Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Claxton drafted, Howard signed

Monday June 24, 2019

Nic Claxton Thursday night became the first Georgia basketball player to be drafted by the NBA since 2013 when he went early in the second round to the Brooklyn Nets. That draft position might be a little disappointing – Claxton had generated quite a bit of first-round chatter and was considered to be one of the prospects on the rise since he announced his intention to enter the draft. It’s still a fairly solid position and evidence of tremendous growth during his time at Georgia, but you wonder if a second-round projection might have affected Claxton’s decision to leave.

Claxton’s early departure left an opening on the Georgia frontcourt, and Tom Crean addressed that opening with the signing of 6’11” Rodney Howard late in May. Howard is a former Ole Miss commitment and Georgia native who chose the Bulldogs over Georgia Tech.

While Howard replaces Claxton numbers-wise, he’s not likely to be a replacement for Claxton’s production or style of play. I think of Howard more as a replacement for Derek Ogbeide. With the incoming talent at guard and wing, there’s less of an urgent need for a stretch 4/5 like Claxton to score away from the basket. Georgia needs interior depth – rebounding, defending the rim, and scoring around the basket. If Howard can help in those areas, he’ll be an asset, and I won’t care if he never attempts a three-pointer.

The backcourt was set earlier in May with the addition of Sahvir Wheeler and Donnell Gresham Jr. Now the frontcourt picture is clearer, though Crean has room to add another grad transfer. Rayshaun Hammonds becomes the returning scoring and rebounding leader. Amanze Ngumezi didn’t see a ton of time as a freshman, but he’ll probably be in line for a much bigger role while Howard comes along. If Georgia wants to go small, there’s a trio of incoming 6’6″ wings whose toughness inside the paint might be tested. It’s clear though that the ability of Hammonds to stay healthy and out of foul trouble will be one of Georgia’s keys to success.

Claxton’s departure and the arrival of Howard means that over half the roster will turn over entering next season. Crean is quick to caution that this is the very definition of rebuilding, and it could temper expectations even with a top 10 class and an elite guard coming in. The nonconference schedule isn’t completely set yet, but we know that Georgia Tech and the Maui Invitational are in November, and the Dawgs will also face Memphis’s top-rated signing class. It could be a fun process watching this talented incoming class grow, but we also have never seen this amount of turnover with so many newcomers counted on. That could lead to frustration as we see glimpses of what’s possible before those individual moments of excellence come together as team success. Expectations for this group will be tricky which is why Crean is already out in front of managing them. He wants to show progress after last season’s step back and must keep the fans engaged as well as he did a year ago, but just as important is keeping the recruiting pipeline full so that any growth this season becomes a foundational building block for bigger things.

Post More like Clemson every day

Wednesday May 29, 2019

A couple of years ago a former baseball letterman wrote one of those open letters sent to local media about the state of Georgia athletics. Football had struggled through Kirby Smart’s first season, and baseball was at a turning point. The thing to do, the letter-writer suggested, was to follow the lead of Clemson – a program celebrating a football national title and opening glittering new facilities left and right.

The problem with that suggestion was the difference between perception and reality. Even with the higher-profile sports underperforming, Georgia’s overall program was a good 30 points higher in the Directors’ Cup standings than Clemson. But because Clemson football had broken through, the perception, according to this letter, was that Georgia had a lot to learn from its rival up I-85.

I bring that up because this post by Blutarsky reminded me of that letter from two years ago and how things have changed in a way that would meet with the approval of its author. Kirby Smart has things rolling. Basketball just pulled in arguably its best recruiting class ever. Gymnastics seems to be on an upswing. The decision to stick with Scott Stricklin has paid off as the Diamond Dawgs are looking at a high national seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. In terms of the overall athletics program though, there’s this reality: “Georgia is 35th in the most recent NACDA Directors’ Cup, which ranked ninth in the SEC. The Bulldogs were 15th in the standings at this point a year ago in the all-sports measurement.”

There are bright individual spots. There always are. Track is a national power. Women’s tennis had a strong season. Several ongoing sports like men’s golf and baseball have an opportunity to earn some hardware. The metric tells us that Georgia’s programs overall are decent with “17 of 21 sports competing in the NCAA postseason,” but it’s not near the usual level of success. I doubt we’ll see impassioned appeals to the media about the state of things this summer. Didn’t you see the latest defensive line commitment?

(Clemson by the way? Down there with Georgia Tech in the 80s.)

Post Want a beer? Get in line now.

Wednesday May 29, 2019

So the SEC is going to review its “decades-old bylaw prohibiting member schools from selling alcohol” at this week’s spring meetings in Destin.

I’m not opposed to the idea of alcohol sales in the stadium, but can Sanford Stadium handle it? I don’t mean the patrons; I’m talking about the neglected infrastructure of areas of the stadium that haven’t been touched since the East stands were added in 1981. I’m trying to visualize how the already-overcrowded concourses of Sanford Stadium would handle beer lines. Navigating the tight East or South concourses for concessions (or anything, really) is already bad enough.

If the plan involves placing beer sales in more open areas in Reed Alley, around Gates 6 and 7, or the West endzone, fine. But this is about revenue, so the temptation won’t be to limit the number of taps or place the majority of them away from where most fans are seated. I have no doubt alcohol sales will happen sooner than later, but I’m going to be very interested in how Georgia implements it. Getting it wrong could be just one more reason to stay at home and enjoy the cold ones from the fridge.

Post Football isn’t brain surgery

Tuesday May 28, 2019

But this is. Yikes.

Freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis underwent emergency brain surgery last Thursday after an MRI revealed a cyst on his brain.

The surgery was deemed a success, and the prognosis is for a complete recovery. He’ll be closely supervised for some time, and he’ll be on antibiotics for the next month. His availability for preseason camp or even the 2019 season is unknown, but that’s a distant concern next to his well-being. Fortunately this condition was caught in time before more permanent damage was done. Brain surgery isn’t ever minor, and Georgia’s coaches and medical staff will take every precaution. We wish Mathis the best in his recovery.

Post Getting production from Georgia’s most experienced unit

Friday May 17, 2019

Georgia’s not going to have a large senior class in 2019. A quick glance at the roster shows about 14 or 15 rising scholarship seniors. That’s kind of the norm now of course, and the class is smaller than it would have been with several early exits. It’s also revealing about the size of next year’s signing class and why Georgia was able to count two 2019 incoming graduate transfers towards that class.

What stands out among this smaller senior class is that a good chunk of them are defensive linemen. Georgia returns six seniors along the DL next year:

  • Michael Barnett
  • Michail Carter
  • Tyler Clark
  • David Marshall
  • Julian Rochester
  • Justin Young

Not all have started or will start, and younger players like Jordan Davis and Malik Herring have made their case for playing time. But a senior class of that size at one position is a wealth of experience for Tray Scott to work with. (It’s also why Georgia has been incredibly active recruiting defensive linemen for 2019 and 2020.) With all of the attrition from the 2018 team and the graduation of Jonathan Ledbetter, this group of rising seniors remains a bit under the radar. Michael Barnett was slowed during the spring of 2018 by a knee injury. David Marshall was making steady progress since a promising freshman season in 2016 and had a really nice game at South Carolina last year. He was injured during the Vanderbilt game, and his long recovery from a Lisfranc foot injury continued into the spring. Carter, Marshall, and Rochester will miss much if not all of spring practice as they recover from injury or surgery. The injury situation has and will continue to impact depth during spring practice and offseason workouts, but everyone should be available in time for preseason camp.

With so many injuries slowing development and opening the door for younger players to claim playing time, how much production can be expected from the team’s largest group of seniors? Though the defensive line has some of the most veteran players on the roster, not many people consider it one of the team’s stronger units. Few on this list can be said to have had a career arc building towards a breakout senior season. It’s tough to even say how many, if any, will start this year. At the same time, nearly all of these seniors have had impact moments in their first three seasons. The trick this season for the players and coaches is developing those moments into the consistency that will turn into opportunities at the next level. You don’t have to remind anyone that the time for that development is running short.

Perhaps the best news is that Tyler Clark will be back. After a promising sophomore season and a nice performance in the Rose Bowl, Tyler Clark was on most lists of Bulldog juniors likely to consider the 2019 NFL Draft. Clark’s production dropped a bit in 2018 (down to 31 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 sack from 41 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks), but remember how the defense changed from 2017 to 2018. Georgia was weaker among the front seven, the pass rush wasn’t as effective, and interior defenders like John Atkins and Roquan Smith weren’t plugging up the inside. Blocking schemes could pay more attention to a good player like Clark. The biggest difference in Clark’s stats came in lower *assisted* tackles. Georgia just wasn’t getting much done behind the line of scrimmage, so there was less for Clark to help clean up. We know what Clark can do, and we’ll see if he and any other defensive linemen are freed up to have a bigger impact this year with a big influx of talent elsewhere among the front seven.

Post Keep your seats, everyone

Thursday May 16, 2019

Some good news on the scheduling front as Georgia announced a series with Oklahoma to follow last month’s announcement of future home-and-home series with Florida State and Clemson. Georgia will head to Tallahassee on Sept. 4, 2027 (sure to be a cool, refreshing early September day in the Panhandle), and the Seminoles will come to Sanford Stadium in 2028. The Clemson series will take place in 2032 and 2033, and that’s on top of a 2024 date already set with the Tigers in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff. The Dawgs will travel to Norman in 2023 with a return date against the Sooners in Athens in 2031. Georgia also has home-and-homes set with UCLA (2025/2026) and Texas (2027/2028), and more still might be in the works.

(If the current SEC scheduling rotation is renewed after 2025, and that’s not a sure thing, Georgia would face FSU, Texas, and Alabama in 2027.)

What interests me as much as whom Georgia will be playing is where they’ll be playing.

The trend has been for the biggest nonconference games to be at neutral sites. Of course there are exceptions, but take Alabama: they haven’t played a P5 opponent at home since Penn State in 2010, but they’re in a major kickoff game nearly every year. And why not? Guarantees for the neutral site games are worth millions of dollars, premium seating can drive ticket prices over $300, and a school like LSU can make around $23 million from seven neutral site games. Sure enough, Georgia will play in three Chick-Fil-A Kickoff games in Atlanta between the 2020 and 2024 seasons. Notre Dame’s trip to Athens in 2019 is the only significant home nonconference game currently on the books between Clemson’s 2014 visit and UCLA’s appearance in 2026.

I’m happy though to see a shift back towards home-and-home series. Alabama will host Texas, West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma betwen 2023 and 2033. LSU will host Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Clemson. Georgia now has five P5 home-and-home series set on top of its annual tilt with Georgia Tech. I’ve said plenty over the past decade about my preference for big games on campus, but you can’t ignore the financial appeal of neutral site games. With potential paydays of $5-$6 million, a school with its eye on the bottom line would be foolish to turn them down. So why the swing back to home-and-home series in the long term?

It’s nothing but a win for fans. You get a big game on campus and all that comes with it, and it’s included in the season ticket package. There’s no separate priority system and additional premium ticket price on top of what you’re already paying. Fans will also have the opportunity to visit several iconic college football towns and stadiums (even if the visiting ticket allotment is ridiculously miserly.) We know that what fans want can be a secondary concern (to put it generously), so where’s the benefit to the football program? Why go home-and-home rather than a single higher-grossing neutral site game? A few reasons come to mind:

  • Recruiting. You can’t host prospects at neutral sites. No one will make more out of the recruiting opportunity offered by a marquee nonconference game than Kirby Smart.
  • Recruiting, part two. The schedule itself becomes a recruiting tool. As Smart said when these series were announced, the best players want to play in big games and big venues. Georgia will have a high-profile nonconference game nearly every year from 2022 through 2033.
  • Your strength of schedule (real or perceived) is improved in two seasons rather than just one.
  • You sustain renewable season ticket sales in anticipation of these games.

As long as fans are selling out the home schedule, some neutral site games can be big revenue boosters. But what if there are more and more empty seats for home games? If there is a nationwide slump in college football attendance, and there seems to be, the incentives begin to change. In the SEC the loss of a season ticket represents the loss of a multi-year revenue stream if the ticket isn’t picked up by someone else. Georgia’s not in that position – yet. There’s still a cutoff for new season tickets. Other schools aren’t as fortunate, and signs of lagging demand are there.

Georgia’s in a position to shore up its demand for renewable tickets, but it means playing better opponents at home. The motivation to buy season tickets goes away if the best games are moved off-campus and aren’t part of the season ticket package. In the eight seasons between 2026 and 2033, Georgia will host UCLA, Clemson, FSU, Texas, and Oklahoma in addition to whatever the SEC slate brings to town. Fans will want those tickets even if it’s just to sell in the secondary market, and the surest way of getting those tickets is by renewing season tickets each year.

Of course ticket demand will be high for these games themselves, but that would be the case if they were held off-campus. If all Georgia cared about was selling tickets to these games, it wouldn’t matter if they were played in Athens or Atlanta. But by attaching these games to the season ticket package, Georgia is able to more or less sustain its season ticket revenue, and the requisite donations of course, even in years without a top-quality home schedule. Fans with renewable season tickets are more likely to hold on to them from year to year if it means guaranteeing a spot for these big nonconference games in the future. A neutral site game might pay out more on a game-to-game basis, but it’s less impressive next to the income represented by sold-out season tickets. There is big money in a steady and strong season ticket renewal rate year over year (and the donations that come with it.)

It’s tough to buck a nationwide attendance trend, and even a more attractive home schedule might not be able to stem the tide of decline. The schedule is just one factor in attracting fans – schools must consider the stadium, amenities, parking, the game day experience, and any edge they can find in competing for entertainment dollars, and these games are still years away. Improving the schedule is a positive step though when combined with a successful team, and it’s something many fans are already anticipating as Kirby Smart continues to build the program into a national contender.

Post Hoop Dawgs backcourt takes shape

Tuesday May 14, 2019

Point guard Sahvir Wheeler, a national top 100 prospect out of Houston, signed with Georgia last week. The signing adds to one of Georgia’s largest and highest-rated classes in program history.

Wheeler’s signing would make news on its own at Georgia in most any year, but you can’t help but place it in the context of Anthony Edwards. Accepting that Edwards will only be at Georgia one year, Crean must maximize Edwards’ production in that year. The window to elevate the Georgia program and raise its profile in the eyes of elite prospects is open now, but it can close just as quickly. What that means in terms of recruiting is that Crean must surround Edwards with the right supporting cast. It would be nice if Claxton returned, and additional post players would help to round out a wonderful class. In the past week though, Georgia has assembled the backcourt it will need to make the most of Edwards’ talents.

Edwards is a capable enough player that he could run the point and be perfectly competent at it. Frankly it would be an upgrade at the position for Georgia, and I still expect to see Edwards handle the ball quite a bit. But Edwards is projected to be at his best as a 2 guard – a shooting guard. Ideally someone else will run the point and allow Edwards to find his shot or penetration lane within the offense. In Wheeler Georgia has found that point guard. Even better, they’ve added depth to the point where Crean will have options. Georgia also announced the addition of Donnell Gresham Jr., a graduate transfer from Northeastern. Gresham might’ve been a stretch as the primary point guard solution, but he’s a great fit when packaged with with Wheeler to round out the backcourt.

Georgia’s backcourt was hit by offseason attrition, but these guard signings provide some clarity and allow you to begin to visualize a reasonable and deep rotation. Wheeler and Gresham can run the point, though Gresham could be looked at more as a combo guard. Edwards will step right in at shooting guard, but Georgia also has experienced shooting guards in Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris with combo guard Tye Fagan also returning. That depth also allows Crean to consider some quicker three-guard lineups, pair Edwards with the sharp-shooting Crump in a smaller lineup, and weather stretches in which Edwards might have to sit.

Crean has one or two scholarships remaining depending on Claxton’s decision, and it’s likely that any more additions will come on the frontcourt. The backcourt seems pretty well set now, though the challenge is obvious: with so many newcomers in key roles, a lot will be asked of them right away. Freshmen focused on adjusting to the college game must also find their role within a roster experiencing unprecedented turnover in a system that’s still new at Georgia. This team will sink or swim right away with Georgia Tech and the Maui Invitational on the schedule in the month of November. It’s encouraging to see so many pieces coming together, but can Crean get them to mesh in time for this impact class to get the early wins it needs to become an NCAA Tournament team?

Post Hunter’s transfer hits hard

Monday April 29, 2019

Redshirt junior linebacker Jaden Hunter has entered the transfer portal. You can’t blame him for “seeking opportunities” to further his career and get on the field somewhere, and the depth chart at Georgia was not looking favorable.

This one stings a bit more than the usual transfer. Hunter’s Bulldog pedigree was as strong as it gets: both mother and father were student-athletes at Georgia, but it went deeper than that. After Brice Hunter’s untimely death, a group of his teammates took it on themselves to be there in Jaden’s life and remained positive influences. Hunter’s commitment video, one of the first of its kind, illustrates those deep bonds to the past. Hunter made it clear that his commitment honored his father and that legacy.

At the time, Hunter’s commitment was an early test of Kirby Smart’s recruiting chops. Hunter had major offers from the SEC and ACC, and Alabama was a big player. Smart absolutely had to get a top in-state prospect with such strong ties to the University, and he did. Hunter’s early endorsement, a little more than a month after Kirby Smart accepted the head coaching job, was part of a solid foundation on top of which the rest of the top-5 2017 class would be built.

So, yeah, this transfer weighs a little heavier than most. This weekend was a boon for the program with over a dozen players drafted by or signing with NFL teams, but Hunter’s transfer is a reminder that it’s a tough and unforgiving sport, and many stories don’t work out the way we’d prefer. Jaden Hunter’s story isn’t over, and we wish him nothing but the best.

Post 2019 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2019

After two seasons that saw South Carolina win a national title and Mississippi State reach consecutive national championship games, the SEC took a step back this year. According to some metrics, the SEC is arguably only the fifth-best conference in the nation, and no SEC team has done much to build a case against that claim. Mississippi State and South Carolina are still the class of the league, but even they have lacked for impact wins outside of conference play.

When you look at the few accomplishments of SEC teams out of conference, they’re best summed up as good-but-not-great. Mississippi State and Tennessee notched wins over Texas. Auburn beat North Carolina. LSU knocked off FSU. Kentucky beat South Florida. The best SEC nonconference win of the year might be Texas A&M’s defeat of Oregon State. But when matched against some of the top teams in the nation this year – UConn, Oregon, Baylor, and Louisville – SEC teams have come up short. Four SEC teams have been ranked for most of the season (MSU, SC, A&M, and Kentucky) with Missouri drifting in and out. A season ago seven SEC teams were ranked at the end of the regular season with five set to host NCAA subregionals. That won’t happen this year.

As the SEC women’s basketball tournament returns to Greenville, SC, its home for the next three seasons, the state of the conference leaves many teams with work to do in order to impress the NCAA selection committee. Mississippi State and South Carolina will hope that a tournament championship gives them a national seed and regional location favorable for a deep March run. A&M, Kentucky, and Missouri hope that a good showing in Greenville will earn them the right to host the first two rounds. Another tier of teams, including even mighty Tennessee, are just hoping to do enough to make the field of 64, and an early loss for any of those teams could mean disappointment. There will be plenty at stake from the beginning of the Thursday’s second round on through to Sunday’s championship, and that should make for some competitive and entertaining games.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. #10 Arkansas: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 South Carolina: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

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

1) Mississippi State (15-1, 27-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): When you have an undefeated regular season, there’s no place to go but down. MSU rode the best class in program history to two straight national title games, and there was some question as to how they’d fare after losing so much from those legendary teams. Who MSU returned though was significant: center Teaira McCowan has taken on the transition from being just one of many weapons on last year’s team to being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan. McCowan hasn’t disappointed: she averages a double-double (17.3 PPG / 13.4 RPG), hits over 65% of her shots, doesn’t foul out, and has blocked 71 shots. She’s among the SEC’s top 5 in scoring and leads the league in rebounding and shotblocking.

The Bulldogs received a big shot in the arm when Texas A&M forward Anriel Howard joined MSU as a graduate transfer. Howard was primarily a rebounding machine at A&M, but she’s worked on her offense this year and is scoring nearly 16 PPG. Howard’s rebounding hasn’t suffered, and she and McCowan pull down half of the team’s boards. Jordan Danberry is another returning player who took on a larger role this year. Danberry isn’t a threat from outside but can be devastating off the dribble attacking the basket. The Bulldogs have had to adjust to a season-ending injury to sharp-shooting Chloe Bibby, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter has responded by averaging around 13 PPG over the past ten games since her minutes increased. Senior PG Jazzmun Holmes has been terrific a with an assist/turnover ratio over 4.

That’s a nice surrounding cast for McCowan, and it’s why MSU has remained a top ten program and SEC champion despite so much attention being paid to its dominant post player. Very few teams have been able to frustrate McCowan, but that’s what it’s taken to beat MSU. Missouri held McCowan to a below-average 4-for-11 shooting performance. Oregon suffocated her and limited McCowan to just five shot attempts and five points. South Carolina came close to a win in the season finale by holding McCowan to just eight attempts, but she hit seven of them and finished with 18 points. That’s the challenge for any team going up against the Bulldogs: can you limit opportunities for McCowan without someone else doing damage? Against better teams with the personnel to defend McCowan, the supporting cast has to be consistent and productive enough to compensate. They haven’t always been.

It’s been a long and successful run in the Victoria Vivians / Teaira McCowan era, but an SEC tournament title has eluded the program. Mississippi State might be as strong of a favorite to finally cut down the nets as they’ll be for a while. Is this the year?

2) South Carolina (13-3, 21-8) (LY-2nd, PS-2nd): Dawn Staley’s program seeks its fifth-straight tournament title, but they’ve fallen back towards the field this year and could face some serious challenges en route to another title defense. Life without A’ja Wilson has had its rough moments, but the result in SEC play is the same as it was a year ago: a second-place finish behind Mississippi State. The difference this year has been South Carolina’s inability to break through against the best teams in the nation. Six of the Gamecocks’ eight losses came to teams ranked in the top 10. Many of those games were competitive, but the results, especially out of conference, leave South Carolina without any national wins of note. They’ve been dominant as ever inside the SEC, losing only to Mississippi State (twice) and Kentucky.

It’s been a transition year for sure, and if you didn’t beat South Carolina this year it might be a while. A loaded signing class rated #1 in the nation will arrive next year. Meanwhile A’ja Wilson’s supporting cast has done well to maintain continuity even if the Gamecocks have been knocked down a peg from the national elite. Staley’s frustration has boiled over at times, and she pulled her entire starting lineup minutes into the Georgia game. The team has gone through scoring droughts and even their wins have been a little closer than they’ve been used to. Still, they’ve had flashes of brilliance, and a tight game against MSU in the regular season finale showed that South Carolina could once again deny Mississippi State the SEC tournament title.

Scoring has been distributed well with no player getting more than 13 PPG. Te’a Cooper is the leading scorer by a small margin, but she’s battled an injury down the stretch. Tyasha Harris has done well as the point guard. The Gamecocks boast a physical frontcourt with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Alexis Jennings even if they do miss the inside scoring punch of Wilson. Depth is a strength: nine players score at least 4 PPG, and not many teams can bring the likes of upperclassmen Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Doniyah Cliney off the bench.

3) Texas A&M (12-4, 23-6) (LY-5th, PS-6th): Chennedy Carter took the league by storm a season ago, and she hasn’t let up in her sophomore season. Carter averages over 20 PPG for her career, and no team – not even Missouri – asks more of a player. A&M lost three key players from last year’s team and was projected to finish sixth this season, but Carter has led them to a higher SEC finish in 2019 and the team’s best regular season since 2011. She handles the ball, leads the team in steals, can hit from outside, and can drive to the basket. How valuable is Carter? A&M wasn’t able to beat Lamar without her. That’s not good news – Carter will miss the tournament with a finger injury suffered last Sunday.

A&M will have to rely on a group of players who stepped into new and bigger roles this season. N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson are a formidable duo on the glass, and the Aggies outrebound opponents by around 7 per game. Kayla Wells moved from the bench to the starting lineup and has become a threat that keeps defenses from keying too much on Carter.

This isn’t a very deep team. Guard Aaliyah Wilson was lost to a knee injury. Only five players average over 2 PPG. But in typical Gary Blair fashion, everyone contributes to defense and rebounding. Carter and Wells can handle the scoring, and Jones and Johnson are able to clean up inside. Missouri, LSU, South Carolina, and Mississippi State were able to match them on the glass, and that kept A&M from competing for a conference title. The Aggies are competing for a national top 16 seed that would make them a host for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Accomplishing that goal might require a run to the SEC tournament final, but that will be extremely difficult without Carter.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 24-6) (LY-9th, PS-7th): The Wildcats bounced back well this year from a losing record in 2018 – only the second time Kentucky finished out of the top four under Matthew Mitchell. Like A&M, Kentucky exceeded preseason expectations, and a big reason why was the arrival of likely SEC freshman of the year Rhyne Howard. Howard, a 6’2″ wing, is a nightmare matchup problem who became the team’s leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman.

Last season UK had to lean heavily on the scoring of Maci Morris. With Howard, Morris has been able to contribute to a much more well-rounded attack orchestrated by senior point guard Taylor Murray. Kentucky has the backcourt depth they’ve lacked for a couple of years, and it’s allowed Mitchell to play more of the frenzied style of defense he prefers. Forward Tatyana Wyatt can be Kentucky’s scoring presence inside. KeKe McKinney, Kentucky’s best interior defender, missed the season finale due to injury, and her availability will be key if Kentucky advances to meet Mississippi State.

Kentucky enters the tournament on a bit of a run as winners of seven of their last eight games. That stretch included a win over South Carolina, and the only loss was a home setback to A&M. Missouri is their likely quarterfinal opponent, and UK held the potent Missouri attack to just 41 points in Lexington earlier this year.

5) Missouri (21-9, 10-6) (LY-6th, PS-5th): Sophie Cunningham’s swan song has been a muted success. Missouri has been on the outside of the rankings for much of the season, but they did claim the season’s most impressive win with a road victory at Mississippi State. As one of the few teams that fell in line with preseason expectations, the Tigers are where most thought they’d be. How they got there is more interesting: Mizzou has the win over MSU, but they also have one of the more inexplicable losses of the year against Florida.

Cunningham made an immediate impact as a freshman, and she’s remained one of the SEC’s most consistent performers for all four seasons. At 6’1″, Cunningham can play outside or inside posting up smaller guards. SEC fans know she’s not afraid to do the dirty work, and she’s second on the team in rebounding. The team got a boost midseason when senior forward Cierra Porter rejoined the team after stepping away due to chronic knee problems. A key player this season has been wing Amber Smith. Smith averages over 12 PPG, leads the team in rebounding, and seems poised to inherit the leadership role when Cunningham and Porter move on next season.

Missouri no longer leads the SEC in three-point attempts – Arkansas and Florida have attempted more. But Missouri again leads the conference in three-pointers made. Six players have made at least 20 three-pointers. One thing to watch out for with Missouri in turnovers. They were already near the bottom of the league in turnovers and then freshman guard Akira Levy, a key ballhandler off the bench, was lost for the season at Auburn.

6) Auburn (9-7, 21-8) (LY-10th, PS-8th): Stingy defense and a smothering press have been the hallmarks of nearly every Terri Williams-Flournoy Auburn team. The offense hasn’t always come along, and that’s held the program back. That’s changed this year: the Auburn offense has improved enough to turn those defensive stops into scoring opportunities, and wins have followed. The Tigers reached 20 wins for the first time under Williams-Flournoy in a season that might’ve been pivotal in her future at Auburn. Auburn looked like an iffy NCAA tournament team for most of the season, but late wins over Missouri and LSU have made them a likely invitee.

Senior Janiah McKay is the closest thing the Tigers have to a standout player, but their top five scorers are all between 13.8 and 9.8 PPG. Four of those top scorers also have at least 50 steals, showing how much the lines are blurred between defense and offense on this team. Auburn won’t attempt a ton of outside shots, though Daisa Alexander is always a threat to hit a three-pointer. They’re most at home scoring in transition created by their pressure defense. Auburn played Texas A&M to within two points earlier in the season, and Auburn won’t be afraid of a potential rematch in the quarterfinals especially without Chennedy Carter on the court.

7) Georgia (9-7, 18-11) (LY-3rd, PS-4th): Joni Taylor made a name for herself in her first three seasons as Georgia’s coach by exceeding expectations. Last year the Lady Dogs tied for second place in the SEC and earned a national top 16 seed. With a leading scorer returning and an impact freshman class maturing, the expectation for this year was only a slight step back. Georgia began the year ranked in the top 20.

Though Georgia kept alive slim hopes for a fourth-place finish until the final day of the regular season, it hasn’t been the season many expected of Georgia. Injuries played a role, but even key starters have struggled with turnovers and foul trouble all season. Georgia’s conference record is partially a factor of schedule: the Lady Dogs’ three home-and-home opponents are all seeded 10th or lower, and five of Georgia’s nine conference wins came against that group. So Georgia’s 7-seed is just about right. They haven’t defeated anyone seeded higher, and they’ve only lost one game (minus point guard Taja Cole) to teams seeded below them.

Even with a winning record in conference, Georgia will likely have to win the SEC tournament to return to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Dogs head to Greenville with an RPI below 100. That’s a result of a weak schedule and no wins against the few quality teams on that schedule. Winning the tournament is a big job, but there is at least a couple of reasons for hope. Georgia might not have beaten the best opponents on its schedule, but the Lady Dogs have been competitive. They took Maryland to the final minute, led in the fourth quarter on the road at both Mississippi State and South Carolina, and had opportunities to beat A&M and Kentucky in Athens. To advance in this tournament Georgia must find something that’s been missing nearly all season – the players able and willing to take over these competitive close games. Another reason for optimism is that Georgia played their best basketball at the end of the season. They won five of their last seven with narrow losses to quality South Carolina and Kentucky teams. Georgia should at least be confident each time they take the court in Greenville.

Georgia has just one senior, forward Caliya Robinson, and they lean on her at both ends of the court. Robinson is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shotblocker, and is even third on the team in assists and steals. PG Taja Cole leads the SEC in assists and, after only two years, is already among the top five in career assists at Georgia. Cole can also get to the basket, hit a big outside shot, and often draws the team’s most difficult defensive assignment. Given their importance to the team, it’s unfortunate that Robinson and Cole also commit the most fouls. Cole is an aggressive on-ball defender who leads Georgia in steals but sometimes finds herself taken out of a game early due to foul trouble. Robinson, as is the case with so many outstanding shotblockers, sometimes takes herself out of good defensive position in order to set up for a block, and crafty shooters can use that to draw fouls. Turnovers have also been a problem for Georgia. The team is in the bottom third of the league in turnovers, and they’ve struggled against pressure. The Lady Dogs are actually third in the SEC in shooting percentage, but too often they’ve turned the ball over before getting a shot off. For Georgia to advance, they’ll need to keep the turnovers down and to have both Robinson and Cole valuing their foul count and available as much as possible.

8) Tennessee (7-9, 18-11) (LY-7th, PS-3rd): Wow. Apart from identifying the final potential NCAA tournament #1 seed, the dominant national story in February was whether the Lady Vols would miss the Big Dance for the first time in tournament history. The Lady Vols are the only program to have participated in every tournament, and that distinction is on thin ice. They seemed to have saved themselves with a sweep of Auburn and a win at Missouri, but an inexplicable home loss to Vanderbilt in the final week might have the Lady Vols disappointed on Selection Monday.

Tennessee’s issue is a common one for SEC teams this season: a lack of quality wins. The Lady Vols are just 1-6 against ranked opponents, and a win over Texas is the lone feather in their cap. Their nonconference schedule wasn’t bad, but they fell to Stanford and Notre Dame in the rare opportunities they had to make a national statement. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the six-game losing streak in January that shocked the nation and left Tennessee at 1-5 in conference. They’ve fought back to salvage their NCAA tournament chances, but February losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M show that their resurgence was more a factor of opponent quality rather than a program turning a corner.

As usual, Tennessee is at the top of the conference in rebounding, and their attacking defensive style hasn’t changed. If you had to put a finger on the reason for their struggles this year, it’s a lack of veteran leadership. Even last season’s team had Jamie Nared to turn to. Senior Meme Jackson has fallen off in conference play and has only reached double figures twice since the conference opener. Tennessee’s three leading scorers are underclassmen, and that’s led to some prolonged scoring droughts. Sophomore point guard Evina Westbrook leads the team in scoring and assists. Rennia Davis averaged over 11 PPG as a freshman, but she has only made small improvement as a sophomore. Tennessee also hasn’t replaced the impact of Mercedes Russell inside. Senior forward Cheridene Green averages under 10 PPG, and Rennia Davis, a wing, is right up there as the team’s leading rebounder.

Tennessee is talented, but their finish in the standings means they’ll be facing Mississippi State if they can advance beyond Thursday. Their season and a piece of women’s college basketball history could be on the line in that game.

9) LSU (7-9, 16-12) (LY-4th, PS-9th): LSU is also right about where we expected they would be. Their style is typical of most Nikki Fargas teams – tough matchup zone defense, physical interior play, and almost all of the offense coming inside the paint. LSU’s problem is one they’ve faced quite a bit recently: scoring. Only Florida and Ole Miss score less, and even the best defenses need to put points on the board. When the system works, the Tigers are capable of wins over teams like FSU and Texas A&M. It’s equally capable of some ugly low point totals including a 46-point showing in the season finale at home against Auburn.

The Tigers dropped their final three games of the season and find themselves in a virtual play-in game against Tennessee for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

10) Arkansas (6-10, 17-13) (LY-13th, PS-11th): A 5-2 start in conference play highlighted by a win at Tennessee had everyone talking about Arkansas as a surprise team perhaps a bit ahead of schedule in Mike Neighbors’ second season. Neighbors imported his entertaining up-tempo brand of offense from Washington, and the roster is beginning to resemble what he needs to run that kind of system. That early momentum crashed to a halt during a six-game losing streak bookended by losses to Georgia. Arkansas was able to get a win over Ole Miss but finished the season losing eight of their last nine. This is still a dangerous team because of the way they can score. The offense is capable of putting pressure on opponents to keep up. Chelsea Dungee transferred in from Oklahoma to become the team’s leading scorer and is second in the league behind only Chennedy Carter. Dungee and Malica Monk form a capable backcourt, but Arkansas has six players who have attempted at least 70 three-pointers. Almost anyone is capable of stepping out and knocking one down, and that’s what makes the team fun to watch and dangerous to defend. The consistency (and defense) isn’t quite there yet, and that’s turned a promising start into another step in the rebuilding process.

11) Alabama (5-11, 13-16) (LY-8th, PS-10th): On a team that lost so much production due to graduation, one of the SEC’s most exciting newcomers is in Tuscaloosa. Cierra Johnson, last season’s JUCO player of the year, made an immediate impact and became Bama’s leading scorer. Johnson is Alabama’s Chennedy Carter: she can take over a game and score from outside or attacking the basket. Forward Jasmine Walker has had some big moments as a frontcourt complement to Johnson, but Walker’s production has been less consistent against better opponents. PG Jordan Lewis was lost to injury earlier in the season, and it’s been the team’s downfall. Alabama leads the SEC in turnovers, and Johnson has often been a victim of the turnover bug as so much of the offense is forced to flow through her. Though the program didn’t completely recover from losing so many seniors from the 2018 team, the Tide’s quality has shown up in several decent wins against Clemson, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia as well as a 3-point loss at South Carolina.

12) Ole Miss (3-13, 9-21) (LY-14th, PS-14th): Ole Miss moved out of the basement with a nice stretch in January that saw consecutive wins over Kentucky (in Lexington!) and Florida. They were only able to win one game the rest of the way, against last-place Vanderbilt, and they head to Greenville on a five-game losing streak. Crystal Allen is one of the SEC’s top scorers with over 18 PPG, and Shandricka Sessom returned from an injury to close out her career.

13) Florida (3-13, 7-22) (LY-11th, PS-12th): It’s been a tough year in Gainesville with only seven total wins. Senior Funda Nakkasoglu is a dangerous scorer, but the rest of the roster lacks firepower. Only Arkansas attempts more three-pointers, but Florida only shoots 30.2% from outside. The result is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and a single-digit win total. Delicia Washington has a knack for hitting big shots, and Danielle Rainey can be feast or famine.

14) Vanderbilt (7-22, 2-14) (LY-12th, PS-13th): Stephanie White’s third season didn’t fare much better than the first two. The team’s most competitive stretch came in late January with a two-point loss to Auburn and a win over Ole Miss. A shocking win at Tennessee – the program’s first win ever in Knoxville – was a noteworthy accomplishment in an otherwise disappointing season. Boston College transfer Mariella Fasoula has stepped in to become the team’s leading scorer. That’s a credit to her, but it doesn’t speak well of the production from a couple of decent recruiting classes. Scoring defense is a big reason why Vandy is at the bottom of the conference; the Commodores yield nearly 70 PPG.

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.