reaction that reminded me of Todd Gurley coming out to return the kickoff against Auburn in 2014. That was a welcome bit of fan service in a game we knew would otherwise be rudimentary and without suspense.

That moment would have been a fitting curtain call for one of college football’s brightest personalities. And then this happened:

There are so many layers to this scene. Of course the fans are thrilled to show their love and appreciation to Jordan Davis. What’s noteworthy is the genuine joy and humility with which he received the adulation. It meant as much to him as it did to the Redcoats and the fans still in the stadium. His conducting is excellent – why wouldn’t it be? We’ve known about Davis’s affinity for the Redcoats since he went over to thank them after the 2000 Sugar Bowl win over Baylor. I also appreciate that Davis’s teammates shared in the moment. This team and especially this defense support one another, and they’ve all contributed to this special season.

Each time we send off our favorite players, it’s tough to imagine how they’ll ever be replaced. They usually are, and Kirby Smart is recruiting well enough that more jaw-dropping talent is surely on the way. New favorites inevitably emerge as we get to know them. I have to say though that as a former Redcoat I can’t imagine a more poignant day for a player, a school, and its fans.


Post Georgia 41 – Tennessee 17: Achievement unlocked

Wednesday November 17, 2021

Before the season I wrote that “most (all, really) of Georgia’s interesting games will happen away from Sanford Stadium.” That was wrong of course – Arkansas and Kentucky were top 10 teams when they visited Athens. Some big moments did happen on the road though. Whatever Clemson has become, that win started Georgia on the path to a perfect regular season. The Florida game was a necessary statement after last season’s loss and wrapped up the SEC East title. Georgia’s games at Auburn and Tennessee took the Bulldogs into the most hostile environments they’d see all season, and they’d face two first-year coaches looking for a high-profile win. The Auburn game was a matter-of-fact win that brought Auburn back to earth and validated Georgia’s strong start.

It’s to Josh Huepel’s credit that Tennessee, even at 5-4, had people eying this game with interest this late in the season. Tennessee handed Kentucky their lone home loss of the season. They played even with Alabama for three quarters. Wild finish aside, they were in a toss-up game with Ole Miss. The Vols weren’t the pushover they had been, and everyone seemed curious to see how Georgia’s dominant defense would handle a Tennessee offense that seemed to have wind behind it.

They handled it well. Only another meaningless late score kept the final from looking like a lot of other Georgia games this season. The offense asked the most of Stetson Bennett that it had all season, and he delivered. James Cook outscored the Tennessee team. The result wrapped up a perfect 8-0 SEC record for Georgia, its first unbeaten conference mark in nearly 40 years. The result also seemed to be the last significant roadblock between Georgia and an undefeated regular season. Georgia’s methodical push to 8-0 with no SEC opponent coming closer than 17 points suggests that even bigger accomplishments could be ahead of this team.

As I kept hearing about the challenge Georgia would face against Tennessee’s up-tempo offense, I was reminded of Gus Malzahn’s Auburn offenses. Malzahn brought his hurry-up, no-huddle offense to the SEC in 2009 as a coordinator and again in 2013 as a head coach. That didn’t mean a wide-open Air Raid scheme; Malzahn’s teams often had dominant running games. Tempo, along with a lot of pre-snap motion and window dressing, were the distinguishing features.

It always seemed to take a couple of possessions for a Georgia defense to get comfortable with Auburn’s tempo. In ten games between 2009 and 2018 with Malzahn either as coordinator or coach, Auburn scored a touchdown on their first possession six times. They got a field goal on their first possession twice. In the other two games where they didn’t score on the first possession, they still managed a first quarter touchdown. Even though Georgia took firm control of the series over the past decade, Malzahn’s tempo almost always caused problems early on until Georgia could settle in.

Josh Huepel’s offense is a bit different from Malzahn’s, and the UCF community has noticed those contrasts. If anything, Heupel places an even greater emphasis on tempo above scheme. It’s more important to get a play off and perhaps catch the defense misaligned than it is to get into an optimal play. It’s largely been effective: Tennessee has weathered a lot of turmoil and turnover during the past year and should find themselves in a bowl in Heupel’s first season. Coming into this game they had scored at least 14 first quarter points in four of their six SEC games to date (including Alabama.)

It seemed as if even the mighty Georgia defense would have problems with this offense. Tennessee’s first three possessions featured two long drives. Only a key third down stop that forced a field goal prevented the Vols from once again reaching that 14-point mark in the first quarter. Georgia had the poise and the resources to make adjustments and stopped the scoring with a dominant second quarter. Once again the defense changed the game with an interception that allowed Georgia to take the lead for good.

The Tennessee offense was just one of the challenges faced and overcome by the defense. The 70-man travel roster was strained by a flu outbreak and a rash of minor injuries. Kirby Smart and Dan Lanning had to be resourceful with their personnel. Christopher Smith slid down to star after Brini struggled, and Dan Jackson stepped in at safety. With Adam Anderson unavailable, the three interior linebackers – Walker, Tindall, and Dean – were shifted around as needed to tremendous effect. Dean tallied 11 tackles, 2 TFL, and a sack. His most impressive play might’ve been a pass breakup on which his timing and instincts were indistinguishable from those of a defensive back. Tindall had eight tackles and three sacks. He single-handedly ended a Tennessee scoring opportunity by sprinting at the Tennessee quarterback and forcing a fumble recovered by Travon Walker. Regardless of position, Georgia’s defenders made play after play to keep Tennessee off the scoreboard after their initial flurry.

With all of the focus on Tennessee’s offense, you might be excused for forgetting that Georgia would occasionally get the ball too. The Vols had given up big numbers to Pitt, Alabama, and Kentucky among others, and the nature of Tennessee’s offense put their defense back on the field for an awful lot of plays. Georgia only ran 70 plays in this game but enjoyed a five-minute possession advantage. That advantage only materialized in the second half. Tennessee had the lion’s share of possession and plays for much of the first half until Kendrick’s interception allowed Georgia to “break serve.”

The Georgia offense, like the defense, faced its own personnel challenges. The offensive line was already without Salyer. Ericson was limited by the bug going around the team. Broderick Jones and Xavier Truss filled in. It was a shaky first half for the line – Bennett was under pressure, and the running game was inconsistent. The staff made some adjustments – Bennett threw a little more than he had before, Georgia took fewer shots downfield than usual, and James Cook’s versatility came into play. Within these adjustments, though, the offense never pressed or got outside of its comfort zone. The Dawgs faced their biggest deficit of the season before the offense took the field, but the offense came up with a big answer after Tennessee’s opening salvo. Georgia had managed a total of only 10 first quarter points in their previous four games. Stetson Bennett scrambled for a key third down conversion near midfield, and James Cook finished off the drive with an explosive touchdown run. Tennessee led 10-7 after the first quarter, but the defense made sure that things never got out of hand. Once the offense settled in with 17 second quarter points, Georgia was well on their way to a win.

  • It’s incorrect to say that Stetson Bennett hasn’t grown and developed as a quarterback. That’s inevitable when you start the majority of games. He’s making fewer poor decisions and now is even keeping his head up to find open receivers when he decides to run. That said, the growing acceptance of Bennett as the starter has more to do with coming to grips with what he can and can’t do and with the realization that, on the whole, it seems to be working. I wrote last week how the available receivers and the state of the offensive line are among the many variables that tilted the scales in Bennett’s favor. Now that an offensive identity has formed and flourished around Bennett, it’s going to be tough to make a change.
  • Very glad to see Bennett slide later in the game rather than take another hit. His style of play lends itself to taking some pounding, but he should understand now that his role on the team is important enough to avoid contact when he can.
  • Kendricks’ interception was a big moment, but I think the play of the game was three plays later. Georgia faced 3rd-and-9 just outside of field goal range. Bennett got outstanding protection, stepped up into the pocket, and found McConkey open across the middle. Coming up short there would have wasted the interception and given Tennessee a big shot in the arm with the score still tied 10-10. Instead Bennett soon scrambled into the endzone on a busted play-action play. Georgia moved out in front and never looked back.
  • Georgia did have a chance to stop Tennessee before their opening drive really got going. The Dawgs forced a 3rd-and-5, but Robert Beal got caught inside and Hooker just did get past a diving Quay Walker to earn a first down.
  • The willingness of officials to call pass interference will be an important variable in the postseason. Opponents have learned that downfield shots are one of the few chances they have against this defense. We’ve seen the Georgia defensive backs be aggressive with their hands – sometimes too aggressive. Some of the calls at Tennessee were questionable, and we’d be foolish to expect the correct call every time.
  • Christopher Smith’s move to star was effective, and Dan Jackson held his own at safety. That adjustment made me think of Tykee Smith and how he might have contributed in exactly that situation.
  • Third downs remain the weakness in Bennett’s leadership of the offense. Tennessee’s defense is among the bottom 10 nationally on third downs, and Georgia struggled to take advantage. The Bulldogs were 5-for-12 on third downs against an opponent that allowed teams to convert almost 48% of third downs. Georgia did pick good moments to move the chains. I mentioned the big third down play after the interception. Bennett had two third down completions to Adonai Mitchell that sustained the back-breaking scoring drive before halftime. Bennett also had a third down scramble on Georgia’s opening scoring drive. Good things happened when Georgia converted third downs, but those conversions were infrequent enough to keep Tennessee in the game for most of the first half.
  • Cook was the offense’s star, but Mitchell had a season-high five receptions. He made some difficult catches in big moments that enabled Georgia’s long drive before halftime.
  • As shaky as the offensive line was in the first half, Georgia still ended up with 274 rushing yards and 6.7 yards per carry. Cook was the second Georgia back this year to reach 100 yards on the ground, and even Bowers added to the total with an explosive end around that we hadn’t seen since the Vanderbilt game.
  • I wondered after the Auburn game whether the Tigers were a little too quick with their decisions to go for it on fourth down. Tennessee faced a 4th and 4 from the Georgia 17 early in the third quarter down 24-10. A field goal there stops the bleeding and perhaps gets the crowd back into the game after 17 straight Georgia points. Instead the Vols came up empty and the Dawgs began a 13-play drive that sucked five minutes off the clock. Georgia’s field goal made it a three-possession game at 27-10 with less than 20 minutes remaining in the game. Field goals won’t beat Georgia, but two straight Tennessee possessions in the third quarter ended on downs, and that had to have been demoralizing.

Post Georgia 43 – Missouri 6: Slumber party

Wednesday November 10, 2021

We found out two years ago what can happen when a favored team sleepwalks into a noon game. It was one thing to get the team and fans ready for Arkansas with the unique spectacle that went along with that noon kickoff. It might have been asking a bit much to expect the same response on a chilly morning against a 40-point underdog. If this is the “get their ass ready to play” game of 2021, we’ll take it. Georgia started slowly against Missouri but quickly recovered to put the game away by halftime. The downfield passing game was key to opening this game up as Stetson Bennett connected on long passes to Arian Smith, Kenny McIntosh, and Jermaine Burton. The defense overcame some uncharacteristic mistakes to hold yet another opponent out of the endzone.

Welcome back

Georgia has reached far into its depth chart at times this season, and there has always seemed to be a “next man up.” Recruiting matter, and it has paid off when injuries or attrition hit. That attrition hit certain positions more than others, and where would this team be without Mitchell and McConkey stepping up at receiver? But those missing players were higher on the depth chart for good reasons. Georgia has had to make do without some special skill sets. Kearis Jackson came up with a big touchdown reception against Florida, and Arian Smith and Jermaine Burton had the highlights against Missouri. Kenny McIntosh, out for a few games midseason, reminded us that he might be the best receiving option out of the backfield. With Mitchell and McConkey gaining experience, Georgia is starting to develop a deep and diversified group of receivers just in time for the end of the regular season. That’s not even mentioning the tight ends…

First quarter snooze button

It seemed early in the season as if Georgia was capable of jumping on any opponent. The Dawgs established big first quarter leads on UAB, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas with an impressive shock-and-awe style. Starts have been slower in the past four games, and Georgia even trailed briefly in two of them. It’s true that the competition has been a bit tougher in October, but the difference has been stark. The Dawgs have a total of 10 first quarter points in their most recent four games (AUB-MIZ) – they had at least 10 points in the first quarter of each of the four previous games (UAB – ARK). Georgia has also needed some pivotal plays to get going in these past four games:

  • Auburn: Nakobe Dean interception
  • Kentucky: Kendall Milton’s fumble recovery
  • Florida: (waves hands at the end of the first half)
  • Missouri: Fourth down conversion and punt block

Now I’m all for complementary football and commend the team for staying patient and composed until the floodgates opened. It’s easier not to panic when you have faith that the defense is likely to keep any hole from getting too deep. A greater urgency to score early might be called for in the next game: Tennessee has put up at least 14 points in the first quarter against four of its six SEC opponents to date (including Alabama.) A few field goals aside, Georgia hasn’t had to play from behind this year. A road game at Tennessee might not be the best place to try it.

There are bigger problems than quarterback

The offensive line was in the spotlight against Missouri. Two preseason starters, Ratledge and Salyer, were unavailable. The Tigers are second-to-last nationally in rushing defense, and it’s likely that only giving up 168 yards to Georgia moved them out of dead last. It’s true that Missouri keyed on the run, and Georgia made them pay with downfield passes. But opponents stacking the box is only part of the story. The lack of a push on Georgia’s second goal line situation was dreadful. Georgia’s rushing totals were augmented by 52 yards’ worth of end arounds to Kearis Jackson and Arian Smith. In other words, the tailbacks barely cracked 100 yards against the nation’s worst rushing defense. The offensive line was right up there with the secondary in the preseason as the top concerns for the 2021 team.

Georgia is second in the nation with only 5 sacks allowed. That’s great! Is it because of outstanding protection? Is it a reflection of Bennett’s mobility? Is it because Georgia calls relatively few, but highly effective, pass plays? Does Georgia call relatively few pass plays to scheme around Bennett, the offensive line, and the depleted group of receivers? There are a lot of chicken-or-egg questions about what Georgia is doing with its offense and quarterback this year. The results are hard to argue with: Georgia is first in the SEC in offensive yards per play, and the offense is 6th nationally in SP+. Let us never underappreciate Todd Monken.

Are we focused on the wrong problems? Both Bennett and Daniels are proven against top 25 competition. The debate about which one has a better chance of leading Georgia to a title tends to reveal more about how we perceive each of them. The decision about which quarterback to play doesn’t occur in a vacuum – the quarterback is one (very important) cog in the offensive machine. This Georgia team has had to deal with a fluid roster of available receivers. It’s also had to deal with inconsistent line play. It’s fairly easy to tell when the quarterback underthrows a deep pass or throws behind a receiver. It’s often tougher to tell when and how a protection breaks down. A capable coordinator might even anticipate the weaknesses in his protection and scheme around them. Coaches have to take into account the receivers and line when crafting a game plan and deciding which quarterback might best execute that plan. I mentioned last week that the return of several top receivers lessens the burden on the quarterback to do things on his own – we saw what happens when you can get the ball to Burton, Jackson, and Smith. I’m not so sure though that the offensive line situation will change very much, and that could influence how the staff handles the quarterback position into the postseason.

  • Travon Walker got people talking immediately in 2019 when he showed up on the kick coverage team against Vanderbilt. You don’t have to add the qualifier “for a defensive lineman” when pointing out how athletic he is. He’s simply a strong, quick, and agile athlete who, as we saw against Florida, is as comfortable laying out in coverage to tip a pass as he is fighting through offensive linemen. Walker had several standout plays against Missouri. With Adam Anderson out for the foreseeable future, Walker’s role should become even bigger.
  • I was so glad to see Jermaine Burton finally get into the endzone. He nearly had three touchdowns in the game but was twice stopped a yard short in the first half. Burton got a short screen early in the third quarter and got nice downfield blocks from Jackson and Mitchell for an easy score.
  • It’s difficult to break through such a talented group of tailbacks, but Daijun Edwards sure is a tough runner and had an explosive catch out of the backfield.
  • My favorite play of the game was a simple toss to Bowers on the sideline. His defender left a big cushion, and Bowers was put in the position of having a single man to beat. A devastating stiff-arm turned a short gain into a first-and-goal.
  • Georgia has done a great job of limiting broken tackles this season, but tackling wasn’t a strong suit against Missouri. Quarterbacks were able to escape for over 70 yards on the ground – above what Georgia’s run defense typically surrenders to the entire offense in a game. Those areas are of particular interest in the next game as Tennessee has a mobile quarterback and a proven ability to turn missed tackles into big plays.
  • Noting the issues tackling and containing the quarterbacks, the defense still held Tyler Badie to 41 yards a week after he put up 254 at Vanderbilt. Missouri’s passing game was also kept in check: even with a pair of deep passes on the final drive, the Tigers threw for only 152 yards.
  • Georgia’s aggressiveness on special teams has been a difference-maker this season. You wonder if future opponents will try to take advantage of that aggressiveness with some fake punts or placekicks. Missouri’s onside kick to start the second half caught Georgia sleeping coming out of the locker room, and the Bulldogs were fortunate that a penalty bailed them out.
  • Good experience for Kamari Lassiter who was targeted on two deep passes (with two excellent catches) on Missouri’s final drive. He was in position to make the play, and breaking it up will be the next step.
  • Again the greatest drama in the game was whether Georgia would yield a meaningless late score. This wasn’t the Florida game where the starters were still in there. Georgia’s coaches left it up to the reserves, and they came through with a stop that had both the crowd and the starters on the sideline energized. Missouri had an open receiver on fourth down, but pressure forced an errant pass.
  • Between the tributes to Mark Richt and my friend Cassie Moates, that was one of the more emotional halftimes I’ve ever been through. I can’t quite say I was ready for that, and I’m glad the game was more or less in hand by that point. Richt and Moates are two members of the UGA community united by their impact on the lives of others, and the recognition of that impact was obvious on Saturday.

Post Georgia 34 – Florida 7: Role reversal

Wednesday November 3, 2021

In the 2000 Georgia-Florida game, Georgia jumped out ahead and led 17-9 in the second quarter. The Bulldogs were driving just before halftime to extend their advantage. Then Lito Sheppard happened. Florida’s star cornerback stepped in front of a Quincy Carter pass near the Florida 10 yard line and ended Georgia’s scoring opportunity. Sheppard began weaving his way back through the entire Georgia offense evading tackles before he was finally brought down near the Georgia 25. The Gators quickly scored, added the 2-point conversion, and the game was tied at halftime. Georgia never recovered. Florida controlled the second half, and the game became just another Georgia Jacksonville loss in the dark 1990-2010 period.

Saturday’s 34-7 Georgia win didn’t have much in common with that 2000 game. But I remember how deflating that Sheppard interception was. Even though the score was still tied the glimmer of hope provided by the early lead evaporated, and anyone who sat through those editions of the rivalry knew what was coming. I thought about that glimmer of hope as the second quarter unfolded Saturday. Georgia led 3-0, but Florida intercepted a poor Stetson Bennett pass and had plenty of time to put points on the board. Georgia’s offense was struggling. There was an opening.

That hope was quickly ripped away by Nolan Smith. Smith first showed strength by taking the ball from Anthony Richardson as the Gator quarterback fought for yards. Smith then showed awareness and agility by picking off a tipped pass after dropping back in coverage. Georgia capitalized on Smith’s two turnovers with immediate scores. If Florida had any hope remaining, Nakobe Dean ended it with his own interception return to close the half. Florida fans, buoyed by the 2020 win over Georgia and a close call with Alabama this year, experienced the despair of Georgia fans in 2000: they had their chance, lost it, and the dominant team in the rivalry wasn’t going to leave the door open again.

The knockout punch

I don’t blame Dan Mullen for trying to get some points at the end of the first half. It would have been a quick answer to Georgia’s outburst, and it would have given Florida a lift and a chance to bookend halftime with scoring drives to get back in the game. A coach has to recognize when it’s just not meant to be, and that moment was Adam Anderson’s sack with 17 seconds left in the half. The Gators managed about 20 yards in six plays – hardly flying down the field to set up a score. Florida completed a four-yard pass to move the chains with 30 seconds left, but Anderson and Warren Brinson got to Richardson as the clock continued to run. Rather than see the writing on the wall and let the clock run out, Mullen called timeout with 17 seconds left and about 25 yards to go for a reasonable field goal opportunity. Richardson attempted another short pass to the sideline, and Nakobe Dean was ready for it. Mullen’s desperation to get some unlikely points instead led to the coup de grâce.

Cashing in

As much as the defense took things into their own hands at the end of the first half, the offense still had to get into the endzone. Had those turnovers resulted only in field goals (or, more accurately, field goal attempts,) the game would have remained much more in reach for Florida. Worse, had Georgia stalled in place outside the Florida 30 after Nolan Smith’s interception, it could have been a shot in the arm for Florida. Georgia’s offense moved the ball in the first half but saw their earlier scoring opportunities end with two field goal attempts and Bennett’s first interception. It took two well-executed plays to finally get touchdowns. The right side of the offensive line, Ericson and McClendon, were able to get into the second level and create a clean path for James Cook. Bennett followed an inexplicable interception with one of his best tosses that led Kearis Jackson away from his defender and just inside the sideline. The combination of the turnovers and Georgia’s quick-strike scores following each takeaway is what made that sequence an emphatic statement: complementary football at its best.

QB1

Starting Stetson Bennett in this game was defensible. Kirby Smart cited continuity, and that made sense if you remember that earlier decisions about the quarterback turned out to be made at the start of game week. J.T. Daniels might have been in great shape as Florida week went on, but during the bye week he was still working back into form. I was glad to see Bennett lead the team to a win in Jacksonville after the way the 2020 game turned. Bennett though didn’t do much in the game to have a permanent claim on the starting job. Of course the touchdown pass to Jackson was excellent. That’s what’s expected of the quarterback.

Bennett deserves credit for several plays on which he ran the ball, and there’s no question that Daniels wouldn’t have had the same results. Bennett’s improvisation after a botched handoff and a big gain after eluding Brenton Cox were special plays, and those moments make it compelling to leave him as the starter. Bennett’s mobility matters for two reasons: first is the attrition at receiver. Todd Monken’s offense is efficient at distributing balls to backs and receivers. But as those positions have taken losses this season, more of the playmaking responsibility has fallen on the quarterback. As Burton, Jackson, Smith, and possibly even Pickens return to the offense, you’d want the ball in their hands more often. We also have to consider that the offensive line still isn’t exceptional in pass protection. We don’t see it because Bennett’s mobility has kept more plays alive than someone else might, and Monken is able to scheme around that. It’s been our habit this season to visualize the offense with all of the pieces healthy and functioning, but Bennett has made it work with this group of receivers and this level of play from the line.

Again, the quarterback question is most glaring on third down when you’re more often to see obvious passing situations. Georgia was 4-for-9 on third down in this game after going 2-for-7 against Kentucky. Only one of those conversions came in the first half – that was a nice bit of creativity by Bennett to find Cook to move the chains. Two of the conversions were running plays on 3rd-and-2 or less. The fourth conversion was a designed Bennett run on 3rd-and-7 that showcased Bennett’s mobility. Georgia’s three offensive touchdowns all came on explosive first down plays. In other words, this wasn’t a game that added much to the “Third and Grantham” file. Others have mentioned Georgia’s low play total over the past two games. The opponents have had some long drives of their own, but Georgia’s difficulty keeping drives alive on third down also is a factor. It can’t be all boom or bust.

There’s no use predicting what will happen with the position going forward. Many expected Daniels to start or at least play at Florida. That expectation will continue week to week. There’s little doubt that Bennett can lead the team through the regular season. The implication is and always has been that the team will need a higher-performing offense in the postseason.

  • The end of the first half changed the game, but it was important to force a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Florida trailed Alabama 21-3 and later 28-16 before nearly coming back to win. They trailed LSU 21-6 in the first half and 35-21 in the second half before tying the game. The Gators were used to taking early punches but had shown the firepower to bounce back. Georgia’s stop to start the half let everyone know that they weren’t to give any ground back.
  • There are countless ways to look at the final three minutes of the first half, but I’m stuck on the versatility of the players on defense. Smith’s strip and recovery was a great individual play but came from his base position – an outside linebacker making contact near the line of scrimmage. But then Smith and Travon Walker dropped back in pass coverage to force the second turnover. Walker, a defensive end, dropped into the middle linebacker’s spot and laid out like a world-class goalkeeper to tip the pass. Smith, playing even further back, was essentially lined up as a star on the play. Nakobe Dean made his interception lined up as a cornerback on a running back that was split out wide. These elite defenders can be moved around such that there’s an answer for nearly any scheme or personnel group an offense might show.
  • Is it OK to suggest that Todd Grantham had a decent plan? Yes, Florida still had issues defending the same counter run that LSU exploited. Florida had less success with its pressure than you might expect, but Bennett’s movement had something to do with that. Still, Georgia didn’t have a touchdown drive that started on their own end, generated just three points for most of both halves, and turned it over three times. That might have been enough to make things interesting if Florida weren’t facing Georgia’s defense.
  • Our old nemesis, the wheel route, bit Georgia once early when Nolan Smith got crossed up. But that was the extent of the damage from that play and Florida’s gadget plays. Georgia’s defenders were in place and prepared for nearly everything.
  • Georgia’s last two opponents have been able to sustain long, late drives against largely the starting defense. It didn’t matter against Kentucky or Florida, but you can anticipate Georgia needing a late stop in the postseason (as in the 2018 SEC championship game.) The defense hasn’t really come up big in those moments since the Clemson game. They very well might not be tested again during the regular season, but it would be nice to see some scoreless fourth quarters.
  • It took the longest run of the season to get there, but congratulations to Zamir White for the first 100-yard rushing performance of the season. Georgia’s tailback rotation makes it difficult for any one back to rack up big stats. The Bulldogs had two 100-yard rushers at Missouri last season, and the Tigers are even worse against the run this year. We’ll see if White can pass the century mark again this week and if any of his fellow tailbacks can join him.

Post Georgia 30 – Kentucky 13: Cracking a tough nut

Wednesday October 20, 2021

When the 2021 schedule came out, it didn’t seem to be an impressive home slate. Big rivalry games against Clemson, Auburn, Tennessee, and Florida would occur away from Athens. There were no home nonconference games against P5 schools, and the SEC home opponents weren’t teams that typically moved the needle much. I never would have expected this home schedule to produce two top-11 matchups, two visits from ESPN’s Gameday, and the game that would likely decide the SEC East. Saturday’s showdown against Kentucky was far from the usual sleepy Homecoming cupcake. It was the national CBS game and significant enough in the SEC and national title pictures to draw both the ESPN and SEC Network preview shows. The winner would lead the SEC East and essentially have a two-game edge with the tiebreaker in hand. All this on a gorgeous and breezy fall day in Athens – not bad for a subpar home schedule.

Kentucky wasn’t nearly as flustered by the setting as Arkansas was. The Wildcats are an experienced, disciplined, well-coached team, and they were prepared for the moment. One of the SEC’s most turnover-prone teams didn’t cough it up once. Of course they had their penalties, missed assignments, and poor execution – this is a college football team. But they were composed enough that they weren’t going to hand the game – or the SEC East title – to Georgia. On the other hand, it would have taken a near-perfect game for Kentucky to have a chance. Georgia, with its relative talent advantage, controlled both lines of scrimmage, monopolized explosive plays, and played a fairly clean game itself.

The Wildcats brought in Liam Coen from the Los Angeles Rams during the offseason to rework an offense that had lacked much of a passing threat in recent seasons. Coen had worked alongside the Rams’ Sean McVay and brought in several elements popular among the NFL’s more successful offenses. Of course Kentucky doesn’t have a Cooper Kupp at tight end or some of the other elite players that make NFL offenses work, but some of the concepts we saw from Kentucky should look familiar – even Georgia and Todd Monken have incorporated these concepts in Georgia’s own offensive makeover. The Wildcats used a heavy dose of play-action and screens to get away from Georgia’s decisive advantage on the interior. They used pre-snap motion and snapped the ball quickly out of the huddle to give Georgia less time to align its defense. They got 13 touches for dynamic receiver Wan’Dale Robinson.

Kentucky emptied the playbook, and that creativity has been a big part of their 6-0 start and #11 ranking. They have the pieces and the scheme to beat most teams. It even frustrated Georgia once or twice. Kentucky was better than 50% (11-21) on third and fourth downs, and Kentucky was able to sustain drives of 9, 13, and 22 plays that alone took around 22 minutes of game time. Kirby Smart noted the defense’s difficulty getting off the field.

A defense as sound as Georgia’s didn’t waver. While Kentucky did hit some screens and put together a couple of drives, Georgia’s defenders were content to keep the action in front of them. Wildcat quarterback Will Levis completed 32 of 42 passes, but he didn’t crack 200 yards passing or 5 yards per attempt. Play-action passes and screens can often go for big yardage, but Kentucky had no gains longer than 16 yards. Wan’Dale Robinson’s 13 touches netted 45 yards. As usual Georgia controlled the line of scrimmage and bottled up the run. Kentucky managed just 51 rushing yards, and SEC leading rusher Chris Rodriguez was held to just seven yards. Forced to move the ball in small chunks, all it took was the occasional lost yardage play to derail things. Davis, Wyatt, and Carter were more than willing to provide those negative plays.

The Flip Side of Third Down

Georgia was a weak 29% (2-for-7) on third down and only converted one third down in each half. Nearly all of the game’s big plays and scores came on first or second down. The lone exception was a third down touchdown pass to Cook to open the second quarter. Georgia’s only other third down conversion was a one-yard run by Zamir White that needed a generous spot to move the chains. As the staff considers its options at quarterback, success on third down seems to be the biggest point in J.T. Daniels’ favor. After the South Carolina game Georgia was fifth in the nation with a 58% third down conversion rate. They’ve since slid down to 23rd with a 46.4% conversion rate. Certainly playing three ranked SEC teams during that stretch has helped bring the numbers down. There’s also something to be said for the nature of third down – play-action becomes less-effective and, as Daniels puts it, third down becomes more about “pure drop-back passing.”

That’s not a big deal when you’re flying downfield moving the chains on four consecutive first downs as Georgia did on its second touchdown drive Saturday. The best way to make the third down conversation moot is to avoid them in the first place. Georgia didn’t fare particularly well on third downs in this game, but they only faced seven of them. Better efficiency on early downs makes the offense less predictable, and that unlocks the play-action and RPOs that make this offense hum.

  • I know everyone’s mentioned it, but Kendall Milton’s awareness to jump on a fumble deserves as much attention as we can give it. The recovery led to James Cook’s touchdown on the next play, but it was more than that. A turnover in a scoreless game after a few empty drives would have been the most frustrating start for the offense since Clemson. Would Georgia have tightened up?
  • I have a theory that Stetson Bennett needs a good QB run to get going. He had a rough start with two unproductive first quarter drives and a fumble. On Georgia’s second scoring drive Bennett followed Kendall Milton’s 35-yard run with a 17-yard keeper of his own. The Bulldog offense kicked into gear and put up points on four of its next six drives.
  • Bennett only completed 14 passes, but three of them were for touchdowns. He finished with an outstanding 12.5 yards per attempt. Once he settled in during the second and third quarters, Georgia was able to put tremendous pressure on Kentucky to keep up. Bennett even chipped in with a block on McConkey’s reverse.
  • It’s astounding that Georgia can have a successful downfield passing attack (nearly 18 yards per completion) with only four completions going to wide receivers. Mitchell and McConkey have emerged as dependable receivers, but the game belonged to the tight ends. Bowers, Washington, and FitzPatrick had 8 of the team’s 14 receptions, and each had a reception of at least 20 yards.
  • Those tight end passes weren’t just wide-open RPOs into the seam, either. Three of Bennett’s better throws came to tight ends along the sideline. FitzPatrick’s reception was a perfectly placed ball in a very tight window. As Gary Danielson pointed out, Bennett recognized the lack of safety support on Bowers’ first touchdown, and the throw just had to be placed well enough to allow Bowers to use his speed and size to beat the single-coverage mismatch. I’m not quite finished marveling over the second Bowers touchdown. In the stadium I was already bemoaning the missed opportunity while the ball was in the air because Bennett threw a ball that was going to hit Bowers in the back of the head.
  • Cook and McIntosh are usually the backs most involved in the passing game, but Zamir White showed that he’s not just a between-the-tackle power back. Isolated one-on-one with a defender, White made a great move to avoid the tackle and got upfield for a 15-yard gain.
  • Georgia will get some receivers back from the injured list soon, but they’ll have to earn back playing time over Mitchell and McConkey. The freshmen receivers have been making the catches, sure, but they’re also becoming complete players. McConkey, even at his size, has thrown some nice blocks.
  • Nakobe Dean’s effort to blow up a screen at the end of the third quarter likely saved a touchdown. It also showed how the defense adapted to what Kentucky was trying to do on offense. Georgia was definitely burned by a screen or two, but there’s just too much talent and football intelligence on the Georgia defense
  • Say one thing for Kentucky quarterback Will Levis – he has some strong hands. Georgia’s been on the wrong side now of two borderline fumble calls on sacks, and I have no idea how Levis held onto the ball when Kelee Ringo crashed in on a corner blitz.
  • If there’s a knock on the Georgia defense, it’s that they’ve only generated one turnover in the past three games – Dean’s interception of a tipped Auburn pass. Georgia created nine takeaways in September and one since, and they couldn’t take advantage of Kentucky’s propensity to turn it over. It seems unreasonable to ask more of this defense, but this is an area worth watching.

Post Georgia 34 – Auburn 10: Tranquility

Wednesday October 13, 2021

Composure was a big part of the story in Georgia’s shutout of Arkansas. A spirited home crowd affected an Arkansas team playing its first true road game, and Georgia was in control 21-0 before Arkansas got a first down. The trip to Auburn flipped the script – it was time for Georgia’s composure to be tested. You heard it all week – the first true road game for Georgia since 2019. For the majority of the team, including Stetson Bennett, it was their first true road game – period. You got constant reminders of 2013 and the strange things that seem to happen on trips to Jordan-Hare. Georgia’s last two games at Auburn were a decisive loss in 2017 and a near-collapse in 2019. Georgia fans were confident that they had the better team, but there was always that unease lurking about playing…over there.

Georgia did indeed face some adversity. The Bulldogs entered the game even more shorthanded than expected. Auburn took the opening kickoff down the field, dropped a sure touchdown pass, and Georgia trailed for the first time this season. Later in the first half two senior starters, OT Jamaree Salyer and S Christopher Smith, went out with injuries. Auburn’s offense proved difficult to get off the field in the middle of the game with three straight long drives into Georgia’s end of the field, and a third quarter touchdown got the home crowd back into the game.

Georgia’s responses – as a team and individually – were impressive. Nakobe Dean’s diving interception of another tipped pass helped Georgia answer Auburn’s initial score. With one exception Georgia’s defense was able to stiffen and keep Auburn out of the endzone, even forcing two turnovers on downs. Broderick Jones and Dan Jackson stepped up to replace Salyer and Smith and played far more snaps than they’re used to. Georgia answered Auburn’s lone touchdown with a field goal drive that served to quiet the crowd and extend the lead back to three possessions. In almost every instance, Georgia kept its composure. The Bulldogs, in one of the SEC’s toughest environments, were only penalized three times.

That composure started with the quarterback. Stetson Bennett had played before limited crowds in Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Tuscaloosa, but this was his first time leading Georgia into a sold-out rival’s stadium. Bennett started slowly but avoided any costly mistakes, and he began to come to life on Georgia’s third possession. A nicely-placed 33-yard strike to Brock Bowers moved the ball into Auburn territory. He scrambled for a 10-yard gain and drew a targeting penalty to set up an easy Zamir White plunge from the 1. Bennett finished 14 of 21 for 231 yards – 11 yards per pass attempt. Big gains through the air to Bowers, Washington, and McConkey helped to build the lead before the ground game took over late.

Georgia will face a different kind of composure test now. They’ve earned the program’s first AP #1 ranking since 2008. It’s a bit silly to think that Georgia hasn’t had pressure on them or a target on their back until now. They’ve been a top 5 team, SEC East favorite, and playoff contender since the preseason. Maybe there’s something a little different about moving up one spot, and the frenzy around two decisive upcoming SEC East games will only add to the noise. So far the team has been able to maintain an even keel, and the focus on a standard – especially on the defense – has been something to behold. The stakes only go up from here.

  • We’re halfway through the season now. Georgia will face its two toughest remaining regular season opponents within three weeks, and the SEC East could be all but wrapped up by the end of the month. After the Clemson game I wrote, “The vision we all have is that the offense will round into better form as key players return from injury…The idea of a high-performing offense can’t depend on the promise of a certain player or players returning at an unspecified time at a given level of fitness. Georgia must work with what it has.” Even as injured players are cleared, we’ve seen that they’re often out of game shape and sometimes it’s best to work them back slowly. The contributions of Mitchell, McConkey, and Bowers have been invaluable to getting Georgia to this point, and of course Bennett has been a lifesaver. They’ll have to keep it up. The window for contributions from returning injured players during this pivotal stretch is narrow and closing.
  • It’s a habit I fall into often – talking about Bennett as if he’s still the former walk-on who came in off the bench at Arkansas last September. It does a disservice to the tremendous amount of work he’s put into his game. His decisions are better, he’s more poised, and there’s no element of the offense that’s off the table when he’s in the game. I still believe there’s a different level with Daniels leading the offense, but I also have great appreciation for Bennett’s growth.
  • While we’re on quarterbacks: Bennett was able to keep going after the targeting hit, but I wondered how Georgia would have proceeded if Bennett had to come out there. Beck made the trip of course, and Daniels was dressed out. At that point in the game, Georgia’s lead was only 10-3.
  • Bennett was sacked just once, and that was on an awkward rollout to the left against his natural throwing motion. He generally had excellent protection even after Salyer went out.
  • The stats tell us that Georgia finished with over 200 yards rushing, but the ground game took some time to get going. Georgia was outrushed in the first half (50 yards to 36), and Auburn had three tackles for loss. In fact, Auburn finished the half with more first downs than Georgia thanks to Auburn’s late drive just before halftime. Georgia was a paltry 1-5 on third down in the opening half.
  • Things improved for Georgia’s rushing offense in the second half. They came out intent on running the ball and set up a scoring opportunity. That success on the ground set up an easy deep shot to McConkey as defenders began to key on the run. Auburn had zero tackles for loss in the second half, and Georgia was a much better 4-8 on third down. Georgia’s tailback rotation, even without McIntosh, was able to stay fresh and rack up yards against a tiring defense.
  • There was a sense that Bo Nix would either do the improbable or implode. He did neither. He was an inefficient 21-38 aided by dropped passes. Even his interception came on a tipped pass that probably should have been caught. He did get bailed out of some poor decisions and was fortunate to escape with an intentional grounding call on Auburn’s opening drive. Nix had his moments of maddening escapability including one before halftime that led Dean and Carter to collide and take themselves out of the play. Nix is good enough to make a play or two even against Georgia’s defense, but the Bulldogs did well to contain him: Nix finished with negative rushing yardage due to four Georgia sacks and had no scramble longer than nine yards.
  • I credit Auburn’s coaches for a reasonably good plan against Georgia’s defense. They were able to move the ball, and dropped passes by open receivers are issues of execution and not scheme or gameplan. Georgia had a role in ending many of those drives, and Georgia’s pressure might’ve forced some throws to be less accurate or with more pace than Nix might’ve liked. Auburn was going to struggle with its running game largely held in check. There were still more than a couple of times when you sense that Georgia’s defense dodged a bullet.
  • I get Auburn’s decisions to go for it at the end of some of their longer drives. You’re not often going to pull the upset with field goals. But a couple of field goals from a capable kicker could have tightened the score and kept the crowd engaged, and Auburn’s third quarter touchdown would have made it a one-possession game. Coming up empty so many times, especially before halftime, had to be a little demoralizing.
  • Mitchell and McConkey made fantastic moves on their routes on two key receptions. McConkey broke open on his first long catch on a stop-and-go move. Mitchell’s cuts in close quarters at the goal line against an experienced cornerback were deadly – as good as it gets. Georgia’s coaches have done well to get these young receivers, not to mention Bowers, performing at a high level.
  • I mentioned Broderick Jones earlier. He’s gained experience as a reserve this season, but he really seemed to benefit from additional playing time with the first unit. That’s not to say the offense didn’t miss Salyer, but it might give coaches confidence to give Jones more playing time and adjust the line as needed.
  • The 24-point win was the biggest Georgia win in Auburn since a 38-0 shutout in 2012. That was a Georgia team that finished on the cusp of a national title, and Auburn’s squad had packed it in at the end of the Gene Chizik era. Auburn was on the other side of a coaching transition this time, but Georgia again looks to be a title contender. Georgia has taken control of the series with 14 wins over the past 17 meetings – a fact that is both delightful and absurd to any Georgia fan who grew up with memories of this series in the 80s and 90s.

Post Georgia 37 – Arkansas 0: Saturday noon’s all right

Wednesday October 6, 2021

Any Georgia fan should recognize “physicality” and “composure” as two touchstones of Kirby Smart’s program. Since he took over as head coach, we’ve heard those terms over and over. Occasionally we’ll get games that remind us why those attributes are so important to Georgia’s success.

Arkansas got off to an impressive 4-0 start behind a physical style of play worthy of their head coach. Sam Pittman’s troops bullied Texas with 333 rushing yards and beat the Longhorns into the ground in the second half. The Arkansas defense was the aggressor in their upset of Texas A&M. They tallied three sacks, eight QB pressures, and nine tackles for loss out of Barry Odom’s disciplined and stingy scheme. The expectation was for Georgia’s toughest and most physical test yet in this young season.

Georgia passed the test. Its offensive and defensive lines dominated the game. The Arkansas ground game was held to 75 yards. The explosive downfield passing game with which Arkansas had done so much damage this year was stymied: KJ Jefferson entered the game second nationally in yards per attempt. Georgia limited him to a meager 5.4 yards per pass attempt. Other teams hadn’t been able to exploit Arkansas’s 3-2-6 defensive scheme on the ground, but Georgia was able to run the ball consistently. It’s true that a scheme so light on numbers up front might invite teams to run the ball, but the Razorbacks had been effective stuffing the run and getting pressure out of their base look. Georgia’s offensive line played one of its better games of the season, and blocking across the board was improved. Stetson Bennett kept the ball on the game’s first play, and Ladd McConkey made a key block on the outside to ensure a respectable gain.

Kirby Smart also understood how composure would affect this game. He knew the noon kickoff could be a disadvantage and began campaigning for an engaged crowd as soon as the Vanderbilt game ended. Georgia fans heeded the constant calls to be early and vocal, and that made a difference in the game. Arkansas, in their first true road game, weren’t composed and yielded two false start penalties and a sack on their first possession. Georgia, aided by the crowd, was able to jump on the Razorbacks and led 21-0 before Arkansas managed a first down. Whatever game plans were in place went out the window from that point. Arkansas had to play catch-up, and Georgia was content to keep it on the ground and maintain possession while incrementally adding another 16 points over the final three quarters.

Smart’s exhortation to Georgia fans was aided by the presence of ESPN’s Gameday and top broadcast crew. The network did everything it could to create a big-game environment for a noon kickoff. The final hour of Gameday took place inside the west endzone pavilion, and the early-arriving crowd provided a fantastic backdrop for the show. ESPN wisely incorporated parts of the Georgia pregame into the final minutes of Gameday, the Redcoat Band sounded terrific as mics picked up their sound, and Gameday flowed right into the broadcast as the Georgia team took the field. For all of the downsides of a noon kickoff, a national audience was led right into an extremely impressive quarter of football. It couldn’t have gone better for Georgia – a dominant performance and six straight hours of coverage during one of the busier football Saturdays of the season. ESPN had to be encouraged with the results. As they take over the CBS contract in a few years, you wonder if they’re going to continue to explore the possibilities of Gameday, the SEC, and the noon ESPN time slot.

  • The highlight of the day seems to be Jalen Carter’s roadgrading of three Arkansas defenders on Kendall Milton’s touchdown run. We’ve seen that formation before with Carter and Jordan Davis added to provide extra bulk in the jumbo package. Last season Carter caught a touchdown pass against Tennessee out of that same fullback position. The formation hasn’t always been as successful as we think it ought to be – just a week ago Georgia was stuffed on a fourth down run at Vanderbilt. Even against Arkansas the highlight play was in trouble. Carter had to block three defenders because Owen Condon managed to block no one at all leaving a lot of cleanup work to do. Carter got more than his share, and Van Pran-Granger got in the way of outstanding Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool just long enough to allow Milton to score.
  • The other highlight was Dan Jackson’s punt block and Zamir White’s recovery. It was a single spontaneous moment like Bacarri Rambo’s interception return against Auburn in 2011 where the Sanford Stadium crowd lost its mind. I love the plays where you can see it unfolding with nothing to be done about it. Jackson, rather than turning upfield to set up the punt return, sprinted into the hole in the Arkansas blocking scheme and was untouched. The only question was whether the ball would go out of the back of the endzone, but it rolled sideways and White quickly scooped it up.
  • Other than the punt block, it was another mixed performance for special teams. Camarda’s returnable kickoffs weren’t part of the plan at Vanderbilt and might not have been intended against Arkansas, but again the opponent paid dearly. The poor field position after Georgia’s first two kickoffs primed the Georgia defense and led to the punt block and short field position on Georgia’s second touchdown. Georgia had difficulties lining up correctly on its own punts, and another penalty on a punt return took away favorable field position.
  • Podlesney is settling into the season after a shaky start. The game afforded him three field goal attempts, some from distance, and he knocked all of them through.
  • It feels repetitive gushing over the same defenders week after week, but in most other seasons these plays would make the video board. Jordan Davis tracked down an SEC tailback. Devonte Wyatt earned Player of the Week honors. Dean was a menace in the backfield. Georgia’s front seven kept Jefferson bottled up.
  • The front seven is so consistently good, but the performance of the secondary can’t be overlooked. Ringo and Kendrick have locked down the cornerback spots. Arkansas had been a big-play offense thanks to long downfield completions, but the longest Arkansas receptions were 22, 19, and 18 yards. Treylon Burks had 9 catches, 294 yards, and 2 touchdowns in the previous two Arkansas games. Georgia defenders held him to 10 yards on three receptions despite Burks lining up all over the field in an attempt to get him the ball. Several Georgia sacks and pressures were aided by great coverage downfield – no one was open. As this area gains experience and adds in talented depth like Tykee Smith, one of Georgia’s biggest preseason concerns fades away. We’ll continue to see teams try the downfield shots with which South Carolina had some occasional success, but that success has been much tougher to come by in the last two games.
  • The most successful Arkansas play needed several uncharacteristic missed tackles by Georgia defenders. That play was followed by a long option keeper by Jefferson fortunately called back on an unnecessary Arkansas penalty. The Dawgs didn’t have many more lapses after that sequence, but it’s likely those plays will be used this week by the coaches as reminders to maintain focus.
  • Georgia’s approach to the rest of the game became clear when the offense took possession at the end of the first half with over two minutes remaining and a full complement of timeouts. The Bulldogs ran the ball six straight times, were in no rush, and drained the clock. Georgia added 13 points on three scoring drives in the second half, but they were long and deliberate drives. Georgia wasn’t going to push tempo or take shots downfield – why would they?
  • Georgia didn’t limit the offense because of Stetson Bennett – we’ve seen him play enough to know better. But a forced pass to Bowers in the second quarter might have been a signal to the coaches to shut it down. The play looked like the one that resulted in Bowers’s second touchdown at Vanderbilt, but it was well-covered by Arkansas. The throw was also behind Bowers and probably should have been intercepted.
  • Bennett started the game on fire though. His first completion to McConkey was thrown to the perfect spot in the umbrella coverage Arkansas favored. A later out-route to McConkey set up a touchdown. The jewel though was the wheel route to McIntosh that led to Georgia’s second score. The 27-yard reception was over a third of Georgia’s passing yardage for the game.
  • The tailbacks split the load, and a 24-yard gain in the second quarter helped make Cook the leading rusher. I was impressed with White’s physicality – he was tough to bring down on the first drive, delivered a big hit on his fourth down conversion, and seemed to relish contact. His determination to get into the endzone for a late touchdown was a highlight of the second half.

Post Georgia 62 – Vanderbilt 0: Play ’em all

Wednesday September 29, 2021

SEC rules allow teams to travel 70 players to road games. 68 of Georgia’s 70 saw action in Saturday’s 62-0 demolition of Vanderbilt. The roster sheet my wife brought had a harder workout than several of Georgia’s starters. The only available Bulldogs who didn’t play? Tailback Kendall Milton was reportedly nursing a banged-up shoulder. He was dressed and went through warmups, but there was no need to risk injury. Georgia brought four quarterbacks, but Brock Vandagriff didn’t enter the game. Apparently Carson Beck needed experience handing off.

There’s not much you can take from a game between a very good team and a very, very overmatched one – even by typical Vanderbilt standards. Games like this one are the reason coaches harp on playing to a standard. Did Georgia approach the game the right way? Did they execute well? I’m sure the staff will find coaching points even from this film, but largely the answers were “yes.” Georgia came out sharp for an 11AM local kickoff, took immediate control of the game, and didn’t allow Vanderbilt to muddy the outcome while emptying the bench. Georgia did what it was supposed to, sure, but it was even more impressive than the astronomical 35-point spread led us to expect.

The first quarter was a symphony of offense, defense, and special teams working together to produce 35 points. Vanderbilt didn’t manage a first down until Georgia had scored five touchdowns. The unrelenting defense, a Christopher Smith interception, and a Daijun Edwards fumble return on a kickoff set Georgia’s starting offense up with outstanding field position. Three of Georgia’s early scoring drives started in plus territory, and it wasn’t until Georgia’s fifth possession that the Bulldogs had to drive more than 70 yards. J.T. Daniels was locked in and completed 8 of 9 passes with a single drop to take advantage of the favorable field position. Georgia’s diversified offense scored on a pass to the tight end, a tight end jet sweep, a reverse to a receiver, a power run at the goal line, and a well-placed fade to the back of the endzone. That was enough for Daniels: he exited the game after the first quarter, and the pipeline of backups started flowing into the game.

Vanderbilt’s 77 total yards is a tidy way to sum up the Georgia defense’s afternoon. What impressed me more is that only 27 of those yards came after halftime. Georgia played every defender that boarded the plane, and the reserves maintained the level of play. Vanderbilt didn’t manage a second half first down until their final series of the game. It’s easy to lose focus after such a decisive start, and that might’ve happened towards the end of the first quarter. Vanderbilt’s backup quarterback Mike Wright got Robert Beal in the air with a pump fake and scrambled away as Tramel Walthour was caught inside. Combined with a personal foul against Jalen Carter and Vanderbilt had their biggest gain of the day to move inside of Georgia territory. Wright had another successful run on a 3rd and 8 where Georgia defenders bit on a fake toss and left a lane up the middle. Georgia’s defense quickly refocused. Wright tried a few more fake tosses and option plays and was stuffed, and the Commodores had no other play longer than 10 yards.

There was no statement to be made in this game. We know Georgia’s defense is excellent, and they showed us again. J.T. Daniels proved that his injury wasn’t a big deal against South Carolina, and he again looked to be in complete command of the offense. Brock Bowers has been showing out since the Clemson game. Perhaps the continued emergence of Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey is noteworthy. But once Georgia made it clear that they weren’t going to mess around and make this a close game, the only statement that could be made was about Georgia’s overwhelming talent advantage up and down the bench.

  • The 2006 Vanderbilt win in Athens was the weekend I picked to propose to my future bride. Jalen Carter must have a similar unpleasant memory of Vanderbilt from earlier in his life. I don’t know what they did to hurt him, but he definitely got some anger out. I never saw what drew his personal foul in person or on the replay, but it couldn’t have been much worse than what he was doing the rest of the game.
  • Kelee Ringo has come a long way in just four games. He was in position for several pass break-ups without the contact that drew flags against Clemson. He doesn’t seem likely to give up his starting spot.
  • As impressive as Ringo was early on, Kamari Lassiter was all over the field in the second half. His play (and interception) had a lot to do with Vanderbilt’s meager second half yardage. With Jalen Kimber out for the season, Lassiter will be one of the first defensive backs off the bench.
  • So happy for Robert Beal. He decided to return to the team rather than transfer, and he’s seeing valuable minutes off the bench among a very deep group of players. His hard hit on special teams led to Vanderbilt’s kick return fumble, and he recorded Georgia’s lone sack of the game.
  • With Georgia already well out in front at that point, I was hoping Daijun Edwards would get a carry to finish off his fumble return. He nearly dragged the entire Vanderbilt kick return unit with him to the four yard line.
  • Jake Camarda picked a good day for an off day. Punting from one’s own endzone is a different animal – the main job is to just get the punt off – but neither of his late punts had his usual distance. Kickoffs were a similar story. I wondered if the coaches might just be working on kick coverage, but Kirby Smart’s postgame comments made it clear that the shorter kickoffs weren’t intentional.
  • That said, Vanderbilt’s kick returns were horror shows. The yardage they lost by not simply taking a fair catch on every kick might approach their offense’s total yardage gained.
  • It was good for Stetson Bennett to get two solid drives to start the second half. Georgia moved the ball in the second quarter but came up empty in the red zone. Bennett’s interception was the third of three straight passes that could have been picked. The first drew a pass interference flag, but Cook was open underneath. The second pass was a quick receiver screen, but FitzPatrick missed a block that nearly allowed a defender to step in front of the pass.
  • I credit Vandy’s Clark Lea with not attempting a cheap field goal at the end to deny Georgia a shutout. He essentially conceded the game with a draw on 4th-and-long. His team was simply overmatched. Lea has a tough job ahead of him, but it’s where he wants to be.
  • The crowd was overwhelmingly red of course, and Vanderbilt’s only presence was the ridiculously loud video board. But some pregame showers, the 11 AM local kickoff time, and Georgia’s early onslaught made for a fairly subdued crowd. Perhaps the loudest moment of the game came on Vanderbilt’s final fourth down attempt as the remaining crowd stirred to life to cheer on Georgia’s reserve defenders.