Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post The 84 that will start preseason camp

Thursday August 1, 2019

Preseason camp opens on Friday, and we’ll get our first practices with the complete 2019 roster. 14 members of the incoming class went through spring practice, and the rest of the class arrived earlier in the summer for offseason workouts. There’s been some additional attrition since spring, but by and large the team that reports will be intact. Returning players made grades, and all incoming players qualified.

Georgia is, by my count, at 84 scholarship players entering camp. They were at the limit of 85 until early June when JJ Holloman was dismissed. Kirby Smart will likely use that scholarship to expand the size of the 2020 class, but it might also mean that a senior walk-on earns a full ride this year. Then again, Ahkil Crumpton didn’t join the 2017 squad until August, so it’s possible that Smart is still out there beating the bushes to find a late transfer to use that open scholarship. Stay tuned.

I like using the “recruiting roster” format below to get a quick sense of how the talent on the team is distributed across classes and positions.

The first thing you’ll notice is how the roster is weighted towards the left side of the table – 50 of the 84 have at least three years of eligibility remaining. That’s not a shock – with early enrollment and the transfer portal, all teams are young teams now. When you’ve recruited this well, just about anyone could be called on to play. That’s especially true of the defense – Ojulari and Wilson were the only defensive newcomers redshirted last year, and they were injured. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the majority of Georgia’s team now comes from the 2018 and 2019 classes rated #1 in the nation by some recruiting services.

It looks like a relatively small senior class, but we can expect that group to be augmented by some juniors declaring for the draft, particularly on offense. Pretty much every position group on offense other than TE has potential junior pro prospects. We have a whole season to play before fretting about 2020, but if Fromm and Swift declare for the draft, Georgia’s skill positions will be light on upperclassmen. It’s a problem for down the road, but there could be a fairly large leadership vacuum (and opportunity!) on the offense in 2020.

For now though it’s an impressive looking group. Georgia is starting to accumulate nice depth across the board. Barring injuries, the Dawgs might not have to lean on true freshmen as much as they have in the past couple of years. Some like George Pickens and Nolan Smith might be ready sooner than others, but the staff can plug these newcomers in when it makes sense and not because there are no other options.

(Possible Day-One starters are in bold – just a best guess using the post-spring depth chart from UGASports.com. [R] indicates a player who has redshirted.)

Years of Eligibility Remaining
  4 3 2 1
QB D’wan Mathis Stetson Bennett Jake Fromm  
RB Kenny McIntosh
Zamir White [R]
James Cook D’Andre Swift Brian Herrien
TE Ryland Goede
John FitzPatrick [R]
Brett Seither
    Charlie Woerner
Eli Wolf
WR Dominick Blaylock
Tommy Bush [R]
Kearis Jackson [R]
George Pickens
Matt Landers Trey Blount
Demetris Robertson
Lawrence Cager
Tyler Simmons
OL Owen Condon
Warren Ericson [R]
Warren McClendon
Xavier Truss
Clay Webb
Trey Hill
Cade Mays
Jamaree Salyer
Isaiah Wilson [R]
Ben Cleveland [R]
Solomon Kindley [R]
Justin Shaffer
Andrew Thomas
D’Marcus Hayes
DL Zion Logue
Tymon Mitchell
Bill Norton
Travon Walker
Jordan Davis
Netori Johnson
Tramel Walthour
Malik Herring
Devonte Wyatt
Justin Young [R]
Michael Barnett
Michail Carter
Tyler Clark
David Marshall
Julian Rochester
LB Rian Davis
Nakobe Dean
Trezmen Marshall
Azeez Ojulari [R]
Nolan Smith
Adam Anderson
Robert Beal
Brenton Cox
Channing Tindall
Quay Walker
Walter Grant
Jermaine Johnson
Nate McBride
Monty Rice
Tae Crowder
DB Lewis Cine
Tyrique Stevenson
Makiya Tongue
Divaad Wilson [R]
Latavious Brini
Tyson Campbell
Otis Reese
Christopher Smith
Ameer Speed
Eric Stokes
DJ Daniel
Richard LeCounte
William Poole
Mark Webb
Tyrique McGhee
J.R. Reed
Specialists   Jake Camarda   Rodrigo Blankenship
28 22 19 15

Post Fromm is perfect for Georgia but not a Heisman candidate

Thursday July 11, 2019

Jake Fromm is an outstanding quarterback and the best possible person to lead Georgia’s offense. He’s beaten out and held off two higher-rated quarterbacks because he does exactly what Kirby Smart and the staff ask of him: run the offense efficiently, make plays to sustain drives, and avoid critical mistakes. He’s been a leader from the moment he took over from Eason, and he’ll likely be a high draft pick when he chooses to leave Georgia. The Dawgs aren’t going to go far this year without Fromm playing at least as well as he did in his first two seasons.

With that said, he’s not going to win the Heisman. Put another way, if Fromm is even in the Heisman conversation at year end, something has gone very, very wrong with Georgia’s offensive identity.

Individual moments of excellence are part of any Heisman season, and it doesn’t hurt to be on a winning team. Fromm checks those boxes. Fromm’s stats last season were more than respectable: 67.4% completion rate, 2,761 yards, 30 TD / 6 INT, and 9.0 yards per attempt. They’re comparable to the stats from his freshman campaign in 2017 during Georgia’s run to the national title game. But compared with the ten most recent quarterbacks to win the Heisman since Tim Tebow in 2007, those numbers aren’t competitive.

These ten Heisman-winning quarterbacks have met one of two criteria:

  • Gaudy passing numbers: 6 of the 10 threw for at least 4,000 yards in their Heisman seasons. Half threw for over 40 TD.
  • Dual-threat ability: 7 of the 10 rushed for at least 699 yards in their Heisman seasons. 7 accounted for at least 10 rushing touchdowns.

Of course most of them showed some combination of the two – that’s why they stood out over everyone else. All threw for at least 3,200 yards except for Cam Newton, and he made up for it with 20 rushing TDs and nearly 1,500 rushing yards. All rushed for at least 5 TD except for Jameis Winston, but he passed for over 4,000 yards and 40 TD. Kyler Murray set a ridiculous bar with over 4,300 passing yards, 1,000 rushing yards, and a total of 54 touchdowns.

Heisman quarterbacks are expected to be at least a credible threat to run the ball, and Fromm hasn’t shown that to date. Oh, he’s not a potted plant and has the vision and creativity to move around the pocket. But in two seasons, he has a grand total of 52 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. Last year he had zero rushing touchdowns and negative rushing yardage. And that was with a five-star quarterback on the bench behind him. With an unsettled backup situation in 2019, how willing do you expect the staff to be to call many designed runs for Fromm?

If they’re not going to create Heisman moments on the ground, quarterbacks have to put up head-spinning numbers through the air. Sam Bradford only rushed for 47 yards in 2008, but he threw for over 4,700 yards and a whopping 50 touchdowns. Baker Mayfield had 311 rushing yards in 2017 but passed for 43 TD and over 4,600 yards at a completion rate over 70%.

With Fromm’s rushing stats, he’d have to have about 75% more passing yards and 15-20 more TDs this year than in either of his first two seasons to get into Bradford territory. Does that sound like Georgia’s offense? The Dawgs might have a new offensive coordinator, but there’s no chance that Kirby Smart will prefer anything but heavy doses of Swift and the other backs behind one of the nation’s biggest and best lines. (*) If Georgia is as successful as we hope they’ll be, think about how infrequently the Dawgs pass the ball when they’re salting away a comfortable second half lead. Consider also the amount of production gone from the receiver and tight end positions, and it might be an impressive feat just to approach 3,000 yards through the air.

Enjoy Jake Fromm for what he is and appreciate his mastery of his role on this team.

* – Is Swift a more realistic Heisman candidate? Georgia’s recent tailbacks haven’t been Heisman finalists largely due to how well-rounded the group has been. Sharing carries and production has been great for the team and the endurance of the individual backs, but no one back has been able to pile up huge numbers. That might change a little this year depending on how much Zamir White can contribute or whether Cook, Herrien, or McIntosh can prove themselves worthy of splitting carries with a healthy Swift.

Post “I will know when you come in and what you buy and when.”

Monday June 24, 2019

Daniel Kaplan at the Athletic has a piece looking at the push at sporting events towards cashless transactions. Stadiums and arenas, especially newer ones opening with the technology already baked in, are foregoing cash at point-of-sale locations. Fans must either use credit cards or NFC-enabled devices (watch or phone) to buy concessions, merchandise, and anything else while they’re in the stadium.

The appeal of cashless transactions is convenience and speed. Using cash isn’t exactly as slow as writing a check in the grocery store line, but you still have to count out money and wait for change to be made. A tap or a swipe should be quicker, provided everyone in line knows how the system works – not always a sure thing.

Kaplan points out an issue with cashless payments that shouldn’t be overlooked: not all fans have smartphones, and certain groups and income levels are less likely to have credit or debit cards. Some facilities are addressing this issue with “reverse ATMs” where fans can load cash onto prepaid debit cards, but even that requires someone to plan out how much to load on the card. That will often be more than they intend to spend if they don’t want to get caught at the register with less on their prepaid card than they need.

It’s not just about the fans of course. Going cashless isn’t without benefits to the stadiums and teams, and this is probably the most interesting part of Kaplan’s piece. Electronic transactions provide countless opportunities for data-mining and tracking. Sure, no one has to buy anything at the ballpark, but even the ticket to get in the place is now often tied to a phone.

Steve Cannon, CEO of the group that owns Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium and the sports teams that play there, points out how the data might be used to improve the customer experience. Teams can learn what fans do and don’t like and even offer coupons and discounts. It doesn’t take long for things to get a little creepy though. “We will have a much more nuanced understanding of what your likes are,” Cannon explained. As more elements of the gameday experience from ticketing to parking to concessions to merchandise are routed through team-controlled apps, Cannon is very clear about what it all means: “‘I will know when you come in,’ he concluded, ‘and what you buy and when.'”

Will Leitch recently wrote about the trend of sports teams and arenas chasing fans willing to spend top-dollar for “exclusive” seating, access, and benefits. Leitch cites studies that estimate “70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows.” Modern stadiums don’t tout capacity anymore; it’s now about the courtside bar.

Whether someone buys a hotdog or a jersey is useful information (hey, here’s a coupon for our online team store!) but still fairly small potatoes. Businesses requiring cashless payments is nothing new, and neither is data-mining a customer’s purchase history. As the stadium experience is tailored more and more for the higher-end customer Leitch describes, those are the fans about which teams will want to know as much as possible. Knowing the purchasing habits and preferences of someone willing to pay thousands of dollars for a premium experience is valuable. Many companies would go to great lengths to be able to focus their marketing efforts at that audience, and teams will be able to monitor (and even customize) that fan’s entire event experience by funneling as many actions as possible through their app.

Sanford Stadium’s concession stand fundraising-group-of-the-week is almost refreshing in its low-tech anonymity.

Post Claxton drafted, Howard signed

Monday June 24, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Post More like Clemson every day

Wednesday May 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Post Want a beer? Get in line now.

Wednesday May 29, 2019

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

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

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

Post Football isn’t brain surgery

Tuesday May 28, 2019

But this is. Yikes.

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

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

Post Keep your seats, everyone

Thursday May 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Hoop Dawgs backcourt takes shape

Tuesday May 14, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Post Hunter’s transfer hits hard

Monday April 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

Post 2019 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2019

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

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

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

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

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

The Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Transfers, young teams, and a story pitch

Tuesday February 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post The case of the rooster that didn’t crow

Monday February 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Crean’s first recruiting coup

Wednesday February 13, 2019

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

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

Some realty though –

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Eli’s Comin’

Friday February 8, 2019

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

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

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

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