DawgsOnline
Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Transfers, young teams, and a story pitch

Tuesday February 19, 2019

“Transfer portal” is now right up there with “polar vortex” as a label for something that is very real and normal but which has come to represent a much bigger phenomenon.

The transfer portal doesn’t do much other than provide transparency to a process that had been done behind closed doors. It does take some power away from schools to restrict who may and may not contact a prospective transfer, and it broadcasts to the world that someone is available. It makes the process slightly easier, but that’s not enough on its own to open the transfer floodgates.

A bigger change is the softening (and march toward elimination) of the requirement to sit out a year after transferring. Critics warn of a free-for-all transfer market, coaches fret over the loss of control of their roster, and the term “free agency” has become pejorative. Georgia’s been the beneficiary of more generous eligibility waivers: Demetris Robertson was immediately eligible to play last season after his transfer from Cal. Now Justin Fields’s waiver has been granted at Ohio State, and all eyes are on the status of Tate Martell at Miami. I don’t know why Martell’s circumstances are all that different from Fields’s, but that’s the way the media is playing the story. You almost feel for Jacob Eason who sat out last season without seeking a waiver.

The unmistakable trend can be summed up by “early.” Players are arriving earlier: 14 members of the 2019 signing class enrolled early to get a head start on playing right away. Even players who will end up redshirting are able to play earlier now. They’re leaving earlier too. The past two seasons have set records for the number of underclassmen declaring for the NFL Draft. Graduate transfer rules make it more common for a player to seek a new opportunity for his final season. Those who don’t pan out or earn playing time right away will look to a loosening transfer process.

Coaches love to talk about their young teams, but that’s the new reality. All teams will be young teams. Successful coaches will be those who are able to manage rosters heavy on freshmen and sophomores with small groups of upperclassmen. It’s not just managing the numbers, though that will be a big part of it. The early signing period means that schools like Georgia that can fill most of their class early can spend the six weeks before the late signing period observing the transfer and attrition landscape and using those last few spots to fill needs with a prospect or a transfer. Coaches will also have to tailor schemes and how those schemes are implemented to make sure that they can be picked up rapidly and executed at the highest level by relatively inexperienced players.

Is there a model for how programs might be managed in the future?

The NCAA allows for an unrestricted one-time transfer in most of the sports it governs. You have to be in good academic standing, but there are only four sports to which the “sit out a year” rule applies:

If you transfer from a four-year school, you may be immediately eligible to compete at your new school if…you are transferring to a Division I school in any sport other than baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football (Football Bowl Subdivision) or men’s ice hockey.

Most of us focus on football, but what we’re dreading as an era of free agency is actually the normal for the majority of NCAA sports.

With that in mind, it would be interesting to see coaches interviewed from other sports who have had to deal with unrestricted transfers for years. Softball would be a great place to start – Alex Hugo, perhaps the best Georgia softball player in the past decade, was a high-profile transfer who played her freshman season at Kansas in 2013 and was immediately eligible to play at Georgia in 2014. Georgia of course has also been on the other end of transfers. These coaches live in this world already and could provide some good insight on how to manage a program.

(I’m trying to think through how unrestricted transfers might play out differently in a sport like football or basketball versus, say, softball. I’m inclined to think that there would be more frequent transfers in football/basketball since one year of exposure in the “right” system could be worth millions. There are of course professional opportunities for softball, but the incentives aren’t as great in Olympic sports to maximize the collegiate system for future income.)


Post The case of the rooster that didn’t crow

Monday February 18, 2019

I had a couple of thoughts after reading Blutarsky’s post-Signing Day survey of the job Florida and Tennessee did (or didn’t do) closing the talent gap against Georgia.

First was complete agreement with this conclusion: “The gap isn’t closing, but the chance to break through on occasion may be rising for the two.” Tennessee and Florida aren’t going to concede anything to Georgia, and they have the resources to build teams that could challenge Georgia in years when opportunity collides with occasional peaks in talent. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the position Georgia occupied for much of the past 25 years. We know all about the quest for “relevancy.”

My second thought was how interesting it was to see a certain program not mentioned. If you go back a year, Tennessee and Florida were both reorganizing under first year coaches. Which school was seen as the top challenger to Georgia in 2018? Will Muschamp’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Granted, Georgia was as overwhelming a favorite as it could be, but if there was a darkhorse in the East in 2018, it was South Carolina. If you wanted to go out on a limb with an upset pick that was shocking enough to get attention but plausible enough not to be dismissed outright, you picked South Carolina to win at home over Georgia.

This isn’t an argument that it’s wrong to leave South Carolina out of discussions like this; it’s more amazement about how much things have changed in a year. Was their window of opportunity limited to just last season? South Carolina’s 7-6 overall record, 4-4 conference record, and fourth-place SEC East finish in 2018 were all below expectations. There were some close losses that could have gone the other way, but we could say the same about several close wins. Injuries took a toll, but from an outsider’s perspective it looked as if South Carolina never overcame three very generalized deficiencies:

  • A below-average running game.
  • An up-tempo offense that never really realized its explosive promise.
  • A defense (40th in S&P+) that wasn’t up to par for what you’d expect from a Will Muschamp team.

Their ugly shutout loss in the bowl game didn’t do much for offseason happy talk, but was one disappointing season enough to send South Carolina from top contender in the East to an afterthought? If we can boil things down to one reason to be optimistic about the Gamecocks, it’s the return of senior quarterback Jake Bentley. Bentley is arguably the second or third-best QB in the East, and his experience should be enough to matter in a couple of games. They get no favors with SEC West games against Alabama and Texas A&M, and Clemson should once again be a heavy favorite. It’s no fun mapping out a path to ten wins with Georgia, Alabama, and Clemson on the schedule.

The bigger question though is about talent. (We’ll use Rivals’ team rankings here.) Tennessee and especially Florida did do well this year, but South Carolina wasn’t too far behind with a Top 20 class and ten blue-chip (4* or 5*) signees. If you go back a couple of years to see how the 2019 teams might be composed, it looks a little better for the Gamecocks. Florida, SC, and Tennessee were all clumped together in the 2018 rankings at #17, #18, and #20. Florida had another Top 10 class in 2017, but again Tennessee and South Carolina were there at #15 and #16. The real disparity comes in 2016 when Will Muschamp’s first class was ranked in the mid-20s. Unfortunately those would be the seniors on the 2019 team. Florida can claim to have had an edge in the three most recent signing classes. South Carolina might be closer to Tennessee than Tennessee has been to Florida.

If the focus has shifted to Florida and Tennessee trying to close the massive talent gap with Georgia, a secondary story has to be South Carolina’s desperation to remain in that top tier of SEC East contenders. We could include Missouri and Kentucky in that group, but the Gamecocks would rather measure themselves against Florida or Tennessee in terms of resources, fan passion, recruiting, and what they’ve invested in coaching. They didn’t hire Muschamp to settle back into a perennial fourth-place SEC East position, and that’s the danger here. If Florida and Tennessee are making moves to become more competitive with Georgia, does South Carolina come along or get left behind?


Post Crean’s first recruiting coup

Wednesday February 13, 2019

Monday was a good, good day for Tom Crean and the Georgia basketball program. The Dawgs got a commitment from elite 6’4″ guard Anthony Edwards from Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta. There’s some debate whether this is the highest-rated player ever to commit to Georgia, but that’s not important. If you’re even having that discussion, it means that Edwards is a player Georgia needs desperately.

Edwards is the type of attacking scoring guard sorely missing from the program, and his presence should elevate a talented frontcourt as Hammonds and Claxton continue to develop.

Some realty though –

1. Edwards can’t sign until the spring signing period begins on April 17th. Ashton Hagans was a Georgia commitment at one point last year. We don’t expect Georgia to blow up its program again this spring, but any Georgia football fan knows that recruiting doesn’t stop after a verbal commitment – especially when you’re talking about a prospect like this. There’s no reason to suspect Edwards’s pledge is anything but firm, but it’s not binding for another two months. Circle April 17th.

2. Transcendent program-changing lottery pick signings have had mixed results in college, and the programs they leave haven’t always been the better for it. Ben Simmons was outstanding at LSU, but his program and coach crumbled. Michael Porter battled injuries as Missouri struggled to get anything going. Darius Garland will never suit up for last-place Vanderbilt. The surrounding cast matters.

That said, Crean had to have a player like this. The common theme throughout the story of UGA hoops is lackluster recruiting especially when it comes to Georgia’s in-state talent. If Edwards turns out to be the beginning of a sea change in how his peers view the program, it will have been one of the most important moments in the program’s history. Crean had to have some credibility to start to gain the interest of those prospects. He’s not going to do it this year with results, so getting the commitment of someone like Edwards will open a lot of doors for Georgia’s recruiters.

So perhaps more important is what Edwards represents: an elite local prospect that stayed home. He told Dan McDonald from Rivals that “(Georgia is) my home. I want to put the school back on the map…I see that they need help, so that’s what I want to do.” If that message can begin to take hold among local prospects, Tom Crean will soon have the pieces he needs to realize his vision of an entertaining and competitive program at Georgia.

Georgia already has two 6’6″ 4* wings signed during the fall period, Jaykwon Walton and Toumani Camara. Georgia will try to take at least one more in the spring, and it would be ideal for one of the remaining spots to go to a point guard. Edwards understands the importance of bringing other top prospects along with him, and he plans to help recruit at least two highly-touted unsigned players:

“I got two of them, (6’9″ F) Precious Achiuwa and (6’5″ G) Lester Quinones. I’ve already been talking to them about it. Precious likes Georgia. Lester likes Georgia too and they are close friends, so I feel like we got a chance. I pray we have a chance.”


Post Eli’s Comin’

Friday February 8, 2019

I noted on Signing Day that Georgia still might have an immediate need at tight end despite signing two TEs in the 2019 class. Ryland Goede is coming off ACL surgery, and Brett Seither will still be a bit raw. That’s not a slight against either’s potential to succeed at Georgia; it’s a statement about the need to have game-ready tight ends available early in the season.

It’s not a surprise then that Kirby Smart continued to work the transfer pool after Signing Day, and the Dawgs didn’t waste any time signing graduate transfer Eli Wolf from Tennessee. Wolf has played in eight games at Tennessee, caught eight passes with one touchdown, and was named a team captain after beginning his career as a walk-on. He earned recognition as the improved player on offense after Tennessee’s 2018 spring practice. Wolf isn’t much bigger than Seither, but you’d expect that a few years in a D-1 weight room would have him a little more prepared to contribute right away. He’s remaining active before heading to Athens “working out five days per week with a personal trainer in Knoxville specializing in speed and strength.”

Georgia now has five scholarship tight ends: Wolf (RSr.), Woerner (Sr.), FitzPatrick (RFr.), Goede (Fr.), and Seither (Fr.). Smart might not be finished adding transfers to the 2019 team, but we’re fairly certain that the TE position is set now. With Wolf and Woerner set to depart after 2019, TE will again become a priority for the 2020 class, and one of the best is right here in state.

UPDATE: Georgia has added a second graduate transfer: 6’5″ WR Lawrence Cager from Miami. Cager had a productive 2018 season with 21 receptions, 374 yards, and a team-high six touchdown catches. His size jumps out, and he gives Georgia, by my count, at least four receivers (not even tight ends) at 6’4″ or better: Cager (Sr.), Tommy Bush (RFr.), Matt Landers (RSo.), and George Pickens (Fr.)


Post Dawgs had one or two surprises left for Signing Day

Thursday February 7, 2019

Even in a sleepy late signing period with room for at most two or three additions to the outstanding 2019 class, Georgia still managed to make some news on Wednesday.

The Bulldogs once again made national recruiting headlines when they announced the signing of Hoover, Ala. WR George Pickens. Pickens, rated a 5* prospect by Rivals, had been committed to Auburn for two years. Georgia rekindled their interest in Pickens when Jadon Haselwood signed with Oklahoma. With other schools including Tennessee and Miami looking to flip Pickens, he wasn’t exactly a firm commitment to Auburn, but it’s impressive that Georgia could make up so much ground so quickly on a prospect of this quality. According to the Rivals ratings, Pickens is a signing on par with A.J. Green. We’ll see about that, but at 6’5″ he’s a nightmare matchup problem with an ability to go up and get passes. In short, he brings the physical attributes and skill set you imagine in a top receiver prospect.

There was one reason Pickens didn’t have the high profile you might expect given his rating: academics. I don’t like to speculate about academic standing and don’t know Pickens’ specific situation, but enough recruiting sources have been open about this to give it credibility. It’s enough to say that Pickens has work to do and will have to watch his grades closely. As a signee, he’ll have all of the support and resources allowed from Georgia, but it’s now up to him to qualify.

Georgia would have to pass on most prospects with academic uncertainty. With so few spots remaining in this class, they’re not going to risk a nonqualifier with so many other quality prospects looking at Georgia. You make exceptions for 5* talent. Pickens is a “take” under most any circumstances. Now we wait…

We were almost certain Georgia would take a tight end in this late period whether it was a freshman signee or a graduate transfer. The Dawgs signed one of the best remaining tight end prospects in the nation when Brett Seither chose Georgia over Alabama. Seither began to draw interest from top programs late in the process, and he earned offers from “Alabama, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, Rutgers, Syracuse and TCU since the end of his senior season.” Georgia’s urgency at the position got turned up when Isaac Nauta declared for the NFL and Luke Ford transferred leaving the Dawgs with only two returning scholarship tight ends. While there were contingencies in the transfer pool, Seither was an important addition at a position of need.

Georgia still might have to be a little creative with its tight ends next season: incoming freshman Ryland Goede is coming off ACL surgery, and Seither checks in around 235 pounds. It’s possible neither will redshirt in 2019 just out of necessity, but it will be asking a lot for either to become major contributors right away.

If Georgia had a disappointment on Wednesday it was Kaiir Elam’s decision to stay home in Florida. Elam rode the coaching carousel with Mel Tucker leaving for Colorado and Florida’s defensive backs coach moving to Georgia. In the end familiy ties won out. The December signing of Tyrique Stevenson eased Georgia’s immediate need at cornerback, but Georgia had worked hard on Elam. Good cornerbacks over 6′ tall with technical skills aren’t common, so we’d rather he be in Athens than Gainesville.

Most analysts had Georgia signing two players – a tight end (Seither) and a defensive back (either Elam or FSU commitment Nick Cross). No commitment happens in a vacuum. We’ve seen many times how a decision here can ripple down to create or close opportunities elsewhere. Pickens’ morning announcement signaled that something was up. I doubt that Georgia would have turned away Pickens in any event, but it was much less of a quandary to take the risk if the staff knew of Elam’s decision.

In the end Georgia did get two new signees. It’s too confusing to guess whether that uses up all of Georgia’s scholarships for the coming year. People obsess over the numbers every year, and the staff always seems to find room to add someone out of the blue. We don’t know how active Georgia will be in the transfer pool this spring and summer, but it’s doubtful we’ll see any more freshman signings this month. Then again, Nick Cross didn’t sign anywhere on Wednesday…

UPDATE: Well this is interesting. Pickens’ signing along with decisions elsewhere around the nation moved Georgia ahead of Alabama for the nation’s #1 signing class according to Rivals. It gives Georgia the top class for the second straight season. You can insert your own disclaimers about recruiting rankings, and I’m sure other services will have different rankings, but when people were talking about Bama’s 2019 class as one of the best ever, it’s worthwhile to note that Georgia is right there with them. At the very least it’s an indication that Georgia and Alabama once again were among the best at assembling the pieces they’ll need to compete for the SEC and national titles, and neither program is fading anytime soon.


Post An appreciation of Sony Michel

Sunday February 3, 2019

Five Bulldogs return to Atlanta this Sunday with an opportunity to leave as Super Bowl champs. Todd Gurley and Ramik Wilson will suit up for the Rams, and David Andrews and Sony Michel will play for the Patriots. Isaiah Wynn is on injured reserve for the Patriots. While at Georgia all five experienced some form of heartbreak in downtown Atlanta whether in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium or next door where the Georgia Dome stood, so at least a couple of guys will be able to put those bad memories behind them. The losers will be first in line to press the button the next time a downtown stadium is imploded.

All of them have great stories that brought them to this moment. Wilson is a survivor going from draft pick to the practice squad at Kansas City and has found a new role in Los Angeles. Andrews began as an undrafted free agent and is now a multi-year mainstay of a championship offensive line. Most of the coverage this week has focused on Gurley and Michel, two favorites from Georgia’s proud tailback tradition. Gurley is established as a superstar in LA and signed a record contract extension. Michel shut up some local doubters with a solid rookie season and has exploded in the playoffs with 242 yards and five touchdowns in two postseason games.

Gurley became Georgia’s feature tailback right out of the gate in the 2012 season opener against Buffalo. Turnover at the position had opened the door, and Gurley burst through with at least 100 yards rushing in four of Georgia’s first five games. He was the only back to reach 100 yards against Alabama in 2012, and so long as he was healthy (and cleared to play) he was the alpha dawg in Georgia’s talented backfield for the next three seasons.

It also didn’t take long for Sony Michel to reach the endzone at Georgia, but it wasn’t as a tailback. In Georgia’s second game of the 2014 season, at South Carolina, Michel lined up in the slot, caught an inside screen, and sprinted untouched for Georgia’s first score of the game. He got carries when he could behind Gurley and Chubb and had a big 155-yard, three-touchdown game against Troy. A broken shoulder blade against Tennessee came at a bad time: Gurley’s mid-season suspension and Michel’s injury placed much of the running game on Chubb’s shoulders. Chubb responded with nearly 700 yards in four games – great for Georgia, but it put Michel on the back burner for the latter portion of the season as Chubb kept on doing Chubb things and Gurley made his triumphant return.

In hindsight we now properly consider Chubb and Michel more or less co-equals. They became the tandem that powered Georgia’s 2017 offense. It wasn’t always the case. Michel wasn’t a bust as a true freshman, but it became a question of how to get him the ball. He was used almost as James Cook was in 2018 – some tailback work, some passes out of the backfield, some time in the slot, and even some special teams. Michel had over 100 all-purpose yards in the 2014 Belk Bowl, and only about 30 of those came running the ball. (There was even a kickoff return TD called back.) His talent and versatility were never in doubt, but it was tough to earn carries behind Gurley and Chubb.

Even with Gurley departing after 2014, Chubb was the standout through the first five games of 2015. Chubb had no fewer than 120 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry) in a game while Michel’s best production during that stretch was 75 yards against Southern. If there was an event that changed the production and perception of Sony Michel at Georgia, is was the gruesome injury to Nick Chubb at Tennessee in 2015. The immediate concern was whether Michel could take the increased workload with a thin backfield. Keith Marshall had never been the same since his own 2013 injury, and Brendan Douglas was giving all he had in his role. Sony proved he could be a physical back and was no frail scatback, but his involvement in the offense had been limited. Prior to that 2015 Tennessee game, Michel had never rushed more than 16 times and only had double-digit carries in four of 13 games.

Michel of course was up to the challenge. He had at least 20 carries in all remaining 2015 game except for Florida (because Georgia had a much better gameplan in mind for the 2015 Florida game.) Michel finished the season with 1,136 rushing yards and over 1,400 yards from scrimmage. That stretch of eight games to end the 2015 season changed how I and many other Georgia fans looked at Michel. He wasn’t Chubb’s backup, he wasn’t a positionless skill player, and he wasn’t too undersized to handle the workload of 20+ carries per game. He had proven himself as an SEC tailback, and fans began to salivate over a Michel/Chubb backfield returning in 2016.

Another setback delayed the arrival of the fully-operational duo. Michel fractured his arm in an accident over the Independence Day holiday, and the injury left in doubt his availablity for the first few games of the season. Kirby Smart was indeed cautious with Michel’s return: Michel missed the season opener and didn’t record more than 10 carries until late September at Ole Miss. 2016 proved to be an inconsistent year for Michel and the Georgia offense. Chubb returned to form with over 1,100 yards, but Michel slid back to 840 yards and four touchdowns. Still, Michel had done more than enough to earn serious consideration from NFL scouts, and some projections had him going in the third or fourth round.

Fortunately Michel and Chubb decided together, along with several other draft-eligible teammates, to return for the 2017 season. With good health, a capable offensive line, and smothering gameplans that offered a banquet of carries, both Michel and Chubb thrived as seniors and earned first-round selections as a result of their decision to return. Michel, for his part, came away with a career-high 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 7.9 yards per carry were tops among Georgia tailbacks. Sony saved his best for last as Georgia’s top performer in the CFB playoffs. His 222 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-winner, in the Rose Bowl was one of the greatest performances in Georgia history. Thankfully the memory of his fourth quarter fumble was all but erased by the wildcat keeper that sent the Dawgs to Atlanta. Even in the loss to Alabama, Michel managed 98 yards against Bama’s brick wall of a defensive front. His highlight was a 26-yard gain on a 3rd and 20 that led to Georgia posting the game’s first score.

Sony Michel left Georgia third in career rushing yardage. His standout sophomore and senior seasons were bolstered by over 1,200 combined yards in injury-slowed freshman and junior seasons. His legacy is about much more than that production. He was an important prospect from south Florida – one of the highest-rated recruits in the last couple of Richt classes. Fans will remember his huge smile and of course the jazz hands that meant another six points. He brought a passion for music and recording, was a natural choice to show off Georgia’s new DJ booth in the locker room, and even left Georgia fans his own musical labor of love.

By the end of his Georgia career Michel’s production and versatility had vaulted him from a mid-round NFL prospect to the first-round choice of a Super Bowl contender. He overcame yet another injury at the start of this season and is now the Patriots’ top rushing option and arguably the hottest backs of the postseason. He’ll return to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second time in little more than a year with his sport’s biggest prize on the line. Brady, Goff, and Gurley headline the stars playing Atlanta this weekend, but Georgia fans know that Michel in a big game could have as much to do with the outcome as anyone.


Post A 2015 solution to a 2019 problem

Sunday February 3, 2019

Few positions took a bigger hit from attrition than tight end. Jackson Harris will graduate, Isaac Nauta declared for the NFL Draft, and Luke Ford transferred. That leaves Georgia with three scholarship tight ends: rising senior Charlie Woerner, redshirt freshman John FitzPatrick who saw action as a reserve in two games in 2018, and incoming freshman Ryland Goede who is recovering from a major knee injury. “12” personnel (two tight ends with one tailback) was a popular set under Jim Chaney, and it figures to remain that way going forward. Without a fullback in the scheme, tight ends had arguably a larger role as blockers than as receivers in Georgia’s system.

Georgia continues to recruit the position, and there’s a strong possibility that another tight end could be added during the late signing period. We should know by now that Kirby Smart will beat the bushes right up through the start of the season to improve the roster with transfers and unsigned players, so the tight end position is likely to remain fluid through the summer if scholarship numbers allow.

Are there other ways to add to tight end depth? In 2015 Aulden Bynum was a redshirt sophomore more or less buried on the offensive line depth chart. The 2015 Florida game might be remembered for a certain infamous change to the starting lineup, but Bynum also became another first-time starter in that game when he lined up at tight end. He saw action at TE in a couple of games as Georgia looked more to power running and wildcat plays late in the 2015 season when the TE depth situation wasn’t much better than it is now. The move wasn’t permanent: with the arrival of Nauta in 2016, Bynum returned to the mix along the offensive line.

Is using an offensive lineman as a tight end an option in 2019? Relative to most positions on the team, the offensive line is fairly flush. The 2018 season tested that depth, but there was still enough wiggle room to move Netori Johnson to the defensive line. Even if we ignore the tight end’s receiving role and focus on specific formations and situations, it’s not so simple as six offensive linemen versus five lineman plus a tight end. Tight end motion is a staple of Georgia’s offense – even the most famous play of the Kirby Smart era started with TE motion. The placement of the tight end usually matches them up against quicker defensive ends or linebackers. There’s a certain agility required of the TE even in power sets that might be asking too much of many skilled linemen.

There might already be a candidate on the roster. Tackles are often asked to deal with the same edge defenders as tight ends. Cade Mays stood out for his versatility and readiness even as a true freshman. Most of us remember him stepping in for Andrew Thomas at South Carolina, filling the right guard spot after Ben Cleveland’s injury, and even dealing with his own ailments as the season took its toll. But before that injury to Thomas sent the line into scramble mode, Mays split time in the first two games wearing the #42 jersey working as, you guessed it, a blocking H-back or tight end.

Georgia’s starting line, save the center position, seems set. Thomas and Wilson should hold down the tackle spots. Cleveland will be back. With so much talent on the line, it’s always possible that someone shakes up the depth chart. Assuming the starters hold their jobs, how does Mays get on the field apart from injuries or rotating in as a reserve? Mays’s importance as a lineman means that a return of the #42 jersey would have to be extremely limited, but that’s all the team would need.

There are a ton of variables: how many tight ends will be added between now and August? Is there even scholarship room to add more than one more? Are there any viable walk-on candidates? Will Goede be in a position to contribute early? That’s a lot still to sort out, and I don’t see using Mays or any other lineman as anything but a last-ditch stopgap solution. I fully expect Georgia to add a true tight end to the roster either as a signee or transfer. Because Kirby Smart is much more aggressive with his roster management, I don’t expect the team to turn to a solution that made sense in 2015. Still, we know how important blocking is to the downhill rushing attack favored by Smart, and multiple tight ends are often a big part of that blocking scheme. I don’t expect to see Mays or other linemen running TE seam routes, but I also won’t be surprised to see some creativity in personnel up front if better solutions don’t present themselves in the offseason.


Post What does Paul Johnson leaving mean for Georgia?

Wednesday November 28, 2018

“If you don’t want to play against (Tech’s option offense) then beat them every year and pretty soon you won’t have to.”

Kirby Smart, postgame

“Pretty soon” turned out to be a lot sooner than Kirby Smart might have realized. Paul Johnson is stepping down at Tech after eleven seasons.

First, the good news: Georgia probably won’t be facing the flexbone offense going forward. It’s not that Georgia wasn’t successful against Tech during the past eleven years; they were a solid 8-3 and undefeated in Atlanta. It’s more that the time spent preseason and during the year on preparation for that offense can be redirected to better uses. No one likes playing against the flexbone, and Kirby Smart pulled no punches about his distaste for coaching against it. Tech will of course still require as much preparation as any opponent, and each opponent presents unique challenges with their offense. Still, Georgia’s approach to Tech might be a little more “normal” going forward.

Is there bad news? Part of you wants a coach that drops eight of 11 games against you to stick around a lot longer even if the game itself was drudgery. There’s more uncertainty now. In which direction will Tech head? Will they abandon the option or give it another whirl with someone like Army’s Jeff Monken? There’s a chance that they could hit a home run and find someone uniquely suited to thrive in Tech’s academic and financial environment. Some might say that person was Johnson – Tech finished first or second in the ACC Coastal Divison in seven out of 11 seasons, and they reached two Orange Bowls under Johnson.

If Tech does drop the flexbone in favor of a more pro style or even spread offense, Kirby Smart will have a little extra work to do in recruiting. You weren’t going to get prolific passers and elite receivers to play in that system. Defensive prospects might not have wanted to get cut in practice every day. Georgia still has tremendous recruiting advantages over Tech, but a different offense changes Tech’s presence. It opens Tech up to prospects who might not have otherwise considered Tech due to the scheme. Georgia has no shortage of D-1 prospects. Georgia’s in-state recruiting should still be strong, but Tech can join a large pack of schools looking to nibble around the margins and try to pry an elite prospect here and there away from the Dawgs.

There’s a possible recruiting downside for Tech too. Johnson was able to recruit for his needs and get a lot out of players who might not have fit in other systems. With a more conventional scheme, Tech would just be one of many schools fishing in the same pond as Georgia, Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, FSU, and others. With that in mind, the next coach’s ability as a recruiter might be as important as his offensive or defensive choice of scheme.

Regardless of scheme, Georgia will head to Atlanta next November to face a first-year coach eager to prove himself against Tech’s biggest rival. Georgia hasn’t lost in Atlanta since 1998 (*), and a Tech win would give the coach instant credibility among his fan base and in-state recruits. Georgia might not have to worry about the option next year, but preparing for the Tech game will be no less important.

* – Jasper was down.


Post Georgia 45 – Georgia Tech 21: Peaking at the right time

Monday November 26, 2018

Everyone spent the week dwelling on stopping the wrong offense.

In such a decisive and complete win, there are any number of facts we can use to illustrate how dominant Georgia was: equaling last year’s final score by halftime, holding Tech to 66 yards in the first half, Fromm setting a career mark with four touchdown passes, Georgia more than doubling Tech’s rushing output (on fewer carries!), or even a season-high nine tackles for loss. My favorite though was a graphic showing that at one point in the game Georgia had scored a touchdown on 13 straight possessions going back to the failed fake field goal against Auburn. For a half and then some, Georgia’s offense handled the Tech defense with the same efficiency and ease with which they handled UMass.

Odds are any preview of this game touched on the challenge of stopping Tech’s unique offense. Sure enough, it has enough quirks to require extra practice and an approach unlike any other offense on the schedule, and we’ll have plenty to say about the job done by Georgia’s defense. But the level of play we’ve seen from the Georgia offense over the past month has been extraordinary. Georgia’s success rate of 72.4% against UMass was tops nationally last week, but it’s easy to shrug that off due to the quality of competition. Tech is no great shakes on defense, but Georgia was able to follow up a 72% success rate with a 68% success rate – the best in the nation for the second straight week. Georgia’s offense was able to maintain that edge and focus against a P5 defense in a rivalry game that started at noon with you-know-who looming just a week away.

It’s not that the running game took a back seat this week, but this game didn’t need that signature second half explosive run to blow things open. Swift still got to 100 yards, Holyfield nearly had 9 yards per carry, and the duo only had 23 of Georgia’s 42 carries. Georgia’s 285 rushing yards broke a string of three straight games with over 300 yards on the ground, but they had 172 rushing yards by halftime and shut things down in the fourth quarter.

Jake Fromm closed the regular season with another masterpiece. He was 13 of 16 for 175 yards and a career-best four touchdowns. ESPN’s QBR metric had Fromm at 99.4 out of 100. Two of his three incompletions came in hurry-up mode at the end of the first half. He completed precision passes – again finding the smallest window between corner and safety on a pass to Godwin. His touchdown pass to Holloman was a combination of patience and daring. He hit Hardman in stride on the deep ball. Georgia ran far more than they passed of course, but those receptions were what took this offense from very good to unstoppable.

It’s tempting to look at the defense’s results and wonder what all of the fuss was about Tech’s offense. Georgia’s defensive performance was the result of preparation – practice time was set aside for this offense during preseason camp and weekly during the season. Georgia’s scout team did an outstanding job simulating the offense. But all of the preparation had to be executed, and that hasn’t always been a strength of this year’s defense.

Georgia, especially among the front seven, played some of its best defensive ball of the season. The defense stayed in a fairly base look for most of the game, and there weren’t the waves of substitutions we’re used to seeing. The coaches identified some key players best suited to defend Tech’s offense and stuck with them. Ledbetter and Walker have thrived against Tech over the past two seasons and were the leading tacklers. Malik Herring earned his first start at defensive end and made the most of it, finishing third in tackles, leading the team with 1.5 tackles for loss, and getting credit for a shared sack. The absence of Monty Rice was a concern, but it turned out not to matter because 1) the line was making plays and 2) the other ILBs – Patrick, Crowder, and Taylor – stepped up in a big way. You have to go ten spots down the leading tacklers before you find a defensive back. Georgia’s secondary wasn’t asked to do much because the front seven were disruptive.

My favorite defensive stat: Tech’s longest carry of the day went for ten yards. You hear about assignments and discipline when defending the triple option because any individual mistake can lead to a big gain. We rarely saw plays on which Georgia defenders weren’t in place. Even better, Georgia was often the aggressor and was able to get off blocks and record its season high in tackles for loss. Success rate is a measure of a team’s ability to stay ahead of the chains, and Tech’s option offense is all about those steady drives. Georgia held Tech to a 31% success rate – it’s best result in that area since the Austin Peay shutout. Combined with the success of the offense, Georgia had a success rate advantage of 38 percentage points, leading Bill Connelly to remark, “It probably goes without saying that when an option teamhas a disadvantage of nearly 40 percentage points, it’s probably gonna get blown out.”

Special teams was the blemish on an otherwise complete effort. LeCounte and Beal got caught inside and Baker somehow got turned around on Tech’s kick return. Blankenship’s first two kickoffs were errant, and wind wasn’t much of a factor. He even had a rare miss from inside 50 yards. There were penalties on kickoffs and punts. Given that special teams might be one of the few areas in which Georgia might have an edge next week, get it together.

Special teams aside, Georgia finished the regular season with one of its best all-around performances. A team that drifted a bit early in the season has found its stride at the end and gave us five wins with no margin of victory less than seventeen points. Georgia has won eleven regular season games in consecutive years for the first time in program history. We’ve enjoyed two unblemished campaigns in Sanford Stadium and another perfect record against the SEC East. Now they’ve righted the Tech series in Athens and begun a streak in the series that might continue for some time. When Georgia has championship-level teams, it’s been tough for Paul Johnson’s Tech teams to keep up. 2012, 2017, and now 2018 were all pretty decisive wins for the Dawgs. Georgia’s advantages in talent, staffing, resources, and facilities will only continue to grow. Tech’s scheme is meant to level a talent disadvantage, but the gap between Tech and Georgia might be a bridge too far for several years to come.

  • There was a sequence in that dreadful 2015 Alabama game during which the Tide scored (on a blocked punt), fielded a Georgia punt inside Georgia territory, and immediately scored on a pass of 45 yards or so. A close game turned into a blowout in minutes. That sequence was on my mind when Fromm hit Hardman for a 44-yard score in the second quarter. Tech made the game interesting for a few minutes with their kickoff return, but Georgia responded with yet another touchdown. The Dawgs got the ball back on Tech’s side of the field after a questionable fourth down decision, and they went for the kill shot. Tech briefly had hope at 14-7, but that strike to make it 28-7 ended the game in the second quarter.
  • Speaking of that touchdown, you almost have to feel for the poor linebacker tasked with covering Mecole Hardman on a fly route. To his credit, he managed to stay in the frame.
  • It’s common for Tech to go for it on fourth-and-short. When the offense can get two or three yards by default, it’s usually not a risky move. But to attempt to convert 4th-and-6 on Tech’s own side of the field was either hubris or desperation. We’ll take either.
  • Not too much chippiness in this game compared with some of the other rivalry games last weekend, but the most excited Tech’s bench got all day was when one of their players got off the hook for targeting. Kirby’s a better man than I – of course you want to shorten the game and prevent injuries given what’s at stake next week, but that little scene was enough to go for 70.
  • Justin Fields is so good that he can now complete passes to himself.
  • Courtesy of Team Speed Kills: “The (Georgia) defense only allowed 219 total yards, 113 of which came on the Jackets’ final two drives.”
  • Tyrique McGhee spent a lot of time at cornerback on standard downs rather than Stokes or Campbell. That was another matchup-based decision: McGhee is a more experienced player who might’ve been a stronger player against the run. Campbell had a standout play though – a nice tackle for loss on a quick pass to the outside.
  • It was a small senior class recognized before the game, and there were more than a few whose careers had ended for medical reasons. But those who were able to contribute did so in a big way, and their upperclass years have been two of the best in program history.

It’s now a thing in some corners of the Bulldog Nation to diminish this rivalry or even suggest that it be discontinued. If you saw the involvement of the crowd for a dreary noon game or saw what the home win meant to the players and especially the seniors, you know this game still has plenty of juice left. As dominant as Georgia has been in the series, I can’t imagine ever giving that up.


Post Georgia 66 – UMass 27: Unstoppable

Monday November 19, 2018

One of the fun and interesting things about a game like this is watching players, some of whom seldom get extended playing time, showcase their talent. For this game specifically, it was the last extended home tailgate of the season and a rare low-stress day to enjoy Athens and a game. If you were bored by the game or put off by the opponent, being around one of the many bright-eyed fans experiencing their first Georgia game was enough to snap you out of it.

If the point of a game like this for the team is to, as Kirby Smart puts it, “get better,” Saturday’s results were…so-so.

Anyone who watched the game knows that Georgia had tremendous advantages in success rate and yards per play. That had mostly to do with Georgia’s offense. The Dawgs had a ridiculous 11.31 yards per play – a stat made even more amazing when you consider the offense Georgia ran for the last quarter of the game. Georgia’s success rate was a whopping 72.4% – the best in the nation last weekend. Success rate is a measure of an offense’s ability to stay “ahead of the chains”, and, again, your eye told you that Georgia moved the ball at will. This was an offense’s masterpiece and an opportunity for Georgia to demonstrate its firepower on the ground and through the air. It was such a complete performance that the element most responsible for Georgia’s recent rebound, the power running game with Swift and Holyfield, was more or less left on the shelf after the first quarter.

The defense was more of a mixed bag. Can we say that the defense got better? I’m not even talking about the 27 points or even 200+ receiving yards from Andy Isabella. Georgia was not sharp in tackling. To their credit, the defense notched three sacks (including J.R. Reed’s devastating blitz off the edge), but otherwise the defense recorded no tackles for loss. It’s not that UMass was explosive on the ground – they did have a 42-yard run but otherwise had no carries longer than 12 yards. The issue was more about the consistency of UMass to get about 4 yards per carry even excluding that 42-yard burst. UMass had a success rate of 38.5% in the game which is slightly below average but more on par with what a lower-level SEC team like Tennessee or Vanderbilt was able to do against Georgia.

Of course personnel matters – it’s tough to get penetration for tackles for loss with nickel and dime packages. Georgia substituted heavily as the game went on. The absence of Monty Rice had defenders on the field who were a step slower at taking on ballcarriers. Still, there were a few chances to make plays behind the line, and those plays weren’t made. The ability to disrupt plays behind the line is going to be much more important this week against an offense more than happy to grind out four yards after four yards.

  • Justin Fields stole the show. It shouldn’t have been a big story – you expect a quarterback rated by some as the nation’s top overall prospect to be able to pass and run well. Some people still had to see it in action, and Fields didn’t disappoint. UMass didn’t present much of a test in terms of reading a defense, and so Fields hit receiver after receiver. He had good reads on some option plays that led to big gains on the ground, and then Fields executed an RPO to hit a wide-open Nauta down the seam. Hitting Hardman 50 yards downfield from the opposite hash was breathtaking, but Fields’ willingness to take a hit and still zip in a slant to Ridley for a touchdown was as impressive in its own right.
  • Fromm wasn’t asked to do much and was a perfect 5/5. His touchdown pass to Simmons showed all we needed to see. Fromm recognized the coverage and checked into the play. His pass had perfect touch and settled in a small window between two defensive backs. Simmons did the rest.
  • Godwin’s muffed punt was as close as a game like this has to a moment of tension. Godwin’s only job in the “punt safe” look is to make a fair catch and field the punt cleanly, but he took an awkward angle on a line drive punt over his head. Georgia had forced three UMass three-and-outs to start the game but didn’t have another in the first half after the fumble. UMass scored on three of their next five first half possessions.
  • Eric Stokes is still learning, but his breakup of a deep pass was textbook. He didn’t fall for the initial move, stayed in a position to turn on the ball, and didn’t interfere while making the play. One of the better coverage moments of the season.
  • James Cook is an exciting and dangerous player in space. It will be interesting to see how he’s used in the coming years.
  • Penalties were about the only low spot in the win over Auburn, but Georgia played a clean game against UMass. Georgia was only flagged twice, and one of those was an iffy pass interference call.
  • It had to be uncharacteristic for a receiver of Robertson’s pedigree to drop a sure touchdown. It might just be a matter of rust – Robertson missed quite a bit of practice time and a couple of games with a concussion, and I doubt there were many reps last week on deep balls from Fields to the second and third groups of receivers.
  • Georgia plugged in another new starter, Trey Hill, on the offensive line and didn’t miss a beat. Cade Mays was held out, and Ben Cleveland continues to work back from his injury, but the line is hanging in there. It would be nice for a group of five to get some cohesive time together before and during the Tech game.
  • It wasn’t a big day for the defensive front with so many quick passes, but Tyler Clark made his presence known right away with a batted pass on the first series. A minor injury to Ledbetter meant more playing time for Herring.
  • Great job by the Redcoat Band and all involved for a day-long appreciation of the men and women in uniform. And what serendipity for Nick and Sony to have a bye week at the same time!

Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 10: 11 out of 14

Tuesday November 13, 2018

A leading narrative entering this game centered on Georgia’s mindset after clinching the SEC East. The LSU loss and suddenly credible challenges from Florida and Kentucky brought the first major goal of the season into sharp focus. With that goal accomplished and a long road trip coming to an end, the question was whether Georgia would allow itself to relax and daydream about the Everest-sized challenge looming in Atlanta in a couple of weeks.

Georgia fans familiar with how Kirby Smart manages the team knew that this narrative was a bit of a reach: to begin with, two of the final three games were against two of Georgia’s most bitter rivals. Beyond that, the Alabama game loses any national context if Georgia doesn’t arrive in Atlanta at 11-1. It’s likely true that Georgia needs a win over Alabama to return to the playoff, but another regular season loss would make the question moot.

In the offseason most pundits pointed to the Auburn game as Georgia’s biggest obstacle with LSU a distant second. Auburn was a consensus preseason top 10 team, and their opening win over Washington only reinforced that perception. The 2018 season hasn’t gone as expected for Auburn (or Washington!) since that win, and so we arrived at this game in a strange place: the team expected to give Georgia the most trouble was now a two-touchdown underdog, fighting for its coach’s future, and possibly now a trap game for a Georgia team looking ahead.

Before we get to the details of the game, I think it’s safe to say that Georgia didn’t look like a team with its mind elsewhere. It was much closer to the team we’ve seen since the Florida game: an offense thriving with an invigorated running game and an improving young defense that continues to figure things out. Georgia needed to be dialed-in for this game because, as we saw, Auburn had a very real chance of putting the Dawgs in an early hole.

It’s been a familiar plot for Auburn’s offense to have Georgia scrambling early. Often the Georgia defense will figure things out, and hopefully the game is still manageable at that point. It wasn’t surprising then to see Auburn have a little early success and even take the lead. That said, Auburn had an opportunity to put Georgia in its deepest bind since the LSU game. With Georgia’s offense struggling to finish drives and Auburn putting together back-to-back scores, a 14-6 deficit at that point in the game would have looked much more daunting than 10-6. Eric Stokes’ third down pass breakup in the endzone was a turning point: rather than going down eight in the second quarter, Georgia soon put up back-to-back scores and led by ten at halftime. Auburn never threatened again.

Auburn wasn’t an especially strong running team coming in, but it was an important job to keep it that way. Auburn still calls enough running plays to keep the defense honest, and jet sweep motion has long been a cornerstone of that offense. Auburn doesn’t have the bruising running talent it had a year ago, but it’s not short on speed or size at the skill position. It was key to Georgia’s defensive game plan to keep that speed bottled up. How did they do? We know that Georgia’s defense has done well all season preventing explosive plays, and this might’ve been their best job yet. Georgia forced Auburn to dink-and-dunk at an historic rate:

That’s impressive in itself, but Georgia tightened up as the game went on. Auburn managed just two scoring opportunities. Georgia wasn’t breaking, but they weren’t doing much bending either after the first third of the game. The Tigers were just 3-11 on third down. Even with tempo, Auburn ran only 57 plays, and Georgia was able to control possession.

The Bulldog offense set a few high-water marks of their own. Georgia was the first team to amass more than 500 yards of offense against Auburn since the 2016 season. Had Georgia not faked the field goal at the end (or converted it), they’d have put up as many points on Auburn as any other team this year. Even so, as with the Kentucky game, you can easily spot points left on the field. There were three trips inside the Auburn ten yard line with six points to show for it. Fromm’s unforced interception ended a scoring opportunity in the third quarter. Sloppy penalties slowed or even derailed drives. Georgia’s offense is undoubtedly performing at a high level, but the kind of scoring that might make a difference in the postseason is right there in sight.

Georgia’s offensive production starts with its running game. That running game looked a little different earlier in the year with Holyfield getting most of the production and the occasional explosive gain on a jet sweep padding the totals. But the running game has come into its own now with a healthy D’Andre Swift. You might not guess it from Georgia’s rushing numbers in this game, but the Auburn defensive front is for real, and Georgia had to be creative in how it ran the ball. We saw some outside runs. There were occasional traps. There was more wildcat in this game than we’ve seen all year. And of course the ultimate change of pace, Justin Fields, had his share of carries.

Even the most creative attack would’ve stalled without a great performance from the offensive line, downfield/perimeter blockers, and tailbacks. Auburn’s line made its share of plays, especially in the red zone, but it wasn’t able to completely frustrate the Georgia offense as it did at Auburn last season. Georgia was persistent and eventually broke the big one. Swift had his best and most complete game as a Bulldog. He set another career high in yardage. He showed his versatility by leading the team in receptions. And as well as the team blocked, sometimes you just have to plant your foot and make someone miss. Swift was able to elude defenders and get extra yards both on running plays and after receptions.

While Swift provided the knockout blow, Georgia built their lead with some big plays in the passing game. Auburn’s defense was stout up front, but there were some openings against the secondary. Godwin took advantage of mismatches across the middle first for a long third down conversion and then scoring from a five-wide set on fourth down. Fromm made good use of his reads, checking down to Swift for some important completions. Fromm did miss one checkdown on his interception – Herrien was open in the flat. The passing game was less effective around the goal line. Georgia tried to catch Auburn keying on the run with some play-action pass calls, but Auburn covered those well.

We saw a bit more Justin Fields in this game, and he certainly learned some lessons against a quality defense. Fields had a couple of key runs and conversions, and he had a nice completion on a rollout. We saw that Fields wasn’t necessarily a panacea for Georgia’s goal line woes, but that was good experience. Hopefully he gets more opportunities and freedom down the road.

Special teams had some shaky moments in the middle of the season, but it was a net positive for Georgia against Auburn. Hardman’s kickoff return jumpstarted Georgia’s first touchdown drive. The kick coverage unit discovered that you can tackle a kick returner before the 40, and Beal nearly forced a game-changing fumble. Hardman and Camarda teamed up on another gem of a downed punt. Godwin made sound decisions in the punt-safe formation and even secured the punt on which he was interfered with. A big punt return sparked Auburn’s comeback against Texas A&M last week, but Georgia gave the Tigers no such breaks.

Georgia’s run of 11 wins in 14 games against Auburn is quite remarkable given how closely the programs have tracked in their rivalry that goes back over a century. Kirby Smart has extended Mark Richt’s success with a 3-1 record of his own. The Bulldogs have survived a gauntlet of four straight ranked opponents with a 3-1 mark, secured the SEC East title, and still have all of their goals ahead of them. It’s the job of the next two weeks to arrive at the end of the regular season in no worse position while continuing the improvement we’ve seen since LSU.


Post Georgia 34 – Kentucky 17: Hoops season began Saturday afternoon

Tuesday November 6, 2018

There will be enough talk about Georgia and Alabama over the next month, but the 2018 SEC Championship matchup was set on Saturday in a pair of loosely similar games. Both Kentucky and LSU were projected to finish fifth in their respective divisions. They’ve been pleasant surprises this year, won a couple of signature games, and earned the right to host de facto divisional title games. Each could be said to be on a bit of a roll, and they were great stories. Kentucky was the upstart that stuck with an embattled coach and was ready to cash in on its carefully crafted experience. LSU was, well…college football is always a bit more fun when LSU is good, isn’t it? On a Saturday in November Baton Rouge and Lexington hosted a pair of top ten matchups, and both visitors took control early and left with convincing wins.

We’ll leave any Alabama comparisons there for now. But it was nice to see Georgia handle the moment with confidence. As much as this coaching staff preaches composure, it was impressive to see it in action on Saturday. A young Georgia team was able to cut through the hype and what was at stake and play their game. Even within the game the team managed to shrug off two unforced turnovers and keep plugging away. Georgia might’ve been more experienced in these high-stakes games than Kentucky, but there was still plenty of pressure on Georgia as the runaway favorite to win the division. The Wildcats had a single loss, but they had been pushed in recent weeks by Vanderbilt and Missouri, and Georgia was able to handle Kentucky as if the Wildcats were any other SEC East team without letting the outside noise affect how they prepared and executed.

Let’s start here: Georgia’s offense sliced through a legitimately front-to-back good Kentucky defense. It scored 14 more points than any other Wildcat opponent, and the foot was off the gas for the last quarter-plus. Likely All-American Josh Allen had two fumbles fall at his feet but otherwise had a single solo tackle. Kentucky didn’t sack Jake Fromm once. Even with all of that against one of the best defenses in the nation, it’s reasonable to say that points were left on the field. Two unforced fumbles in Kentucky’s end of the field and another debacle on the goal line meant at least ten more points for Georgia.

The offense continued its level of play from the second half of the Florida game. Georgia drives at Kentucky ended more often with fumbles (two) than punts (one). The Dawgs scored on six out of nine possessions. Jake Fromm didn’t complete any passes longer than 20 yards, but this wasn’t a game in which Georgia had to throw often. Fromm was efficient, got timely receptions from Nauta, Holloman, and others, and the running game took care of the rest.

You can’t mention Georgia’s offense without acknowledging the job of the offensive line. Fromm remained upright when he had to pass, and Georgia’s backfield had enough room to shatter Kentucky’s season highs in rushing yards allowed. An injury to center Lamont Gaillard meant even more shuffling as freshman Trey Hill played nearly all of the game. Hill’s inexperience proved costly on a couple of errant snaps, but he wasn’t a liability in blocking. Later Cade Mays went out with a stinger, but the offense was still able to drive and get enough points to hold off any serious comeback attempt.

Georgia’s run defense was challenged, and it performed well, though Kentucky was forced to go away from its bread-and-butter as they fell behind. What impressed me most was how prepared Georgia was for what Smart Football calls “constraint plays.” Those are the plays an offense must have to keep a defense honest so that your offensive strength can function. For a run-heavy team like Kentucky, you have to make a defense pay for cheating up against the run and focusing on Snell. I can recall a handful of plays Saturday – and even one attempted receiver pass – that fizzled because of Georgia’s coverage downfield. Julian Rochester disrupted a deep pass play with a hit on the quarterback. Georgia’s edge players handled bootlegs and even came away with a couple of sacks. QB Terry Wilson, who burned Florida on the ground with over 100 yards, had just 12 yards against Georgia.

The focus was on Benny Snell, and Kentucky’s star tailback was held to 73 yards and under 4 yards per carry. Kentucky as a team rushed for just 84 yards, and they simply don’t have the firepower in the passing game to overcome that production. Georgia focused on stopping the run first, and its front seven were as active as they’ve been all season. Four of Georgia’s top five tacklers were linemen or linebackers, and that’s something we haven’t seen a lot of. Monty Rice led the team in tackles, and his emergence as he returns to better health will be key down the stretch and into the postseason. Jonathan Ledbetter was second in tackles and likely had his best game of the year. He read Kentucky’s final play perfectly and shut down any chance of a fourth down conversion. Robert Beal missed the Florida game for personal reasons, but he’s had two consecutive solid games now at LSU and Kentucky.

It’s true that Kentucky had some success on shorter passes. Terry Wilson isn’t a 79% passer, but Georgia allowed a lot of stuff underneath especially after building a 28-3 lead. More often than not, Georgia was able to keep Kentucky from stringing enough conversions together to create scoring opportunities. If there’s one area to improve on for the defense, it was Kentucky going 9-for-13 on third downs. They’re right around 42% on the season. LSU’s ability to sustain drives led to the Tigers running 80+ plays and Georgia’s defense wearing down, and Kentucky had been able to put away several close games this season with punishing fourth quarter drives.

The game started well for Kentucky. Georgia’s touchdown after a long punt return made the Wildcats play from behind, but Kentucky moved and controlled the ball. At one point in the second quarter, Kentucky enjoyed about a 16:00-5:00 possession advantage. Georgia didn’t force a three-and-out until the end of the first half. Kentucky’s lone scoring drive of the first half lasted for 15 plays and nearly 8 minutes. The Bulldog defense, as they’ve done for much of the season, limited the damage from these drives. All it meant was that the offense had fewer possessions to work with, and the game was still in question at halftime.

Fortunately Georgia was able to turn that around beginning with a long touchdown drive of their own. The Dawgs eventually flipped the time of possession imbalance and ended with a 3-minute advantage as the Georgia running game took over.

Georgia left Athens a month ago with a perfect record but fairly untested and without much more than bowl eligibility to show for it. They went on the road to face three teams rated in the top ten (at the time.) They picked up a loss, but also two of the best wins of the season. Georgia returns home knowing a lot more about itself with an identity (re)emerging on offense and a young defense beginning to find some answers. It also returns home as SEC East champions – an accomplishment that should never be overlooked. With that achievement in the bag, the team can focus on finishing out the regular season at home and dealing with challenges from two bitter rivals.

  • No doubt that Holyfield has taken a step forward this year, but there’s something special about a fully operational D’Andre Swift. Swift had his second straight 100+ yard game, made a big catch out of the backfield on Georgia’s last drive of the first half, and of course took your breath away with a pair of touchdowns.
  • As impressive as Swift’s touchdown runs were, his most important run might’ve been a third down draw in the second quarter. Georgia’s defense had been on the field for almost eight minutes, and the offense faced a possible three-and-out. Georgia chose to run on several third downs, and this was a significant conversion that started Georgia’s second scoring drive.
  • Not much to say about another goal line failure (other than agreeing with Kirby Smart that it was “f—ing awful.”) But I was sure at some point we’d see this play from the SEC Championship – a fake toss with a releasing tight end. That’s still in the playbook, right?
  • A jet sweep on 3rd-and-1 at Florida was ridiculed at Florida, but the same play to Stanley on 1st-and-10 after consecutive Holyfield runs between the tackles was a great example of a constraint play that caught Kentucky off-guard.
  • I’m looking forward to seeing more of Adam Anderson. He’s mostly played in a reserve role but is starting to see more meaningful snaps. That double-A gap blitz with Channing Tindall was a nice glimpse into the future.
  • Holloman has come into his own as a receiver, and there’s no bigger play to show him embracing the full breadth of the role than the effort he made to sprint into position for a key block on Swift’s second touchdown run.
  • We know that Justin Fields is so much more than “the running quarterback,” but that’s what his role dictated in this game. He had a pass play and actually had Hardman breaking open before Fields ran with the ball. He’s going to make a big play with his arm in one of these games, and no one should be surprised. There’s no questioning his toughness – just watch that twist and stretch to convert a 3rd-and-9 in the fourth quarter.

Post Georgia 36 – Florida 17: Back on script

Tuesday October 30, 2018

Georgia went into this season’s Cocktail Party with more pressure than usual on it. Regardless of the LSU outcome, the rise of Florida and Kentucky as SEC East contenders left Georgia with no margin for error. Add in the LSU loss and Georgia fans more dreaded than anticipated the trip to Jacksonville. A loss to the Gators wouldn’t just eliminate Georgia from SEC contention in the short term; it would upset our longer-term vision for a multi-year run atop the division. Worse, that vision would be shattered at the hands of a hated rival and a first-year coach. The loss to LSU was enough to shake fans’ faith in the starting quarterback. A loss in Jacksonville could have shaken faith in the program itself. If Mullen in his first season could topple what Kirby Smart had painstakingly built over three years, what would we be left with?

But as Kirby Smart said after Georgia’s 36-17 win over Florida, while everyone talked and fretted, Georgia went to work over the bye week. The defense didn’t magically transform itself into a tackling and run-stuffing machine, but it got better. Jake Fromm started slowly again, but he was composed and as good on passing downs as he’s been all season. The running game wasn’t breaking the long runs it did in this game last year, but it was determined and effective enough to open up the passing game. Tyson Campbell didn’t become a shutdown corner in two weeks, but he wasn’t busting coverages. Many of the same deficiencies we’ve seen all season were still there in some form in Jacksonville and will probably be there for the rest of the season. Georgia’s work over the bye week allowed it to play the style of game against a top ten opponent that had won out over lesser opponents.

Seth Emerson wrote after the LSU game that “the script, which worked so well for Georgia the first half of this season, was flipped on the Bulldogs in Baton Rouge.” LSU beat Georgia with a pounding running game, quietly effective special teams, and a defense that showed some vulnerability to the run but limited big plays. That was a good bit of the formula that had propelled Georgia to a 6-0 start. While the Florida game wasn’t a complete return to the script, it was at least a recognizable performance and maybe even added a few lines for the future.

I’ve seen a lot about Florida’s frustration with the game, and we’ve had some good fun with Gator players claiming they were the better team in a 16-point loss. In a way though it reminds me of our reaction to the LSU loss. It’s not a perfect analogue – LSU controlled that game from start to finish. But when you see Florida lament trick plays that misfired, missed opportunities to hit big plays in the passing game, Georgia’s occasional use of tempo to keep a defense on its heels, and a crippling turnover imbalance, there’s a familiarity there to how we talked about losing in Baton Rouge.

Defensively Georgia returned to a familiar look in Jacksonville. The Bulldog defense, for all its shortcomings, had been noteworthy in the first half of the season for avoiding big plays. That went out the window at LSU, but the Dawgs remained highly rated in that area and lived up to its rating against the Gators. Georgia’s run defense still showed some flaws, but Feleipe Franks’s scramble for 20 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter was the only Gator run over 15 yards. Similarly, Florida had just two pass receptions – including the 36-yard touchdown reception by Freddie Swain – go for more than 10 yards. Without great field position and explosive plays, Florida was forced to string together drives in short chunks, and more often than not they couldn’t. The Gators had only three scoring opportunities in the game.

As expected, Florida was tough to stop on the ground. Georgia made enough stops to force passing situations, and the Bulldog pass defense held Feleipe Franks to just 105 yards through the air. Franks didn’t help himself with turnovers and some off-target passes, but Georgia preferred to put Franks in a position to have to make those plays. He couldn’t. Franks had his best showing of the game given a short field to start the second half, and Georgia’s defense had to defend a single-digit lead for most of the rest of the game. They allowed fewer than 80 yards the rest of the way and gave the offense enough cover to eventually pull away.

Georgia’s offense seemed intent on reestablishing its own run-first identity. The first Georgia drive featured only one pass attempt and led to a field goal. But Georgia’s results on the ground were mixed. The final stats show a slight edge in rushing yardage and a per-carry average on par with the Gators, but until Swift’s late score Florida had a fairly decisive edge on the ground despite Georgia’s 29-17 lead. Georgia, for much of the game, found themselves behind the chains and in situations that had been disastrous in earlier games.

The offense went off-script in a very good way this time. Third-and-long had been a death sentence for Georgia drives for most of the season. Fromm had been ineffective (or worse) in obvious passing situations, and it was the inability to convert those situations that had so many fans itching to try something (or someone) different. For the first time this season Georgia was able to convert with some consistency on third down, win some tough one-on-one battles, and even put points on the board. All four of Georgia’s touchdowns were third down plays. If that’s a sign of progress for Fromm and his receivers, great! If it’s just a third-and-Grantham boon, Georgia must continue to move the ball better on standard downs.

The pivotal drive came at the end of the first half. With a minute to go in the half, Georgia had 22 total passing yards and hadn’t had a drive longer than three plays since the opening march. Florida had cut Georgia’s early advantage to three points and would receive the second half touchdown. Kirby Smart sat on two timeouts, and the Dawgs looked resigned to head into the locker room with a precarious 10-7 lead. A busted coverage opened up Isaac Nauta on an out route, and the tight end rumbled for 27 yards. Georgia went into its up-tempo offense, and Fromm quickly found Nauta on three more passes to move into the red zone. Georgia only got a field goal out of the series, but it was three points that seemed improbable just a minute earlier. The entire offense, Fromm in particular, found its confidence and stride on this drive, and they’d score on 5 of 6 possessions until the victory formation ended the game.

Georgia had their mettle tested a number of times in the game. The touchdown drive after Florida took the lead to start the second half was tremendously important. Georgia enjoyed a big shot in the arm to start the game with ten quick points, but they struggled to deliver a knockout blow with Andrew Thomas out of the game. Florida was able to stay within reach and pulled ahead with one kick return and their best pass play of the game.

The Dawgs faced another test after Florida held at the goal line. The Gators were obviously buoyed by the defensive stand, and it could have been deflating for Georgia’s offense. When Florida answered with a field goal to make it a one-possession game early in the fourth quarter, Georgia had to have some kind of response. The 3rd-and-11 completion to Holloman was one of the biggest non-scoring plays of the game. It required Isaiah Wilson holding off Jachai Polite just long enough for Fromm to get the pass away. Holloman found space just beyond the sticks along the left sideline and secured the catch. Swift followed with his best run (so far) of the game, and a perfect pass on a Godwin corner route made the failure to punch it in on the previous drive much less costly.

Georgia’s ability to put the goal line disaster behind them and put the game away is even more remarkable in context. This preview piece might read like a delightful freezing cold take in hindsight, but it did make a valid point: Florida hadn’t been outscored in a meaningful fourth quarter all season. Three of their bigger wins – Miss. St., Vanderbilt, and LSU – were put away in the fourth quarter. Excluding Tennessee in garbage time, no team had scored more than six fourth quarter points against Florida. There was reason for Florida to be confident about their chances in a close game, and stuffing Georgia on the goal line did nothing to diminish that confidence.

After the LSU game I wrote that “in some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7.” We experienced a bit of that ourselves in this game. Ultimately it didn’t matter, but settling for Blankenship chip shots from 21, 22, and 18 yards after first-and-goal opportunities gave Florida the window they needed to stay in the game (and even briefly take the lead.) With points expected to be at a premium against a stingy Kentucky defense, Georgia has to be better at cashing in on short fields.

So while the win was a much-needed shot of confidence for both players and fans, the familiar struggles defending the run and missed opportunities in the red zone should keep complacency from setting in. Georgia has another divisional title showdown ahead and then two rivalry games, and two of those opponents are built to run the ball at least as well as Florida was.

  • While we’d prefer seven points to three, Kirby Smart generally made wise decisions in those situations. I’m sure the temptation was there to punch it in on the goal line, and Georgia might’ve had time for one more play before halftime. But even worse than three points in those situations is zero points, and Smart learned the lesson of Baton Rouge and took the valuable points. Even the decision to punt in the second half was a good one. It was a 50+ yard field goal into the wind, and all coaches consult with their kickers about conditions and range. Georgia’s punt coverage made the decision look brilliant.
  • Two heads-up plays: first was Brian Herrien’s fair catch of a pooch kick following Florida’s touchdown to open the second half. The instinct is to take off and run, but Herrien’s smart decision took advantage of the new touchback rule and earned Georgia about 12 yards of field position. Second was Tyson Campbell’s pass interference penalty. Had that pass been caught, Florida would have moved to within a field goal and would have had even more confidence after the goal line stand. Florida settled for a field goal on that drive, and Georgia was able to widen the lead to double-digits on their next possession. Campbell had a rough day at LSU, but his “worst” play of the Florida game saved four points.
  • Fromm and the receivers deserve a ton of credit for the third down touchdowns, but the protection deserves mention too. We know that Grantham likes to bring pressure, and we saw blitzes on two of those three touchdown passes. On the first score, Florida showed blitz but dropped eight into coverage. Georgia, even with a shuffling of linemen, did well to pick up those blitzes and give Fromm plenty of time. Georgia’s had its issues with pass protection, especially on passing downs, but Florida’s only sack came straight up the middle on second down on Georgia’s first drive. Georgia’s tackles in particular did well against some impressive edge rushers – Wilson got just enough of Polite to allow one of the biggest conversions of the game.
  • The “Nauta series” to end the first half was spectacular, but it was as much a sequence of attacking Florida linebacker Vosean Joseph in as many ways as possible. Re-watch the drive and see #11’s head spin in real-time.
  • So many injuries have taken place since preseason camp that it’s easy to forget how thin the secondary was after Tyrique McGhee’s foot injury. McGhee was cleared to play in September, but it can take a while for a skill player to return to form after an injury. Like Swift and Godwin, McGhee might be close to being “back”. He recorded an interception and caused a fumble against Florida and had his biggest impact of the season.
  • We’ve seen some special teams horrors in this game – Billy Bennett missing two field goals in 2002, Reggie Davis’s muffed punt return in 2015, and Florida’s fake field goal in 2014 are just some of the recent disasters. Georgia’s kick coverage continues to be a concern, but solid placekicking and a game-changing punt made it a fairly good game for Georgia’s special teams.

Post Cocktail Party hors d’oeuvres

Monday October 22, 2018

While the Dawgs try to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing during the buildup to the circus that is the WLOCP, there are several tidbits of note as we head into game week.

Coming to the city

Yes, the Gameday gang will be in Jacksonville (along with little stepbrother SEC Nation). If this causes you angst or a presentiment of doom, that’s a you problem. Kirby doesn’t care about no headgear, and neither should you.

Crashing the party

A number of UCF fans are expected to trek to Jacksonville to experience a major college football game. Buy them a drink for beating Auburn.

What party?

If the annual Friday night festivities at the Jacksonville Landing are on your agenda, keep an eye on the news. The Landing and the city are in a dispute over the Landing’s failure to apply for a special events permit in time. Events are still expected to go on, but what’s better leading up to a high-stakes college football game than tedious local grudge politics?

Washout

If local civics don’t get you ready to run through a wall, maybe the weather does. Rain is expected especially Thursday and Friday. The rain could be moving out on Saturday making for a damp tailgate but drier game. Rain gear should have a place in one of the crates of booze. One upside – it shouldn’t be too warm.

Up in the air

One thing we should all enjoy is a pre-game flyover by the Blue Angels. Florida is the visiting team, so drop the ordinance on the *East* sideline fellas.

Single digits

It’s official – Florida moved up to #9 in the AP poll making this a meeting of top-ten teams. It’s the first time both teams were ranked among the top ten since 2012 when #10 Georgia beat #2 Florida 17-9.

Place your bets

Georgia began as an 8-point favorite when the line was released. It’s fluctuated some and has settled around a 7-point spread as of late Sunday.

Wearing white after Labor Day

What’s a top-ten matchup without some alternate uniform juice? I give you…Florida’s white helmets. If your helmets were in this condition, I guess you can’t be picky.


Post LSU 36 – Georgia 16: “We haven’t gotten out of this team what we need”

Tuesday October 16, 2018

It took a few days to process what we saw on Saturday. Give the venue its due, but this was a game lost between the lines. Familiar issues proved fatal on defense. Special teams was, for the first time in a while, a net negative. An offense that had been reliably scoring points faltered. Every gadget play the team tried failed. There were no adjustments unless you count an increased reliance on a misfiring passing game.

Georgia’s offense was outschemed by LSU’s defensive coaches. For everyone thinking the offense over the first six games was some close-to-the-vest strategy building up to a reveal of the “real” offense, Saturday’s game left no doubt: you’ve seen the Georgia offense all season. LSU was prepared, knew what was coming, and gave Georgia looks that countered and confused what the Dawgs were used to doing. Fromm had some misses and poor decisions – we all saw the overthrow and missed open receivers early. Most of the time though he didn’t have much available to him. Sacks were often coverage sacks as routes failed to develop. Fromm can be faulted for holding on to the ball too long, but he had to be as bewildered as the rest of us as to what he saw in front of him.

I’ve had that thought in the back of my mind as I’ve read discussion about the quarterback position. The coaches are adamant that when Fields comes in he runs the same offense Fromm does. There’s no “Fields package” with a unique set of plays. He might keep more often on a read option or scramble sooner on a pass play, but he would have been running the same offensive gameplan against the same defensive scheme that crossed up Fromm and apparently the coaches also. “Couldn’t hurt to try” is compelling especially when little else was working, but I can also understand concern about throwing Fields to the wolves in that environment with a gameplan that was so clearly busted.

No one’s going to call this a highlight performance for the defense. They allowed a season-high total in rushing yardage and couldn’t win very many short-yardage situations. Kirby Smart made a good point about LSU’s fourth down conversions. “The key is, you don’t want to be in fourth-and-1.” Those conversions happened because Georgia lost the first three downs. Half a yard to gain on fourth down isn’t much to ask against an undersized defensive front when you have a bruising tailback and a 6’4″ 215 lb. quarterback. LSU converted just 6 of 19 third downs, but that percentage moves over 50% when four of those failed attempts became successful fourth down conversions.

The defense was exploited where it’s been weakest – inexperience on one side of the defensive backfield and a lack of physicality on the interior. LSU stuck with what they do best – pound the ball and get timely, if not efficient, plays in the passing game. Joe Burrow was only 15-30 for 200 yards, and 50 of those yards came on a single busted coverage. When Georgia could keep LSU behind the chains, they were often successful. It might’ve been hanging on by a thread, but forcing five LSU field goals at least gave the offense a puncher’s chance – or should have with any reasonably effective offense. In some alternate universe in which Georgia won, LSU fans would be pulling their hair out over five scoring opportunities ending with 3 points rather than 7. Giving up 19 points through three quarters isn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t fatal. The defense and special teams created a possession in plus territory only down 10 points with plenty of time left. When the offense failed to generate anything from that field position, the defense – on the field for 81 plays – finally gave.

Other than familiar issues against the run, the most alarming defensive shortcoming was difficulty with LSU’s occasional use of tempo. LSU. Tempo. Baton Rouge hasn’t exactly become known as a wellspring of offensive innovation, but LSU was able to give Georgia’s defense all kinds of trouble with faster pace. The Tigers were able to catch Georgia mid-substitution or in the middle of aligning the defense, and it was especially costly on a couple of short-yardage situations.

There aren’t many bright spots. Holyfield ran well. Robert Beal should earn more time. The there was a glimmer of hope in the fourth quarter, but when that’s all you’ve got, you know it was a decisive loss in all phases of the game.

Moving on…

The response to the 2017 Auburn loss is the obvious reference point for what we hope to see, but by that point in the season most of the work had been done. Georgia had clinched at the very least the East and its spot in Atlanta when it visited Auburn. The 2018 team hasn’t earned anything yet beyond bowl eligibility. Each of the next two games have the added pressure of virtual SEC East elimination games with no margin for error.

Kirby Smart admitted after the game that “we haven’t gotten out of this team what we need to get out of them.” That’s borne out in the advanced stats – Georgia hasn’t had an overall percentile performance over 90% yet this season. (Percentile performance “takes the factors that go into S&P+ (overall, offense, and defense), adjusts for opponent,” and converts to a percentage. It measures a team’s performance in a single game against its own ideal (100%) performance.) Georgia had eight games over 90% in 2017. 2018 has been all over the map: the Dawgs followed their best performances of the season (90% against MTSU, 88% against Vanderbilt) with two of their worst (68% at Missouri, 55% at LSU).

That kind of inconsistency might be what you expect from a young team, but it’s also not showing any signs of changing. If your expectation was for a young team to grow up over the course of a season as it gains experience, well, we’re seven games in.

If you wanted to see how the team, coaches, and young players would respond in tough times, you’ve got your wish. If you wanted to see how adversity will reveal whether this team can come close to replacing the leadership of the 2017 team, we’ll find out with some very tough games ahead. It can be difficult to lead when you’re deep in the weeds yourself. For now it seems as if the players are focused in on what’s in front of them, but we’ll see if “keep chopping” becomes just a platitude or is really how this team approaches the work ahead.

The arrival of the bye week is a mixed blessing. Yes, the team will have an opportunity to heal (physically and mentally) and regroup, and no doubt there will be some preseason-like practices to address specific issues. But bye weeks are often a time for players to spend a day or two away from the team. Many go home back to family, friends, and some of their biggest fans. This is an especially challenging time for freshmen – for some it might be their first visit home since preseason camp. What will they hear? I’m sure many will be told that they’re doing just fine. Some might even hear they deserve more playing time or that the coaches don’t know what they’re doing. Maintaining focus, confidence, and a belief in the team’s message will be a big job for the coaches, leadership, and each individual during the bye.

Getting beyond the mental state of the team, there are improvements still to make on the field. You might get an injured player or two back over the course of the season, but the question is whether the necessary adjustments can be made with the personnel on hand. We might have expected every game since Missouri to be a wakeup call or that a young team might start to gel at some point, but it’s also a real possibility that this team has, with some marginal gains still to be made, revealed itself. If that’s the case, the rest of the season will test the creativity and agility of the coaches.