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Post 2017 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 1, 2017

This is our eleventh preview of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the conference over that time. The addition of Texas A&M had an immediate impact, and Missouri has started to make their mark. You don’t have to go back through many of our previews to find South Carolina and Mississippi State among the bottom half (if not bottom quarter) of the conference. That they’ve turned things around and displaced perennial favorites like Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia shows the kind of turnover that can happen in a competitive league as resources begin to equalize, media coverage becomes universal, and a new wave of ambitious coaches tries to take what once belonged to the conference’s old guard.

Vic Schaefer took over Mississippi State in 2012-2013 and is already the program’s 2nd-winningest coach. He took two seasons to rebuild the program, posted consecutive 11-5 conference records in 2015 and 2016, and came up just short of the regular season title in his fifth season. That follows on the heels of Dawn Staley’s own meteoric rise as she built the Gamecocks from an afterthought into the four-time defending regular season champions.

The top of the league has been fairly airtight this year, but some cracks are showing. South Carolina and Mississippi State distinguished themselves early, and the only question was which team would win the regular season title. The Gamecocks won the head-to-head meeting, but Mississippi State had a chance to win at least a share of the title until the final game. The biggest upset of the season might be Missouri over South Carolina, but Mizzou has been ranked (or close to it) all season. Tennessee’s win at South Carolina was also a shock, but is a Tennessee win ever really an upset? South Carolina should be expected to be playing for the title on Sunday, but can Mississippi State snap out of a recent funk to join them? That side of the bracket could get wild if the #2-seed Bulldogs can’t refocus.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #8 Georgia vs. #9 Auburn: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field:

1) South Carolina (14-2, 24-4) (LY-1): Their odds of winning the conference seemed long after an upset loss at Missouri, but they bounced back to win their final two games while Mississippi State faded. After the dust cleared Sunday, the Gamecocks won their fourth consecutive regular season conference title. Only Tennessee from 1998-2004 has had a longer run at the top. Now the team looks for a third-straight SEC Tournament title – a feat previously only accomplished by, you guessed it, Tennessee.

Any discussion of South Carolina must start with the frontcourt of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson. The duo has been dominant even though Coates has battled foul trouble and injuries. Few do the high-low game any better. Consistency at guard has been an issue for the Gamecocks. Transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are known as prolific scorers, but they’ve disappeared at times or, worse, contributed to inefficient offense with poor shot selection. Bianca Cuevas-Moore is an x-factor who can dart to the basket or pull up for a big outside shot.

South Carolina has cranked out the wins again this season, but they’ve been tougher to come by. One reason is depth. They really need Coates and Wilson on the court at the same time to be at peak production. I don’t know if “leadership” is the right word, but the team has missed the steadying influence of a veteran like Tiffany Mitchell. Wilson is the often the best player on the court, but she has to get the ball. Make no mistake: this is an extremely talented team, and they’re the favorites to repeat as champions for the third time. South Carolina now occupies the territory Tennessee once held. They’re used to taking everyone’s best shot and have the most experience making deep tournament runs. They’re only 100 miles from home and should have plenty of crowd support. I wouldn’t bet against them, but you wonder who’s going to get the ball at the end of a close game.

2) Mississippi State (13-3, 27-3) (LY-3): A week ago Mississippi State had an outright lead for the regular season title and a probable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They dropped their final two regular season games, lost out on even a share of the conference title, and they’d have to win the conference tournament to have a chance at a top NCAA seed. Did they wilt under the pressure? That’s possible, but they also faced a pair of good teams. The Bulldogs started 20-0, and a controversial close loss at South Carolina was their only blemish until the final week of the season. MSU rolled through much of their schedule, and they have impressive wins against Texas and at Tennessee.

Junior forward Victoria Vivians has been a top performer since she arrived in Starkville. Vic Schaefer has built up the surrounding cast, and defenses can’t focus solely on Vivians. Morgan William is a slashing guard who can get to the rim and draw fouls or hit the occasional outside shot. The frontcourt of Teaira McCowan, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson is formidable. This is a deep squad that can spread it around featuring seven players averaging at least 7 PPG and ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. At crunch time, though, Vivians wants the ball and more often than not can make good things happen.

A couple weeks ago there was no hotter team in the SEC. It’s been a rough past two weeks though with a pair of close calls against Georgia and Texas A&M and then the losses to Kentucky and Tennessee. The Bulldogs will still earn a high NCAA seed, but they’ll need a strong showing in Greenville to gain back the confidence and momentum they’ll need for a deep NCAA run. They arguably face the easiest path to the championship game of the four top seeds. It will take much better play than they’ve shown lately to get there.

3) Missouri (11-5, 21-9) (LY-8): A five-game winning streak propelled the Tigers to a double-bye and their best finish as an SEC member. They’re arguably the hottest team entering the tournament. As with other recent Mizzou teams, they’re productive from the outside. Robin Pingeton has an experienced team that plays sound basketball. They lead the league in free throw percentage. Once again no SEC team has attempted more three-pointers, and they’re hitting almost 36%. In terms of SEC WBB, Missouri is the new Vanderbilt.

Sophie Cunningham was SEC Freshman of the Year last season and has only improved as she matures into a team leader and an SEC star. She has help: Cierra Porter is an impressive presence inside who will make teams pay for focusing on outside shooters like Sierra Michaelis who has attempted nearly 200 three-pointers. Missouri’s success is even more remarkable considering they lost a pair of veteran forwards to injury prior to the season. Jordan Frericks was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Cunningham, and Porter has done a fantastic job anchoring a depleted frontcourt.

The Tigers have been in and out of the rankings all season, but their current winning streak featuring an upset of South Carolina has them trending up. Missouri’s problem has been finding success away from home. The Tigers are a stellar 15-1 at home but just a pedestrian 6-8 in other arenas. They have won two road games during their current winning streak. Whether they’ve figured out how to play at a high level will be tested right away. They’ll probably face a good Texas A&M team on Friday, and Missouri won that regular season meeting by just two points in Columbia.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 20-9) (LY-5): We’re used to seeing the Wildcats at or near the top of the standings. Matthew Mitchell’s squad is once again among the class of the league, and it’s been a pretty remarkable coaching job to have them among the top four this year. The Wildcats were hit with a slew of transfers during the offseason, forcing Mitchell to adapt his style of play. The Cats aren’t especially deep due to the attrition which hinders the frenetic pace and trapping defense that Mitchell prefers, but this team can still do damage in a halfcourt game. Kentucky hasn’t faltered against the lower two-thirds of the conference, and they’ve notched wins over Missouri and Mississippi State. Seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are just the kind of dependable and productive players you want your seniors to be, but Taylor Murray, Maci Morris, and Jaida Roper are a trio of underclassman guards providing important contributions to balance the scoring. No one will have a tougher path to the finals with Tennessee and South Carolina in their way.

5) Tennessee (10-6, 19-10) (LY-7): It’s been a maddeningly inconsistent year for the Lady Vols. They’ve managed wins over four top ten teams yet lost to Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Auburn. This follows a year in which the Lady Vols made a run to the Elite Eight after coming close to missing the tournament. The wins show that they have the talent to compete with anyone, and the losses show some serious issues with depth beyond a few key contributors. Diamond DeShields has improved each season and is good enough to carry this team deep into the tournament. This is her team. Mercedes Russell is an elite talent at center. Jamie Nared is the kind of scrappy and clutch player you often associate with Tennessee. If the Lady Vols can get production from those three (and occasionally Jordan Reynolds), they can beat most teams. They won at South Carolina with their three key players scoring 64 of the team’s 76 points. If that production isn’t there, they can struggle.

Tennessee will have their usual large tournament crowd behind them, and they know how to play in big games. If they advance to the quarterfinals, they’ve defeated the three teams likely standing between them and the championship. Then again, they’ve lost to their most likely second round opponent (Alabama). It’s been that kind of year. Still, would anyone be surprised to see them playing on Saturday or even Sunday?

6) Texas A&M (9-7, 19-10) (LY-2): A&M has sort of faded from the national scene after challenging for the conference title a few years ago, but they’re still hanging around and capable of advancing to at least Saturday in the tournament. An early win over 2016 national runner-up Syracuse stands out, but that came a day after a loss to Dayton. They’ve notched wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, but they enter the postseason on a four-game slide that knocked them out of a double-bye all the way down to the 6-seed. Gary Blair will have his team ready to play their trademark tough defense, but they’ll have to pull out of their tailspin quickly to advance beyond Thursday. Danni Williams is the team’s leading scorer and gives the Aggies an outside threat. Forward Khaalia Hillsman adds over 16 PPG inside. Curtyce Knox is another scoring threat at guard, and Taylor Cooper is hitting nearly 42% of her three-pointers.

7) LSU (8-8, 19-10) (LY-13): The Tigers have been quietly competent this year after a 13th-place finish last year, though some late losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia pulled them back to the middle of the pack. The offense flows through a pair of talented guards. Raigyne Moncrief and Chloe Jackson can score anywhere inside the arc and aren’t afraid to get to the rim. You won’t see many three-pointers from these Tigers – Auburn and Missouri have attempted about four times as many. This isn’t a tall team, but forward Alexis Hyder is a physical presence inside. LSU will show token pressure, and their lack of size means that they must be aggressive in halfcourt defense. The Tigers lead the conference in steals, but opponents can have success inside if they handle the pressure.

8) Georgia (7-9, 15-14) (LY-6): It’s been an impressive coaching job by Joni Taylor to have her team in this position. The Lady Dogs were picked to finish 12th preseason as they faced the challenge of replacing a strong senior class with a limited roster of only eight scholarship players. A 2-6 start in league play seemed to validate those preseason expectations, but Georgia turned it around by winning five of their final eight games. Georgia has lived on the edge: three of those five wins came in overtime, and the Lady Dogs are 6-1 in close games. Does that mean they’ve won a few that could have gone the other way? Sure, but Georgia made the plays to win those games, and the emergence of some key players led to those wins.

Wing Pachis Roberts took an important step forward as a senior, more than doubling her 7 PPG average a season ago. Roberts had big games before this season, but she’s been much more consistent and now leads the team in scoring. Sophomore Caliya Robinson adds 14 PPG and continues to show flashes of the talent that led to her SEC All-Freshman selection last season. Robinson can be a dominant forward and has taken over several games this season, but she also struggled with some midseason consistency and can take herself out of games with foul trouble. Taylor has settled on bringing Robinson in off the bench and starting Georgia’s lone freshman Stephanie Paul. Mackenzie Engram is back from the ailment that ended her sophomore season, and she can also put up big numbers as a versatile forward that can run the court, post up, or hit the outside jumper. Georgia is at their best when Roberts and Robinson are productive, and it usually takes at least one more player having a good night for Georgia to be successful. Often that’s Engram, but wing Shanea Armbrister can come up big too.

Even with their best players contributing, Georgia leans on their defense. The Lady Dogs are last in the league in scoring at 62.8 PPG, and they need the score to be in the 50s or low 60s in order to have a chance. That defense has been a big part of Georgia’s better-than-expected finish, though the biggest weakness for a team with such a thin bench has been foul trouble. Turnovers can also be a problem for this team as guard play isn’t a strength. That’s a concern in their opening game: they turned it over 22 times in this season’s win at Auburn.

9) Auburn (7-9, 17-13) (LY-9): One of the mysteries of the season has been the disappearance of the Auburn offense. The Tigers averaged nearly 75 PPG in their five SEC wins, but they struggled to reach 60 during a long slump towards the end of the year. They won two in a row at the end of the season after dropping eight of nine. Few teams are as top-heavy as the Tigers. Guards Katie Frerking, Brandy Montgomery, and Janiah McKay combine for 43 of the team’s 63 points per game. No other player averages more than 4.2 PPG. Auburn’s guard-heavy offense shoots more three-pointers than any team but Missouri, but Auburn is shooting less than 30% from outside. The spotty Auburn offense is often helped by their defense – a tough press that falls back into a tight matchup zone that extends beyond the arc. This frenzied defense often leads to turnovers and points: Auburn is second in the nation in turnovers forced (>22 per game) and also second in turnover margin. Auburn is clinging to the NCAA Tournament bubble, and that desperation could be an extra edge.

10) Ole Miss (6-10, 17-12) (LY-14): With wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M, the Rebels clearly can punch above their weight. That said, they’ve also been on the wrong side of several blowouts and can give up a lot of points. They’ve won only two games away from home, but a strong 15-3 home record was just enough to earn a first round bye and avoid playing on Wednesday. There’s no real standout player, but the Rebels will need big games from Madinah Muhammad and Shandricka Sessom. Alissa Alston can do damage off the bench, and Taylor Manuel and Shelby Gibson can push around teams without physical post players of their own. Ole Miss is near the top of the league in steals and forced turnovers, so their opening game against LSU should provide a good contest between teams who depend on their ability to generate turnovers.

11) Florida (5-11, 14-15) (LY-4): The Gators started the season ranked, but the December departure of leading scorer Eleanna Christinaki sent Florida reeling. They lost their first five SEC games and were just 2-8 after ten conference games. They finished 3-3 down the stretch and gave Missouri and Tennessee close games in a losing effort. They managed to sweep two games against Georgia but have no other wins against teams outside of the play-in games. Senior Ronni Williams took the team on her back and gets nearly 20 points per game. They’ve asked a lot of freshman Delicia Washington, and Washington has responded with over 11 PPG. Brooke Copeland can get hot from outside. Forward Haley Lorenzen can rebound and extend defenses with her range. The Gators have struggled with turnovers, leading the league with over 18 turnovers per game.

12) Alabama (5-11, 17-12) (LY-12): Alabama notched wins over Missouri, Tennessee, and a sweep of Ole Miss. Their 17 wins is the high water mark under coach Kristy Curry, but they’ve had difficulty turning those few noteworthy wins into more sustained success. Meoshonti Knight leads the Tide in scoring, but no player averages over 11.3 PPG. Scoring is spread around with seven players averaging over 6 PPG. Hannah Cook is a very good all-around player who can drill nearly 35% of her three-pointers and also pull down over 5 rebounds per game. Guard Jordan Lewis has been one of the top freshman in the SEC, starting every game and taking home SEC Freshman of the Week honors five times. Forward Shaquera Wade was a key recruit two years ago and is capable of a big game. Alabama isn’t a very big team, but everyone contributes on the glass. They’re second only to Tennessee in total rebounds.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 14-15) (LY-11): It was a tough initiation into the SEC for new coach Stephanie White. The Commodores lost their first seven league games, but only their loss at Tennessee was a true blowout. They finally posted a win against Alabama. This is a young team that brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes along with their new coach. That young group began to figure some things out towards the end of the year and closed with three wins in their final five games. Erin Whalen is one of those freshmen and took home the season’s final SEC Freshman of the Week honor. Scoring has been a team effort: the Commodores have just one player, Rachel Bell, scoring at least 10 PPG, but nine players average at least 5 PPG. Senior forward Marqu’es Webb continues to be a physical presence inside, but this is a team that lives and dies with the three-pointer. Only Missouri has made more, and the Commodores hit an impressive 39.1% of their outside shots. Their inexperience shows up in their ballhandling: only Florida turns the ball over more.

14) Arkansas (2-14, 13-16) (LY-10): Star forward Jessica Jackson can only carry them so far. The Razorbacks made it through nonconference play with an 11-2 record, but those two losses were to Oral Roberts and Missouri State. Reality soon set in during the SEC schedule, and they dropped their first four league games. Arkansas showed signs of life with consecutive wins in mid-January, but they’ve lost ten straight to end the season. There have been a few close calls – six of the losses on their current losing streak were by seven points or fewer – but the breakthrough never came. Jackson’s had yet another impressive campaign in her senior season and scores about 15 PPG. She leads the team in rebounds, three-pointers made and attempted, and foul shots made and attempted. Malica Monk, Keiryn Swenson, and Jailyn Mason provide scoring from the guard position.


Post What’s a preferred walk-on?

Wednesday February 1, 2017

Since most of Georgia’s 2017 signing class is either already committed or waiting until Signing Day to announce, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of weeks. There have been some important visitors each of the past two weekends, but the biggest splash has come from a 2019 commitment.

With the nice-to-have problem of finding enough spots in a stellar recruiting class, this is the time of year when we start to hear all of those “roster management” terms that we use as shorthand to talk about how teams allocate their 85 scholarships. At Georgia, the past week has brought a flurry of “preferred walk-ons.” What makes certain players preferred walk-ons?

The important thing: “preferred walk-on” (PWO) is meaningless as far as the NCAA is concerned. They’re simply non-scholarship players. It’s a term without any kind of formal or standard definition. It’s up to each school how they distinguish one walk-on from another – if at all. Each school runs its own walk-on program differently guided only by the limits of 85 scholarship players and 105 total players on the roster. Though most coaches are up-front about the path to a scholarship, some choose to avoid creating a distinction among their walk-ons. Depending on the program, being a PWO might mean:

  • They are recruited and invited by the staff. The PWO is recruited like any scholarship player but with the understanding that he will not be on scholarship. Coaches may promise the opportunity to earn a scholarship down the road if one becomes available.
  • They are all but guaranteed to make the 105-man roster. Not every walk-on who comes out for the team will last, but preferred walk-ons don’t have to go through a cattle-call tryout. This seems to be the minimum consensus definition of a PWO.
  • They are involved in all team activities – meetings, community service, Fan Day, etc.
  • They have access to team perks. This includes gear, access to the weight room and training facilities, and academic support. They also have access to team meals and the dining hall but must pay for meals.
  • They may travel to the bowl game. Walk-ons (and even some scholarship players) don’t travel with the team to road games. The rules are looser for bowls, and walk-ons receive the same travel stipend, per-diem distributions, and bowl swag as the scholarship players.

Kirby Smart identified Georgia’s walk-on program for improvement back in the spring. True to his word, Smart has been very active lately adding walk-ons to the 2017 class. Vince Dooley’s grandson is among them. There will even be another Frank Sinkwich on the team. The Dawgs added another pair of walk-ons on Sunday, and they continue to roll in on the eve of Signing Day.

We’ve seen PWOs at nearly every position at Georgia. This year alone the Dawgs have used PWOs to add to their depth at linebacker, punter, fullback, quarterback, and receiver. They even hosted an offensive lineman currently committed to Harvard as a possible walk-on addition. This year, thanks in some part to the visibility of the Blankenship story, the most high-profile PWO commitment to date might be that of Greater Atlanta Christian kicker Brooks Buce. Georgia had interest in several kickers who were weighing walk-on offers against scholarship offers at smaller programs, and Buce signed on. He’ll compete with Blankenship and the rest of the kickers on the roster, but his best chance to make an early impact is as a kickoff specialist.


Post A roof over their heads

Monday January 23, 2017

When you see this past weekend called “Georgia’s biggest remaining official visit weekend” and hear about the awful weather going on across the state, it’s a good time to let Georgia’s new IPF have its first big moment.

The IPF won’t be officially dedicated until mid-February, but it’s already getting plenty of use. There were walk-throughs during bowl practices, and offseason workouts are going on there almost daily. Now it’s also available to host some of the most important prospects remaining on Georgia’s board.

Yes, the prospects had a lot of stops across campus and across Athens that put them out into weather that wasn’t nearly as nice as last weekend’s. It’s still nice to bring them back by the showpiece facility and hand out in the program’s new home.

PS…Georgia’s football program isn’t the only team using the IPF to get better during their offseason.


Post A Georgia fan watches the championship game

Tuesday January 10, 2017

I thought the game itself came down to two things: first was Bama failing to capitalize on Clemson turnovers. Alabama’s ability to convert turnovers into scores (often without the offense taking the field!) became the stuff of legends this year. They created two turnovers in this game – both on Clemson’s end of the field. But not only did Clemson prevent those non-offense touchdowns that had become Alabama’s calling card; they also kept Alabama’s offense out of the endzone after those turnovers. The Tide had to settle for a net of three points off those two turnovers, and that wasn’t nearly enough of a knockout blow.

The last Clemson turnover came early in the third quarter, and Alabama led 17-7. From there the story was Clemson’s offense wearing down the Alabama defense. With Bo Scarbrough injured, the Tide found it difficult to sustain drives, and the Alabama defense was called on again and again until it broke down to the tune of 21 fourth quarter points for the Tigers. Clemson ended up running 99 plays due in large part to an effective defense of their own and an Alabama offense that couldn’t put together any kind of a sustained drive until they fell behind.

Georgia fans naturally thought of the end of the 2012 SEC Championship. This time the Tide didn’t stop the last-minute drive. The difference of course is that the 2012 Dawgs had to have a touchdown while this Clemson team would have survived with a chip shot field goal if it came to that. I think that difference changes playcalling quite a bit, and of course the issue of the running clock in 2012 also factors in.

I supported the Tide in this game. It wasn’t out of any SEC loyalty, a concept I’ll never understand fully. I saw a Bama win as the best outcome for Georgia. We’ve more or less become numb to Alabama titles, and I didn’t want Clemson adding a national title to their recruiting pitch. The Dawgs have enough of a challenge recruiting against their SEC rivals, but two of the last four national champs are ACC schools from neighboring states. That doesn’t make Kirby Smart’s job any easier.

Clemson won though, and three of the last four national champions border Georgia to the south, west, and now the northeast. It’s not news that the recruiting competition in this part of the country is cutthroat, and Clemson’s win will only make it moreso. Seeing yet another neighbor hoist the trophy, especially one with whom Georgia has such deep history, only increases the desperation of Georgia fans to see their program win a title. Clemson had waited since 1981, but Bulldog fans can do them one better.

Dabo’s path to the top hasn’t been linear and certainly hasn’t been conventional. His elevation from interim coach in 2008 wasn’t seen as a home run, and his program was nearly short-circuited after a disappointing 2010. Swinney made some changes and brought in outstanding coordinators – first Chad Morris to overhaul the offense and then Brent Venables to build the defense. The turning point was Clemson’s comeback upset of LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers have lost only seven games in the four seasons since. More, they’ve survived and even improved after the departure of Morris and a wave of talent that salvaged Swinney’s career.

Georgia’s 2013 and 2014 games against Clemson were battles of fairly evenly-matched teams. Clemson won a tight game in 2013 as Tajh Boyd bested Aaron Murray in a contest of senior quarterbacks. Georgia’s dominant running game was the story in 2014 as Gurley and Chubb took over and blew open a close game. A secondary story of that 2014 was how both teams managed to replace Murray and Boyd. Georgia was positioned better in the short term with Hutson Mason, but it took one throw to realize that Clemson’s long term answer was a very special true freshman.

I was surprised but certainly also glad that Clemson didn’t stick with Watson in that game. We had our own experience breaking in a true freshman quarterback this season, and I’m sure Swinney had his own developmental plan for Watson in mind. It didn’t take long for Watson to win the starting job, and he came back from a knee injury to lead his team to consecutive national title games. He’s been an outstanding player and has to be in the discussion of the best players who never won the Heisman.

No one imagined after that 2014 game in Sanford Stadium that Georgia had run all over a team that would play for a national title the next year and win it just one one year later. I also doubt many expected the two programs to head in such different trajectories.

As Kirby Smart rebuilds the Georgia program, he knows that the team’s foundation is as important as the superstars. That realization is evident in the current recruiting class, especially on the offensive line. It’s true that Georgia also must keep top talent like Watson in state, but Georgia has had exceptional individuals like Stafford, Green, and Gurley with no titles to show for it. It’s the supporting cast that needs the most work, and it isn’t hard to imagine how much better even a true freshman like Eason would look having a target like Williams or a left tackle like Hyatt.

What we saw last night was an outstanding player in Watson that could push a program over the top as well as a program in a position to take full advantage when that player came along. Swinney did well to land a transformational player like Watson, but he’s a championship coach because the rest of the ingredients were in place and came together. Even Watson couldn’t do it alone, and it took a fleet of receivers like Williams, Renfrow, and Leggett making tough catches along with a line that largely held their own against Alabama’s standard pass rush to produce those magical fourth quarter drives.


Post Even the freaking bowl game is at noon

Sunday December 4, 2016

Georgia will face TCU in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis at noon on Friday, December 30. ESPN will televise the game. This matchup had been the consensus among most bowl projections since last weekend, and none of Saturday’s results did anything to change the placement of SEC teams.

Georgia is undefeated in three previous meetings with TCU. The most recent game occurred in Athens in 1998, and Georgia came away with a 38-10 victory.

TCU finished the regular season 6-6 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 conference play. Their wins include impressive blowouts against Baylor (66-22) and Texas (31-9), but they have no wins over ranked opponents. They have a couple of near-misses earlier in the season: Arkansas outlasted them 41-38 in 2OT, and Oklahoma outgunned them 52-46 on Oct. 1. They started the season ranked #13 and were still ranked #21 for that Oklahoma game, but they finished the season 3-4.

The Horned Frogs finished the 2015 season ranked #7 after an improbable comeback win over Oregon in the bowl game. They lost a large group of contributors from that team including QB Trevone Boykin and All-American WR Josh Doctson. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill leads the TCU offense, but he was injured against Texas. He came off the bench in the season finale against Kansas State but couldn’t kickstart a lackluster offense. You’d expect Hill to be a little healthier in time for the bowl. Hill and his replacement Foster Sawyer have gone back and forth since preseason, and TCU hasn’t been afraid to pull Hill when he’s struggled.

TCU’s offense has put up some big scores this season, but consistency has been an issue. It sounds as if they’ve had some familiar problems at receiver and along the offensive line. A good barometer for Georgia’s success in the bowl game will be the Dawgs’ ability to run: TCU defended the run well in big wins over Baylor and Texas but gave up at least 330 yards on the ground in losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State.


Post Defense fun fact

Friday November 11, 2016

Courtesy of Marc Weiszer:

Better news: no one on that list is a senior.


Post Can the players rescue another season?

Friday November 4, 2016

When a sitting assistant coach uses a term like “mutiny” to describe the coaching staff at the end of the 2015 season, it’s fair to say that it was on the players to hold things together after a bad loss in Jacksonville. To their credit, they did hold things together, and Georgia closed the season winning five consecutive games despite an imploding staff that was eventually cut loose.

The cohesiveness of the staff isn’t nearly as much of an issue this year though I expect and hope that no one feels comfortable in their position after losing four of five games. But we’re back in a similar situation. The record is about the same as it was a year ago (the loss to Vanderbilt being the biggest difference.) The bye week and the Florida game didn’t provide many answers to Georgia’s woes in either 2015 or 2016.

One thing that did come out of the 2015 Cocktail Party was an identity that would serve them down the stretch. Accepting a limited role for the quarterback, Georgia leaned on Sony Michel, some wildcat plays, and strong defense to manage their way through several low-scoring games.

Though that same identity might not necessarily serve the 2016 team, once again it’s the players that are taking it on themselves to keep fighting through this midseason slide. They intended to push each other through the bye week. Michel and Chubb have every reason to be frustrated with their production, but they’re remaining positive and stepping up as leaders. Outside linebackers used a marathon gaming session to let go of the frustration and remain tight. “We’re trying as hard as we can to stay positive, and stay close to each other, and make sure nobody kind of wanders off on their own,” said senior Chuks Amaechi.

None of that is going to fix the blocking or third down defense or special teams or any of Georgia’s other problems, but it’s still good to see. To start with, if the team can find one or two answers to get them through November, it’s going to take less effort to get everyone moving in the same direction. It’s also a positive sign that the coaches aren’t losing the team and that the players haven’t packed it in. More importantly, the leaders and tone for the offseason are being identified and developed right now. A young team is learning that they have a choice about how they respond to this season.

A few wins down the stretch couldn’t hurt, either.


Post Plugging the Joystick back in

Wednesday October 26, 2016

Isaiah McKenzie spoke yesterday about the 4th-and-1 against Vanderbilt and his overall role in the offense. The play didn’t fail because of anything he did or didn’t do, but he still dwells on it and can’t wait for an opportunity for redemption. I hope he gets it.

McKenzie’s production in both the passing and rushing attacks has been a big part of Georgia’s success this season. As opponents tighten up the box around the line of scrimmage to snuff out Georgia’s tailbacks, McKenzie has been effective on jet sweeps. He’s found the going tougher thanks to increased attention from defenses, and hopefully that can open things up for other skill players.

But as McKenzie’s role in the offense has taken off this year, his production on special teams has dropped off a cliff. McKenzie had a punt return of 55 yards early in the third quarter of the Nicholls game which led to a field goal. Since that game, McKenzie has a total of 45 return yards with no single return longer than 16 yards.

  • Missouri: 2 ret for 25 yds (16 long)
  • Ole Miss: 1 ret for 8 yds (8 long)
  • Tennessee: 1 ret for 13 yds (13 long)
  • SC: 0 ret for 0 yds
  • Vanderbilt: 3 ret for -1 yds (4 long)

That loss of production in the return game is arguably more important than what McKenzie brings to the offense. Though he’s a valuable option on offense, Georgia has other ways to get yards running and passing. Few are able to match what he can do on returns. It’s not necessarily on McKenzie. We’ve seen some unconventional punters with different kicking styles that make returning bouncing balls difficult or unwise. The punt return unit on the whole hasn’t done much to distinguish itself from the rest of Georgia’s special teams.

Still, it was as if we were watching someone else field punts against Vanderbilt, and it hasn’t been anywhere near the same Human Joystick since the fumbled punt return that let Nicholls back in the game. McKenzie has always been one to take a few risks that made you hold your breath, but his hesitancy and lack of confidence in which punts to field and which to let go has all but neutralized one of Georgia’s few special teams advantages. With hidden yards potentially so meaningful against a good Florida defense, there are few specific things Georgia is more capable of doing to turn the game than for McKenzie to have a big play in the return game. The Gators are 84th in the nation in punt return defense, giving up 8.54 yards per return.


Post Root, root, root for the home team

Wednesday October 26, 2016

This post by Senator Blutarsky last week really resonated, and since we’ve come off a bye week we’ve had nothing but time to think about it. Even once you get past the obvious response (winning is more fun than losing), the “chore” description still seems apt. The tie-in to last season is especially appropriate and helps frame how even a 10-win season in 2015 could struggle to move the needle.

Homecoming has always meant a little more to me, and I wondered after last Saturday’s game just what playing at home has meant lately. Georgia’s performance at Sanford Stadium over the past year has left a lot to be desired and, at least for me, has led to many of the sentiments evoked by Blutarsky’s post. Even as we’re asked to do and give more as fans, we haven’t had a lot to cheer about.

There have been eight home games since we celebrated a rout of South Carolina and sent Steve Spurrier riding off into the sunset. Over that stretch the Dawgs are 2-3 at home against SEC opponents and needed second half comebacks to edge past Georgia Southern and Nicholls.

(Sep. 26, 2015) Southern: A rainy day remembered for a tragic injury. Georgia didn’t put the game away until the second half, and the visiting band might’ve been the highlight of the day.

(Oct. 3, 2015) Alabama: Moving along…

(Oct. 17, 2015) Missouri: A 9-6 horror show. Until Eason hit Nauta in the third quarter of last Saturday’s game, Georgia would go six quarters without a Homecoming touchdown.

(Nov. 7, 2015) Kentucky: A clean and business-like 27-3 win was one of the few breathers Georgia had in the last two months of the 2015 season and was arguably the standout of this group of games.

(Nov. 21, 2015) Ga. Southern: Ho boy. A fumble return early in the second half flipped the script in this game and had Georgia playing from behind just to get to overtime.

(Sep. 10, 2016) Nicholls: The Dawgs needed a late 3rd-down conversion to clinch a sleepy win over an average FCS team.

(Oct. 1, 2016) Tennessee: A rare objectively entertaining game for a national audience, but the home team gave up a 17-point lead and lost despite retaking the lead with 10 seconds remaining.

(Oct. 15, 2016) Vanderbilt: Georgia’s first Homecoming loss since 2006. A typical noon crowd was taken out of it right from the opening kickoff.

The good news? Georgia has three more home games this year and two big opportunities against rivals to recapture some homefield advantage. Beating Auburn and Tech at home is always good for morale. The risk of course is if Georgia continues their lackluster play Between the Hedges. Kirby Smart has done plenty of work to lay a foundation for rebuilding the program, but he’ll still need some degree of success in front of the home crowd to avoid having to work against a disengaged or even adversarial fan base.


Post Hands off the WLOCP

Monday October 10, 2016

Georgia and South Carolina were able to get their game in this weekend, but LSU and Florida still have business to attend to. While it’s still a possibility that the game won’t be played at all, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey maintains that “it’s important to play that game.” The sticking point of course is finding a date that works for both programs, and that’s where Georgia’s name surfaced over the weekend.

Usually I’d dismiss this idea without a second thought, but when it’s coming from someone in the SEC office we have to pay a little more attention. From ESPN:

An SEC official told the Baton Rouge Advocate on Friday that two dates are on the table for a makeup game: Oct. 29 and Nov. 19. … Playing Oct. 29 would require Florida to sacrifice its open date on Oct. 22 and instead play Georgia a week early and LSU the next Saturday. LSU also would lose its open date that weekend prior to the Alabama game the following Saturday.

The November date isn’t without its own pain: it would require both teams to compensate non-conference opponents and might also move the LSU @ Texas A&M game scheduled for Thanksgiving Day (Thursday Nov. 24th) to be pushed back a few days to Saturday. Florida would have to give up a relatively easy game in advance of their traditional rivalry game with FSU.

This is where you’d expect Georgia’s administration to send a very clear signal to the league about October 29th. Seth Emerson was able to catch up with Greg McGarity at the South Carolina game for comment. McGarity was skeptical of the idea, but he also wouldn’t (or couldn’t) say that moving the GA/FL game was off the table.

If you need reasons why McGarity and Jere Morehead should be out in front against this plan, start with this list:

  • Georgia has already taken a scheduling hit due to the storm. They’d be the only SEC team that would have to reschedule two games to their own disadvantage.
  • Georgia would be playing the game without having had their scheduled bye week. This past weekend wasn’t exactly a bye for the Gators, but they didn’t play either.
  • As McGarity pointed out, the Jaguars have a home game on October 23rd. EverBank Field would have to be reconfigured in a day including the removal of 15,000 temporary seats.
  • This isn’t a typical road game where some hotel rooms have to be re-shuffled. It’s a destination game for both Georgia and Florida fans, many of whom have put down nonrefundable deposits on their travel arrangements for at least two or three nights. Fans of both Georgia and Florida stand to lose money with no restitution if the game is rescheduled.
  • Most importantly, the northeast Florida coast just took a hit from a major hurricane. Asking the area to regroup to host a major regional event in three weeks is going to be asking a lot, let alone two weeks. The GA/FL game is always a big economic shot in the arm to areas in northeast Florida and southeast Georgia that depend on tourism, and moving the game would greatly diminish the number of people who travel, how long they stay, and how much they spend.
  • If playing in Jacksonville is too difficult, blowing the whole thing up and playing the game on campus is an even worse idea that won’t be palatable to either team or their partners in Jacksonville.

If there’s even a small chance of this option being considered, the Georgia program needs to be unequivocally opposed to it, and it wouldn’t hurt to reassure Georgia fans with a stronger public statement.


Post Is what’s best for the running game best for Chubb?

Thursday October 6, 2016

We got the good news on Monday that Nick Chubb was not expected to be limited at practice this week and should be available for the next game. There’s been nothing to suggest a setback after three days of practice, so we should expect to see much more of #27 if and when the next game is played.

How much more we’ll see of Chubb is a question that seems pointless to consider. “As much as possible” is the answer, right? While concluding that the “Bulldogs didn’t miss Chubb” against Tennessee is stretching things a bit, it’s reasonable that a different approach to offense might suit some backs more than others. Sony Michel’s shiftiness got him through the spaces created by a shift from the tight formations we saw earlier in the season to a more spread look against Tennessee. If Georgia has settled on a spread look as a way to scheme around teams stacking the box against the run, will the distribution of carries change to get more touches for Michel?

That’s not to say that Chubb is only effective as a straight-ahead power runner. He’s a very well-rounded back who can be devastating on outside runs. Some of his most iconic runs have been toss sweeps to the right side. He’s not just an I-formation guy either: Chubb’s lone moment of glory against Alabama in 2015 came from a spread formation with only six defenders in the box.

We’ve yet to see a healthy Chubb featured in a gameplan similar to the one that led to 181 yards last week. When we do, we’ll get a much better sense of how productive he can be relative to Michel and the other backs. I expect he’ll be fine and just as able to take advantage of the fewer defenders crowding the line.


Post What’s a game in Columbia without extreme weather?

Tuesday October 4, 2016

There seems to be either blazing heat or a weather delay (or both!) when Georgia plays at South Carolina, and fans will want to keep an eye on the weather again this year. Hurricane Matthew currently is moving north through the Caribbean bringing catastrophic conditions to Hispaniola. The forecast for Matthew changed significantly on Monday with a pronounced westward shift in the anticipated track. Rather than curving out to sea like most Atlantic hurricanes, Matthew is now forecast to turn back to the northwest through the Bahamas and be in a position to impact the entire southeast U.S. coast late this week. The storm is forecast to be centered just off Jacksonville on Friday evening and just off Wilmington by Saturday evening.

It’s too early to tell whether Matthew will have any impact on Columbia or the game. The westward shift of the forecast track places central South Carolina in an area of concern, but there’s a large margin of error (nearly 240 miles one way or the other!) for a forecast five days down the road.

For now:

  • The official NWS forecast for Columbia as of Monday evening still calls for fair and breezy weather Saturday and Saturday evening.
  • The forecast for both Columbia and the storm will likely change several times between now and the weekend. If you’re traveling to Columbia, keep checking the forecasts and check the South Carolina website for any announcements about the game.
  • Even if the center of the storm stays offshore, there could be impacts inland including rain, wind, and severe weather. We don’t know yet whether those impacts will reach Columbia which is between 110-150 miles away from the coast.

Matthew forecast track


Post Holding on to that last timeout

Monday October 3, 2016

Had the game ended on Georgia’s final possession, we’d be talking a lot more about Smart’s decision to use two rather than three of his timeouts on defense following Eason’s interception. The CBS crew pounced on the decision, and – to put it mildly – it was met with some disagreement in the stands too.

Looking it at it through the same lens as another infamous coaching decision, I’d say the decision was defensible. I understand those who would have spent all three timeouts: you’re much more in control of the clock on offense.

The decision was whether to get the ball back with ~95 seconds left and no timeouts or 60 seconds left with one timeout. One thing I believe entered into the decision was the offensive line: a sack in that late situation with no timeouts is often game over. The timeout could’ve also been used to set up a final play (as at Missouri) if they were able to get within striking distance. The Dawgs were fortunate to turn a couple of those receptions on the final drive into first downs, and having the timeout kept the middle of the field in play for at least a little while.

That the timeout saved a 10-second runoff doesn’t make the decision any more correct, but that’s another reason to have the timeout in your pocket. There are several things a timeout in hand gets you so long as you accept the tradeoff of about 35 seconds off the clock. I admit we were close to the point where that tradeoff would have left too little time for anything but a few desperate heaves, but the Dawgs were able to advance the ball far enough to take a calculated shot downfield.


Post Tennessee 34 – Georgia 31: It ain’t over ’til Lulu sings

Monday October 3, 2016

Get ready to see that one for the next 15 years or so.

For a while it seemed as if Georgia was going to get all the breaks. Tennessee had lost only one fumble all season, but the Dawgs were able to pounce both times the Vols put the ball on the ground in the first half. Even better, Jacob Eason was present enough to dive on Sony Michel’s fumble at the other end, and what could have been a tight 10-7 game turned into a promising 17-0 Georgia lead. A week ago it was dropped passes that put Tennessee in a hole against Florida. This week turnovers led to 10 of Georgia’s 17 points. But as Tennessee overcame the drops against Florida, they were able to begin finishing drives and even came up with a pivotal turnover of their own.

The turning point of the game was Tennessee’s drive at the end of the first half. Just as the Vols last season converted a series of fourth downs and then recovered a fumbled kickoff return to erase a 24-3 Georgia lead, Josh Dobbs made a series of plays on Saturday to avoid the first half shutout and give the Vols some life headed into the locker room. He started with a well-placed long pass to get the drive going. Lorenzo Carter’s first sack of the season seemed to stall the threat, but Dobbs scrambled on second and third down to move the chains after facing 2nd-and-22. The Vols then got a couple of breaks of their own as a pair of reviews led to a Georgia substitution penalty and then failed to overturn a Dobbs touchdown scramble. Tennessee was able to book-end halftime with a pair of scores, and that 17-0 edge had evaporated.

The numbers say that Georgia did a better job against Dobbs this year. He looked like a Heisman candidate in Knoxville a year ago torching the Dawgs for 312 passing yards and 118 more on the ground. Dobbs didn’t throw nearly as much in this game (26 attempts vs. 42), and his yards per attempt were similar when you exclude the final pass (and wouldn’t we like that?) A bigger difference came on the ground. Dobbs was limited to 26 rushing yards. There are some sacks and lost yardage figured in, but limiting the explosive plays both through the air and on the ground helped to keep the Vols from going on the types of scoring runs that blew open their Virginia Tech and Florida games. It hurts that the bulk of Dobbs’s rushing damage came on that one pre-halftime drive, and his longest run of the game (17 yards) was a key third down conversion that set up his touchdown run. Though the stats don’t really reflect it, his mobility was important on a number of big completions and helped him avoid several negative plays. It wasn’t the eye-opening box score of 2015, but it was a performance good enough to make a difference.

People who’ve been around the game much more than I have tell me that the players bounce back from games much more easily than fans do. I hope that’s true. It looked that way in this game – fans were generally pessimistic last week and there was a lot of orange peppered in among the red in the stands, but the Dawgs played as if they believed they could win. They took to heart Kirby Smart’s message that, following the Ole Miss disaster, “The silver lining is you get another opportunity to play a good team this week.” That’s to their credit: a lot of people, many in the Georgia camp, anticipated a similar result to the previous week.

So instead of humiliation, this week is about getting past heartbreak. It might have been easier to burn the tape and shake off a blowout loss: after a certain point the loss is so decisive that the score doesn’t really matter. But with a meaningful and hard-fought win so close and just seconds away, it’s going to be easy to dwell on the 1, 5, 20, or 30 things that made the difference in the outcome. Worse, Georgia went from the SEC East driver’s seat to a two-game disadvantage in a matter of seconds. With that goal slipping away, the focus will have to stay on winning the next game in a place where Georgia hasn’t won since 2008.

There’s another challenge this week that would be more obvious had Georgia won. The Dawgs looked better in many areas, and I was encouraged by the effort and attitude and execution I saw during much of the game. In fact, from my sampling of postgame reaction, that encouragement seems to be what a lot of us are taking from this game. Heartbreak for sure, but certainly not the raw antipathy that there was after the Ole Miss or even Nicholls games. It seems as if Georgia has played the two toughest teams on the schedule with only one more ranked opponent to go, and if what we saw against Tennessee is the starting point for the rest of the season, Georgia can win a lot of its remaining games. There’s a temptation after going toe-to-toe with the SEC East frontrunner to say that a corner has been turned. But as Smart put it following the Ole Miss game, “Humility is a week away.” There are enough problems across the board to keep any one unit from being satisfied with the progress made since Oxford. The job is to make sure that the effort and execution from this game is the baseline going forward and that there’s no regression back to the level of play we saw in September.

A few other things:

  • After Eason’s interception, I thought the Dawgs managed the situation about as well as they could. When a single first down would have all but ended the game for the Vols, the defense did well to get over the shellshock of the interception and force a three-and-out. Smart took a calculated risk with the clock (more in another post), and it paid off. Eason had to be perfect when Georgia got the ball back, and he was. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t allowed to manage the end of a game in the first two contests.
  • Every week it seems as if different players emerge. A lot of fans reached for their program to identify #92 Justin Young after an early QB pressure. Isaac Nauta is no stranger, but he had his breakout game. We’ve been waiting all season for Georgia to hit on a mismatch on a TE down the seam, and it was glorious. Jacob Eason’s first big completion at G-Day was to Riley Ridley, and Ridley has worked back from an injury to show that he can be a big play receiver in the future.
  • Eason finished with 211 yards, but 81 of those came on the final drive. Another 50 came on the touchdown pass to Nauta. Eason’s 12 other completions produced a total of 80 yards of offense. We were joking that Nauta’s reception doubled Georgia’s passing production at the time, but it did. To his credit, Eason didn’t force many passes and accepted when the short route was open. Key receptions by Nauta and Ridley in the first half didn’t stretch the field, but they kept alive scoring drives. Eason wasn’t asked to throw it 55 times, and he got enough help from the running game to move the ball. When asked to play from behind, Eason had a rough series after Davis’s long return ending with an interception, but he bounced back like a pro with some very tough completions on what should have been the game-winning drive.
  • The final throw to Ridley was remarkable for many reasons but most of all because the deep ball didn’t look in sync all game. Eason overthrew a couple and then underthrew an open McKenzie for a likely touchdown with 7 minutes left after Smith’s interception. McKenzie had to adjust and slow up, and that gave the defensive back a chance to make a nice play on the ball.
  • Eason might catch some grief for making a business decision and avoiding a couple of blocks, but he threw his body at the loose Michel fumble in the endzone. It was good presence to stay with the play and a selfless moment to launch his 6’5″ frame at the ball on the ground. Eason’s toughest play might’ve been an 8-yard scramble on a 3rd-and-7 in the third quarter near midfield. Eason found some space, got a key block from Kublanow, and had to stumble the last two or three yards to move the chains.
  • Jalen Hurd is a quality tailback, but Georgia has done a fairly good job against the UT tailbacks. Hurd has 122 yards on 31 carries in the past two games against Georgia. Alvin Kamara likewise has 70 yards on 23 carries in those games. Where the duo has hurt Georgia is receiving out of the backfield. Though they never reached the endzone on the ground, Kamara and Hurd combined for 4 receiving touchdowns against Georgia in 2015 and 2016. Hurd nearly added another before Deandre Baker’s timely hit.
  • Jim Chaney came with the kitchen sink to scheme around Georgia’s offensive weaknesses. Apparently not one for continuing to bang his head against the wall, he mixed in a fair number of runs to the outside and used spread formations to create space for the running game. It didn’t always work, but it was much more effective than what we had been seeing. The spread-out defense occasionally left room for some big plays up the middle like Michel’s touchdown run and Nauta’s touchdown reception.
  • You can pick from about a dozen special teams breakdowns, but this was a good illustration of the difference between the two teams: midway through the fourth quarter, Georgia’s punter placed a short kick inside the Tennessee five yard line. Two freshmen were in the area, but neither made the play to down the ball. The Vols had some breathing room after the touchback and were able to drive inside Georgia territory where they had to punt. Tennessee was able to down their short punt on the Georgia 6, and Eason was sacked and fumbled in the endzone two plays later. It’s just not good enough.

Post It’s showtime

Friday September 23, 2016

With due respect to Carolina, Missouri, and the rivalry games at the end of the season, most of us circled these upcoming two games as the biggest challenges on Georgia’s schedule. It’s shaping up that way: the Vols are about as advertised, and though Ole Miss has dropped two games to top 10 opponents, they’ve shown more than enough offense to be able to hang with anyone. Fans can afford to do what coaches and players cannot: highlight big games like these. This two-week stretch will let us know Georgia’s ceiling for the season and give us a good idea of how the Dawgs stack up against two teams with high expectations of their own. Georgia, for their part, earned the right for these games to mean something by coming from behind to win each of their first three games. Now what do we have?

The 1-2 record of Ole Miss doesn’t matter much – just look at the point spread. Georgia is a moderate underdog playing a road game against a team with a prolific offense and possibly the best quarterback in the conference. If anything, the 1-2 record makes Ole Miss even more dangerous. Their goals for the season are slipping away, and what slim chances they have in the SEC West would be gone before the end of September with another conference loss. Getting a win is going to be every bit as challenging as we expected during the preseason.

We got a good dose of run/pass option plays last week, and Saturday figures to be more of the same. The passes are often too quick for a pass rush to have much impact, so Georgia’s defenders have been working on getting their hands up after a few seconds. If I had to pick my poison, I’d much rather Ole Miss be forced into the run option on as many of those plays as possible – it’s not something they do often or well. Chad Kelly is a capable runner, but he’d much rather be slinging the ball downfield to a fleet of receivers (and Evan Engram of course.)

Kirby Smart’s emphasis on defense last week was to avoid the big play and force Missouri to drive with small chunks of yardage. It didn’t work so well early on, but the Dawgs eventually stopped the explosive plays. That should be Smart’s preference again on Saturday – easier said than done of course. Smart is wary of a death by a thousand paper cuts when a team is able to move the ball a few yards at a time, but you also give an offense more opportunities to make a mistake when they have to drive. Georgia was able to force Missouri into five of those mistakes last week, and Kelly has been generous with the ball at times.

The one thing that concerns me about Georgia’s offense (well, one of many) is how much a running quarterback figured into the two Ole Miss losses. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts was the team’s leading rusher with an impressive 146 yards on the ground – only 12 fewer yards than he put up in the passing game. Deondre Francois of FSU ended up with an unremarkable 59 yards, but several of his runs kept scoring drives alive, and his 31-yard scramble early in the third quarter was an important moment in the Seminole comeback. What’s not shown in those rushing stats is how many times Francois was able to buy enough time with his legs to pass for 419 yards.

Jacob Eason doesn’t have the mobility of Hurts or Francois, but he’ll face the same aggressive pressure from the Ole Miss front. So if Eason can’t hurt the Rebels on the ground, how does Georgia counter the small but quick Ole Miss defense? Alabama had some early success with quick receiver screens, and the Crimson Tide running game started to chew up yards as the Rebel defense spread horizontally. More bad news for Georgia is that effective screens require good blocking on the outside, and that hasn’t been Georgia’s strength. Unless the Dawgs split TEs outside to help block, receiver screens might not do much. We saw some quicker releases against Missouri last week, and though the Mizzou pass rush took its toll Georgia still moved the ball through the air. The response to those quick passes is to shorten the field, so the Dawgs will have to hit some deeper passes too in order to find space for the rest of their offense. Chubb and Michel could be valuable weapons out of the backfield, but they’ll also be asked to help in protection again. The Dawgs will continue their heavy use of formations and misdirection to take advantage of the Ole Miss aggressiveness.

If you’re not particularly optimistic about Georgia’s chances in the game, there are still things to expect from the Dawgs. If you look at things through the “process” lens, you want to see improvement in areas that were weak against Missouri or earlier opponents. You want to see continued growth from Eason. You want to see coaches continue to adjust the team’s identity to get the most out of the players they have. More cohesive line play, a better running game, more consistent special teams – all of those things can be on the table regardless of the outcome. Most of all, you want to see the team compete in one of the toughest situations they’ll face all season. We’ve seen them fight from behind in all three games so far, and everyone expects they’ll have to do it again.

But if Georgia’s within a score or so at halftime, things could get interesting…