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Post Dawgs ruling the diamonds

Thursday May 31, 2018

Springtime in Athens can be almost as good as the fall, and it’s that much more enjoyable when the Dawgs are playing well. An afternoon basking in the sun at the Magill Tennis Complex, the Jack, or Foley Field should be high on everyone’s to-do list.

This year has been especially exciting with both the baseball and softball teams playing at a high level. Georgia is one of three schools (Florida, FSU) to earn top 8 national seeds in both sports. The softball team has already hosted a regional and super regional and used the homefield advantage to advance to the Women’s College World Series. Now the Diamond Dawgs have the opportunity to host all the way to Omaha.

It’s been a long time coming for Georgia baseball. The even-odd successes and struggles of the 2000s were frustrating at times, but at least there were four CWS trips to enjoy. The program hadn’t returned to the postseason since 2011 and hadn’t hosted a regional since the national runner-up season in 2008. Coach Scott Stricklin entered his fifth season without a postseason trip, and there was a good bit of pressure on Stricklin and the team to have a breakthrough season.

It’s safe to say that the breakthrough season came. The Diamond Dawgs had the second-best record in the SEC and finished 37-19 against one of the toughest schedules in the nation. They’ve swept Clemson and Georgia Tech and have impressive series wins over Arkansas and Texas A&M.

Georgia turned things around largely with pitching. The program has its “lowest team ERA in 50 years.” There’s been solid weekend pitching, the emergence of Aaron Schunk as a closer, and the development of freshmen Ryan Webb and C.J. Smith. Kevin Smith lost his starting role midseason but has rebounded with a string of strong outings highlighted by a win at Florida.

Certainly there’s been some improvement on offense too. Senior Keegan McGovern leads the team in both average and power with significant year-over-year improvements in both areas. His 15 HR have him among the SEC’s top five sluggers, but his team-best .325 batting average doesn’t crack the SEC’s top 15. Beyond McGovern there aren’t many batters setting the league on fire. Instead there have been occasional and timely contributions up and down the lineup. When combined with solid pitching, it’s been enough offense to get the job done.

The baseball team has already achieved its primary goal of reaching the postseason, but now they’re within reach of the program’s seventh trip to Omaha. Hopefully they can enjoy the same success on their home field that their softball counterparts enjoyed a little ways down Milledge.

Softball has had more recent success, reaching the WCWS by upsetting Florida in Gainesville in the 2016 super regional. But the softball Dawgs hadn’t hosted a super regional since 2014, and they hadn’t celebrated a super regional win on their home field since 2010. They dropped to the bottom of a brutal SEC only a year ago, but they’ve bounced back in spectacular fashion.

It’s been a remarkable season for the softball team. They started out on fire, losing only to current #1 Oregon. The loss of ace pitcher Brittany Gray in April (with her ridiculous 0.48 ERA) was a blow, but the team managed to hang on in the top 10. It wasn’t until the final weekend of the season that the team dropped an SEC series. Georgia dropped 4 of 5 games heading into the NCAA tournament, and that slump raised questions about Georgia’s vulnerability and status as a top 8 national seed. An ESPN analyst even picked Georgia as a team likely to be upset in the regional round.

Georgia picked a great time to bounce back. They’ve looked anything but vulnerable in the NCAA tournament, sweeping through both the regional and super regional rounds with five straight wins. Unlike the baseball team, Georgia softball earned its national seed with offense. They lead the SEC in most offensive categories, and they have five of the SEC’s top ten players in batting average. The top third of the order features the blistering speed of Cortni Emanuel, the power of Alyssa DiCarlo, and the versatility of Justice Milz. With such strong team stats, there’s been plenty of production throughout the rest of the lineup.

Replacing the dominant Gray in the pitching circle hasn’t been easy, and Georgia’s turned to a committee approach. Mary Wilson Avant has seen much of the work with Kylie Bass getting her share of starts. It wouldn’t be unheard of for Amanda Ablan to get a start in a pinch. The team’s biggest weakness has been fielding, especially in the infield. Some key mistakes have led to big innings. Pitching has had its shaky moments as well, and that’s to be expected when the ace is sidelined. Coach Lu Harris-Champer hasn’t hesitated to make a change. When Bass and Avant are on, as they were in the super regional against Tennessee, the team has the firepower to advance far in Oklahoma City.


Post Crean’s recruited the fans – now for the hard part

Thursday May 31, 2018

If fans suited up, Tom Crean would have a pretty formidable squad next season. Georgia’s new basketball coach has been relentless in introducing himself to a Georgia fan base preoccupied with spring football and seemingly everything else but a sport that’s over six months away. He’s reached out to students, fired up the massive G-Day crowd, and taken advantage of nearly every opportunity to spread his enthusiasm for the future of Georgia basketball. It’s been impressive to watch him work, and I think he’s been fairly successful.

As every Georgia coach has discovered, recruiting players to Athens can be as difficult – perhaps moreso – than getting Georgia fans to think basketball in April and May. The elite signings have been few and far between (Jumaine Jones, Trey Thompkins, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and coaches more often have had to rely on sleeper prospects who overachieved: Gaines, Hayes, Maten, and Frazier. Sometimes it’s worked, but we know that it hasn’t been a consistent winning formula to get the team into the NCAA Tournament or to keep coaches around for very long.

Crean, like Mark Fox and the rest of his predecessors, will sink or swim based on his ability to bring in players. First things first: we’ll worry about things like player development and in-game strategy when the basic raw materials are in place. That hasn’t happened often at Georgia. If you go by the composite class rankings on 24/7, Fox never had a class rated higher than 6th in the SEC. Over half were 9th or worse. (Think football recruiting rankings are unpredictable? Fox’s highest-rated recruiting class in 2016 contained Crump, Harris, and Diatta. His lowest-rated class, the 2014 group that was rated dead-last in the SEC, featured a guy named Maten.)

That’s not really a knock on Fox – it’s not as if Georgia recruiting fell off a cliff. It was never strong to begin with. Fox, like those before him, just wasn’t able to overcome that legacy. Can Crean?

Turning around Georgia’s recruiting fortunes starts with the head coach, and Crean has both the energy and track record to at least have a shot. He has high name recognition and can point to some high-profile protégés in the NBA. Crean has pulled recruits from the Atlanta area before, but, as with Fox, Georgia is not exactly his home turf. For real local impact, coaches rely on their staff. Fox brought in Yasir Rosemond and later Jonas Hayes for that impact. Hayes in particular began to show some results, and Georgia finally landed a series of blue-chip commitments – just in time to change coaches.

Crean’s assembled an impressive staff with local recruiting in mind. Chad Dollar is an Atlanta native with a family legacy in Atlanta basketball. He’s coached in the SEC and at Tech. Amir Abdur-Rahim is cut from the same cloth: an Atlanta native with SEC (and, yes, Tech) experience. Enticing Abdur-Rahim to leave Texas A&M was considered a nice little coup, and he became the program’s highest-paid assistant in the process. Crean augmented those hires with Joe Scott who has Division I head coaching experience and is considered a solid tactician.

It’s going to take a while to gain some traction now that the staff is in place. Two blue-chip local prospects who considered Georgia, E.J. Montgomery and Ashton Hagans (a former Georgia/Fox commitment), are headed to Kentucky. Crean did notch his first recruiting win – combo guard Tye Fagan chose Georgia in the spring signing period over Ole Miss and others. Fagan will be looked to right away to bolster an offense that Crean expects to be more aggressive from outside.

Fagan aside, the new staff’s recruiting efforts will largely turn to 2019 and beyond. There’s a lot of ground to make up as relationships with prospects, schools, and communities can take years to develop. Crean’s name recognition and the familiarity of Abdur-Rahim and Dollar should help to speed that process along. His message will be a common one for programs without much recent success: come start something. “There’s plenty of room for statues,” as Crean put it. That challenge doesn’t always resonate, but when it does, the results can transform a program.


Post “If you win 20 in the show…the press’ll think you’re colorful.”

Thursday May 17, 2018

Good piece from Bill King on Georgia’s kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. King reminds us that while Blankenship has his oddities, he’s developed into a damn fine kicker whose 2017 season deserves to be mentioned among Georgia’s best placekicking performances. He made pressure-packed game-winning kicks against Notre Dame and Oklahoma, and his 51-yarder in overtime against Alabama would have been, with apologies to Butler and Munson, the most significant kick in Georgia history had the Dawgs held on.

It’s not too long ago that Blankenship was the goofy guy with glasses and the meddlesome father. Blankenship was after a scholarship, but we forget that he was fighting for the starting role right up to the start of the 2017 season. The scholarship came soon after.

The transformation of Blankenship from a walk-on with a tenuous hold on the starting job to a clutch weapon who coolly nailed field goals from 50+ yards in each playoff game is easy to overlook when we had so many good things going on. The barrage of touchbacks throughout the season was a welcome bonus. Blankenship’s quirks might have made him stand out at first, but his steady production is ensuring that he’ll be remembered for a long time for his kicking.


Post 2017 leaders rewarded in NFL Draft

Sunday April 29, 2018

It’s fitting that the leaders from such a memorable and special season would make a little more history on their way out. An unprecedented three Bulldog players were selected in the first round, and Bulldogs ended up as four of the first 35 picks.

  • Who had Georgia’s offense ending up with more drafted players than the defense?
  • If you look at a sample 2017 mock draft at the end of the 2016 season before the juniors made their monumental decision to return, it’s not hard to see that everyone made the right call to return. Certainly those decisions in early 2017 were a huge shot in the arm for the program, but realistically Georgia didn’t have any can’t-miss juniors on the 2016 team along the lines of Roquan Smith. Michel and Chubb were on that 2017 list of course, and each improved his position. Isaiah Wynn and Lorenzo Carter weren’t even on the draft radar after their junior seasons. It’s safe to say that all six of the drafted Bulldogs improved their standing during the 2017 season with some, like Wynn, making huge moves. That speaks very well of Georgia’s player development. It also speaks well of those players to accept what coming back meant and put in the work to improve.
  • Roquan Smith was the headliner of course, and his selection was met with near-universal acclaim. The first round drama was all about quarterbacks and Bradley Chubb dropping a pick or two. Smith’s pick passed without any controversy or debate, and that’s a little unusual at that stage of the draft. He became about the closest thing to a sure thing in the draft. It made sense for last season’s juniors to return, but Smith left at the right time even if he did feel a tug to stay for his senior season.
  • It’s cool to see Wynn and Michel end up on the same team, and it was entertaining to see Georgia fans struggle with kind words for the Patriots (despite Andrews and Mitchell already on the roster.) Wynn’s outstanding season at left tackle and his eye-opening performance during Senior Bowl preparations turned him from a marginal prospect into a solid first round pick and the sixth offensive lineman taken. Was his fast rise a flash in the pan? It’s hard to imagine New England taking a flyer on a first round pick to protect Tom Brady.
  • Michel and Chubb went in the order most expected. Michel was the slightly more versatile player, and he’s on a team that knows how to be creative with its personnel. Chubb, on the other hand, is headed into a more muddled situation in Cleveland. The Browns believe they’ve found the key to their turnaround in Baker Mayfield, and they do have some nice pieces on paper. They signed Carlos Hyde at tailback (replacing Isaiah Crowell!) to a three year deal, though some of Hyde’s guarantees don’t kick in until the 2019 season. Chubb is a good hedge then against that contract. Nick shouldn’t have a tough time making the team as a second round pick, though he will have to compete for playing time against Hyde and former Miami tailback Duke Johnson. Any concerns about Chubb post-knee injury are long gone, and we know he will bring a tireless determination to the Browns.
  • Entering the season I doubt anyone expected Javon Wims to be drafted over players like Thompson and Bellamy. I also doubt many fans expected a junior coming off a season with 17 receptions and one TD to become such a crucial contributor on a national title contender. But he emerged in a big way and became Jake Fromm’s favorite and most reliable target. Godwin’s circus catch at Notre Dame was a highlight of the season, but Wims made the key reception on Georgia’s final drive to move the offense into comfortable field goal range. Wims’ steady ownership of the sideline made sure Fromm was successful as the Bulldogs brought along their young quarterback.
  • Lorenzo Carter was yet another player who took a big leap forward in 2017. Carter was always going to be a pro prospect solely on size and speed, but it’s not a sure thing that he would have been drafted as a junior. As recently as the 2016 Ole Miss game, he looked lost and had yet to apply his amazing talent in any kind of consistent and productive way. Carter’s senior season was different, and it showed right away at Notre Dame. He fell on the game-clinching fumble of course, but an earlier strip-sack of his own showed the potential turning into production. Carter’s FG block and his role in the Rose Bowl win will be his legacy, and that’s a much better ending for him than we might have imagined a year ago.
  • Did Thompson make a mistake entering the draft? It seems so, though there’s not much difference between a late-round pick and an undrafted free agent. He signed with a team and will have his shot to earn a spot. Thompson was hardly a bust at Georgia, though his setback in early 2017 surely slowed the progress he showed in his dominant performance against TCU. That setback obviously remained a concern for NFL front offices, and it might’ve remained a concern even if Thompson returned for another season.
  • The snubs of Thompson and Bellamy might be mild surprises – Bellamy moreso. He showed a knack for the big play, but perhaps teams were looking for more consistency. He’ll have his shot in Houston where they know a thing or two about good pass rushers.
  • Were you surprised to see NC State with seven draft picks? They had a decent season with a 9-4 record and a top 25 finish wich was right around where LSU finished (who also had seven players drafted.) Dave Doeren wasn’t a popular head coaching candidate at Tennessee, but you have to go back to 2003 to find at least seven Vols in a single draft class.
  • Let’s give Mark Richt his due – this draft class is more or less the payoff of his final years at Georgia. After the disaster that was the 2013 signing class, Richt’s next two classes would provide the raw materials for a very special 2017 season. Of course those players had to be coached up, but you have to start with something.
  • Richt also had some of his more successful draft classes early in his Georgia career. That success faded a bit towards the end of the decade as early-round picks became later-round picks. Richt’s final few classes were inconsistent. Only two players were taken in 2014; 2015 was much better. Kirby Smart is hoping for a little more consistency in the coming years.

Speaking of the coming years, we’ll see whether multiple first round picks and 6+ total picks becomes the norm in Athens. The 2017 draft was an improvement over recent Georgia results, but we know Georgia (and Smart) will be measured against Alabama as they are in most things. Alabama’s ridiculous 12 draft picks blew away the rest of the field, but that’s the expectation with such a streak of top recruiting classes. It’s not a one-year blip, and it will take more than one top-rated signing class to begin to see Georgia meeting and surpassing its 2018 draft class.


Post Fans disappointing coaches, a continuing series

Monday April 23, 2018

Georgia’s final spring practice of the 2000 season was just another chilly day on the practice fields with slightly relaxed security. That setting was an exception, but G-Day has taken many forms over the years – it’s been optional, off-campus, an open scrimmage, and even a show for the fans with celebrity guest coaches. But what it’s always been is casual, inconsequential, and little more than a way for the more obsessive fans to scratch that football itch right around the midpoint between seasons.

I was in Athens on Saturday, mainly to see some good friends I hadn’t met up with since that dark night in early January. That alone was worth it, and you couldn’t ask for a better day to spend more than a few hours outside in our favorite city. It seems most of the 82,000+ who showed up felt that way. With a scintillating 7-6 halftime score on the board, a good number of those who heeded Kirby Smart’s call headed for the exits.

Now G-Day is an obligation – an ongoing challenge of our loyalty to the program. I don’t begrudge Coach Smart or any team’s coach for reevaluating every activity, interaction, and minute spent running the program as an opportunity to further the program’s own interests. He recognized the spring game as a chance to sell the program, and the crowd is part of the product he’s selling. You can’t argue the man doesn’t know what he’s doing in recruiting. And just as it gets a little distasteful to have your role in this boiled down to a prop for recruiting, a well-produced video is dropped to get you right in the feels.

Attending this year’s G-Day wasn’t much of a burden. Georgia fans had more than enough reasons to file into Sanford Stadium on Saturday, and they responded – again. Happy fans, happy coach. That’s not necessarily the case at Tennessee. The team hasn’t tasted a title in years, the latest coaching search was a public fiasco, and you’re still not quite sure who’s pulling the strings. Tennessee fans can be excused for keeping the enthusiasm in check until the new first-time coach starts to show a little something. That coach disagrees.

“The ones that were here, I’m proud they were here,” said Jeremy Pruitt. “They’re fired up and ready to get going. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that had legitimate reasons they couldn’t be here, all right. Then there were some people that wasn’t here that, why wasn’t they here? It’s kind of like our football team…I think we all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.”

Legitimate reasons to miss a spring game? Did they have to show a note?

Pruitt’s tone is very much in character for him. He has his expectations, and he’s not really interested in the toes he steps on. It’s how he ran his defense at FSU, Georgia, and Alabama. It’s arguably why Georgia enjoys a nice indoor facility now. Is it the smartest thing to do after the first public showing of your new team? That’s not our problem anymore.

Pruitt does have a point though. “We all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.” Georgia fans made that choice two years ago. We’ll fill the stadium in the off chance of impressing a decent prospect on the fence. We’ll pay more for a lesser home schedule. It’s eased some of the friction to see the program become exactly what we decided we wanted it to be. I can’t imagine Tennessee fans being as amenable if Pruitt’s trajectory falls short of Smart’s. Who knew being the customer came with so many expectations on us?

(This post was just an excuse to post this Steve Harvey clip – it’s become the first thing I think of when coaches start to challenge the fans. “I paid $38.50…*you* scream.” (NSFW clip below.))


Post Checking all of the boxes

Monday February 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversely, did your team sign a good nose tackle?

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

Can your best defenders stay on the field?

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


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

Friday February 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post How to mess up a perfectly reasonable price increase

Thursday February 8, 2018

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

Transparency

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

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

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

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

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

More for less

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad year to be in Sanford Stadium.


Post Wynn wins the Senior Bowl

Saturday January 27, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post How playoff games are won

Wednesday January 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Enjoy the first of many trips to the Benz

Saturday December 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Georgia 38 – Georgia Tech 7: Order restored

Tuesday November 28, 2017

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

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

Third Downs

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

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

Defense

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

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

Offense

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

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

Extra Points

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

Post Georgia 42 – Kentucky 13: Senior sendoff

Tuesday November 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post From Senior Day to Seniors’ Day

Monday November 20, 2017

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

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

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


Post 2017-2018 Georgia Lady Dogs Preview

Thursday November 16, 2017

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

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

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

Departures

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

The Roster

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

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

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

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

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

Strengths/Weaknesses

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

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

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

Outlook

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

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

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

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