With Signing Day upon us, it will soon be time to start talking about how all of these new pieces will fit into the program. The larger trend – and our own 2015 experience – is for more and more true freshmen to see playing time. The combination of incoming talent and opportunities on the depth chart lead you to think that the trend will continue at Georgia in 2016.
Quarterback is one position where opportunity and talent have fans looking to a newcomer. Now that Jacob Eason has enrolled, the next question seems to be when, not if, he becomes the starter. There’s been some idle offseason talk on the radio and message boards about the best way to proceed – do you throw him to the wolves right away, or do we see a gradual transition (with the obligatory mention of 2006)?
At the same time, we’re all watching the recovery and rehab of Nick Chubb. While we have no indication that the process is anything but on-schedule, Georgia’s coaches might face a similar decision: even if cleared to play, do you ease Chubb back in with someone like Michel getting the bulk of the carries, or is Chubb the workhorse out of the gate?
Whatever your own thoughts on those topics, I think most of us would admit that there is a nonzero chance that Georgia begins 2016 without Eason and Chubb in the starting lineup.
How does that possibility affect your outlook for 2016? If you saw a backfield of Lambert and Michel trot out against UNC, would your expectations change? What if September – with UNC and two SEC road games – came and went before Eason and Chubb were starters?
The Chubb situation seems to be straightforward: if he’s physically able, he’ll be in there. That doesn’t just mean that the knee is sound – he’ll also be playing catch-up with conditioning. It could be, say, the Ole Miss game before he’s able to carry the load of 20+ carries. Knee injuries are unpredictable, and the range of possibilities is everything from a full recovery to the dreaded scenario where he never regains that highest level of performance.
Eason’s path to the starting job could be a little less linear. Fans expect it’s sooner than later. The process will play itself out in spring and summer. Coaches will use the term “best chance to win.” All quarterbacks – Eason, Lambert, and, yes, Ramsey too – will have a chance to impress the new staff.
Why might the coaches hold Eason back? Start with Greyson Lambert throwing just two interceptions in 2015.
If Brian Schottenheimer deserves credit for one thing, it’s this: Lambert went from a 10/11 TD/INT ratio at Virginia to a 12/2 ratio at Georgia. That improvement wasn’t accidental. Now it’s true that this improvement came at the cost of severely limiting the passing offense – Lambert wasn’t asked to make Aaron Murray’s throws, and the passing game wasn’t nearly as productive. He also threw a few suspect passes that would’ve/should’ve/could’ve been picked off, but they weren’t.
Given a good defense, the coaches chose and eventually settled on the quarterback who didn’t make the back-breaking mistake. It wasn’t enough to get Georgia a championship, but it did get them to 10 wins. That approach carried the team through the turmoil of the second half of the season and led to five straight wins to close out 2015.
So if you’re Kirby Smart coming over from the ultimate game-management program, you’re conditioned to appreciate a quarterback who won’t put your defense in a tight spot. (You also appreciate championships and quarterbacks who can make plays.) That’s part of the decision: if you think you can navigate Georgia’s tough early schedule by minimizing mistakes (at the expense of production) in the passing game and get by following the 2015 model, Eason might not be the best choice. If, though, you anticipate that the offense is going to have to win a couple of these games, you might risk the inexperienced gunslinger.
Chubb’s availability could also factor into the quarterback decision. With Chubb, the running game could be the focus of a fairly productive offense. Without Chubb, Michel and Douglas are the only returning backs with experience. There will also be some changes on the line. Michel proved himself to be a capable 1,000-yard back, but the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was when Michel’s versatility was on display in the first month of the season. Without Chubb and a deep pool of backs, you might need to ask for more from the passing game right away and accept the risks that come with it.
We often see teams change over the course of a season. Sometimes (2013) it’s for the worse as injuries or off-field incidents cut short a promising season. Other times (2007) teams find themselves and make a run late in the season. Unless the Dawgs get fairly lucky and both of these playmakers are ready to go on September 3rd, the identity of the 2016 team could change in a big way. How late (or early) in the season that transition occurs and how well the team and coaches manage it will have a lot to say about how we remember Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach.
The gimmicks get the headlines, but beneath the surface there is real work being done. Smart and his assistants are blanketing their top prospects and doing it in a very public way. Any new coach is in a tough spot – you have little more than a month to either establish or repair relationships with prospects that other programs and coaches might’ve cultivated for years. Georgia might or might not pull some big names on Signing Day, but it won’t be for lack of effort.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the tireless recruiting going on now just brings Georgia up to par. Within the past week we’ve seen Notre Dame park a semi truck in front of a prospects house. We’ve seen Nick Saban dancing. We’ve seen Michigan enlist Ric Flair – Florida fan – for some Signing Day wooooing. Again, the stunts aren’t really the point. It’s that other top programs and staffs have also been pulling out the stops, working around the clock, and sending some high profile coaches into the same living rooms. There’s not much new under the sun – Lane Kiffin was doing the helicopter thing six years ago.
On Sunday at a reception, retired Georgia basketball coach Andy Landers talked about the recruiting landscape. He pointed around Georgia’s state-of-the-art practice facility. Everyone has one of these now, he explained. Every school subscribes to the same recruiting scouting services to identify talent. Doing these things just gets you in the game, and it’s up to you to stand out among a crowded and competitive field.
It might be enough that Georgia is now in the ballpark with the rest of these programs in terms of effort and resources. It might be real progress just that Georgia is willing to spend on what might seem like extravagances in the name of recruiting. Georgia doesn’t get a particular edge relative to the elite programs, but it does allow Smart to make these recruiting battles competitive. The helicopters, the planes, the bulldogs, and all of the gimmicks open the door for Smart and its staff to get to what really matters: contact with their top prospects and the ability to discuss Georgia and the opportunities it offers.
2017 LB prospect Jaden Hunter committed to Georgia on Monday. That’s big in a football sense – he’s a 4* linebacker who chose Georgia over a long list of schools that included Alabama, Clemson, and FSU. It’s a significant commitment at a deeper level also. Hunter’s parents – Brandi Decker Hunter and the late Brice Hunter were both Bulldog standouts for their respective sports. Brice’s tragic death over ten years ago left Brandi as a single mother of three and Jaden without a father. A group of Brice’s teammates made it a point to be the male role models in Jaden’s life, and it was this strong bond with the Georgia program that led Hunter to commit as a tribute to his father.
The folks at Rivals put together a pair of incredible videos for this occasion. First is the commitment itself. That’s impressive enough, but the second video is nearly as good. Anyone who followed the program in the 1990s will be blown away by the collection of former players who stepped up in Jaden’s life and who explain in this video what Brice Hunter and Jaden mean to them. Give both videos a watch – you won’t find many commitments this well done, and kudos to the Rivals staff for working with the family to produce these videos.
Georgia’s men’s and women’s basketball teams have each played three conference games, and the teams have a combined one win between them.
For the men it’s been a story of home and away. The Dawgs looked out of their element in the conference opener at Florida, and Ole Miss used the frenzied crowd of a new arena to pull off a mild upset. Georgia’s lone home game was a relatively easy dispatching of Missouri. Though there were some defensive lapses, Georgia’s shooting has let them down on the road. The Dawgs shot 35.6% at Florida, improved to 54.7% at home against Missouri, and dropped back to 36.2% at Mississippi. If there’s been one consistent good sign, it’s the play of Yante Maten inside. Freshman Derek Ogbeide has started to contribute also and should see his minutes increase.
Georgia’s next chance at a road win isn’t until next week at Missouri, and it’s definitely one Georgia should be expected to handle. The men enjoy two straight at home, and Saturday’s game against #21 Texas A&M will be an important opportunity for a quality win. It’s critical that Georgia holds serve at home against Tennessee and A&M. After this week’s homestand, the Dawgs will play three of four on the road including difficult trips to LSU and Baylor.
It’s been even tougher going for the women. The Lady Dogs began the season 12-1 in nonconference play and were on the cusp of the top 25. The SEC schedule hasn’t been kind: Georgia’s first three conference opponents were ranked, and the Lady Dogs weren’t able to notch any upsets. They came closest in Thursday’s loss to Missouri: Georgia fought back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take a 5-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the visitors closed the game on a run of their own.
The woes for Joni Taylor’s team are familiar ones. Georgia hasn’t had much from transition against SEC opponents and has had to get points from the halfcourt offense. That isn’t and wasn’t expected to be a strength of the team. When the defense leads to offense, as in the third quarter comeback against Missouri, the team shows signs of life. But that productive quarter was combined with first and fourth quarters in which Georgia bogged down in the halfcourt and scored 6 and 8 points.
Taylor’s players continue to fight, and they clawed back to make the Kentucky loss a competitive one. Their next attempt to get an SEC win will be a road trip to face a Florida team that has beaten FSU and Tennessee to earn a spot in the top 25. It would definitely be a quality win, but at this point any victory is important.
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Tracy Rocker didn’t go into specifics, but he did confirm that there was something to all of those rumors flying around late in the season:
When you play a game like this and you have — I’ll call it — a bit of a mutiny; well, it IS mutiny — it’s important that you bring the kids together, and I thought it was important we did that.
It was obvious that there was dysfunction on the coaching staff. You don’t put out a tweet like this when everything is honky dory. Rocker’s comments help us understand why the status of a successful defensive coordinator was even in question. It’s also reasonable to conclude that this dysfunction was used against Mark Richt as justification for the coaching change.
Many of us would just rather forget the 2015 season and move on. There won’t be many highlight DVDs sold for this season. I’d like to remember it for what the players accomplished despite whatever was going on among the staff. Yes Rocker, McClendon, and the remaining interim coaches deserve credit for “bringing the kids together,” but it was those players who kept it together and closed the season with five straight wins while their coaching staff was imploding around them. The 10 wins and 40 wins for the seniors meant something to them even as fans and coaches chose to close the book on a season that went south fast. We thought that the motivation for the bowl would have to come from within, but it turns out that much of the second half of the season was played under those conditions. The guys paid six figures were able to plan their escape routes and soft landings as they squabbled, but the players with no choice but to stick it out did just that. They should be proud of that, and we should be proud of them for it.
While the rest of the program is rebuilt around them, the remaining Georgia players have one more game to play. It’s a meeting of two tradition-rich programs, and those of us old enough still have some old Sugar Bowl scores to settle.
It’s become the mission of any bowl preview: figure out which team wants to be there and which has already cashed in. There’s no formula to follow and easy to get wrong – how many people expected Georgia to come out fired up last year after a loss to Tech and Richt rumored to be on the way out? Both Georgia and Penn State have gone through some changes since the end of the season, and I’m not going to guess which will have more to play for. But if Georgia is going to find motivation to play well in this game, it’s most likely going to have to come from within. Their new coaches aren’t in place yet. Their old coaches have largely scattered. Fans have been slow to buy tickets, and many have already moved on to the Smart era.
So it’s pretty much down to the guys suiting up. There are some concrete goals – a 10-win season and 40 wins for the seniors. Those will get the team so far, but the motivation that matters will have been what got the team through bowl practices. Are they prepared, on the same page, and willing to play for each other? If so, they’ll be fine.
James Franklin will be on the other sideline. He was annoying while at Vanderbilt if only because he made the games (in Nashville, at least) more competitive. His teams fought back several times against Georgia, and that’s a credit to Franklin for getting that response at a program used to losing. I have no doubt that we’ll see an opponent that continues to compete even if Georgia proves to be the better team. The Dawgs can’t sit on a lead.
One thing we also saw a lot of from Franklin’s Vanderbilt teams was trick plays, particularly on special teams. We’ve seen onside kicks, fake field goals, and the center-eligible fake punt. Offense could be at a premium in this game, and points or just sustained possession from a trick play could prove decisive.
Line play is a key in most games, and it will be especially important in a game that features excellent pass rushing by both teams. Georgia seems to have the slight edge – the Bulldog offensive line has been inconsistent but is capable of a good game. There are two different challenges. First, can the Georgia offensive line play to form against Carl Nassib and his teammates? Penn State has racked up 44 sacks, but Georgia has allowed only 13. Which unit will flinch? The other challenge is for Georgia’s defense. Penn State’s offensive line has been a weakness all season, but can Georgia’s defensive front take advantage? This is a big opportunity for Jenkins and Floyd to leave a very positive impression before they head to the next level.
With such good pass rushes, the offenses will do their best to avoid obvious passing situations. Georgia’s running game is working with some good news and bad news: Michel and Marshall will be as healthy as they’ve been in a while. But Douglas and Hicks are out for the game. The Dawgs will have to dig deep at both tailback and fullback. We might even see the debut of A.J. Turman. Hopefully Georgia’s bowl coaches will continue the use of McKenzie, Godwin, and other skill players in the running game.
Penn State has found a tailback in true freshman Saquon Barkley. Barkley has posted over 1,000 yards and gone for over 100 in five games behind that suspect offensive line. Three of those five 100-yard performances came against ranked opponents: Ohio State, Michigan State, and Northwestern. Like Georgia, they’ve struggled to establish much depth behind their lead rusher.
If you thought Georgia was bad on third down (and they’ve been), Penn State has been worse. Only two FBS schools have a worse success rate on third down. Both teams will place an emphasis on winning early downs and then turning their dominant pass rushes loose against an opposing offense that ranks among the bottom ten on third down.
The formula that’s allowed Georgia to finish the regular season 5-1 won’t change much for this game despite whatever wrinkles have been installed during bowl practice. Run, manage, defend. The Dawgs will have to sustain drives on the ground against a fantastic front seven. Both teams are fairly even in turnover margin – a swing either way would help a struggling offense as would any big special teams plays. The Florida game is a good reminder of how fast things can go south for Georgia’s formula with a few miscues. Of course any team wants to play with the lead, but it’s especially important for these two teams that they not have to play from behind and abandon the run.
Georgia’s first priority is to make sure strengths remain strengths. That begins with the outside linebackers and up front where they should have a relative advantage over Penn State’s offensive line. If Georgia’s pass rush takes the day off, the Penn State quarterback is more than good enough to make plays. But if the Dawgs show up on defense and take advantage of a struggling Penn State offense, the Dawgs should have the upper hand.
From the mid-90s through 2010, Georgia basketball went through five head coaches and plenty of ups and downs. One thing remained constant: an unblemished home record against Georgia Tech since the series returned to home-and-home in 1995. In fact, thanks to two wins on Tech’s home court, the Dawgs posted a 10-6 record in the series.
That changed in 2011 with the arrival of Brian Gregory at Tech. Gregory hasn’t done much to return Tech to glory, but after four games he remains undefeated against Georgia. Gregory’s teams have won four in a row in the series and the past two in Athens despite some lean years at Tech and a couple of postseason trips for Georgia. The series is back level at 10-10 since returning to campus twenty years ago.
The two teams meet in Athens on Saturday, and it’s the latest date for this game since three straight January games from 2008-2010. Could that be an edge for Georgia? Mark Fox’s teams have sometimes needed a few games to settle in, and November hasn’t been the best time for a big rivalry game. One additional bit of good news: freshman forward Derek Ogbeide is cleared to play and seems to be in line for more minutes as he works back from a shoulder injury. Georgia needs all the frontcourt depth they can manage against a physical Tech front line.
Though the relatively late date might benefit the Dawgs, it’s not an ideal point on the schedule. Georgia hasn’t played since December 8th due to exams. They’ve rested and practiced during the exam break, but they’ll have a bit of rust to shake off too. The end of exams also means that students have left town, and the early (noon) start without much of a student section could hurt the home crowd.
This is a better Tech team than some of Gregory’s recent offerings. They have a close loss to ETSU and a respectable loss to Villanova and quality wins over Arkansas and VCU. They feature four seniors – two guards and two forwards – and all four average over 10 PPG. Though guard Marcus Georges-Hunt is the leading scorer, the biggest concern for Georgia might be the frontcourt. Charles Mitchell is a force inside, easily averaging a double-double, and Alabama transfer Nick Jacobs has had a quick impact. This is a fairly deep team too – 10 players average over 13 minutes per game. Only four Georgia players are scoring over 4 points per game; Tech has nine.
Rivalry aside, Georgia can’t afford to lose many more nonconference games. With three losses already, you’re starting to put pressure on the conference portion of the schedule. Clemson and Baylor are still ahead. As it stands, the Dawgs must go 12-6 in conference to avoid heading into postseason with 10 or more losses. A loss to a bad Tech team two years ago did Georgia no favors in the RPI; a loss this year to a better Tech team would be bad just in terms of a team looking to build a postseason resume.
For a program and a coach looking to build on its NCAA Tournament trip a year ago, games like these matter. Fox needs both the success on the court and the support of the fan base to make that happen. The Tech game is one that even casual hoops fans pay attention to.
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It’s typical for some chaos during a coaching transition, but Georgia has some special circumstances making this transition that much more hectic. Their new coach is still with his old team. The old coach immediately took a new job. New assistants have been named but won’t coach in the bowl game. We’re left with a hodgepodge crew of lame duck coaches and staffers who will be conducting bowl practices, and many of them will be coaching with their own futures uncertain.
The table below compares the three staffs – 2015, bowl, and 2016. We’ll scratch through a 2015 name when it’s confirmed that he’s no longer a part of the program. We’ll add to the 2016 list when official announcements are made.
Brian Schottenheimer (+QB)
John Lilly (+TE)
Jim Chaney (+QB)
Bryan McClendon (WR)
Thomas Brown (RB)
John Lilly (TE)
Rob Sale (OL)
Thomas Brown (RB)
Rob Sale (OL)
Steve Shimko (QB)
Olten Downs (WR)
Sam Pittman (OL)
Dell McGee (RB)
James Coley (WR)
Shane Beamer (TE/ST)
Jeremy Pruitt (+DB)
Kevin Sherrer (+ILB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Mike Ekeler (ILB)
Kevin Sherrer (OLB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Sam Petitto (DB)
Courtney Coard (OLB)
Tracy Rocker (DL)
Glenn Schumann (TBD)
Kevin Sherrer (TBD)
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He’s been Georgia’s quarterback of the future for about a year and a half now, and Jacob Eason reaffirmed on Tuesday that he’ll still enroll at Georgia in just a few short weeks. It’s pretty amazing that a top prospect from the opposite side of the country would stick through two coordinator/position coach changes and even a head coaching change. That speaks to many things, but it’s a special feather in the cap of Mike Bobo and Mark Richt to have built such a solid foundation in recruiting Eason that it could survive these events. They didn’t just sell Eason on themselves; it was the whole package – the school, the town, the current players, and even the other prospects considering Georgia.
It also speaks to Eason’s levelheadedness. He didn’t jump ship when Richt left or when the offense struggled in 2015. Many fans assumed that Eason wouldn’t stick through the Bobo departure and certainly not through the head coaching change. Yes, he considered his options. That was the prudent thing to do – it would have been foolish not to have had a plan B if Georgia went a different direction with its coaching and scheme. He covered his bases, gave Smart and Chaney an opportunity to make their case, enjoyed a visit with future and prospective teammates, and concluded that “it all got cleared up.”
And so he’ll enroll for spring semester and enter the competition at quarterback. I expect most fans will find spring practice both fascinating and frustrating. All eyes will be on Eason, but I’d be surprised if a 2016 starter emerges.
Then there’s the 2016 season itself. Most of us expect Eason to emerge as the starter, but when? Eason is fabulously gifted, but he’ll have plenty of bad habits to break and a much more sophisticated offense to learn. Even Zeier and Stafford – two quarterbacks similarly heralded – didn’t claim the job exclusively until October of their respective freshman seasons. Smart, with the experienced help of Chaney, will have to manage the transition while avoiding the distraction of a quarterback controversy. Public pressure to play Eason will begin as soon as Eason takes the practice field.
Ideally you’d want a schedule that allowed Eason to ease into the role. 2015 would have been a best case – two easier SEC opponents and two light nonconference games. That’s not the case in 2016 – Georgia starts the season against an ascendant UNC program and will play two SEC road games in September. The Dawgs will need a poised and capable quarterback right from the opener. Do you let Eason take his lumps with the hope that he’ll have figured things out in time for the trip to Oxford?
There have been a few recent developments that might affect Georgia’s quarterback roster. First, Oklahoma reserve Trevor Knight will be a graduate transfer and is considering Georgia. Knight’s track record might look a little too similar to that of Greyson Lambert: former starter, gave way to another quarterback, graduate transfer. Knight was more accomplished as a starter than Lambert though, and he might be a good player to have on the depth chart.
The second development is one reported earlier this week by UGASports.com($). With Brian Schottenheimer no longer a part of the program, Brice Ramsey might have a renewed interest in playing quarterback and could even play in the bowl game. It’s not unheard of for coaching changes to breathe new life into stagnant careers, and a player expected to start the 2015 season might jump at the chance for a fresh start.
The possibility is there that Eason could have a good enough spring and camp that the coaches throw him right into the fire against the Tar Heels. A more likely outcome is that someone else starts the season – be it Ramsey, Knight, or, yes, Lambert. Smart’s experience suggests that he’ll place an emphasis on ball control and a lack of mistakes, and that might not be the strengths of a true freshman. With a capable set of running backs and a good group of defenders returning, coaches will have to consider what attributes at the quarterback position give the team the best chance to win.
It was an impressive first press conference. He’ll have to get right to work assembling a staff and a recruiting class, but he’ll remain at Alabama through the playoffs. As with all new hires, time will tell whether Smart was a good choice, but it’s clear that those who set these wheels in motion after the Florida game got the guy they wanted. Now the hard part begins…
Georgia was selected for the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville. The game will be on Saturday January 2nd at noon with ESPN providing the broadcast. Bryan McClendon will lead the Dawgs into the postseason as the interim head coach. This is the first meeting between these storied programs since the 1983 Sugar Bowl where Penn State knocked off #1 Georgia 27-23 to deny the Dawgs and Herschel Walker the 1982 national championship. Dawg fans of a more recent vintage will recognize Penn State coach James Franklin whose Vanderbilt team upset Georgia in 2013 in Franklin’s final season in Nashville. If you need a score to settle, pick 1983 or 2013 – whatever works for you.
Penn State finished the regular season 7-5. The Nittany Lions have two wins over bowl teams – Indiana and San Diego State. Georgia’s win over Auburn was their only victory over a bowl team. After a 7-2 start PSU lost their final three games against a back-loaded Big 10 schedule.
Both teams will be going through transitions. Georgia of course will play without their 2015 head coach and both coordinators. Penn State dismissed their offensive coordinator after a disappointing season despite having NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback. Freshman tailback Saquon Barkley has been the most consistent element of the offense. Still, the PSU offense has struggled due to a weak offensive line that’s allowed a glut of sacks and negative plays.
Ordinarily we’d relish the thought of Georgia’s pass rush going against a paper-thin offensive line and a pro-style quarterback who had been sacked 39 times in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors and NFL-bound juniors haven’t mentally checked out, this could be one nice last showcase for someone like Floyd or Jenkins. That’s a big if though – some stars mentally collecting NFL checks playing uninspired ball without their beloved coordinator could do more harm than good. Hopefully they’ll make the most of one final live audition for the scouts.
As good as Georgia’s pass rush could be, Penn State leads the nation in sacks with 44. Senior DE Carl Nassib is the Big 10’s defensive player of the year. He’s been limited down the stretch, but it’s expected that he will play in the bowl. Georgia looks to put up a little more resistance, allowing just 13 sacks in 2015. If Georgia’s seniors on the offensive line want a taste of what they’ll face at the next level, they’ll be going up against some top NFL talent on the Penn State defensive front.
So both teams feature stingy defenses and some big questions on offense. Predictions of a low-scoring game make sense. Turnovers, special teams plays, or an explosive play by a healthy Michel, Mitchell, or McKenzie could put Georgia over the top in a close game.
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I wasn’t in favor of dismissing Mark Richt. I recognized that the investment in the program at the end of the 2014 season was going to take some time to begin to pay off, and I believed that Richt had earned the right to coach through that period.
The past few weeks have been a heavy case of deja vu. I remember standing in the parking lot tailgating for the Belk Bowl and the rampant rumors of retirement and whether the bowl game was a referendum on Richt dominated the conversation. With that game in hand, it looked as if Richt had “won.” The program received an infusion of staffers, reorganized the strength program, and it went out and spent money on an offensive coordinator – money that it oddly wasn’t willing to offer outgoing coordinator Mike Bobo. Even if these investments were made grudgingly after a semi-public showdown between Richt (with Pruitt as a proxy) and the administration, it still looked as if Richt had bought himself some time.
Yet less than a year later, here we are again. The program again stumbled in October, but by winning out (even if by the narrowest of margins), it looked as if Richt had steadied the ship. But there was still unrest under the surface. For different reasons, neither coordinator was on solid ground. The horrible experiment and gameplan for Florida with the division title on the line seemed to be the breaking point, and not even four straight wins to end the season could reverse a decision that had been set in motion weeks ago.
A justifiable decision
Even those of us who might disagree with the move must admit that there’s solid reasoning for it. It starts with titles, and there have only been a couple of division titles in a weak SEC East since 2005. Georgia’s performance against ranked teams – those it would consider peers – has dropped off in recent years.
Richt’s desire to become more hands-on with an offense and its quarterbacks was palpable in his Monday press conference, and it was no coincidence that some of the more mundane details that a CEO-style coach must manage were some of Richt’s weaker points as a coach. Roster management has long been an issue, and it was rare that Georgia’s best offenses synced up with its best defenses. Special teams, a strength of Richt’s first few teams, developed maddening inconsistency.
One of the more important administrative details a head coach must handle is assembling a staff. You can go all the way back to the decision to elevate Willie Martinez to defensive coordinator. You can point to the tumultuous years with Todd Grantham. Most recently Brian Schottenheimer proved to be the wrong choice to replace Mike Bobo – even those who expected Richt to stick around did so with the understanding that there would be more changes to the offense after just one failed season with Schottenheimer. A series of poor hires after 1997 brought down Jim Donnan much more quickly, and once again the composition of the staff proved to be a key factor in the downfall of another head coach.
A high bar
It isn’t just that Mark Richt had a career winning percentage of 74% or nine (and possibly ten) 10-win seasons. He’s dominated several of Georgia’s biggest rivals. His success against Tennessee and Auburn was more in line with Georgia’s historical performance against Georgia Tech, and he took the Tech series to a whole new level.
Fans might be accustomed to Georgia winning two out of three against UT and AU and nearly every Tech game now, but it would be a noticeable decline if any of these series returned to “normal.” (Though of course the new coach still has work to do to bring the Florida series back in line.)
Some of the more predictable reactions to the news have come from outside the program – the media and fans of other teams claiming to be shocked or even offended that Georgia would part ways with such a successful coach and great man. Those crazy Georgia fans with their unreasonable expectations. Let’s not pretend that many of these same pundits and reporters haven’t been pushing Mark Richt Hot Seat stories for so long and with such frequency that it became a running gag. Be surprised that Georgia finally pulled the trigger or be sad for the man, but don’t kid us that a move you’ve discussed and debated for over six years is suddenly beyond the pale.
Richt made it a point to draw from and highlight Georgia’s rich football tradition. Some of it was very visible – the Dawg Walk became the focal point of the game day experience. Other actions were less public but just as important. He brought back honorary captains to connect current players with some of Georgia’s greats. He made a big deal out of the Governor’s Cup and took that rivalry with Tech much more seriously than some fans might. Other new coaches, whether out of insecurity or ego, make a clean break to avoid being overshadowed by the past. Richt used Georgia’s legacy to help grow a championship program.
For the wins and losses, complaints and praise, it’s moments like this that defined Georgia football under Mark Richt and why many fans are having a hard time taking the news.
No one does it better than Georgia. Mark Richt made sure of that.
After over 15 years of hypotheticals, site selection, and other projects taking priority, the long-awaited facility, costing in excess of $30 million dollars, will begin to rise adjacent to the northeast side of the Butts-Mehre building after several months of site prep. The construction will disrupt parking and traffic for winter and spring sports in the area, so fans planning to attend basketball, gymnastics, baseball, tennis, and track events should be prepared. Construction is expected to continue through the 2016 football season, and even 2015 bowl practices could be affected. The football team will have to work around the construction, and practices will be relocated out to the Club Sports Complex out on Milledge after some improvements are completed there.
By now you’ve probably seen teams use a punt return tactic that uses a decoy to draw the coverage to the wrong side of the field. When executed correctly, it leaves the actual returner with a clear field ahead of him. If you haven’t seen it in action, this NFL highlight shows the Rams pulling off this decoy for a touchdown.
Seth Emerson reports that Georgia Southern attempted this play on Saturday. Mark Richt admits that “it would’ve been a touchdown.” But this would-be back-breaking return became a forgettable downed punt because snapper Nathan Theus recalled a coaching point from earlier in the season and broke off to cover the play. GSU’s returner decided to let the ball bounce instead, and we yawned and went to commercial break.
At the time Georgia trailed 14-7. I can’t imagine how devastating a special teams score on the heels of their defensive touchdown would have been.
You can see the return being set up here. Most of the blockers and a return man are drifting towards the GSU sideline. A lone GSU player is positioning himself towards the lower left of the screen where the punt is actually headed.
Even the camera is fooled. The shot focuses on the decoy return, but you can just see Theus’s helmet at the bottom where he’s recognized what was happening and had broken off to cover the real return.
On Georgia’s next punt, Theus was once again involved in recovering the fumbled punt. Only two weeks ago he made a fantastic individual play to push aside a Kentucky return man and recover another botched return. Those were both significant plays in those wins, but this disastrous play that wasn’t could wind up being the senior’s biggest play.
By now we should understand that, for better or worse, this is Georgia’s team. The formula hasn’t changed much since the Missouri game. I expect that this was how the coaches hoped the Florida game would go. Georgia quickly ditched the Bauta experiment for a wildcat package, but the plan is the same: run, manage, defend, win. It’s worked in three out of four games.
Greyson Lambert’s final pass attempt was a failed screen to Michel right after that weak pass interference call on Malcolm Mitchell. These were the second and third plays of the fourth quarter. I saw some fans complaining about the conservative playcalling after Jenkins forced the fumble, but it was evident that there was no way the coaches were going to risk a pass, especially with a lead and a reasonable chance to extend that lead to ten points. For the second straight week we heard talk of two quarterbacks seeing action, but again when faced with a close game and a defense performing well, the coaches stayed the course and trusted Lambert just enough to see things through.
Auburn lacked that patience, and it cost them. Though the Tigers struggled to pass the ball in the first half, they were at least competent moving the ball on the ground. Only one of their first half drives failed to reach midfield. Their quarterback shuffle in the third quarter was intended to spark the passing game, but it took away the one thing they were doing well. By the time Jeremy Johnson returned, Auburn was playing from behind without any momentum.
That second half quarterback experiment was red meat held in front of Georgia’s defensive front. It’s been an up-and-down season for the heralded outside linebackers – some injuries, some position uncertainty, and some things we’ll probably never hear about. But as a unit, this was possibly their best game of the season. There have been better individual moments – Jenkins at Vandy, Floyd against Missouri. Floyd, Jenkins, and Carter all performed well at Auburn. Carter’s forced fumble was nearly a carbon copy of Jarvis Jones’ game-saving play against Florida in 2012.
That same defense had a rough start but found a way to keep Georgia in the game. Georgia couldn’t possibly survive a high-scoring game, but it looked as if things were headed that way after Auburn scored with relative ease on their opening drive. It was the first touchdown the defense has allowed in the first quarter all season. The defense, aided by a fantastic acrobatic interception by Parrish, kept Auburn from tacking on more points while the offense sputtered along. Holding the Tigers to three just before halftime proved to be significant. Climbing back from 14-3 would have changed Georgia’s approach to offense in the second half (and might have even resulted in the quarterback shuffle we saw from Auburn.)
It was that ability to plug away that stood out. The team remained tough and determined. There weren’t the second quarter implosions that changed the Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida games. The defense did enough, the offense and special teams avoided mistakes, and finally Georgia was able to flip the game in the third quarter.
I’m still impressed by the number of things that went Georgia’s way in this game.
Auburn had only lost two fumbles entering the game. They doubled that on Saturday.
Auburn also enjoyed a much better turnover margin on the season than Georgia, and they had widened that margin recently after a poor start. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense has now scored six takeaways in two seasons against Auburn. This year’s three weren’t flukey bobbled snaps – Parrish’s INT, Jenkins’ sack, and Carter’s strip were all turnovers created by outstanding individual plays.
According to Mark Richt in his Tuesday press conference, “only four punts (had) been returned on (Auburn) all year. They’re doing a super job on placing the ball in the right spot as far as their punter and their kicker and also doing a great job of covering those kicks.” McKenzie had just enough of an opening to set up a return, and he made the most of it.
Lambert, not known for his running, converted a 3rd-and-3 with a 13-yard scramble that kept alive Georgia’s only offensive touchdown drive. Lambert earlier took a sack on a 3rd-and-1 play-action pass, but this bit of improvisation prevented another third down disaster right after Georgia was forced to use a timeout.
Georgia had the better game on special teams. Davis’s fumble on the first kickoff had things off to a rocky start, but that was the end of the special teams drama. Morgan’s kicks were true. Kickoffs didn’t reach the endzone, but they were covered well with only one returned beyond the 25. Punting was consistent and pinned Auburn deep a few times.
Mark Richt has now won 10 out of his 15 games against Auburn and 8 out of the last 10. For a contested rivalry that’s been as even as this one for over a century, that kind of advantage for Richt over Auburn is one of his top accomplishments.
The most puzzling coaching decision of the game was Auburn bringing zero pressure against Ramsey’s punt from the endzone. This was Ramsey’s first punt in these circumstances since he took over, and Auburn chose to not put any heat on him. Perhaps they were hoping for their own big return, and they did end up with decent field position, but there wasn’t much of a downside to going all-out for a block there. The payoff would have been points or at least a much shorter field and valuable time saved.
Georgia’s decision to stick with Ramsey in that situation was itself an interesting call. Barber of course has much more experience with punting from any spot on the field, but Barber also has some bad experiences with punts from the endzone (Bama this year, Tennessee 2013). Ramsey did well, pressure or not.
The LSU-style quick toss in close quarters (like the one Michel fumbled on second down at the goal line) isn’t a bad call per se, but I do question it when the recipient of the toss has one good hand and a cast on the other. Do you really gain that much over a straight handoff?
Is the shotgun with one yard to go just an admission of defeat?
The offense actually moved the ball at the beginning of the game. They left points on the board at the goal line and missed another opportunity that Morgan salvaged with a field goal, but Georgia controlled possession after Auburn’s initial score. The plays that stalled those drives though were dreadful.
I’m glad to see it get mention on other sites – Douglas’ run on 3rd-and-forever seemed futile, but how important did that field position end up being?
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