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Post Daring to look forward to an almost-normal spring

Wednesday March 17, 2021

Georgia’s 2021 spring practice began this week. A full spring practice is the first sign of a return to normalcy for the 2021 season, and we hope the team is able to see it through until G-Day. As with any normal spring we’re excited to get a look at the newcomers and how the team will take shape. Georgia should again be favored to take the SEC East, and the schedule sets itself up for the team to be in the playoff discussion. Here are a couple of areas worth watching through the spring and summer as we see if the program can take a step forward.

Keeping the band together. Even before the Sugar Bowl win over Baylor, the program knew that a significant transition was underway. By the time the dust cleared, just about every element of the offense would change from 2019 to 2020. Then came the pandemic. A new coordinator would have to install his offense with a new quarterback (himself new to the program), and it would have to happen without spring practice, over Zoom calls, and then during the limited contact allowed after June. Then shortly before the season, that quarterback opted out. The process started over again, and just one game into the season it started yet again.

Fans welcomed the changes after 2019, but the hope for 2021 is continuity. Georgia has already survived two big challenges to that continuity. First, key draft-eligible players on the offense – among them Daniels, White, Salyer, and Cook – chose to remain in the program. Second, the offensive coaching staff remains intact. It wouldn’t have been unprecedented for Todd Monken to jump back to the NFL after one season (see Joe Brady.) Dell McGee heads up the successful Georgia running game and can recruit with the best. Matt Luke could be tempted at another head coaching offer. Any assistant – offense, defense, or special teams – with experience at a top-level program like Georgia is going to be considered when openings come up. Georgia did well to keep these assistants happy and on board for another season.

So Georgia’s offensive overhaul gets what it didn’t have in 2020: the opportunity for a spring and offseason of work with stable personnel and coaching. There are still threats to that stability: the transfer portal never closes, and injuries could disrupt reps and conditioning work or even cost a season. But those are realities for any team, and Georgia is as well-positioned as any to make the most of a full offseason. We should expect a benefit, but will it show up soon enough to make a difference against Clemson?

How will the defense evolve? For the second straight season, Georgia’s defense finished the season #1 in Bill Connelly’s (ESPN) SP+ metric. But for the second straight season, elite offenses that went on to the postseason gave Georgia plenty of trouble. Is there a defensive response to the explosive offenses that now dominate the top of college football? Focusing in on one position – outside linebacker – might tell us which way that wind is blowing.

The outside linebacker has been the glamour position in the 3-4 defense since Lawrence Taylor terrorized NFL quarterbacks in the 1980s. Since Georgia switched to a 3-4 look in 2010 under Todd Grantham, outside linebackers from Justin Houston to Azeez Ojulari have been some of the standouts of the Bulldog defense and some of its higher draft picks. The position has also been the highlight of Georgia’s top-rated signing classes under Kirby Smart. The question now though is how to get them on the field.

Nolan Smith was considered a top five prospect in the nation two years ago. Adam Anderson was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle between Georgia and LSU. Against Mississippi State, Anderson played on 23% of possible plays. Smith played on 18%. Against South Carolina, it was 17% for Smith and 15% for Anderson. That’s not meant as a criticism of Smart’s scheme or substitution patterns; depth allows you to use players in situations that play to their strengths. It’s tough to argue with the results: Georgia was again at the top of the SP+ defensive rankings in 2020.

As Seth Emerson wrote in December (via Blutarsky), “the snaps have in fact gone down for outside linebackers because of the prevalence of passing attacks in the SEC, necessitating more nickel and dime formations by Georgia.” Georgia’s base defense even on standard downs might only have one outside linebacker on the field. Obvious passing situations allow for a sub package with multiple OLBs, but that comes with its own tradeoffs and isn’t a three-down strategy.

Of course attention will be on the secondary due to uncertain personnel and numbers. But the secondary and OLB questions go hand-in-hand. The trend might be towards more nickel and dime at the expense of outside linebackers, but that might not suit Georgia’s strengths. If tight numbers strain Georgia’s secondary, how might it dip in to its deep pool of talent at other positions? Can the pass rush help to compensate for inexperience at other levels? While the offense will use the spring to reinforce the changes introduced last season, the defense will try to find its best groups of personnel to adapt to modern offenses.

Who will be available? Not many people expected the 2020 quarterback situation to play out as it did. We knew about J.T. Daniels’ knee injury but assumed a normal recovery timetable. As the season wore on, impatient fans questioned why each week came and went without Daniels making his debut. The answer, as much as we didn’t like it, was that he just wasn’t ready yet. The starting quarterback is the highest-profile position on the team, so a constant Daniels Watch was unavoidable. Other positions receive less scrutiny. Players simply don’t see the field – or see it much less than we might expect. Arian Smith flew under the radar until his own November debut. Players like Monty Rice played as much as they could through lingering injuries that never quite healed up.

Anthony Dasher counts about 10 Bulldogs who will miss or be limited during spring including a few starters like Nakobe Dean. Most of these injuries will clear up, and some might even clear up during spring. Coaches might favor caution and keep others out of contact until preseason practice. And still others will linger on into the season, disrespecting the calendar of the season. Every so often these injuries become chronic, like Jonathan Ledbetter’s Achilles, and hamper the player for several seasons.

With the questions surrounding the secondary this offseason, the defense is counting on Kelee Ringo to provide some answers. Ringo was a gem in the 2020 signing class but missed the season due to preseason labrum surgery. He’s not quite cleared for spring practice, though he’s among those who might make it back before G-Day. Ringo might or might not have an immediate impact, but right now his availability for the season could be as important for the secondary as Daniels’ availability was for the offense last year. It’s not just what Ringo brings to the position. Ringo’s availability will determine what happens with the other unsettled positions in the secondary. If his recovery drags beyond spring and closer to preseason camp, it could begin to affect the outlook for the season.


Post Georgia football’s Long Span

Monday February 15, 2021

Every so often we see a story that reminds us how events that seem well in the distant past are connected by only a lifetime or two. John Tyler, born in 1790 and president from 1841 to 1845 still has a living grandchild. The last person collecting a Civil War pension from the United States government passed away only last year.

Georgia football might have its own “Great Span” frame of reference: entering Kirby Smart’s sixth season, there are still players on the roster who were recruited by and even committed to Mark Richt. The program confirmed on Wednesday that receiver Demetris Robertson and defensive lineman Julian Rochester will return for a sixth season of eligibility.

Due to the pandemic, the NCAA offered seniors a one-time waiver that allows them to essentially replay their senior season. Four core senior members of the UGA softball team, which begins its 2021 season this weekend, elected to return and will provide a big lift to that team. Georgia football also had several seniors who hadn’t announced their future plans and were candidates to return. Robertson and Rochester are the two from that group who will remain with the program for an additional season.

Robertson was rated as the nation’s #8 prospect by Rivals for the 2016 class. The Savannah native was recruited by both Richt and Kirby Smart and most every other program. He signed with Cal in February 2016. Robertson played one full season at Cal, but he received a medical redshirt in 2017 after an injury early in the season. He announced his decision to transfer home to Georgia before the 2018 season and was immediately eligible.

Rochester’s story goes back even further. The McEachern standout committed to Georgia on May 29, 2015, making him the last remaining player on the roster who committed to Mark Richt. The assistant coaches credited with his recruitment were Kevin Sherrer and Tracy Rocker. Kirby Smart honored Rochester’s offer, and Rochester signed as part of Smart’s first class in 2016. He will enter his sixth season at 24 years of age. Rochester earned playing time early at Georgia, but injuries have slowed his rise up the depth chart. A healthy Rochester could provide some quality depth along the interior of Georgia’s defensive line.


Post Nature, nurture, and elite production

Friday January 15, 2021

As I watched Alabama dominate the 2020 college football season, what stuck with me was how consistently they got peak performance from their best players. What’s relevant to Georgia isn’t that Alabama had good players. Georgia does as well. It’s how Alabama was able to get Heisman-quality performance out of those players. Waddle, Smith, Harris, and Jones were all 4* and 5* Rivals prospects, but only Harris was a top 10 prospect. We shouldn’t be surprised that a highly-rated prospect became a future top draft pick, but how were so many able to do it at one place? Is there anything we can take from that to see if Georgia can do something similar with their own group of highly-rated skill players?

We know that the Georgia offense will be loaded with really good players. J.T. Daniels made an obvious impact and raised Georgia’s offensive SP+ ranking from around 40 to a final ranking of #21 in the span of four games. The tailback room will be five-deep with unique skill sets that will allow Georgia to do everything from pound between the tackles to exploit mismatches with receivers coming out of the backfield. Capable receivers emerged to make defenses pay for keying on George Pickens, and all of them will return plus Dominick Blaylock. The entire offensive line that started the Peach Bowl is back, and there is enough promising talent in the pipeline that any of those starters could be pushed.

All of that returning talent with a full (and hopefully somewhat-normal) offseason absorbing Todd Monken’s system should have us excited. But is this talent enough for UGA to be the next team whose offense becomes the talk of college football en route to the playoffs? We know that success is the combination of talent, player development, and scheme. Georgia addressed its deficient scheme after the 2019 season, and we saw some progress during the 2020 season even without the benefit of a typical offseason installation. It’s reasonable to expect continued progress with so many key pieces slated to return in 2021. Talent also deserves some scrutiny though.

When we look at the LSU and Alabama success stories, we see the union of modern pass-favoring schemes and great and even elite talent. We’ve seen the last two titles won by outrageously productive offenses that featured first-round talent at just about every position. The distinction between “great”, “elite”, and “really good” might seem like meaningless mush, but there is a difference. Does Georgia’s talent really stack up with those LSU and Alabama teams? Not many will match Alabama. There were three Heisman contenders with another injured midseason. Those skill players were aided by the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line. LSU had a similar spread of talent. They had the Heisman winner at QB, a first-round pick at tailback and WR and another receiver who will be a 2021 first rounder. Three offensive linemen were drafted in the first four rounds with another two signing free agent deals.

None of Georgia returning offensive players for 2021 were named to the 2020 All-SEC teams. That doesn’t mean they stink; we know better than that. It also doesn’t mean they can’t make the leap during the offseason. You could make the case that J.T. Daniels is held in higher regard now than Joe Burrow was before his final season. You can argue that postseason honors are partially the product of system, team success, or reputation, but that’s a tougher argument with draft picks. And as much as we fans appreciate the notion of unfinished business for the returning players, we recognize that the expectation of a first or second round pick would have ended the business at Georgia for just about any player.

Being shut out of the All-SEC teams isn’t a sign of overrated talent or poor prospects for 2021. Georgia was also without a player on the 2016 postseason All-SEC teams. The following season – the second year in a new offensive system – produced multiple draft picks at tailback, receiver, and offensive line and a top 5 offense despite a true freshman at quarterback.

The expectations for the offense rise from a more general impatience: Georgia has recruited as well as just about anyone over the past four years, and we’re anxious to see the payoff. The talent level is enough to overwhelm most opponents and just about ensure a top 10 finish – something we shouldn’t take for granted. While we learned this season to appreciate the hard work that goes into even winning the division, the outlook for the program is still focused on SEC titles, playoff appearances, and the national title. If Georgia’s talent is what we claim it is, those objectives should be within reach.


Post That’s a wrap

Wednesday December 16, 2020

Georgia’s 2020 regular season is over. Vanderbilt announced on Monday that they’d be unable to field a team on Saturday, and Georgia’s attempts to find a replacement game came up empty.

“While we conducted our due diligence in finding a replacement game, we were unable to make it happen,” said UGA J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics Greg McGarity. “We now focus on our upcoming Bowl game. We are also working on alternative ways to honor our senior class, who deserve the opportunity to be celebrated as one of the most prolific classes in University of Georgia history.”

It’s frustrating – Georgia is one of a handful of SEC schools who won’t complete their 10-game schedule, and at no time did the program have to shut down or pull itself out of a game. But it’s 2020, and we’ve been aware from the start that nothing was guaranteed and that every game played should be cherished. It’s especially tough for Georgia as a team that was just hitting a good stride. Without a conference title game to play, the Vanderbilt game would have been one more showcase for a revitalized offense. Other teams aren’t in such a good position right now, and more than a few are just ready to call it quits on this difficult year. It’s tough to blame them.

Of course the biggest consequence of this cancellation is that Georgia won’t be able to honor its seniors in a final home game. Bulldog fans will have only seen three home games in 2020 and just one since early October. McGarity promises to “work on alternative ways to honor our senior class,” but it’s going to be difficult to gather them all back inside Sanford Stadium once NFL draft preparations begin. Perhaps something can be worked out at the bowl, especially if Georgia plays in Atlanta. (It being 2020 and all, I guess we should add a qualifier for the bowl game being played too.)

This development should come as a warning for Georgia’s winter sports that are underway or preparing to play. It’s not a given that we’ll see a complete basketball or gymnastics season. Several basketball programs have already canceled games or eliminated the rest of their nonconference slates altogether. Those programs should make plans to honor seniors and do other traditional end-of-year activities early in the season.


Post Georgia 49 – Missouri 14: Balance and force

Tuesday December 15, 2020

I’m sure it’s happened before, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen a game in which the Georgia offense produced:

  • A 300-yard passer
  • A 100-yard receiver
  • Two 100-yard tailbacks
  • Four different tailbacks with touchdowns

To be fair, J.T. Daniels didn’t exactly get to 300 yards – 299 will have to do. Since J.T. Daniels took over at quarterback, we’ve seen a game in which the passing attack thrived while the rushing output didn’t break double-digits. We’ve seen the running game come to life at the expense of a less-prolific passing game. Observers maybe still not quite sure of the offense’s transformation wanted to see it all put together. This game was what they were waiting to see. Georgia’s full arsenal of passing and rushing weapons was on display, and a playcaller that knew how to make the most of those weapons unleashed them. Mississippi State and South Carolina were depleted defenses, and it could be argued that Georgia took advantage of some exceptional absences. Missouri was a more respectable defense with a top 40 SP+ ranking and a rush defense comparable to a team like Auburn.

I mentioned before the season that one of the biggest challenges in 2020 was “getting their ass ready to play,” to use Kirby Smart’s warning before the 2019 South Carolina loss. With an early road kickoff, bad weather, and the season’s goals out of reach, many previews of the game questioned Georgia’s mindset against a motivated Missouri team on a bit of a roll. That doubt seemed to be put to rest early as Georgia jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. But Missouri tested Georgia’s composure with a scoring drive of their own and then capitalized on a rare Georgia special teams miscue.

Georgia’s quick start was halted as Missouri’s defense turned up the pressure in the second quarter. This pressure suffocated the Georgia running game and began to affect Daniels. Following Missouri’s first touchdown, Daniels went on a 3-for-10 stretch and was sacked twice (and nearly a third time). The pivotal play came on a 3rd and 10 with just over a minute left in the half. Rather than continue with a stationary pocket, Daniels was rolled out to the right, giving him time he hadn’t had in a while. He found Kearis Jackson along the sideline for a first down, and that completion was the first of four straight to end the half which allowed the Dawgs to retake the lead going into the half.

That drive to end the half reignited the Georgia offense, and it began a 17-minute stretch of game during which Georgia scored a total of 35 unanswered points on five consecutive drives. Better protection and offensive line play in the third quarter led to explosive running and passing plays. On those five drives alone, Georgia had four runs of 10+ yards and five completions longer than 20 yards, and the first three touchdowns came on plays of 36, 31, and 43 yards. By the start of the 4th quarter the game was in hand, and there was ample time to empty the bench.

The offense’s explosive game shouldn’t overshadow the most complete game by the Georgia defense since the Auburn game. Missouri came into the game on a hot streak with 91 points over their past two games. The Tigers had settled on young but effective quarterback and had found success with an effective, if not explosive, short passing game. The backfield featured Larry Rountree, one of the most prolific and versatile backs in program history. Rountree had rushed for 345 yards in the past two games. Georgia has faced better offenses this year, but maybe only Alabama has done a better job of testing defenses with both the run and the pass.

Unlike Georgia, Missouri was unable to use their balance to strain the defense. Thanks in part to the return of Jordan Davis, Georgia was able to limit Rountree to an inconsequential 16 yards on 14 carries. That success against the run didn’t open up many receivers for Connor Bazelak. Without a credible downfield threat, Bazelak only managed 5 yards per attempt. Mizzou had no runs longer than 9 yards and only three completions longer than 20 yards including the receiver pass. Without many explosive plays, the Tigers weren’t able to sustain drives and generate many scoring chances, and they had just one drive longer than 30 yards. While the Georgia offense was stretching its legs, Missouri managed just 69 yards of second half offense.

It wasn’t a great day for special teams – there was a punt blocked, a punt muffed, and a missed field goal. Those were some of the bigger blemishes on a game that was nearly complete in other phases. The team emphatically answered any questions and doubts about its focus, desire, and preparation, and it heads back home on as big of a late-season roll as we’ve seen since 2012 or even 2007. It’s unfortunate that it took most of the season before the offense began to realize the payoffs from the offseason moves and additions, but it’s a much better place to be in than last season when the need to start over again was sadly obvious. Georgia has a system that works, the players to make it work, and the job of the offseason is making sure those pieces stay in place.

  • One of the highlights of the second half was the reception Daijun Edwards received from his fellow backs after scoring to start the fourth quarter. There might not be a surefire first round talent among the group, but all five (including Milton) bring something to the table.
  • Perhaps the most impressive thing we saw from the tailbacks across the board was patience. McIntosh and White had big runs down the left side as they allowed the blocking to arrange itself and then took off.
  • The passes to Washington got people talking about the tight ends, but they also had some impressive blocking. Watch the touchdown runs by White and Cook, and you’ll see multiple tight ends clearing the way.
  • One of the next steps for the offense is efficiency. It’s great that Daniels has been effective on third down, and he was again in this game, but it’s playing with fire to be in so many 3rd-and-long situations.
  • Pickens has had a good run with 16 receptions, 238 yards, and 3 TD since Daniels took over. He’s getting more one-on-one matchups as receivers like Jackson and Burton emerge. When Pickens does draw double coverage, you end up with something like a wide-open middle of the field for Cook. Pick your poison.
  • Yes, everyone knows you can take a shot downfield when you have a free play from a pending offsides penalty. It’s another thing to execute it. No one gave up on the play, Pickens took off, and Daniels put the ball where his star receiver could do his thing.
  • I’ll talk about it every time it happens – it doesn’t get much better than bookending halftime with scores. Georgia turned a tie game into a 28-14 lead before Missouri had a meaningful possession. Good clock management at the end of the first half helped make that possible.
  • Lewis Cine was victimized on Missouri’s biggest pass play of the game, but his value as a tackler has only grown this season. Offseason improvement in pass defense should turn him into a very good safety. Latavious Brini saw far more time than usual after Christopher Smith was dinged up. Missouri couldn’t take advantage of Brini, and the junior actually had a good game and stepped up nicely. Brini had one impressive play in particular where he sprinted in from a deep safety position to stop a jet sweep before it turned upfield. His 1.5 tackles for loss were second on the team behind only Malik Herring.
  • The return of Jordan Davis was a boon for other defenders like Herring. Georgia had only a single sack due to Missouri’s quick release passes, but they ate up the running game and made Bazelak uncomfortable. Over 15% of Georgia’s tackles resulted in a loss.

Post McGarity’s misguided frustration

Sunday December 6, 2020

There’s good reason to be frustrated by Friday’s decision to postpone the Vanderbilt game. Vanderbilt is one of many SEC programs dealing with player shortages due to a combination of COVID testing, tracing, and opt-outs. Other programs, including Kentucky, Mississippi State, and South Carolina recently fielded teams with fewer than 50 scholarship players in order to finish out their seasons. This has been a difficult season requiring a lot of creativity, patience, and flexibility. Three months ago the prospect of even having a season was in doubt, and we’re on the verge of possibly completing a reconfigured ten-game schedule.

Timing was the biggest issue with Vanderbilt’s inability to play. This was to be Georgia’s Senior Day, and a group of seniors who might leave as the program’s winningest deserve their moment. I truly hope they get that recognition on the 19th. The late announcement also meant that many families of these seniors had already left for Athens. Travel during the pandemic is already stressful enough, and a family like Mark Webb’s had to make an unnecessary trip from Philadelphia. Had the circumstances changed all that much from Wednesday to Friday when an earlier announcement might have allowed fans and family members to alter their plans? I get the desire to postpone the announcement as long as possible to allow for every possible chance to play the game, but it wasn’t as if Vanderbilt suddenly discovered an outbreak on Thursday or Friday. There are questions about Vanderbilt’s ability or desire to field a team to finish out the season, and we’ll see whether they show for scheduled games with Tennessee and Georgia. If they can’t, hopefully we’ll get a little more notice this time.

Greg McGarity went a step further and directed his frustration at Vanderbilt and other unnamed schools he believes are not following COVID protocols.

“It’s just so frustrating when you have coaches and players and support staff that make significant sacrifices to stay safe, and they do so, and then they have no competitive benefit other than their health. We have shown the ability to stay healthy by being disciplined…We are an example of what can be done with discipline and a desire to play college football.”

I’m writing this post because McGarity’s statement reminded me of an unfortunate aspect of our national conversation this year. This is an easily-transmitted airborne respiratory virus. There is no moral vector to a virus, but that’s become a part of how we talk about it. When we learn of a positive test, an instinct is often to ask “what were they doing?”. We approach it as if contracting the virus is a consequence – if you get sick, you must have been doing something wrong. Deep down, it’s a way to assuage our own fear – if we can pin someone’s positive test on an activity that we avoid, we will remain safe. If you don’t get sick, your choices are validated.

Certainly some activities and behaviors are riskier than others, and some people even choose to flaunt that behavior. But we also know that there are plenty of people who try to “do everything right” who still contract the virus. There are states and communities whose leaders “follow the science” which have seen outbreaks every bit as bad as locations taking different approaches. There are of course risk mitigation strategies that we’re all familiar with, but there is no risk elimination. Even if we grant that McGarity and his fellow ADs put in place the most well-thought-out protocols and safety measures to protect the season, their plans rely on student-athletes exposed on a daily basis to fellow students, family members, and the local community. More schools than not have had players or coaches miss time due to testing or tracing results, and we’re glad that Georgia is an exception. There is a whole range of risk and probability, and we should be grateful when the numbers work out in our favor and prefer grace towards those with different outcomes.

McGarity should acknowledge that reality because he’s seen it within his own program. Football might have largely avoided COVID issues so far, but other Georgia programs have not. At least three Georgia head coaches have tested positive for the virus. The Georgia soccer team had to cancel its regular season finale due to COVID tests and tracing within the program, and it took a shorthanded roster to last month’s SEC Tournament. Were the protocols for the tennis, equestrian, and soccer teams different than they were for the football team? If Georgia football is an example to emulate because it has been spared, what does it say about these Georgia programs?


Post Issues and expectations for Georgia’s next athletic director

Wednesday December 2, 2020

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity announced his retirement this week, effective at the end of 2020. Senior Deputy Director of Athletics Josh Brooks will step in on an interim basis until McGarity’s successor takes the job. McGarity has served in the role since 2010 and has presided over a large increase in the department’s revenues and budget, and he’s overseen coaching changes in nearly all of Georgia’s major programs.

It’s possible that Georgia’s next athletic directory is already part of the organization – Brooks himself is expected to be a candidate. It might also be a man or woman with no ties to the school. Familiarity with certain candidates might bias us one way or the other, and it would be doing Georgia a disservice not to consider qualified outside candidates for a job that will surely attract attention from across the nation. How many lists did Dan Lanning or Todd Monken appear on before Kirby Smart selected them as coordinators? So rather than get bogged down in the pros and cons of name that might or might not exist on Georgia’s list, I’ll focus more on the issues waiting for the AD and what might be expected from the ideal candidate.

Maintaining the strengths: Before getting on with grandiose plans for the future, the next AD must identify and maintain the areas in which Georgia athletics is strong. That goes for personnel but also processes in areas like athletic performance, academic support, compliance, and financial responsibility. Georgia has largely avoided scandal under McGarity, though the 2014 NCAA reprimand of the swimming and diving program wasn’t a good look for anyone. It’s a low bar to expect character, transparency, and consideration of the student-athletes from an athletics administration, but have you looked around lately?

The bank account: Georgia’s reserve fund has been a point of contention for years, but that financial strength has allowed the athletic department to weather the pandemic without the cuts to personnel or programs that we’ve seen even at other P5 schools. The introduction of the Magill Society has been a success to the point that even that exclusive group of donors has been subdivided into still higher tiers of support. Private funds were successfully raised for three major facilities projects. We won’t pretend that these projects didn’t happen without some conflict, and hesitation to invest in the football program was a major friction point towards the end of the Mark Richt era. McGarity’s legacy must own that period too. The need for a healthy reserve has to be balanced against securing the resources Georgia’s programs need to be competitive. On the whole, the next AD will be starting on a firm financial footing.

Performance: You play to win the game, and on that front Georgia hasn’t been doing as well. Sure, football seems to be in great shape, and that ends the discussion for a lot of stakeholders. Other sports haven’t been doing as well, and that includes sports that have traditionally propped up Georgia’s all-sport ranking. The new AD won’t have long before there are decisions to make from the basketball programs on down. Even within successful programs like football, coaches and staff must be identified, retained, and compensated. An AD’s legacy is often shaped by the personnel decisions he or she makes, and it doesn’t just affect wins and losses. A series of poor hiring decisions can leave even SEC programs responsible for large buyouts and without financial flexibility.

Advocacy: Representing Georgia’s interests beyond the hedges is an important part of the athletic director’s job. Whether accurate or not, the perception is that McGarity was often too deferential and unwilling to stand against scheduling changes and other policies that affected Georgia. This is touchy – we see the outcomes, but we frequently don’t know the discussions that went on and options for alternatives. It wasn’t McGarity’s style to raise a stink in traditional or social media, and I suspect that’s what some critics would have preferred. How assertive will the next AD be with the conference and NCAA, and how visible will that advocacy be?

Leadership for change: Some major change could soon be coming to college athletics. Name / Likeness / Image (NIL) policies and laws that allow student-athletes to earn money are already being crafted and passed. More universal and permissive transfer policies are being discussed, and we could soon see a one-time transfer allowance. More importantly, 2020 has raised the profile of college athletes as agents for social change. How will the next AD position Georgia in these areas? Will Georgia be one of the driving forces at the forefront of change, or will it be dragged along? Support for initiatives like “Dawgs For Pups” and voting registration on campus was impressive this year, and the next AD should continue that support.

Facilities: McGarity completed or began several significant facilities projects, and those projects included several highly-visible (and arguably long-overdue) buildings. The indoor practice facility is the obvious example. The West Endzone project at Sanford Stadium addressed needs for recruiting and locker room space. The under-construction Butts-Mehre annex will provide room for the football program’s growing footprint. Stegeman Coliseum, Foley Field, and the tennis complex have seen or are undergoing significant renovations. It’s been an impressive investment in facilities that will benefit many of Georgia’s programs.

What’s left to do? That’s kind of the point. Seth Emerson and others have beat the drum for several years about the need for a more comprehensive master plan to serve as a vision going forward. Such a plan would provide a clearer vision to potential donors and guide future spending. As Emerson put it, the goal of a master plan “is not to go willy-nilly into the arms race and waste money.” We’ve seen Alabama take a step in this direction a couple of years ago with their $600 million facilities plan. Georgia will have different needs and priorities, but that’s the sort of focused vision that’s necessary in the next generation of facilities projects at Georgia.

Customer Experience: It’s likely that any facilities plan will include the crown jewel itself: Sanford Stadium. In the past a stadium project meant increased capacity. That’s no longer the case. Even before the pandemic, the growing appeal of watching from home was eating away at the demand to attend games. New stadium construction now focuses more on amenities rather than capacity, and renovations are following suit. Recent work on Bryant-Denny Stadium at Alabama resulted in a modest decrease in capacity. As the report notes, “Alabama’s shift to a slightly smaller capacity follows the trend of colleges pulling back from the arms race for the biggest while shifting to emphasize the premium experience.”

That “premium experience” is the watchword now. Georgia clumsily dipped its toe into the premium experience game last year with the Magill-only beer garden. It’s likely that any significant project at Sanford Stadium will include (if not exclusively) amenities aimed at enhancing the experience for high-dollar fans. That’s not meant to be cynical. If there’s a softness in the demand for stadium expansion, revenue growth is most likely to come from the top levels of donors, and keeping those donors happy will be a high priority. Any modern stadium or arena is built with that consideration in mind, and now renovation projects like Alabama’s are attempting to retrofit older stadiums with similar amenities.

But beyond that we know there are improvements to be made that can benefit all fans, and many of them don’t require construction equipment. Josh Brooks, McGarity’s interim replacement, spearheaded several of those improvements. Grab-and-go concessions has been a big improvement. We can also expect to see a deeper dive into paperless tickets and moving other elements of the game experience onto mobile devices. That’s the norm now for professional sports, and the pandemic has hastened a move towards a touchless experience. Brooks and McGarity have both been willing to listen to and engage with fan feedback. That’s to their credit and a good first step. We know all of the familiar complaints about Sanford Stadium from parking to bathrooms to crowded concourses to poor cell service. The next AD will hear about them too. Will there be action?


Post Georgia 45 – South Carolina 16: Return of the ground game

Tuesday December 1, 2020

Let’s get the obvious out of the way – Georgia easily handled a shorthanded opponent and took advantage of mismatches at several positions due to players that were injured or had opted out. But the situation was similar a week ago, and Georgia had to fight until the last possession against Mississippi State. Saturday’s much easier result against South Carolina is progress if only because of how Georgia took care of business this time. They took control of the game with 21 first quarter points, held off South Carolina’s attempt at a comeback, and closed the door in the second half.

If last week’s game was about the emergence of J.T. Daniels and the passing game, the win at South Carolina was about the resurgent running game. Mississippi State bottled up the Georgia rushing attack, but it didn’t take long for the Dawgs to show that things would be different in Columbia. An early seam pass to McKitty warned South Carolina about selling out to stop the run, and Georgia’s four-headed tailback position took over. Three of the four tailbacks had carries longer than 22 yards, and all four rushed for at least 77 yards. Edwards got most of his carries in the fourth quarter and was instrumental on Georgia’s final possession that consumed the last nine minutes of the game. The running game was bolstered by a much better performance from the offensive line – especially the interior of the line. Ben Cleveland was the SEC OL of the week, and Hill and Shaffer were much better. The line is still chasing consistency, but this was about as good as it gets.

Though the running game was dominant, fans still wanted to see whether J.T. Daniels’s debut was a fluke. He wasn’t asked to do nearly as much and completed 10 of 16 attempts for 139 yards. 71 of those 139 yards came on two long completions to McKitty and Arian Smith. Otherwise Georgia’s explosive plays came from the running game, and the pass was primarily used to move the chains. After spreading the ball around last week, only five Bulldogs caught passes against South Carolina, and for the first time in a while no tailbacks caught passes out of the backfield. They were a little busy running the ball.

Daniels played well and under control. His lone interception was no shame – just a nice play on a tipped pass that could have been caught. He had another pass in the second half that was a much more likely candidate for an interception, but fortunately that forced pass was dropped. Daniels picked a bad time to have his worst sequence of the game. Following a South Carolina touchdown, Georgia gave the ball right back on a three-and-out that featured two bad plays from the quarterback. First Daniels underthrew an open Burton on a sideline route. The play likely would have scored if Burton were hit in stride, but the ball fell harmlessly behind the receiver. On third down Daniels simply held the ball too long and took a sack. It was an issue we saw last week, and he’s still learning timing and decision-making.

So we’ve seen Georgia break 30 points in each of the past two games with unbalanced offense. Balance for its own sake isn’t the objective, but the next step is for the offense is to put these pieces together in more of a cohesive attack. We know the running plays are there, and now we know the elements of a big passing game are in place. There won’t be much of a test until the Missouri game is rescheduled, but the Vanderbilt game should be a chance for continued progress and not a perfunctory effort to run out the clock.

Georgia’s defense, and its coaches, had to feel more comfortable going against South Carolina’s offense after playing the unconventional Mississippi State offense a week earlier. We know that Mike Bobo is a capable coach of offense, but his scheme is nothing unfamiliar and more along the lines of what Kirby Smart has made a career out of defending. Take away some of South Carolina’s top receivers, and the Bulldog defense felt a lot more at home against a physical run-based Gamecock offense. Kevin Harris, the SEC’s leading rusher, was limited to 53 yards and 3.1 yards per carry. Dual-threat QB Luke Doty carried the ball 15 times (including sacks) and ended up with a net of -15 yards. Without having to respect South Carolina’s deep threat, players like Lewis Cine could look to attack and make plays closer to the line of scrimmage.

That doesn’t mean it was a clean game for the Georgia defense. Poor tackling was an issue all night and helped South Carolina’s first half scoring drives. A missed tackle allowed the Gamecocks to convert a fourth down that led to a scoring opportunity. Doty was able to complete 18 of 22 passes even without a dynamic receiver like Shi Smith, but Georgia’s pass rush was at least able to keep Doty from becoming too comfortable in the pocket. South Carolina’s tight end was not Kyle Pitts or even Hayden Hurst who was a particular thorn in Georgia’s side while at South Carolina, and that’s fortunate. The Gamecocks had success working TE Nick Muse against Georgia’s linebackers. Muse came into the game with 294 yards all season and added 131 yards on 8 receptions.

  • Jalen Carter became a sensation for his role as a fullback in the Auburn and Tennessee games, and this win showed what fans have to look forward to from Carter the defensive lineman. He and Travon Walker are two of the more athletic defensive linemen Georgia has seen. The line is still missing the physical presence of Jordan Davis in the middle, but Logue and other young players have held their own.
  • Special teams won’t get much attention in a lopsided win, but Georgia’s advantage there was impressive. A 50-yard punt, solid coverage, several touchbacks, a long punt return, and a blocked extra point only made things easier for the rest of the team.
  • Welcome Arian Smith! The freshman has been recovering from offseason surgery, but his potential was on full display as he blew by a defender to get open for an easy touchdown reception. That’s just one more weapon for this passing attack.
  • Yes, Prather Hudson is still on the team. He entered the transfer portal after the 2019 season but remained with the team. He moved to defensive back and has been a regular on special teams, but the coaches gave him another carry at tailback on the final drive while Edwards caught his breath. Hudson had a nice 7-yard run around the right side that moved the chains and kept the drive going.
  • I was surprised to see that this series was 5-5 over the past ten games; surely Georgia had a better decade than that against South Carolina. I shouldn’t be surprised – South Carolina won four of five in the early part of the 2010s even while Georgia won two division titles. Last season’s upset pulled things back even after Greyson Lambert’s record-setting performance in 2015 began a run of success for Georgia. Now the Dawgs have won five of six including the last three in Columbia. Georgia has outscored the Gamecocks 86-33 in the past two games at South Carolina.

Post 2020-2021 Georgia men’s basketball schedule

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Tom Crean’s first two seasons was the reengagement of the program with Georgia basketball fans. Challenged by Crean to show support for the program, Georgia fans set a record for attendance in 2018-2019. Even with the season circling the drain, Georgia’s crowds remained respectable and engaged. (Sometimes even a bit too engaged.) Fans understood it would be a transitional season, and wins over Georgia Tech and Florida were welcome accomplishments in a season without much to cheer about.

That enthusiasm continued into the 2019-2020 season. Bolstered by the arrival of Anthony Edwards, Georgia basketball remained an attraction. In a game that kind of summed up the season, Georgia put on a nationally-televised show against Kentucky for a prime time ESPN audience with rappers and NBA stars courtside but fell short on the scoreboard. Even with a lottery pick and another pro prospect in Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia managed a scant five SEC wins last season.

The fans did their part. But in Crean’s third season, there will be no record crowds. COVID-19 protocols will limit attendance inside Stegeman Coliseum to 1,700 fans. That’s around 10% of capacity – much less than the 20-25% capacity at Sanford Stadium due to the need for greater spacing indoors.

Without record-setting crowds, the focus will be more on the basketball, and that might not be as pleasant of a thought. Georgia will again turn over more than half the roster, and there’s no lottery pick among the newcomers this time. Georgia doesn’t have a player on the preseason all-SEC teams, and the Dawgs were picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams. The season is bound to be unpredictable and chaotic, but the expectations are for Crean to finally build some continuity and depth for future seasons.

The 2020-2021 men’s basketball schedule:

MBB schedule


Post Georgia 31 – Miss. St. 24: An impressive debut saves the day

Tuesday November 24, 2020

Saturday’s broadcast team aptly compared Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to the triple option. They’re schematically night-and-day of course, but the point is that unconventional offenses are designed to make defenses think and hesitate. That hesitation puts stress on individual assignments and allows the offense to repeatedly and effectively attack weak spots. It might be the numbing four yards over and over from the fullback dive in the option, or it might be the easy seven yards from the mesh route or other short routes in front of a soft zone in the Air Raid. If you get impatient over-adjust to take away what’s working, the offenses have counters designed to burn you for explosive plays.

If it was odd for us to see Georgia’s aggressive defense rushing only three while everyone else dropped back, imagine how it must have been for the defenders. At least coaches had learned to work on Tech’s option in small increments from preseason camp on through the season. What we saw Saturday was an alignment that had just been put in since they learned that the Missouri game was off. Dan Lanning admitted to the broadcast crew that Georgia would be using some calls they hadn’t used all season to defend the unique MSU system.

The result was typical of defenders being unsure and tentative. Georgia’s players have had two weeks to stew after being humbled by Florida’s passing game. The defense hesitated in their unfamiliar assignments and were a step slow closing to the ball. Mississippi State found these soft spots in front of Georgia’s zone and were content to exploit the passive defense to methodically work down the field. When Georgia was more aggressive with its pressure, MSU responded with a long scoring pass over man coverage.

Fortunately Georgia didn’t completely abandon its defensive game plan and further expose weaknesses in man pass coverage. It just had to trust its talent to be quicker to the ball. MSU was effective sustaining first half drives by using success on early downs to set up short yardage on third downs. Georgia’s improvement was subtle: MSU didn’t complete fewer passes; they got fewer yards from those completions. Following the touchdown that tied the game at 24, MSU’s average third down distance the rest of the game was 6.5 yards. That longer distance allowed Georgia’s pass rush specialists to have more time to reach the quarterback and keep MSU off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

I lead with the defense rather than the breakthrough debut of J.T. Daniels because it’s easy for the latter to overshadow a point that will be one of the takeaways from this season. A defense billed as the nation’s best is far from that. A roster full of elite recruits was pushed to the limit by a team that barely scraped together enough players to make the trip. Georgia’s defensive brain trust was outschemed for the second time in as many games. True, MSU presented some unique challenges, but it’s not as if this defense had been performing well against other teams with competent passing attacks. It’s more than the reality of facing modern high-output offenses. It’s more than key injuries. You can understand some growing pains from an offense replacing its coordinator and nine of eleven starters. The underperforming defense, especially against the pass, has been a more troubling development.

The debut of Daniels was the highlight, and Georgia needed every big play. While MSU was effective creating short yardage situations on third down, Georgia’s struggles running the ball put Daniels and the offense in many obvious passing situations. It was on Daniels and the receivers to win one-on-one battles to convert and move the ball, and they were up to the job. Jermaine Burton was the standout with 197 yards and 2 TD, but he wasn’t alone. George Pickens caught Daniels’s first pass and tied Burton with 8 receptions. His 87 yards were a season high. Kearis Jackson and Demetris Robertson combined for 100 yards. Daniels helped to show that, yes, Georgia does have talent at receiver, and Todd Monken’s passing game can do some real damage.

It wasn’t a flawless start for Daniels, and that’s not surprising for someone seeing his first action in over a year. He missed a linebacker who had stepped into the passing lane of a slant. He held onto the ball too long on some early pass plays. Even some of his more successful deep balls were underthrown. That’s a byproduct of re-learning to trust his injured knee and getting the footwork right. As that comes around, he should have even better touch on those deeper passes. Accuracy and power on shorter passes wasn’t a problem. The touchdown to Pickens was a pro-quality pass. It was only a four-yard reception, but Daniels had to roll right from the far hash and place the ball low and away where only Pickens could go get it. Daniels gained confidence as the game progressed, and that was the kind of success Georgia needed from the passing game to feel better about closing out the season.

The running game was a different story. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense made it difficult to establish running lanes and often brought safeties up for a very full box. Daniels said he had the ability to check out of bad plays, but he surely doesn’t have the practice or game experience yet to do much more than the most basic of audibles. MSU wisely sent run blitzes at Georgia’s bread-and-butter running plays, and even outside tosses weren’t especially effective against those kinds of numbers. It didn’t help that Georgia’s offensive line had a poor showing. The interior line, especially Hill and Shaffer, struggled with the lighter but more agile MSU defensive front, and backs were often met behind the line of scrimmage. Georgia attempted 23 runs, and MSU finished with 11 tackles for loss.

I don’t fault Georgia for continuing to run into this front – you can’t completely abandon weapons like White and Cook, and sadly the Georgia defense needed some time in between long MSU possessions. But MSU’s control of the Georgia running game left frequent one-on-one coverage downfield, and Georgia wasn’t so stubborn as to take frequent shots to attack those matchups. It’s not a pleasant thought to think about the outcome of this game without that downfield threat in the Georgia passing game. Even if Bennett put in a performance on par with his Auburn game, it still might not have been enough. The opportunities for Georgia’s offense were downfield, and Daniels seems to be the only quarterback on the roster who can reliably hit those passes.

It feels a bit backwards – Georgia seems relatively settled at quarterback now while the defense will be doing some long-term soul searching into the offseason. This year has taught us not to look that far ahead, but I’d be surprised if anyone other than Daniels started the Clemson game that opens the 2021 season. (Not a knock on Brock Vandagriff – that’s just not the game for the debut of a true freshman if you can help it. We’ll leave the Fromm/Fields sequel angst for next season.) Kirby Smart faced the inevitable questions about waiting too long to play Daniels, but both he and the Daniels family explained it well. The J.T. Daniels we saw Saturday was the product of several months of practice, rehab, and individual work, and inserting him earlier in the season might have produced a much less impressive result. I get the frustration of what-if, and it would have been much nicer had the timing worked out two months ago rather than now, but even now Daniels still isn’t all the way back in terms of footwork or comfort. You saw the confidence growing as the game went on, and we should look forward to how he continues to develop. It’s nice to know there’s something to work with.

  • Full credit to Mississippi State for going forward with the game. They were shorthanded, but those who made the trip were clearly focused and invested. We talk about bowl games in terms of motivation, and MSU came to Athens ready to play. As Mike Leach said, it was his team’s best performance of the season, and that says something about them given the state of their season at this point.
  • You don’t want to go overboard excusing away some of Georgia’s issues as a lack of engagement. Still, this was a team that had just suffered a bad loss to a rival that took the season’s goals off the table. That might explain why the coaches were amenable to the black jerseys for this game – as I wrote last week, “there haven’t been many opportunities to simply have fun and enjoy a season that’s been disrupted since the spring, and any little gesture can help a team pull together and get through the remaining schedule.” Now that the black jersey card has been played, is there anything left to get through the rest of the season? The buzz of a more exciting big-play offense might just do it.
  • MSU’s offensive approach helped its defense overcome its numbers disadvantage. Long drives consumed clock and kept the MSU defense fresh. Even if Georgia expected to pound on and tire out the MSU defense in the usual “make them quit” approach, the Dawgs didn’t have the ball long enough to make MSU pay for their thin bench.
  • One of the few downsides to playing Daniels is in the running game. He isn’t nearly the threat to run or scramble the way Mathis or even Bennett was. That allows the defense to cheat on inside zone runs where a more mobile quarterback might choose to keep the ball.
  • The tailbacks didn’t have their most productive games, but they found other ways to contribute. Important blitz pickups by Cook and McIntosh gave Daniels the time to take some of those downfield shots.
  • I love when a team is able to bookend halftime with scoring drives. Alabama did it to Georgia, and it was Georgia’s turn on Saturday. The Dawgs were able to flip the game from a 17-10 deficit to a 24-17 lead without Mississippi State having the ball.
  • The first half had a flow of a tennis match with each team holding serve. That made you more than a little nervous in the second half when Georgia was unable to score on consecutive possessions after MSU tied the game at 24. Fortunately the Georgia defense started to come around at the same time and forced two straight three-and-outs before the Dawgs mounted the game-winning drive.
  • It’s bound to be a frustrating day for defensive linemen against a quick-release passer, but I like what I saw from Carter and Walker. But it’s clear how much the team misses Davis as a hole-plugger in the middle. MSU’s goal line rushing touchdowns had very little resistance gashing the interior of Georgia’s defense.

Ordinarily in a big upset you can point to something extraordinary that happened. Yes, Georgia had some dumb personal fouls, and the “outside the tackle box” decision was laughable, but there was no implosion. This didn’t follow the pattern of the 2019 loss to South Carolina. Georgia made its lone field goal attempt and, one short punt aside, had solid special teams play. Neither team turned the ball over. It’s a little concerning that Mississippi State found itself hanging around without any of the catastrophes you’d typically point to when a 20+ point favorite has to sweat. It was much more mundane than that, and it’s more difficult to process when you can’t point to something obvious and one-off like four turnovers. Georgia’s issues – whether inconsistent offensive line play or weak pass defense – are more persistent. We’re past the point of the season where improvement might preserve the season’s goals. With that in mind, it’s going to be positive developments like the emergence of Daniels and Burton that allow us to take something positive from what’s left of the 2020 season.


Post A cocktail-less Cocktail Party

Saturday October 24, 2020

We learned earlier in the month that there would be no change to limited attendance plans for the Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville. The city announced further information this week that reflects the reality of playing a neutral site game in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

The biggest news: no tailgating will be permitted in stadium lots, and a game ticket will be required. It will be quite a change from seas of fans crammed into lots around the stadium from early morning on. The city is discouraging those without a ticket from coming to the stadium area. Stadium lots won’t even open until 12:30 p.m.

Of course the city’s tailgating prohibition won’t apply to the private lots and event spaces that ring the inner stadium parking, so those looking for a place to tailgate will still have options. It should be a banner day for the gypsy lots on the periphery of the stadium lots.

Once inside the stadium, the policies will be familiar: facial coverings are required except when eating or drinking, and concessions will be cashless. The cocktail party might be cancelled in the parking lots, but fans can grab a brew inside: beer and wine sales will now be available throughout the stadium rather than just the club areas.


Post Georgia 24 – Alabama 41: Not there yet

Tuesday October 20, 2020

On one hand, this wasn’t a loss to South Carolina – it was a road loss as an underdog to a top 2 team. On the other hand, I get the exasperation. Kirby Smart was brought in to get Georgia over the hump from very good to elite. After four years of trading top-rated recruiting class honors with Alabama, you’d expect the talent level to begin to make Georgia something other than the plucky underdog in this series.

Even the perspective-seeking is predictable and familiar. Georgia still has its goals in front of it. Check. Georgia still controls its own destiny. Check. All we need is someone telling us the loss was just what the program needed. Wait – got that too. It’s like your Facebook Memories from October 2018 and 2019 popping up.

But here we are again – a bit of normalcy in an abnormal season. There are differences, of course. This loss came as a road underdog to a very good Alabama team. The takeaway is the same: Georgia must win out, must beat Florida, and must reach the SEC Championship to hope for another shot at Alabama, etc, etc.

The deja vu even creeped into to the game itself. See if this rings a bell:

2nd & 10 at ALA 26
(6:32 – 3rd) Tua Tagovailoa pass intercepted Deandre Baker return for no gain to the Alab 39

1st & 10 at ALA 39
(6:21 – 3rd) Jake Fromm pass intercepted Raekwon Davis return for 19 yds to the Geo 40

That was a pivotal moment in the 2018 national title game. Georgia missed a chance to open up a big lead on the blocked punt, and Alabama tallied their first score of the game. Georgia answered with a long touchdown pass and again had the ball in Alabama territory following Baker’s interception with a 20-7 lead. Raekwon Davis picked a tipped pass out of the air and returned it across midfield. Alabama tacked on a field goal and began a run of 13 straight points to send the game to overtime.

Saturday’s similar exchange of turnovers came far too early in the game to be considered a pivotal moment. It did establish a theme for the game: tipped passes at the line of scrimmage frustrated a Georgia passing game that had some early-season success across the middle. The Stetson Bennett story has been a highlight of the season, but the Alabama game was a dose of reality that showed the limits of this dream story. Bennett might be enough to get Georgia back to Atlanta at the end of the year, and that in itself would be a remarkable accomplishment, but that’s little consolation for fans seeing a special defense squandered for a second straight season.

That said, I don’t think this game was necessarily an example of Bennett hitting his ceiling. Remember, he’s had a handful of weeks getting first-team reps. He’s not the quarterback who spent all summer throwing to these receivers. He was an afterthought while Todd Monken was installing his offense and probably received very little individualized instruction. Put that limited preparation up against a Nick Saban gameplan – even with this Alabama defense – and you’re asking a lot. He’ll improve, but it that enough? Georgia’s offense is in a bit of a pickle. It would benefit from running the ball more and asking less of Bennett as he gains experience. At the same time, unless the running game is performing at a level on par with, say, the 2017 Georgia team, it’s not going to keep up with explosive passing offenses at Clemson and Alabama. The Georgia running game is fine – above-average even. It’s not yet consistent enough or explosive enough to reduce the load on Bennett (or any quarterback) when playing the kinds of opponents against which this team should and will be measured.

Good vs. better

The game was a humbling experience for Georgia’s secondary. Alabama’s top-flight receivers are NFL quality, no doubt. Georgia’s defensive backfield is also supposed to have its share of future pros. Tyson Campbell earned accolades for his performance against Seth Williams and Auburn’s talented receivers, but he became part of someone else’s highlight reel on Saturday. That’s not to pick on Campbell; few Georgia defenders were effective in slowing down Alabama’s skill players. Alabama also used motion and formations to create mismatches that put outstanding receivers against Georgia’s linebackers, safeties, and star.

I wrote last week about the Tennessee game turning when Georgia’s pressure began to reach the quarterback. Zero first half sacks became 5, and subsequent turnovers put the game away. Ojulari’s opening play aside, Georgia again had trouble getting enough pressure to derail the Alabama passing game. It wasn’t for lack of trying – blitzes came from all over the field, and even the secondary featured in the pressure. Alabama was outstanding in picking up this pressure and coordinating the line, backs, and tight end to handle whatever Georgia threw at them. Alabama also used Georgia’s pressure against them: an early corner blitz left Lewis Cine on a speedy receiver for Alabama’s first touchdown. Georgia’s scheme often left defenders in isolated coverage against Alabama’s skill players. The combination of decent protection and Georgia’s inability to defend one-on-one matchups without a penalty allowed Alabama to hit the explosive pass plays that make this the nation’s best offense.

So was Georgia overhyped as the nation’s best defense? Perhaps. It wasn’t the defense’s best game for sure, but Alabama will do that to a lot of defenses. Georgia did several things well, stopped their share of Alabama drives, and forced Alabama to make precise plays – which they did. It’s also possible that “best defense” is relative next to where offenses are at this stage of the season. Even the best of defenses has soft spots that need improvement, and Georgia’s pass defense – especially downfield – isn’t up to par yet. Alabama had the perfect set of tools to take advantage of that.

We’ve embraced Georgia’s defense as a “no-name” group that doesn’t feature many standouts but which also doesn’t have many weak links and plays front-to-back as a cohesive and disciplined unit. This game illustrated the value of standouts. Alabama has several on offense – Waddle, Smith, and Harris are future high draft picks that can take over games. Georgia lacks those players on the other side of the ball. Even good, solid future pros can be made to look ordinary against elite counterparts. That’s not to say that certain players can’t perform better or be put in better positions to succeed. You just don’t see a Chase Young or even Roquan Smith capable of blowing up a quality opponent’s best intentions. We faced an offense that does have several of those players who can dominate a game.

Three little points

The field goal at the end of the half was just three points, but it helped to frame the third quarter. Without that field goal, Alabama’s 90-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter simply ties the game. Their second score a few minutes later after would have kept the game within a single score. A single-score margin heading into the fourth quarter would have seemed a lot more manageable than a 10-point deficit, and maybe Bennett doesn’t press as much on his final interception. No, a 14-point final margin is no less of a statement than a 17-point margin, but in a game that was contested until that final interception, the mindset changes in a single-possession game.


Post No changes planned for Jax attendance

Wednesday October 14, 2020

Despite recent clearance from the state of Florida to allow 100% capacity at stadiums, Georgia and Florida will play in front of a limited crowd on November 7th.

Marc Weiszer reports that the game will take place with “approximately 9,000 tickets per school” which is in line with the SEC standard of 20-25% capacity. “We’re proceeding as we originally planned, no change,” according to Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity.

Ancillary events associated with the Georgia-Florida game, including the annual Hall of Fame Luncheon, have already been called off. There will also be no RV City around the stadium. The City of Jacksonville announced that “complete game day safety policies and procedures will be announced at a later date closer to the game.”


Post Georgia 44 – Tennessee 21: Havoc unleashed

Tuesday October 13, 2020

If Georgia wasn’t as hapless as it looked in the first half at Arkansas or as dominant as it appeared against Auburn, what to make of Saturday’s win over Tennessee? The Bulldogs ended Tennessee’s eight-game winning streak – that streak might’ve been built against lesser competition, but it was still a source of confidence and a measure of progress for the Jeremy Pruitt era. But that streak would eventually be tested against a better team, and the Vols showed that they still aren’t to the point of contending for the division. Georgia also handled an offensive line and running game that was starting to get a little positive press. The Dawgs ended up with five sacks and held the Vols to -1 net rushing yards (including sack yardage.)

Despite another dominant performance by the nation’s best defense, Georgia struggled to gain an early advantage thanks to a series of unforced errors. The first half started with a high snap into the endzone and ended with Georgia being stuffed at the goal line. In between was everything from the dumbest personal foul since the Ole Miss leg hiker to a couple of bombs completed over the Georgia secondary.

Georgia controlled the game even while it was trying to give the game away: Georgia outgained Tennessee in the first half, and the offense was a foot away from a 24-point half even with its mistakes. They had scoring opportunities on four of their final five possessions of the first half. Yet they trailed, and that’s the stuff upsets are made of. (See Exhibit A.) The halftime deficit was more annoyance than panic, though we might have felt differently had that lead persisted for another quarter.

What changed in the second half? Yes, there were fewer of the mistakes that led to Tennessee’s points. Georgia didn’t shoot itself in the foot as often. But the biggest difference was the ability of the Georgia pass rush to reach and affect Jarrett Guarantano. Georgia didn’t record a sack in the first half despite winning the line of scrimmage and shutting down the Tennessee running game. As at Arkansas, several Georgia defenders came free with a shot at Guarantano but couldn’t close. In the first half Guarantano was 11-of-13 with two long TD passes. True, several of those were short dump-offs in long yardage situations that killed drives, but on others Guarantano had time to make plays. He had plenty of time on both of the touchdown bombs, and a blitzing Stevenson wasn’t able to get there in time on the second scoring toss.

Those fortunes changed in a big way almost immediately after halftime. The unproductive pass rush recorded five sacks, caused three turnovers, and led directly to 13 Georgia points in the second half. Ojulari led the way again, but effective pressure came from all over the linebacking corps. A Georgia defense that was performing well in the first half turned into a havoc machine. It didn’t just limit Tennessee’s yardage; it created scoring opportunities and allowed Georgia to retake the lead without gaining a single first down. That’s the true potential of this defense and why “havoc” has been an emphasis for two years. Good defenses make it difficult for the opponent to move the ball. Great ones affect all phases of the game: they create field position, aid the offense, and take away how the opponent wants to move the ball. We have no idea if Georgia’s defensive backs would fare better against the deep ball in the second half because those plays never had the time to develop.

That last point is one thing to watch heading into the next game. We know all about Alabama’s weapons at tailback and receiver and their ability to hit long scoring plays. The best defense is to take those deep shots out of the game by getting to the quarterback before those plays have a chance to develop. Easier said than done, but Georgia has the talent to affect what the opposing quarterback is trying to do. Their results have been mixed even in the same game – from the ineffective to the downright scary.

Fits and starts

Georgia’s running game wasn’t nearly as effective as it was against Auburn. Tennessee is a sound team, Jeremy Pruitt is much more at home with good, fundamental defense than he is wearing a mask, and players like Henry To’o To’o are tackling machines. There’s still a drought of explosive plays in the running game, and that means more is being asked of Bennett to sustain drives. Georgia managed a respectable 193 yards on the ground, but it took 50 attempts to get there. The end-around to Burton was a beautiful bit of misdirection from Monken that even had the CBS cameras fooled for a second, and it came at a great time as Georgia had just taken a gut punch following the fourth down turnover and quick Tennessee score. Even with Burton’s reverse, Georgia averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.

That trouble on the ground caused some problems for the offense. After managing nearly 7 yards on first down against Auburn, Georgia didn’t face a third down shorter than four yards to go until the final drive of the first half. The Dawgs were a fairly respectable 8-16 on third down, but a lot of the early offense relied on Tennessee personal fouls. Bennett has been above-average on third downs, but

Stetson Bennett had another fine day under center, but we saw some limitations that will have to be schemed around. With the run game ineffective and not much of a downfield passing game, Bennett took more risks both with his arm and his legs. Often it paid off, but he did flirt with a turnover or two. I wrote last week that the offense doesn’t have to be scaled back for Bennett, but I also think there’s a limit to how much the offense can be put on him. Whether or not he’s a “game manager,” whatever that means, Georgia’s offense is not at its best when he’s constantly put in a position to have to escape and improvise. The point of bringing in Todd Monken was to make better use of the talent at the skill positions. Bennett – or any quarterback – has to be a big part of that of course, but we’re hearing a lot more about Bennett than we are White, Pickens, or really anyone other than Kearis Jackson or maybe Kenny McIntosh.

All of that makes it sound as if Georgia was lucky to break double-digits. The offense managed 37 points against a respectable defense and staff. Bennett *did* make plays. He worked the middle of the field for big gains to McIntosh, McKitty, and Jackson. He did convert his share of third downs, though, again, those situations aren’t ideal. Milton and McIntosh did gain around 50 yards each behind White. That’s a good rotation that should only improve with the return of Cook. The scheme is in place to be productive with the personnel at hand. In two games we’ve seen that the offense is as capable of stopping itself as it is putting up points. Can it get out of its own way in time for the biggest games of the regular season?

Go for it?

Kirby Smart’s two fourth down decisions were cut from the same cloth: they were a challenge to a physical football team to move the ball a couple of feet. But they were very different situations and should be evaluated differently. The call on the goal line was fine – the jumbo package had two cracks to score from the one and couldn’t. White perhaps had a chance to bounce outside and walk in, but the play is simply meant to gain a yard behind the line’s push. The poorly executed play(s) didn’t make the decision a bad one – the payoff for gaining that yard was obvious. The other fourth down call is a lot tougher to defend. Tennessee’s offense hadn’t moved the ball beyond the 50, and Georgia has a pretty good defense. Georgia also had the lead. Perhaps Smart saw a chance for an early knockout blow if that drive could be sustained, but the result was to set up a struggling Tennessee offense in a position where it could tie the game on a routine pass play. Even if you give Smart the benefit of the doubt, the 5’11”, 190 lb. Bennett isn’t going to get much of a push or even a second effort through the pile. Georgia took an ill-advised risk to run a slow-developing play with suboptimal personnel.

  • Strong special teams play doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Camarda was again superlative. His 64-yard third quarter punt from the Georgia 12 got the Dawgs out of a big hole while protecting a thin 23-21 lead. Podlesney was perfect, and his 51-yarder to give Georgia the lead for good was what I’d consider his first big kick under pressure. Georgia looked to have taken control of the game, but a miss there would have erased a Tennessee turnover and given the Vols decent field position and the lead. McIntosh had another big kick return that set up the drive that should have scored before halftime. Jackson didn’t have many punt return yards, but he was aggressive fielding punts that would have rolled a good ways.
  • The offensive line that held Auburn at bay wasn’t as effective against Tennessee. Yet another shuffling of the lineup was required when Warren McClendon was injured at the end of the first half. Jamaree Salyer shifted to right tackle while Xavier Truss stepped in at left tackle. McClendon might be out for an extended time, so we’ll have to watch whether the adjusted lineup is the plan going forward.
  • Stokes’s interception was the result of a poor throw under pressure, but how telling was it that Tennessee ran a shotgun pass play on 3rd and 1? By that point in the game, any confidence in gaining just one yard was long gone on the Tennessee sideline.
  • Kendall Milton looked great running the ball, but he plays for a coach obsessed with turnovers. Milton won’t earn more playing time if the coaches don’t trust his ball security. Hopefully that will come soon because we can see the potential.>
  • Trey Hill giveth and taketh away. Hill has had issues with snaps before, and two straight high snaps to start the game was unnerving. To his credit, he was solid for the rest of the game. His presence of mind to get downfield and swiftly recover a fumble in the air before Tennessee could react led to a scoring drive that opened up a two-score lead. A turnover there near midfield with a scant two-point lead would have been a big moment.
  • Does the availability of McKitty mean less playing time for Darnell Washington? We’ve seen Washington’s contributions as a pass-catching option and a physical blocker. He’s also a true freshman, and FitzPatrick still seems to be ahead on the depth chart. I’m a little giddy even mentioning a tight end depth chart.
  • Of course the touchdown pass to Jalen Carter was a highlight. Even mere bloggers could see the potential for play-action out of the jumbo formation, and Carter played some TE in high school. It was a more impressive feat of athleticism than your typical big guy touchdown. Carter got knocked back at the line of scrimmage, had to recover and catch the pass cleanly, and then keep his balance while fighting off a would-be tackler.
  • Not too much talk or online shaming about the crowd this week, so we’ll conclude that compliance was better and the adjustments made by the school to the student seating were effective. Georgia won’t host another home game until November 21st, and the pandemic landscape both nationally and in Clarke County could look very different by then as we approach the end of the fall semester.

Post Georgia 27 – Auburn 6: Different month, familiar result

Tuesday October 6, 2020

I guess it’s time to revisit the old coaching axiom that things are never as bad or as good as they seem. Georgia had the SEC’s largest margin of victory in week one, but they spent the week hearing about a disappointing first half and a crisis at quarterback. Now with a dominant win over a top 10 rival, do we need to pump the brakes on Georgia’s inevitable return to the playoffs? Maybe, but we’ll let the coaches worry about that. For fans another win over Auburn – no matter the month, no matter how many fans could be there, and no matter who played quarterback – is worth savoring.

Georgia has now won 13 of the last 16 meetings against Auburn. That’s comparable to the series records against Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt. A summary of the series since Tra Battle helped to turn the series with an upset win at Auburn in 2006:

  • Georgia has won 13 out of 16 and four in a row
  • Georgia is 7-0 in Athens (undefeated since 2007)
  • No Auburn touchdowns in Athens after the first quarter since 2009 (six games)

I admit that last one gets me. Wins are one thing, but it’s stunning that the last time Auburn scored a touchdown in Athens after the first quarter was the Blackout game in 2007.

Offense

Even after his steadying performance at Arkansas, most of us expected it to be a matter of time before Stetson Bennett gave way to JT Daniels. Even the ESPN game promo used Daniels’s photo alongside Auburn’s Bo Nix. After a confident and effective showing against a good Auburn defense, the perception of Stetson Bennett as placeholder is fading away. That’s good news on several fronts. Daniels doesn’t have to be rushed back – “cleared” and “ready” are two very different states. We’ve seen that the offense doesn’t have to be scaled back for Bennett, and a bit of an identity is emerging. It’s doubtful that Todd Monken spent nine months drawing up plays for Stetson Bennett. Likely for the first time in his career Bennett got first-team reps all week in practice and was involved in the game plan. He was prepared, poised, and the moment wasn’t too big for him. Where does he go now that he’s QB1?

It’s tough to pick Bennett’s best throw of the night. The early third down conversion under pressure was probably the most important. Markaviest ‘Big Kat’ Bryant is one of the better defensive ends in the SEC, and Bennett was able to elude and make a good throw with Bryant coming unblocked off the edge. An incompletion there meant a 49-yard FG attempt, and a sack would have killed the drive. As nice as that play was, the touch and placement on the touchdown pass to Pickens though was just *chef’s kiss*.

This wasn’t exactly Kearis Jackson’s coming out party: he led Georgia in receiving last week, too. But even as Pickens remains the dangerous playmaker, Jackson is looking like the guy in the best position to benefit from extra attention on Pickens. Jackson is fast enough to get open deep, tough enough to go across the middle, and, as ESPN pointed out several times, has the football acumen to get open. The passing game wasn’t as diversified against Auburn as it was at Arkansas. Twelve players caught passes last week, but only seven notched a reception on Saturday. Georgia had far fewer pass attempts against Auburn due to better success on the ground but also because of fewer possessions.

That success on the ground was something we’ve been waiting to see. Georgia was ineffective on first and second down at Arkansas, and their low third down conversion rate was a result. Against Auburn Georgia got over 7 yards per play on first down, and a lot of that came from running the ball. Zamir White was pushing 80 yards by halftime. James Cook was getting over 8 yards per carry before he was injured. Milton, McIntosh, and Edwards combined for nearly 90 yards to push Georgia over 200 rushing yards. Much was made about the talent Auburn lost on the defensive front, and that’s true. But this is also an overhauled Georgia offensive line with four new starters. That line found its stride after a shaky start at Arkansas, and both run blocking and pass protection were solid on Saturday.

Of course the offense can still improve. Perimeter blocking has to get better – we’ve seen obvious holding calls on the outside erase nice gains in both games due to lazy blocking. Explosive runs haven’t come yet, though the holes are starting to open and White has shown some good moves. Again downfield blocking is in the spotlight – it can mean the difference between a nice, successful run and a trip to the endzone. Bennett can improve his accuracy – too many of the completions to Jackson ended with a diving catch and left yards-after-catch on the table.

Defense

When we saw Chad Morris’s offense at Clemson in 2013, he had Tajh Boyd running it. That up-tempo offense with a mobile QB wasn’t new, but it was still a handful. Morris’s offense would make him attractive to SMU and later Arkansas. Already after one game his offense had drawn praise for a more sophisticated use of Auburn’s stable of speedy receivers, and even Kirby Smart noted that this wasn’t your typical Malzahn offense. What the 2020 Georgia defense was able to do against Morris that the 2013 unit couldn’t was to make it one-dimensional. Clemson rushed for 197 yards on Georgia in 2013, and Boyd scored twice on the ground. Georgia held Auburn to 39 rushing yards on Saturday. The Auburn running game was limited to true freshman Tank Bigsby, and Georgia made sure that the newcomer wasn’t going to have his breakout game.

I don’t know that any series better demonstrates what this defense has become than the first-and-goal Auburn faced just before halftime. The targeting call on LeCounte could have shellshocked the defense, but they regrouped and forced a field goal. First was preparation: Georgia recognized the tendency to run the quarterback. It was snuffed out on first down. On second down, Auburn shifted the formation and used motion to create better numbers for Nix. Nakobe Dean recognized the situation and quickly tried to realign the defense. It was still a good play for Auburn, but Jordan Davis made an athletic tackle from behind to keep a modest gain from becoming a touchdown. On third down, Tyson Campbell smoothly followed Auburn’s Anthony Schwartz in motion and was right there to stick Schwartz for no gain on a little flare pass that would have scored if Campbell had been a little slower getting into position or missed the tackle. You have intelligent and physical plays at all three levels of the defense working to keep Auburn out of the endzone and limit any momentum they’d have going into halftime.

But even the defense has things to work on. Bo Nix can be evasive and tough to bring down, but several of Auburn’s more successful plays came when Nix was able to elude the initial pressure. It’s thrilling to see someone like Adam Anderson come free on a passing down, but the pass rush has to get home. Ending drives also became an issue in the Auburn game. Auburn’s final four drives lasted 11, 15, 15, and 8 plays. It’s to the defense’s credit that those four drives netted a total of six points, but there were several missed opportunities to make third down stops. If people wonder why an effective Georgia offense only scored three points in the second half, it’s because they rarely had the ball. Auburn’s long drives meant that Georgia only had three posessions in the second half – including the final possession on which they ran out the clock. Georgia’s other two second half possessions yielded two field goal attempts.

No-name No Longer

Despite returning eight starters from the nation’s top defense, the Bulldog defense didn’t get many nods during preseason selections. That relative anonymity might be changing as a couple of players are beginning to break out. Auburn’s biggest offensive threat is a deep and fast receiver corps. Georgia’s defensive backs generally did well, especially against deeper passes, but Tyson Campbell shone while drawing one of the tougher assignments. Seth Williams is a 6’2″ receiver with great leaping and ballcatching skills who torched Kentucky for 6 catches, 112 yards, and 2 TD in the opener. Last year against Georgia Williams posted 13 receptions for 121 yards. Campbell is one of the few defensive backs with both the size and speed to match up against someone like Williams. Williams still had three catches for a modest 34 yards on Saturday, but Campbell was a big reason why Williams wasn’t able to do more damage especially as Auburn began to take more shots downfield in the second half. Williams was visibly frustrated and eventually left the game with what looked to be a leg injury.

Azeez Ojulari and Adam Anderson also stood out. Anderson has become a third down pass rush specialist, and coaches have had fun moving him all over the formation to disguise pressure. He’s also able to drop into coverage. We saw Anderson come free on several obvious passing situations and flush Bo Nix from the pocket. I’m sure coaches would like to see him turn those plays into sacks, but sometimes it’s enough to make the quarterback uncomfortable and get him on the move. Most quarterbacks aren’t as effective on the move as Nix. Ojulari did record a sack, but he was most impressive setting the edge and preventing a speedy Auburn team from having much success in their option plays. It’s telling that Georgia’s top five tacklers were all interior linemen or inside linebackers – most running plays and reads were funneled back inside. Ojulari’s awareness stood out on the last play of the first half when Auburn tried to run out of the victory formation. He sniffed out the trick play and made the tackle for loss – one of three TFL he had in the game.

  • Loved the goalline package with defensive linemen Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter. Will love it even more when one of them releases on a play-action pass.
  • Davis and Carter weren’t just in there to take up space. They made purposeful blocks with good technique.
  • What was more impressive – those defensive linemen on the goalline offense or Travon Walker staying with a tailback down the sideline in coverage?
  • I was surprised that Auburn didn’t attack Georgia’s safeties more, especially once LeCounte was ejected. Lewis Cine is a good, physical player, but he’s still relatively new to the position. LeCounte was replaced by Christopher Smith, a junior who has seen mostly reserve and special teams duty. It’s no knock against Cine or Smith to say that the strength of Georgia’s secondary in pass coverage was at the cornerback position. Most of Auburn’s deep shots went outside against that strength, and Tyson Campbell is one of the few players in the SEC who can match the speed of Auburn’s receivers.
  • Auburn wasn’t without its chances in the passing game. Daniel isn’t as quick as Campbell or Stokes, and receivers were able to get behind him. It’s great to see Campbell emerge, but Georgia does need some reliable depth at cornerback. Has anyone checked on Kelee Ringo’s status?
  • James Cook took almost as much heat as D’Wan Mathis after the opener. He responded with one of his better games as a Bulldog, and we began to see some of the potential realized. It was a shame he was knocked out of the game just as he was getting going, and it’s good news that the injury doesn’t seem to be serious.
  • Stuck between the 5-star starting tailbacks and the 5-star freshman, Kenny McIntosh has carved out a nice role for himself. His kick returns have provided some valuable field position. He’s been active in the passing game and a tough runner between the tackles. It’s a very Herrien-like role with perhaps a bit more talent.