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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I see two teams trying to do the same thing – establish early leads with the run and force the other team to play from behind with the weaker part of their offense – the passing game. Each team will try to get there with different tactics: Auburn will push tempo and use plenty of option. Georgia will be more deliberate and pro-style but will still show some of its own option look with the newly-installed wildcat package. Both teams would prefer to use the passing game as a counter-punch whether through play-action or as an option on a packaged play.
Most of us wrote off last week’s win because of Kentucky’s swan dive, but it really was the best blueprint for a win going forward. Get out on top, turn things over to the defense, let the running game wear down the opponent and build the lead, and put the offense in the hands of a quarterback who’s less likely to turn it over. Georgia isn’t built to win many games if things unfold differently.
Before the Kentucky game coaches talked about seeing time for both Lambert and Ramsey, and we did see both in the first half. But as it became obvious that the defense could keep Kentucky off the board and that the running game was starting to break longer runs, Lambert was the only quarterback used. Coaches seem to believe, and I tend to agree, that Lambert is least likely to make the mistakes that could erase a carefully-crafted lead. That might be damning with faint praise, but isn’t that what most “defense + Chubb” preseason analysis boiled down to? We’re hearing the same talk of multiple quarterbacks this week, but the flow of the game will affect who we see. If Georgia again gets a lead and is running the ball well, I expect Lambert to remain in the game to manage the lead. If Georgia’s in a hole, that might be when we throw caution to the wind and see more of Ramsey.
Georgia’s offense certainly isn’t built for the three-touchdown comeback we saw in 2013. We’re not going to win a shootout in the 30s without a lot of help from defense and special teams (as at Tennessee.) The Georgia defense was overwhelmed by this offense two seasons ago before making just enough stops in the second half to facilitate the comeback. But that was a different defense and a different coordinator. The Dawgs didn’t exactly stop Auburn last year, but they made enough plays and forced enough turnovers to allow the offense to pull away. The Dawgs only posted 123 passing yards on 19 attempts last year, and that’s exactly how they’d like things to look on Saturday.
Auburn is probably a little better structured for a comeback. They’ve already come back from 14 down at Arkansas to force overtime. Passing is definitely the weaker part of their offense, but they do have the ability to go vertical and find Louis downfield. They’ll also try to stretch the field horizontally with quick receiver screens and jet sweeps as elements of their option. A good tackler like Parrish could be poised to make some big plays on the outside.
The ideal offensive strategy for each team seems to play into the strength of the opposing defense. Georgia has been better against the run (Tennessee notwithstanding), and Auburn’s defensive line has a couple of legitimate stars in Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson. Each team has welcomed back an injured defensive lineman – Lawson has made a huge difference over the past two games, and Chris Mayes played a significant role in Georgia’s shutdown of Kentucky. Speaking of Tennessee, I wonder if Malzahn doesn’t try to get Jeremy Johnson a little more involved in the running game after seeing what Dobbs was able to do to Georgia. Johnson has only run the ball 26 times for a net of 75 yards this year, but he is second on the team in rushing touchdowns.
It will be a much more difficult challenge for Georgia’s shuffled offensive line. The crowd noise will be a factor, though the noon kickoff beats a later start. Georgia’s tackles were abused by the Auburn outside rush two years ago, and Lawson will present another tough assignment wherever he lines up – especially if it’s opposite Wynn who will be making just his second start at left tackle. That dominant Auburn line two years ago took away the run, but the Dawgs more than made up for it a year ago in Athens with 289 yards on the ground. Last year it was Gurley and Chubb chewing up yards on the ground. Now Michel, Marshall, and even Godwin, Hicks, Douglas, and others will hope to have similar results.
The spring retirement of Andy Landers shook the women’s basketball nation. One of the country’s winningest coaches and a member of the sport’s Hall of Fame stepped aside after 36 seasons. The announcement of assistant Joni Crenshaw (now Taylor) as Landers’ replacement came as a surprise – not because she was unqualified but because of her role in a Georgia program that had started to slide the wrong way.
Now as the head coach Taylor must draw from and build on the deep tradition of the program while giving it a fresh and energetic new image. She’ll have to rebuild the talent level of the program and convince elite recruits, especially from the state of Georgia, to come to Athens. With established and ascendant contenders plentiful in the SEC and the region, it will be a big challenge to build the kind of roster that would have Georgia back competing for SEC and national honors. She’ll be asked to do it while maintaining the academic and character standards that were a hallmark of the program she inherits.
Taylor is under immediate pressure to keep one long-standing program streak alive. Georgia hasn’t missed back-to-back NCAA Tournaments since 1980 and 1981, Landers’ first two seasons. That kind of streak shows what the expectations are here. Taylor, a member of the staff since 2011, understands those expectations and has embraced them. Her no-nonsense style has helped her establish authority with the returning team and assured that there won’t be any slacking off in accountability just because Landers has stepped aside.
Georgia lost two fan favorites to graduation. Forward Krista Donald and guard Erika Ford were important contributors during their four seasons, and the Lady Dogs will especially miss Donald’s toughness inside. Ford was a streaky shooter but became instant offense when she was on. That kind of production – the defense and rebounding of Donald and the scoring of Ford – is what you expect to lose from four-year veterans, but they leave vacant some significant roles.
Two other players no longer appear on the roster. Forward Nasheema Oliver missed most of the year with an injury and transferred to Georgia State during the offseason. Guard Jasmine Carter struggled with recurring symptoms after a couple of concussions, and I wouldn’t blame her if she hung up the sneakers.
Georgia welcomes three new faces to the team. Shanea Armbrister is a 6’2″ JUCO transfer wing who is expected to help the offense. She’s picked up international experience over the past two years representing the Bahamas and had over 15 PPG to lead her team to a gold medal at this summer’s Caribbean Basketball Confederation Championship. Unfortunately she’s battling knee issues and probably won’t be available until later in the season.
The lone frontcourt signee is 6’3″ Caliya Robinson from Marietta, a top-50 national recruit. Robinson can bang inside and rebound but also run the court and score with the jumpshot. Like Armbrister, Robinson has been limited by a past knee injury and might be limited early in the season. The Lady Dogs do have a bit of frontcourt depth, but they’d like to bring Robinson along this year as Hempe and Barbee prepare to graduate. Former coach Andy Landers called incoming guard Amber Skidgel a “pure shooter.” She’s a three-point specialist who will help Georgia’s perimeter game but must work to round out the rest of her game.
Four seniors highlight a deep returning cast. Point guard Marjorie Butler enters her second season running the point. Shooting guard Tiaria Griffin will be a key player on offense and must improve her consistency and ball-handling. Forwards Merritt Hempe and Shacobia Barbee were sidelined for significant stretches last season, and the team missed them. Hempe missed several weeks battling mono and returned for the postseason. Barbee was lost for a longer time with a broken leg, and the Lady Dogs went 2-9 down the stretch without her. Barbee had emerged as the team’s top scorer, rebounder, and defender, and that production was never quite replaced. Hempe likewise was making strides as a junior before her illness. She’s become a potent inside scoring threat but must avoid unnecessary fouls, especially away from the basket.
Georgia returns several experienced underclassmen as well. Mackenzie Engram had an immediate impact as a freshman and ended up starting seven games. Her versatility will be counted on again. Halle Washington is Georgia’s other interior option and made progress during Hempe’s absence. Like Hempe, foul trouble has proven to be Washington’s nemesis and will be the chief obstacle in the way of continued development. Haley Clark saw time as a freshman backing up Butler at the point and even earned a few starts. She was able to push the tempo a bit more than Butler, and tempo has been one of the points stressed by Coach Taylor during the preseason.
Strengths and weaknesses
The continuity of the four seniors is this team’s biggest strength. Taylor will have a built-in leadership group for her debut season. Barbee is a potential all-conference player, and Hempe or Griffin could carry the team on a given night. The team will be strongest up front with Barbee, Hempe, Engram, and Washington. If the posts can manage foul trouble, and especially if Caliya Robinson can contribute, Georgia could prove formidable inside.
One key question is at point guard. Butler can be steady but deliberate running the point. If Taylor wants to push the ball, Butler will have to work faster than the tempo with which she was most comfortable last year. Clark showed promise but still looked very much like a freshman. Her offseason development will determine Taylor’s options running the offense. Either way, offensive production from the point guard position must increase.
For several seasons the biggest challenge for the Lady Dogs has been scoring points. They’ve tried to compensate with defense, but eventually you must score. The shocking 26-point output against Auburn last season was the low point, but many of the same players will be tasked with turning it around. Barbee will likely be the focal point, but the team needs more balance from outside. The team has hovered around 28-30% from behind the arc for several seasons, and the three-point shot has been too big a part of the offense with a percentage like that. Skidgel will have her moments off the bench, but much of the backcourt production will have to come from Griffin and Butler with Barbee, Engram, and even Hempe occasionally stepping outside.
Ideally, the team would prefer to generate easier transition baskets through pressure defense. That was the formula that took Andy Landers to the Hall of Fame, but the team has gotten away from it. Fouls, depth, and simply ability led Landers to use more zone, and even the most active zone won’t produce the transition opportunities that a good press will. Taylor’s ability to get the team’s style of play turned back around will determine how different this season is from the past several. Whether she has the personnel to play her preferred style is a big uncertainty though.
Georgia will be tested immediately in the nonconference schedule. Within the first three games, the Lady Dogs will travel to #24 Michigan State and host rival Georgia Tech. There’s a Thanksgiving tournament in California and then an important early December home game against Seton Hall. The rest of the nonconference slate is manageable, and only a trip to Wright State will break up a long homestand that takes the team into conference play. Including SEC foes, Georgia will play a total of six teams ranked in the preseason AP poll.
The SEC rotation sets up so that Georgia will play South Carolina and Tennessee just once. Unfortunately each of those games is on the road, so Lady Dog fans won’t have an opportunity to see the top SEC contenders in Athens. The Lady Dogs will have home-and-home SEC games with Florida, LSU, and Missouri. The conference schedule is book-ended by some tough opponents: Texas A&M and Kentucky will be two of the first three SEC opponents. South Carolina and Tennessee appear at the tail end of the season.
The SEC Tournament will be in Jacksonville for the first time. South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State were picked by the coaches to finish 1-4 in the SEC.
SEC media and coaches predicted a ninth-place finish for the Lady Dogs. That’s where they finished last season, and it implies an SEC record around or just below .500. That’s usually marginal for an NCAA Tournament bid and often on the wrong side of the bubble. This is as meaningless as any preseason poll, but it does serve to help set expectations: ESPN’s preseason bracket does not include Georgia. In that light, a return to the postseason would seem to exceed expectations. But in the context of Georgia’s tradition, it’s almost an imperative. Failure to reach the NCAA Tournament would put the program in a position it hasn’t known in over 30 years, but earning a bid and returning Georgia to the postseason would be an important feather in the cap for a coach who needs every advantage she can get to make an immediate impact on the recruiting trail.
As with last season, the in-conference performance will make or break the season. The nonconference slate, even with a couple of tougher opponents, lends itself to a good record entering SEC play. A .500 record or better in the league should get the Lady Dogs into the postseason. Things were headed in that direction last season before the injuries hit, and Georgia’s core should be good enough to get them there this year without another onslaught of setbacks.
Florida came into the 2010 Georgia game winless in October with a punchless offense that had scored a combined 13 points in losses to Alabama and Mississippi State. Urban Meyer’s response to that slump might sound a little familiar.
The Gators used their bye week to tweak their floundering offense. They got running back Jeff Demps healthy, worked Chris Rainey into the mix and used several different looks with John Brantley, (Trey) Burton and Jordan Reed lining up at quarterback.
Of all the changes, a greater role for the freshman Burton proved to be the most effective. He ran for 110 yards on 17 carries and two scores from the quarterback position including a 51-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
When we heard that Faton Bauta was, if not starting, poised to take on a larger role in Georgia’s offense against Florida, my mind first went to Burton and 2010. With a running back (Michel) getting healthy and McKenzie available, Georgia’s version of the Demps/Rainey/Burton trio was taking shape. It didn’t preclude using Lambert; Brantley still had a role in the 2010 game. It seemed reasonable to shake things up given Georgia’s unproductive October offense, and so there was a little excitement to see what the coaches could do with Bauta given a bye week and some talent at the skill positions.
Alas, we overestimated a few things. First and foremost was the creativity of the coaches. Bauta’s mobility was largely limited to play-action rollouts, and after a tantalizing look on Georgia’s first snap, we saw very little difference in Georgia’s offense. Is Bauta really that capable of a runner? We may never know.
But beyond the offense Bauta and his teammates were asked to run, they still had to execute those plays. As much as we all have problems with the playcalling, some big plays were left on the table. Rome missed two potential touchdown catches – one was dropped, but another was thrown behind him. A devastating stop-and-go by Mitchell was wide-open, but Houston couldn’t protect the back side. Georgia had two penalties on its first possession, and one erased an electrifying run by Michel that could have given Georgia some early confidence and momentum. Both penalties were committed by seniors. It’s those details – accuracy, sure catching, blocks, penalties – that can come to define a game or a season or a coach.
I’ll say this for the passing game – there were more open receivers than I can recall seeing in a while. The tight ends were more involved. The cat-and-mouse game Bauta played with a defender before lobbing the ball to Rome for a first down was a good example of what you can get with a more mobile quarterback. But the highlights were few and far between the poorly-executed plays. Perhaps that’s to be expected when a quarterback who’s been taking third-string reps all season gets the nod. Then again, perhaps that’s why he was third string. Did the coaches put him in the best position to succeed with so many pass attempts and so few runs?
While the passing game teased us, the running game just disappointed. When a few bursts by Marshall have everyone discussing more playing time for him, you know there wasn’t much else going on. We know now that Michel played most of the game with a broken hand, and no one can question his toughness. There’s talk of shaking up the offensive line now, but it has to be asked how many problems dominant backs like Gurley and Chubb covered up.
I thought the defense did a good job of building on their success against Missouri. Georgia did a much better job containing the run this year, though a few leaked out late especially after the deflating interception that ended Georgia’s best scoring chance. But containment isn’t just about the running game. Though Georgia’s pressure was as good as it’s been all season, it continued to have difficulties finishing off the play. Several of Florida’s biggest passing plays, both in terms of yardage and significance, came after Harris eluded initial pressure. That’s going to happen from time to time with any mobile quarterback, but Georgia was in the backfield far too often to only come away with two sacks.
The defense did what they could to stop the bleeding in the second half. They caused a rare Florida turnover that gave the offense a short field, and a fourth down stop near the Georgia goal line started the team’s last stand that ultimately fell short. Individuals like Bellamy and Ganus played outstanding games. But so many turnovers and another special teams error made these individual efforts almost futile.
You haven’t heard this much about containment outside of Cold War foreign policy. Yes, setting the edge and avoiding last year’s staggering failure against the run is important. Georgia’s done fairly well over the past couple of games limiting a couple of capable tailbacks. Jalen Hurd was held to 80 yards, and Russell Hansbrough was a non-factor.
The issue then becomes Treon Harris. While Georgia was bottling up Hurd in Knoxville, Josh Dobbs ran for over 100 yards and accounted for over 400 yards of total offense. He did his damage on straight running plays but also bought himself time until receivers came open. Harris, while not as experienced or polished as Dobbs, is capable of similar production if Georgia pays too much attention to Kelvin Taylor.
Harris wasn’t asked to do much against Georgia last year, and why would he have been? His backs were doing just fine. Harris still ended up with 5 yards per carry on six rushing attempts. You’d expect him to be a little more involved this year in an improved Florida offense. With the running game struggling against LSU, Harris threw for 271 yards against a suspect Tiger secondary. He was aided by his receivers turning receptions into long gains: all six Florida players who caught a pass had at least one reception over 15 yards, and three players had a reception go for at least 30 yards.
Georgia received some good news along the defensive front this week – Jordan Jenkins, Chris Mayes, and John Atkins seem likely to return to action. Leonard Floyd turned it up at the end of the Missouri game and seems to be back home outside. The shoulder that limited Floyd at the end of 2014 was already a factor in the 2014 Florida game, but he’s in good health now. There’s quality depth too: Bellamy, DeLoach, and Bailey are veterans, and Trent Thompson seems to get better weekly.
The Florida offensive line is a bit of a miracle considering the shape they were in during the spring, but there still have been some issues with consistency. The line was a big part of their win over Ole Miss, but they’re near the bottom of the league in sacks allowed. Early physical play from the Georgia defensive front, especially freshman Jordan Jenkins, set the tone for a hard-fought win in 2012. Georgia didn’t take advantage of a patchwork Tennessee offensive line, and there won’t be many bigger opportunities for redemption.
While Georgia’s performance against the run cost them the game last year, it was the 9th time in 14 games that Georgia had scored 20 or fewer points in Jacksonville. The Dawgs are 4-1 against Florida under Richt when breaking 20 points and 1-8 when they don’t.
The Dawgs got out to a 7-0 lead last season and looked to be rolling, but they couldn’t extend the lead. A 3rd-and-2 Chubb rush at midfield was stuffed. Georgia then forced and recovered a fumble but missed a field goal. Florida took the momentum with their fake field goal and ripped off a quick 14 points. This was still a 14-7 game at halftime, but Georgia’s offense never got going again while the Gator rushing attack took over in the third quarter.
Meanwhile back in 2015, Georgia’s offense hasn’t contributed more than 17 points in a game since Southern a month ago. They’ve had a few weeks now to sort out the approach to the running game without Chubb. Michel was dinged up against Missouri but still ran fairly well and is healthier after a few days off last week. The Dawgs missed those explosive runs though, and hopefully Michel’s hip pointer was the difference. They’ll also have to do a better job of getting to the edge, whether with Michel or with receiver sweeps, and perimeter blocking needs to take a big step forward.
It’s anyone’s guess what we’ll see from the passing game. Not to harp on the midseason injury thing, but Reggie Davis hobbled off after the opening kickoff against Missouri and limited Georgia’s deep threat. Isaiah McKenzie should be back too, and we’ll see if he can contribute anything beyond special teams. Malcolm Mitchell could draw extra attention from Vernon Hargreaves, one of the best cornerbacks in the nation. Both teams have talented sets of tight ends, but Florida’s TEs have been far more productive.
It will be a significant challenge to break that 20-point barrier against this Florida defense. The Gators are top four in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense. Their line, anchored by standout Jonathan Bullard, is third in sacks and will be a stiff test for a Georgia offensive line that has allowed only eight sacks this season.
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Following a combined 7-of-31 conversion rate on third down against Alabama and Tennessee, Georgia made third down a focus in the week leading up to the Missouri game. The Dawgs were a much more respectable 9-of-19 in that game against a very good defense. Let’s have a look.
Georgia was at 50% or better in 3 of 4 quarters, but that third quarter should be no surprise to anyone who watched both teams sputter out of the locker room. Lambert was just 1-of-3 in the quarter with a sack, and the lone completion was a 2-yard pass to Michel when the Dawgs needed four yards. Things picked up after Missouri’s fumbled punt return; Georgia closed the game converting 4 of their final 7 opportunities including a couple of key fourth quarter conversions that moved them into position for the game-winning points.
4 or less: 5-8
As you might expect, Georgia converted at a higher rate closer to the first down marker. (That hasn’t always been the case this year.) If Georgia could get anything positive on first or second down, they moved the chains 9 out of 17 times.
Inside Missouri 20: 0-4
Inside Missouri 40: 3-4
Between the 40s: 4-7
Inside Georgia 40: 2-4
Now we’re getting somewhere. Georgia got most of their third down conversions between the 20s but got shut out in the red zone. That aside, the Dawgs moved the ball fairly well into good field position. That mattered as the second half wore on and it became obvious that points would be scarce. Georgia was only 2-for-4 on their own end of the field, but one of those failed conversions led to the fumbled punt.
7-9 (5 converted), 64 yards, 7.11 YPA, long 16
That’s…not terrible? Georgia converted the first down on five of their nine passing attempts. (Add in two sacks though, and Georgia was 5-for-11 when Lambert intended to throw on third down.) Lambert continued to be unpredictable. His stats coming into the game indicated trouble between 4 and 9 yards to go, but that’s where he had most of his third down success against Missouri. He was just 2-for-17 at that distance coming into the game, but he was 6-for-8 with four conversions against the Tigers. Meanwhile the deep ball that worked well at Tennessee wasn’t a factor against Missouri. Reggie Davis injured himself on the opening kickoff, and that limited Georgia’s emerging deep threat.
Sony Michel was clearly Georgia’s most successful rushing option on third down, but even he was just over 3 yards per carry. If Douglas is now the power back (he also carried on Georgia’s failed fourth down attempt), there’s some work to be done. We never saw Marshall on third down, and Hicks was needed at fullback. Perhaps the return of Christian Payne makes Hicks more of an option now in those short-yardage situations.
All better, right?
Nearly 50% on third down is definitely an improvement, but facing 19 third downs tells you the kind of game Georgia played. Without many of the explosive plays produced by the offense earlier in the year, Georgia had to drive in small chunks, and that required stringing together more than 2 or 3 first downs. When those methodical drives stall inside the opponent’s 20 without any long runs or deep passes, you end up with four field goal attempts.
Should the offense be encouraged? Sure – they moved from under 25% in the previous two games to about 50% in this game against a respectable defense, and moving the chains beats the alternative. Under 4 yards per play on third down is nothing to celebrate though when the team’s average on all downs is over 6 yards per play. The conversion rate is a positive to build on, but there are still problems closer to the goal line against a more compact defense.