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Post 2024 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2024

With the last two national champions earning the top seeds in this week’s SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, it’s tempting to look ahead to a possible South Carolina-LSU meeting in Sunday’s final. The two teams met in a classic slugfest in front of a frenzied sold-out crowd in Baton Rouge. The Gamecocks played from behind for most of the game but made the big plays down the stretch to emerge with the win and reassert their status as the SEC’s team to beat. LSU shook off a midseason slump and head into the tournament playing well with eight straight double-digit wins. Tennessee’s upset of LSU in last year’s semifinal reminds us that real life doesn’t follow a script, and there’s a ton of basketball to play before the finals. The top two seeds haven’t met on Sunday since 2020.

While the anticipation of a South Carolina-LSU rematch will consume most of the oxygen in Greenville, there’s another storyline that will play out in the earlier rounds. According to ESPN’s bracketology, as many as five SEC teams are perched precariously on the edge of the NCAA bubble. Auburn, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and Arkansas head to Greenville knowing that their performances on Thursday and Friday might make the difference in their postseason fates. Their levels of desperation vary, but none of them will sleep easy with a loss on Thursday. Arkansas and A&M might need two wins to play themselves back on to the favorable side of the bubble.

The tournament remains a microcosm of the larger college sports world. Several teams are led by experienced veterans extending their careers via COVID-era policies. (“She’s still there?!?!”) The effects of the transfer portal and NIL will be on full display; nearly every team had their roster reshaped dramatically since last season. Several teams have flourished with transfers and fifth-year seniors, but others have had less success keeping up and have dropped in the standings. Perhaps because of this roster turnover we’ve seen more mobility up and down the standings than in previous seasons. Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Auburn enjoyed their best seasons in years at the expense of teams like Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri who are used to greater success.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Wednesday: vs. Kentucky 11:00 am ET SEC Network
Thursday / Second Round: vs. Tennessee ~2:30 pm ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. Alabama ~2:30 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 4:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field
(LY: last year’s finish, PS: coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (16-0, 29-0) (LY-1, PS-2): Dawn Staley had a problem. The 2023 Gamecocks rolled through the season and SEC Tournament without a blemish, but the tiniest weakness was apparent. The Gamecocks shot just 31% from outside, and that number had dipped well below 30% in several close calls. That weakness finally bit them in the national semifinal when they shot 20% on 20 three-point attempts in a shocking loss to Iowa and their sharpshooter Caitlin Clark.

Staley already had the nation’s #2 signing class lined up to replace the departing legends Boston, Cooke, and Beal. But to address her biggest need she dipped into the transfer portal. Te-Hina Paopao had already made a name for herself at Oregon with multiple All-Pac 12 honors in three seasons. At South Carolina she’s become exactly when Staley needed: the nation’s most accurate three-point shooter. Paopao doesn’t put up Clark-like numbers. South Carolina has more than enough talent to distribute the scoring load; the Gamecocks have seven players averaging between 8.5 and 14 PPG. Paopao’s consistency and the improvement of Bree Hall gives the Gamecocks a more well-rounded offense in 2024 and creates difficult decisions for defenses: how much attention can you pay the 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso inside if the team is now shooting over 40% from outside?

South Carolina’s distributed attack has allowed them to mix veterans like Cardoso and Paopao with younger players stepping into larger roles. Chloe Kitts joined the team midseason last year and contributed off the bench, and she’s grown into a starting role bringing length and range to the frontcourt. Ashlyn Watkins has also doubled her minutes and points in her second season while adding a physical presence inside with the athleticism to get to the rim. Cardoso of course is the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, but Watkins isn’t far behind. RSo. Raven Johnson is the steady point guard Staley needs with nearly 5 assists and 2 steals per game and a 2.8 assists/turnover ratio. Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley has been a firecracker off the bench: she can hit from outside or attack the basket and get to the line.

So with improved perimeter offense, is there a weakness? Staley has done a magnificent job of continuity with a new starting lineup and integrating new players in key roles. You’d have expected that inexperience to bite them at some point, but now they’ve played together for an entire season. The only thing you can point to is a handful of slow starts and single-digit wins in which they’ve had to overcome deficits, but they’ve found a way each time and have earned experience and confidence with each challenge.

2) LSU (13-3, 26-4) (LY-2, PS-1): All hail the national champs! LSU discovered last season that winning the SEC is as challenging as winning the national title. Kim Mulkey didn’t need last season’s run to the crown to establish her national standing, but getting the Tigers turned around and on top in two seasons would have been a remarkable job by anyone. The title also made players like Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson household names, and the program’s high profile made it an attractive transfer destination. That mattered as Mulkey had to replace significant production from her championship team. She was able to attract sharpshooter Hailey Van Lith from Louisville and rebounding machine Aneesah Morrow from DePaul to build a formidable and deep lineup capable of challenging for a repeat.

Of course the repeat attempt couldn’t come without drama. The Tigers lost their season opener against a good Colorado team. Reese was suspended for a stretch, and Kateri Poole left the team. They’ve had enough depth and talent to overcome those distractions as well as the loss of forward Sa’Myah Smith to a season-ending injury. The Tigers lead the SEC in scoring offense and can put teams away with quick scoring runs. They defend and rebound well at every position and look to get out in transition for easy baskets. All five starters average in double-figures, and Aalyah Del Rosario and Last-Tear Poa provide key minutes off the bench. They are near the top of the SEC in rebounding margin, offensive rebounds, free throw attempts, and turnovers created. Those all lead to a lopsided advantage in possession that fuels their offense.

It’s true that South Carolina seems to be the one remaining obstacle for Mulkey, but last season’s loss to Tennessee is a cautionary reminder to take care of business en route to a championship showdown. The Tigers have been dominant at home with only a close loss to the Gamecocks tarnishing an otherwise perfect record in Baton Rouge. But the Tigers have slipped up a couple of times away from home. Auburn and Mississippi State were able to score with the Tigers and do just enough on defense to keep LSU in the 60s and 70s. Foul trouble, especially for Reese, can be an issue. LSU typically only plays 7 or 8, and an extended period of time on the bench for a starter can be disruptive. Those issues have been few and far between lately, and the Tigers head into the tournament on a roll.

3) Ole Miss (12-4, 22-7) (LY-4, PS-4): Progress! After two straight fourth-place finishes, Ole Miss inches up to the 3-seed. With three straight years in the top four, there’s no denying what Yolett McPhee-McCuin has built in Oxford. The Rebels gained national attention last season with an upset of Stanford in the NCAA tournament. This is a confident team that certainly continues to reflect its coach’s toughness and energy, but there’s more to it than that. Coach Yo has developed veterans Madison Scott and Snudda Collins and augmented the roster with seven current or former transfers. The result is a well-rounded squad that can attack multiple ways against a variety of styles. This is still a team that does its best work inside the arc. They’re dead last in the SEC making three-pointers at a 26% clip. Smartly and self-aware, they also attempt fewer three-pointers than anyone else. This is a dribble-drive team that can hit mid-range jumpshots and crash the boards. Only LSU and South Carolina rebound better. Marquesha Davis (Arkansas) was an impact transfer a year ago, and Kennedy Todd-Williams (UNC) has joined the backcourt this year to become a dynamic scoring duo. Collins provides the best outside threat of a group that collectively shoots under 30% but can occasionally have a big night. Scott’s length and presence inside is helped by center Rita Igbokwe and forward Tyia Singleton.

Ole Miss lost two straight early in February and survived back-to-back overtime games to get back on a roll. They enter the tournament red hot winning their last four games by an average 29-point margin, and each of those four opponents was held to no more than 51 points. That Stanford win a year ago earned Coach Yo and her program some national notice, but the task now is to break through against the SEC’s two dominant programs. They were unable to stay close to LSU or South Carolina during the regular season. Their next opportunity might be a semifinal clash with the Tigers on Saturday.

4) Alabama (10-6, 23-8) (LY-6, PS-8): The Tide are the first of our overachievers in the field. Picked to slide a little after a sixth-place finish in 2023, Alabama instead moved up in the standings to their first top four finish since the 1990s. There are a couple of reasons for this pleasant surprise, but the emergence of Sarah Ashlee Barker has to be at the top of the list. Barker made the transition from role player to leading lady as a senior, and she’s now one of the few SEC players who can reliably take control of a game and carry her team. In roughly the same number of minutes she’s nearly doubled her shot attempts, three-point attempts, and free throw attempts while improving her percentages on all three. Her production has helped the team thrive despite losing the output of Brittany Davis. Aaliyah Nye was already known as a top outside scorer in the league, and she’s also increased her production this season while shooting better than 40% from beyond the arc. Jessica Timmons and Loyal McQueen have allowed Kristy Curry to stick with the four-guard approach that’s been successful for her in recent seasons. Freshman post Essence Cody has been one of the top newcomers and gives the Tide the scoring, rebounding, and defensive presence they need in the paint. Alabama hasn’t managed to break through against the top three teams in the league, but a decisive win over Tennessee is a feather in their cap. Alabama notched wins against Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Mississippi State to create some separation from a crowded pack.

5) Tennessee (10-6, 17-11) (LY-3, PS-3): Last season the Lady Vols had their best SEC finish in eight seasons and reached the tournament finals with a semifinal upset of LSU. It’s been a tough task building on that success. Rickea Jackson returns as an elite scorer and matchup nightmare for opponents. The Lady Vols welcomed back Tamari Key from a scary season-long absence battling blood clots in her lungs. Key is the program’s all-time leading shotblocker and a capable scorer inside, but her minutes have been limited. Tennessee still has good size at most positions, and they continue to rebound well. The difference might be the absence of elite guards on both ends of the court. They miss Jordan Horston. Wake Forest transfer Jewel Spear (12.8 PPG) leads the guards and is the team’s top outside shooter at 35%. There are a handful of players averaging between four and nine points per game, and the results add up to a scoring offense that’s in the top half of the SEC but well off the pace of South Carolina and LSU. The Lady Vols struggled through a typically challenging nonconference slate, but they raced out to a 7-2 start in SEC play. They’ve dropped four of their last seven games including three losses to South Carolina and LSU, and a loss to Alabama was the tiebreaker that dropped Tennessee out of the top four. They’ll likely get a chance to avenge that loss in the quarterfinals, and they’ll need much better guard play in that rematch to have another shot at a consecutive semifinal shocker.

6) Vanderbilt (9-7, 22-8) (LY-12, PS-13): It’s been a long time coming. Shea Ralph’s third season proved to be breakthrough that elevated the Commodores out of the bottom four, and they vaulted all the way to a sixth place finish. With 22 wins overall and a winning record in the conference, the Commodores have the profile of an NCAA Tournament team for the first time in a decade. They won’t feel comfortable about their position though unless they can get past the Florida/Missouri winner on Thursday. Vanderbilt is led by a pair of guards who missed last season due to injury. Iyana Moore is gaining confidence as a playmaker and scorer. Jordyn Cambridge can score but is also the team’s assists leader and one of the best defenders in the SEC. Sacha Washington is undersized but tough inside, and freshman forward Khamil Pierre has added another piece in the paint. Tennessee transfer Justine Pissott has emerged as an outside threat, and Jordyn Oliver can bring some pop off the bench. Size has been an issue against the teams above them in the standings, but they have the firepower to handle lower seeds. Vanderbilt started the season on fire with a 17-2 record, but a five-game losing streak in SEC play brought them back down to earth. They’ve recovered to win five of their last six to salvage their postseason hopes.

7) Auburn (8-8, 19-10) (LY-10, PS-12): Steady progress continues under Johnnie Harris. Losing leading scorer Aicha Coulibaly to Texas A&M was a blow, but Auburn has responded impressively with a team effort. Honesty Scott-Grayson returns as one of the league’s top scorers, and she’s helped by Alabama transfer JaMya Mingo-Young. Many teams preach defense, but few create the consistent havoc Auburn does. The Tigers lead the SEC in turnover margin, causing nearly 21 per game. The guards do a good job with perimeter defense – opponents only shoot 27% from outside. Harris has gradually built a decent supporting cast. Scott-Grayson gets over 18 PPG, but six players contribute between 5 and 9 PPG. Forward Taylen Collins has been an important addition from Oklahoma State to help absorb some of the rebounding load Coulibaly provided, and freshman center Savannah Scott is holding her own. The Tigers got off to an 0-3 start in SEC play but shocked the conference with a home upset of LSU. They finished the season winning five of seven with a pair of respectable losses at Alabama and LSU. If the Tigers get to the quarterfinals, a rubber game against LSU will be one of the day’s most-anticipated matchups. Harris and her team won’t be scared.

8) Mississippi State (8-8, 21-10) (LY-3, PS-3): It looked in early February as if the Bulldogs were ready to challenge for a top four seed, but a late season slump dropped them into the middle of the pack. Momentum was high for Sam Purcell’s team after making a surprising run into the NCAA round of 32 last year before coming up just short against Notre Dame. The return of standout center Jessika Carter and scorer JerKaila Jordan was bolstered by transfers Erynn Barnum from Arkansas and Lauren Park-Lane from Seton Hall. Sophomore Debresha Powe has built on her SEC All-Freshman debut and remains a steady scorer. The Bulldogs are near average in most defensive stats, and they don’t rely on transition to create offense; they’re just a solid halfcourt team. That reliance on the halfcourt offense has led to some inconsistency, but when it’s on it’s on. The Bulldogs got 24 points from Jordan and a combined 31 off the bench from Mjracle Sheppard and Darrione Rogers in a home win over LSU. They’ll need that kind of guard play to complement Carter in order to advance in Greenville. A win over Missouri in the regular season finale snapped a five-game skid, but that losing streak likely makes their opening game against Texas A&M a play-in game for the NCAA tournament.

9) Texas A&M (6-10, 18-11) (LY-13, PS-6): The Aggies showed brief signs of life at the end of the 2023 season with a over Kentucky at the end of the regular season and then two upset wins in Greenville to reach the quarterfinals. That momentum continued into this season as A&M jumped out to a 12-1 record in nonconference play. They’ve struggled to maintain consistency in league play. An upset loss at Georgia to open the SEC season got them off on the wrong foot, and they haven’t been able to string together more than two consecutive conference wins. Wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss show what the Aggies are capable of, but losses to Georgia and Florida are head-scratchers. Losing five of their last six regular season games leaves the Aggies needing some more magic in Greenville to salvage an NCAA bid. The Aggies’ downturn has a lot to do with the loss of leading scorer Endyia Rogers. The Oregon transfer injured her knee against Kentucky and has been sidelined since. Her status for the tournament is uncertain, and the Aggies are scoring just 59 PPG without her. Auburn transfer Aicha Coulibaly and sophomore standout Janiah Barker shoulder most of the load with Lauren Ware providing scoring and rebounding inside.

10) Arkansas (6-10, 18-13) (LY-8, PS-7): The Razorbacks can’t seem to get over the hump. Since a sixth-place finish in 2021, the Razorbacks have finished no higher than eighth. Two factors help explain their issues. The first is a repeat of what we wrote last year: the identity of the Mike Neighbors offense hasn’t changed – Arkansas attempts (and makes) more three-pointers than anyone in the conference. A decline in efficiency remains the problem. Arkansas is shooting just over 30% from outside. Familiar names Samara Spencer and Makayla Daniels lead the attack at guard. Freshman Taliah Scott has been magnificent and leads the team in scoring with 22 PPG but has missed a handful of games and hasn’t played since mid-February. The other issue is frontcourt depth. Jersey Wolfenbarger and Erynn Barnum left the program. Maryam Dauda averages nearly 10 points and 7 rebounds, but that’s not enough to keep up with the better frontcourts in the SEC. Wing Saylor Poffenbarger actually leads the team in rebounds. The result is a rebounding margin that’s last in the SEC.

11) Florida (5-11, 14-14) (LY-11, PS-10): A second-straight 11th-place finish has taken some of the steam out of Kelly Rae Finley’s impressive debut as an interim coach two seasons ago. The Gators have plenty of firepower; only LSU and South Carolina score more. But the Gators are near the bottom of the league in scoring defense and rebounding. Florida pushes the tempo, and they thrive on running out in transition. Their frenetic pace causes opponents to turn the ball over nearly 18 times per game, but Florida can also get out ahead of themselves and contribute their own turnovers. They’ve been able to play spoiler against Mississippi State and Texas A&M but weren’t able to string together enough wins to escape the bottom four. Potent scorers Aliyah Matharu and Leilani Correa key the guard-driven attack. Faith Dut is an experienced post player, but an injury to Ra Shaya Kyle left Florida thin inside. Florida’s pace might be a bit much for Missouri on Wednesday, and they played Vanderbilt closely earlier in the year.

12) Kentucky (4-12, 11-19) (LY-14, PS-14): It’s a small consolation that Kentucky improved on 2023’s last-place finish. There hasn’t been much else to cheer about. Ajae Petty provided frontcourt depth last season after transferring from LSU, and she’s elevated her play this year to average over 14 points and 10 rebounds a game. The Wildcats are largely guard-driven: five guards combine for around 46 PPG with Maddie Scherr leading the group. Overall though scoring has been tough to come by, and they are last in the SEC in points allowed and close to the bottom in rebounding. Any of the guards can get hot on a given night: Eniya Russell went for 24 in a win over Florida, Saniah Tyler scored 22 in an upset of Mississippi State, and Scherr has had multiple 20-point games. They’ll need one of those performances plus the usual output from Petty to avoid a short stay.

13) Georgia (3-13, 12-17) (LY-7, PS-9): Let’s get it out of the way: this is unfamiliar territory for Georgia. The Lady Dogs have never played in a Wednesday play-in game, and this will be the first team in program history to finish with a losing record unless they make an improbable run through the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson pieced together a roster last season with a handful of players that remained at Georgia through the coaching transition and an impactful group of transfers that included some of her key contributors at UCF. That group found its stride and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, nearly knocking off Iowa on their own court. Abe’s second season has been much more challenging as she rebuilds a roster that was depleted after the coaching transition. Three experienced seniors remained from the original transition (a fourth was lost early this season with a knee injury), and Abe again had to turn to transfers with much less experience in her system.

The biggest difference has been the effectiveness of the defense. Georgia went from a +3.4 turnover margin in 2023 (among the best in the league) to a -1.4 disadvantage in 2024. The offense is turning the ball over at a similar rate, but the defense is creating five fewer turnovers per game this year (19.9 vs. 14.8.) The 2023 defense averaged 10.5 steals per game, and that’s down to 7.8 this season. That decline has implications on both ends of the court: the opponent’s possession is more likely to end with a shot attempt rather than a turnover, and Georgia’s struggling offense has fewer transition opportunities to run out for easier baskets. Personnel matters. Diamond Battles and Alisha Lewis were experienced guards in this system and were among the SEC’s steals leaders, and Zoesha Smith’s length caused problems at the top of the zone. Georgia hasn’t been able to replace that defensive productivity.

Javyn Nicholson built on a strong 2023 season and has become one of the top frontcourt players in the SEC with 16.6 PPG and 8.9 RPG. She’s scored in double figures in all but one game this season and has 15 double-doubles on the year. It’s no coincidence that Nicholson has played a large role in Georgia’s SEC wins: she’s averaged 23 points and 11.7 rebounds in those three games. Opponents of course understand Nicholson’s importance, and so she’s often the focus of double-teams and compact zones that compress the space available in the paint. Georgia often hasn’t been able to find consistent complements that counter the defensive focus on Nicholson. The Lady Dogs are in the bottom three in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw attempts. De’Mauri Flournoy has taken a step forward in her second season and has become the team’s most prolific outside threat. Flournoy can set up for a three-point shot or create off the dribble for a mid-range jumper. San Diego State transfer Asia Avinger has had the difficult task of replacing Battles as the point guard and is the relentless presence on the court Abe wants at that position.

Georgia didn’t go on the late-season run of a year ago, but it wasn’t hard to see improvement – particularly on the offensive end. But this is still a team that needs to keep the score down in the 50s or 60s to have a chance. Unproductive single-digit quarters and slow starts have been the undoing of the Lady Dogs in many games, forcing Georgia to play from behind. To advance into the second round and have a shot at an upset, they’ll need another big performance from Nicholson, some timely guard play, and a locked-in defensive effort.

14) Missouri (2-14, 11-18) (LY-9, PS-11): The Hayley Frank farewell tour hasn’t gone as expected. They were 2-3 in the league after a pair of wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia, but they’ve dropped 11 straight to end the season. Frank, in her fifth season, has been as reliable as ever getting 16.7 PPG and 6.3 RPG. The team shoots often and well from outside – no surprise for Missouri. Frenetic guard Mama Dembele is an x-factor who can frustrate opponents on both ends of the court with her speed. They lack depth and presence inside. Frank, as a stretch forward, and guard Ashton Judd lead the team in rebounds, but the diminutive Dembele is third. Rebounding, as well as offense in the paint, is a committee effort. They utilize frequent cuts and motion to create lanes to the basket and open shots for their guards. It works well enough to be a middle-of-the-pack offense, but they struggle turning the ball over and creating turnovers on defense.

Post Elegy For a Weird Pseudorivalry

Wednesday September 20, 2023

They’ve got more rivals than almost anybody I know. They really do. Traditionally, we’ve only had Clemson because we haven’t beaten anybody enough to have any more rivals. Georgia, I’ve always said, is our biggest conference rival since they’re closest to us, I think, than any other school.
— Steve Spurrier

Saturday’s comeback win over South Carolina added to Georgia’s lopsided 55–19–2 advantage in the series. Since taking charge of the Georgia program, Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are 7-1 against South Carolina with an average margin of victory of nearly 25 points. Shane Beamer’s program showed signs of life with two huge upsets in 2022, and the Gamecocks were competitive as huge underdogs in Athens this year. Unfortunately we won’t know for a while if Beamer will be able to bring competitive balance back to the series. With the eight-game SEC schedule stretched thin by the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, Georgia and South Carolina will no longer play every season. Each team will rotate on and off the other’s schedule as if they were Mississippi State or Kentucky.

Is it the end – or a pausing – of a rivalry?

Defining what makes a rivalry is a popular offseason parlor game. But for a year here and there Georgia and South Carolina have played regularly since the 1960s. Of course it’s become an annual meeting since the Gamecocks joined the SEC East in 1992, but the teams met 27 out of 30 years between 1960 and 1989. Georgia and Tennessee met only eight times during that span. The frequent games and the short distance between the schools might seem to make the Bulldogs and Gamecocks natural rivals. For those in the Augusta area, the Border Bash is an annual show of pride between the two local fan bases. As Steve Spurrier noted, though, there’s a pretty wide gulf between how fans of each school see this series. It’s not a question of disrespect. Georgia’s games with Auburn, Florida, and even Tennessee often had SEC implications. Georgia Tech was the in-state rival. By the time South Carolina traded independent status for SEC membership, Georgia’s list of rivals was extensive.

Even before the Gamecocks joined the SEC the series with Georgia had some twists and turns. Georgia forced a fumble from eventual Heisman winner George Rogers to hold on in 1980. The Gamecocks upset then-#12 Georgia in 1984 and went on to become the first team in school history to win 10 games. In 1986 Georgia’s James Jackson set the ball on the turf during a live play as the clock expired, and Georgia escaped with the win only because the rules at the time forbid advancing a recovered fumble.

There were some memorable games as the Gamecocks joined the SEC in the 90s. A Georgia loss in 1993 was a harbinger of a disappointing season, and the brash Steve Taneyhill became an instant villain in Athens. Georgia’s win in 1995 introduced Robert Edwards as the next great Georgia tailback. Still, Georgia won 6 of the 8 contests in the 1990s, and any rivalry just simmered as sights were set on more successful programs at Tennessee ad Florida.

The 1999 arrival of Lou Holtz in Columbia seemed like a novelty, but it ushered in an era of competitive, low-scoring, and dramatic games between the programs. Georgia won easily enough in 1999 and sent the Gamecocks on their way to an 0-11 season. The Gamecocks turned the tables in 2000. They intercepted Georgia five times en route to an upset of the #10 Bulldogs. The performance and loss shook the Georgia program to the core and started the ball rolling towards a coaching change at the end of the season. The Mark Richt era began with South Carolina’s first win in Athens since 1993, but the Dawgs then reeled off five straight wins – their longest winning streak in the series since the 1970s.

Those five wins didn’t come easily for Georgia. The 2002 win is remembered for the interception that immortalized David Pollack as a Georgia legend, but the Dawgs also needed a frenzied stop inside their own 10 to secure the win. 2004 was an even wilder game. The Gamecocks stormed out to a 16-0 lead, but David Greene threw two second half touchdown passes to put Georgia on top. The Dawgs had to stop South Carolina twice inside the red zone in the fourth quarter.

Holtz stepped aside after 2004, and the hiring of Steve Spurrier for 2005 took the series to another level of animosity. Georgia eked out a two-point win in 2005 with a fourth-quarter stop of a two-point conversion. The Dawgs handed Spurrier a rare shutout loss in 2006. The Evil Genius finally broke through against his foe with a 16-12 win in 2007. Georgia could only manage four field goals in the loss, and it ended up costing them the SEC East title and possibly a shot at the national title in the bizarre 2007 season.

As Spurrier took root in Columbia, the low-scoring grinds of the early 2000s began to give way to high-scoring shootouts. Between 2009 and 2015, the winning team in the series scored fewer than 35 points only once. It also became a golden age for Gamecock football. South Carolina had a 5-3 advantage over Georgia between 2007 and 2014 (including three straight from 2010-2012), and they won their lone SEC East title in 2010. The teams traded shootout wins in 2009 and 2011.

By 2012 both programs were rolling and undefeated for an early October clash. Williams-Brice Stadium was out of its mind for a night game between the #6 Gamecocks and #5 Bulldogs. South Carolina fed off the home crowd and roared to a 21-0 first quarter lead. The 35-7 rout was their largest margin of victory in the series. Georgia ended the Gamecock winning streak in 2013 with another high-scoring back-and-forth game in Athens. A deep pass to Justin Scott-Wesley provided the final margin, but it wasn’t over until the Bulldog defense got a stop on 4th-and-1 at the goal line. The Gamecocks returned the favor in 2014 with a red zone stop and an upset of #6 Georgia. A late interception returned to the South Carolina 3 set Georgia up to win the game, but a disastrous offensive series and missed field goal allowed South Carolina to hold on to the winning margin. Once again the loss cost Georgia a shot at the SEC East title.

Georgia’s lopsided 52-20 win in 2015 was one of the most enjoyable in the series for Bulldog fans. Greyson Lambert completed 24-of-25 passes in a career game that came out of nowhere. Georgia’s win wasn’t an upset, but the Gamecocks weren’t able to recover from the loss. They dropped two of their next three, and Steve Spurrier resigned in midseason. South Carolina dropped 7 of their last 8 to finish the Spurrier era with a 3-9 season.

Both programs entered 2016 with former Georgia defensive backs as head coach. Will Muschamp took over in Columbia, and Kirby Smart was tapped to lead the Bulldogs. Their first meeting in 2016 was rescheduled to a rare Sunday afternoon game due to a hurricane, and Georgia took advantage of a subdued crowd to win in Columbia for the first time since 2008. The lone South Carolina win came in 2019. The Gamecocks, 24.5-point underdogs, shocked #3 Georgia in overtime. The Bulldogs recovered to run the table in the regular season, but the loss was enough to remove Georgia from playoff consideration in 2019. South Carolina was unable to build on the win and notched just one more win in 2019. After a 2-8 season in 2020, Muschamp was dismissed and Beamer has been at the helm since 2021.

As the Dawgs took a knee Saturday, there wasn’t much sense or fanfare that whatever the Georgia-South Carolina series is will be different now. Kirby Smart definitely isn’t going to give two seconds thinking about anything but getting better for the next game. Not many Georgia fans will pine for the biennial trips to the furnace of Columbia to have Sandstorm blasted at them. Other games have and will almost always rate more important among Georgia fans. It’s always seemed a bit one-sided: Georgia has never won anything because it beat South Carolina, but more than a few times a loss to the Gamecocks came back to bite Georgia at the end of the year. But whatever it was, the Georgia-South Carolina game was often the kind of early season weirdness that gave the SEC some spice. I can’t say I’ll miss or even think about an annual game with South Carolina, but I might miss the conference it helped to shape.

Post Heading into 2023 on top

Friday September 1, 2023

We last left the Georgia football team celebrating a record-breaking victory over TCU for a second straight national title. It’s been an eventful offseason: it began with unthinkable tragedy which veered into scandal. There was celebration as another large group of Bulldogs headed for the NFL. There was transition and reunion as revered offensive coordinator Todd Monken left for the NFL and Mike Bobo began his second stint in the role. We’ve seen transfers out and transfers in. As we reset for another season and another title defense, this is what I’m thinking about.

1. Coming to terms with the offseason. In January the Bulldog program went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in the span of a few hours. A day that began with a second straight national championship fête ended with the tragic death of two members of the program. The incident opened the door to investigate everything from the program’s recruiting operation to its off-field behavior, and the fallout made its way in the NFL Draft. Each subsequent ticket or arrest added to the narrative (excessive or not) of a reckless culture.

Things have been relatively quiet as the players returned for preseason camp, and it might be tempting to view the upcoming season as an opportunity to move on. It’s not that simple. To begin with, there won’t be a #77 on the field each Saturday. The wider college football audience will be turning back to the sport for the first time since January, and we can expect studio shows and national broadcasts to mention the offseason in their coverage of the two-time champions. There are still people dealing with the human toll of the fatal crash, and the legal aftermath won’t be so tidy.

2. A different kind of title defense. A year ago Georgia, though the defending national champions, began the season ranked third. The title was a breakthrough moment that erased 40 years of frustration and established Georgia as an elite program, but they weren’t the odds-on favorite to repeat. It wasn’t necessarily a slight – few teams repeat, and Georgia’s historic 2022 draft results left a lot of personnel questions. The Dawgs were still a popular playoff pick and expected to be in the mix. It’s risible to think of the #3 team as having something to prove, but we all know how this works. Even if the uphill climb from #3 to #1 doesn’t do it for you, there were still some significant accomplishments that had eluded the 2021 team, chief among them an undefeated record and the SEC title.

The larger theme in the summer of 2022 wasn’t about repeating; it was Kirby Smart’s emphasis on continuity. “We didn’t build this program on hoping for one-year wonders,” he explained. “We built a program to be sustained.” I don’t mean to say that Georgia didn’t have a target on them last year; the whole “hunter vs. hunted” thing also came about in the summer of 2022. Though the repeat came into focus as the season unfolded the more immediate goal was proving that 2021 wasn’t a one-time flash in the pan. Georgia hadn’t even made the playoff in consecutive seasons and hadn’t won the SEC since 2017. There were new objectives on the way to a repeat.

Again Georgia opens the season as the defending national champion. The NFL Draft promoted another large group of contributors and leaders to the professional ranks. But a successful title defense seems to have done the trick as far as national perception. The Bulldogs begin 2023 in a different place than they did in 2022. They’re the consensus #1 team. They’re also defending an SEC championship and are expected to hold on to that crown. Now that we’ve seen a program replace 15 draft picks and still win a title, there’s a trust that this year’s questions can be similarly resolved.

We’ve seemed to jump right to the three-peat. Kirby Smart is right to be more concerned about complacency, and the “better never rests” motto of continuous improvement is consistent with the approach he’s used since 2016. But the three-peat has been front and center since SEC Media Days, and it seems to color every discussion about this year’s team. Yes, that might have something to do with the perception of this year’s schedule and the implication that Georgia will walk unchallenged into the postseason. Confidence is high, and so are expectations.

Right or wrong, the quest for the three-peat will hang over everything Georgia does this year. High expectations are nothing new at Georgia, but an attitude approaching title-or-bust isn’t the norm. Georgia has earned this status. I asked this time last year, “Are you able to smell the roses, or do you find the familiar nerves and worry creeping back in with the start of another season?” That still applies – I hope we’re all able to relish in this era of Georgia football. The “nerves and worry” though have transitioned from the old doom-and-gloom to a sense of foreboding that it might end. A title is always the team’s goal, but for us it shouldn’t become Gollum’s obsession with the ring. Remember – “We built a program to be sustained.”

3. What will Bobo 2.0 look like? It’s safe to say that the days of the I-formation and fullbacks are gone, but what else has changed? Bobo himself has been on quite a journey since 2014. He’s been a head coach and returned to the SEC for a couple of unsuccessful stints as offensive coordinator. He’s had to adapt to different levels of competition and talent. He’ll have more talent to work with than he’s had in nearly a decade, and while his earlier Georgia offenses had superstars like Gurley, Chubb, Stafford, and Green, Georgia is recruiting at a different level now and the overall level of talent available to Bobo might be as good as he’s had it. But with all of that talent comes extraordinary expectations. The 2019 offense that was good enough to get Georgia to 11-1 and to the SECCG was scrapped when it was exposed as noncompetitive against elite teams.

Personnel changes alone will affect how Bobo schemes the offense. Darnell Washington was an offensive tackle with receiver skills. He was an extra lineman blocking on running plays and a matchup nightmare on pass plays. Georgia has talented tight ends beyond Brock Bowers, but Washington’s skill set was unique and afforded Todd Monken the ability to run very different plays and looks without changing personnel. Stetson Bennett’s mobility became a factor that separated him from other quarterbacks and helped him maintain the starting job as he developed. Georgia didn’t call a ton of designed runs for Bennett, but he was able to extend plays and do enough damage running the ball that defenses had to respect the danger. Carson Beck might be able to scramble long enough to progress through his receivers, but we’re not likely to see the crazy (and sometimes terrifying) escapes. Georgia has a deeper group of receivers now, and the addition of a dangerous slot like Dominic Lovett means that we might see a more traditional passing offense than the 12 personnel that featured both Bowers and Washington. Georgia will always emphasize a physical running game, but a dinged-up group of tailbacks will require some creativity.

4. How will Georgia manage and develop its roster? Georgia’s starters were on the field quite a bit last season. Close games against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri were 60-minute affairs. Florida’s second-half comeback kept the Dawgs from emptying the bench. Mississippi State was close at the half. Even the dominant win over Auburn was just 21-3 into the fourth quarter. The upside was that individuals like Stetson Bennett and Brock Bowers were on the field long enough to build the stats that propelled them to national recognition. The downside? Carson Beck saw action in 7 games – fewer than half of Georgia’s 2022 contests.

With the understanding that a schedule rarely turns out as expected, Georgia should be double-digit favorites in most of its regular season games. Ideally that would mean ample opportunity to get the reserves in, build experience, and manage the starters for what could be another long 15-game season. At the same time, Carson Beck needs reps with his offense. South Carolina could be an early test, but there’s no question that the difficulty picks up in October and November as Georgia gets into conference play and gets away from Sanford Stadium. There’s a lot to iron out: Beck of course, the health and rotation at tailback, roles for a fleet of young defensive backs, the pass rush, and more. First things first: Georgia has to play itself into a position to have these choices.

5. Around the team

  • Should we worry about placekicking? Jack Podlesney wasn’t called on for many game-winners since the 2020 Peach Bowl, but we saw in December how big games can come down to special teams. Georgia’s options to replace Podlesney are Jared Zirkel, a redshirt junior who has waited in the wings for three years, and true freshman Peyton Woodring. The sum total of their experience is Zirkel connecting on a 21-yard field goal at South Carolina last year.
  • Will depth at tailback lead to position changes? Yes, we know Bowers can run the ball, but he’s much more valuable and versatile doing so as a tight end. Word that receiver Dillon Bell is getting a look is interesting – he has decent speed (around 4.53/40) and had many more rushes than receptions in high school.
  • Earnest Greene steps into some big shoes as a redshirt freshman. A new left tackle will be protecting a new quarterback. The rest of the starting offensive line is proven and experienced. Depth is a little more of a concern than it has been, and Georgia has been fortunate with injuries up front. A lot seems to be riding on Greene following in the footsteps of Broderick Jones and Andrew Thomas.
  • If Georgia does have a slightly different look to its offense this year, Dominic Lovett could be the reason why. Darnell Washington’s size was a tough matchup for any pass defense, but a proven slot receiver like Lovett presents a different kind of matchup problem. Rosemy-Jacksaint, McConkey, and Lovett have years of experience and a wide range of skills between them, and then you’re able to bring in players like Arian Smith. Meanwhile Brock Bowers has to be accounted for. There’s a reason why people are excited about the Georgia passing game.
  • With dominant interior defensive linemen like Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter, we’re used to seeing pressure come from the inside. Georgia’s returning defensive linemen are experienced and disruptive in their own right. Without a clear superstar among them, will we see Georgia’s edge players take on a larger role? Chaz Chambliss was thrown into the deep end after Nolan Smith’s injury and eventually held his own. Mykel Williams emerged as a future star late last season. Marvin Jones, Jr. and Jalon Walker likewise began to stand out. Of the Georgia players left off the preseason All-SEC teams, Williams might be a name you’re likely to see on the postseason lists.
  • I was pleased to see Carson Beck do enough to earn the start early in camp and prevent any kind of nonsense drama lingering into the season.
  • The order behind Beck is less clear; I expect we’ll see both backups early in the season and get a sense of how the coaches rate them. Again, you’re balancing the need to get Carson Beck the reps to win big games later in the year with the need to develop solid experience behind him given the nontrivial chance you’ll need that experience.
  • What injuries are we keeping an eye on? Smael Mondon is an important piece in the middle of the defense, but Georgia is deep at linebacker and someone like Xavian Sorey could step in. Kamari Lassiter’s foot injury doesn’t seem to be a long-term problem but could keep him out for a few weeks. Lawson Luckie had a strong offseason, but it might be October before we see the freshman tight end. The availability of Kendall Milton and Andrew Paul at tailback could turn a thin position into a strength. Paul is returning from a serious knee injury, and Milton’s hamstrings seem to be a chronic problem. Will Ladd McConkey’s nagging back issues affect his availability at some point in the season?
  • I’m glad Arian Smith is no longer among the injured. His explosiveness singlehandedly adds a whole other layer to Georgia’s passing attack.
  • Kenny McIntosh quickly addressed my concern last year about replacing James Cook’s all-around skill. I should have known better given that Cook and McIntosh had similar receiving stats in 2021. That torch will have to be passed again, and the heir isn’t quite so obvious this year. Daijun Edwards lead returning tailbacks with 101 yards last season, but a healthy Paul could also get a look on passing plays.
  • Three of four secondary positions seem locked in, but we should see a good mix of combinations in the defensive backfield. Daylen Everette and Julian Humphrey could battle it out to replace Kelee Ringo, but Nyland Green or true freshman AJ Harris will get a look if Lassiter is sidelined for a couple of games. Veteran Tykee Smith is strong enough at Star that Javon Bullard was able to move to safety, and true freshman Joenel Aguero could be the future at that position. Bullard and Malaki Starks give Georgia its best safety duo in some time – perhaps even better than LeCounte and Reed.

6. Miscellany. Will Georgia break any records this year? Yes, there’s the three-peat (check out Seth Emerson’s trek to Minnesota that explores that history.) There’s also a little history to be made at Sanford Stadium: winning all seven home games would establish the program’s longest home winning streak. Mike Bobo returns as offensive coordinator, and his last season heading up the Bulldog offense set the program’s record for points per game (41.3 PPG in 2014.) Will he be able to top that?

Post The big 5-0

Thursday August 31, 2023

NFL rosters were whittled down to 53 players this week. It’s a point of pride just to have a lot of Georgia players drafted, but getting drafted is only the first step towards the goal of making the team. Every spot on a 53-man NFL roster is precious and scarce, and teams manage those spots ruthlessly. Surviving the NFL preseason meatgrinder and making the final 53-man squad can be one of the most challenging periods in the transition from college football to the NFL. Making a team is a test of talent, sure, but it’s also a trial of physical endurance and mental toughness. A whopping 50 former Bulldogs have made it through that process.

In total, there are 50 Bulldogs on active rosters to start the season. The team with the most Bulldogs is the Philadelphia Eagles, as six former Georgia players will suit up for the defending NFC champions. Twenty five of the 32 NFL franchises have at least one Bulldog on the team.

Half of those 50 have come out in the past two years. It was a cause for celebration to see a record 25 Bulldogs selected in the 2022 and 2023 drafts. It’s mind-blowing that 24 of those 25 are still on active rosters. (OL Justin Shaffer was cut by the Falcons this week.) We can add Kearis Jackson who made the Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent after an outstanding preseason.

Georgia isn’t just turning out draftable players. They’re producing NFL-ready talent.

Think that might get a mention or two on the recruiting trail?

Post The unthinkable: how might it end?

Tuesday August 15, 2023

To no one’s surprise, Georgia was the consensus (though not unanimous) preseason #1 team in the first AP poll. It’s deserved recognition for the two-time champs, but of course preseason polls are next to worthless once the games begin. Brett McMurphy reminds us that history isn’t necessarily on Georgia’s side.

Godspeed Georgia: 17 of last 19 AP preseason No. 1 ranked teams failed to win national title. Only Alabama in 2017 & USC in 2004 overcame the preseason No. 1 jinx. Georgia also trying to become 1st 3-peat champion since Minnesota (1934-36)

Expectations are sky-high for Georgia in 2023. The Bulldogs are #1 in all major polls, early odds have them as big favorites in nearly all regular season games, and they’re picked to repeat as SEC champions. We might sometimes forget how hard it is to keep a run like this going. Count Georgia’s perfect seasons. It won’t take long. It nearly ended twice last season, and Georgia’s escapes against Missouri and Ohio State might add to the sense of being bulletproof. Georgia was able to repeat after a record draft class in 2022, so the departure of another large draft class in 2023 shouldn’t be tough to overcome, right? Even if Georgia navigates its regular season without a blemish for the third straight year, the postseason brings you up against your peers: teams that recruit, spend, and train at similar levels.

Hopefully Georgia is able to join the short list of teams that went wire-to-wire as #1. To do so would be the program’s greatest accomplishment and cement this era in college football history. If not, how might it end? Georgia’s few losses and close games in recent years suggest a few scenarios:

1) The perfect storm. Georgia’s last home loss was a sleepy noon shocker in 2019 at the hands of South Carolina, a 20+ point underdog. Combine a disinterested Georgia team, a single big play, and four turnovers, including a pick-six right before halftime, with an uncharacteristic missed Blankenship field goal in overtime, and you got just enough to hand Georgia its lone regular season loss and kept the Bulldogs out of the playoff. Kirby Smart admittedly didn’t do a good job of “getting (their) ass ready to play.” Georgia might have been able to overcome that and snap out of it in time most days. Will Muschamp’s Gamecock defense was opportunistic enough and Georgia’s 2019 offense limited enough that South Carolina stretched it out to overtime and made the outcome a crapshoot.

Georgia will have a lot of games in 2023 in which they’re heavy favorites. A weak home schedule, especially in September, will feature several games in front of sub-capacity crowds sapped by the late-summer heat. Those fans, many of whom have decided the season comes down to the trip to Knoxville, will be disappointed if the team looks anything other than dominant in its home games. The team – with visions of a threepeat and basking in its #1 ranking – will have to find its own motivation each week, and, yes, South Carolina is among the home opponents again. Avoiding “that game” isn’t just a problem for the offense: Stephen Garcia made a career for himself in South Carolina’s 2010 upset of Alabama. We know that obvious fundamentals like turnovers and special teams can give even lopsided underdogs a chance. The challenge, as always, is seeing each week as an opportunity to improve and play to the program’s standard. It’s not always so easy.

2) Waning explosiveness. Georgia’s lack of explosiveness was a major theme in 2019. Without much of a deep threat and a razor-thin tight end position, defenses swarmed the line of scrimmage and made for a compact area of the field to attack. The constrained offense (along with the turnovers) played a role in the South Carolina upset but also left Georgia in a number of close games in which they had to lean on a very good defense. It’s hard to imagine an offense with Brock Bowers and Arian Smith – not to mention Dominic Lovett, Oscar Delp, or Ladd McConkey – having issues with explosiveness, but there’s someone else on the other end of those passes. The quarterback position remains unsettled heading deep into August though the depth chart looks solid. Georgia’s next quarterback will have to be as adept as Stetson Bennett at generating explosive plays, and Mike Bobo will have to be creative spreading the ball around to a dangerous group of receivers and tight ends. If the quarterback can’t get the ball downfield consistently, an offense with a banged-up group of tailbacks will find it difficult to move the ball.

Turnovers were a minor issue at Missouri in 2022 (-2) and didn’t help things, but we also saw problems with explosiveness that had begun to creep up in the Kent State game. With Missouri playing tight to the line of scrimmage and blitzing often, Georgia couldn’t get sustained success on the ground, and the screens and short passes that were an extension of the running game earlier in the season weren’t available. Stetson Bennett completed just 56% of his attempts at an unremarkable 7.25 yards per attempt. Georgia was held to their lowest SEC scoring output of the year until that frozen, windy game at Kentucky. Fortunately the defense never broke and the offense remained composed enough to find something that worked. Georgia had too much talent to completely slip back into its 2019 shell, but a lackluster night from the offense can be enough to keep even a mid-table opponent within a score or two.

3) Overwhelmed defense. Auburn and Oklahoma 2017. LSU 2019. Florida 2020. Alabama 2021. Ohio State 2022. Even the best Georgia defenses during the Kirby Smart era have found themselves in shootouts. Sometimes, as with Alabama in 2021, you get a second chance. Sometimes, as with Oklahoma or Ohio State, the offense can keep up. But those shootout wins have been the exception. Georgia has allowed 30 points or more in ten games since 2017. They’ve only won three of those games (Oklahoma 2017, LSU and Ohio State 2022.) In Georgia’s nine losses since 2017, they’ve given up at least 35 points in seven of those games.

Giving up 30 points doesn’t happen often – ten times in six seasons and usually in the postseason – but it does happen frequently enough and with enough regularity that the possibility has to be considered. It’s true that most of these high-scoring games have come at the hands of Heisman candidates and known explosive offenses. Georgia’s defense isn’t getting blindsided by Kentucky or Georgia Tech. It does suggest what we’ve come to accept as common knowledge: really good offenses are hard to stop by even the best defenses. That realization was the root of the crisis that spurred changes in Georgia’s own offense after 2019, and during their title run Georgia featured a high-performing offense of their own.

What does one of these offense look like? Ian Boyd put it like this (h/t Blutarsky): “…if you don’t have an elite space force or the tactics to beat a team with skill, and it just comes down to trench play, Georgia will whoop you.” It’s possible that Georgia won’t face an offense with those traits until the postseason. LSU and Alabama aren’t on the regular season schedule. We saw first-hand the breadth of Ohio State’s receiving talent, and USC has a special playmaker at quarterback in a proven system, but, again, those potential challenges are still hypothetical at this point.

Tennessee jumps out as the regular season opponent most likely to challenge Georgia’s defense. The Vols lost the quarterback and top receivers that led to their breakthrough season in 2022. They still return several productive receivers and add an important transfer in Dont’e Thornton. Kirby Smart has done well to keep the up-tempo Tennessee offense in check, but it doesn’t take much for them to get on a roll. Lane Kiffin and Hugh Freeze have been known for productive and explosive offenses in the past, but they might fall short of the level of skill that has given Georgia’s defense the most trouble.

Post Making chicken salad out of an eight-game SEC schedule

Friday June 16, 2023

The addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC in 2024 immediately raised questions about how they’d fit into an eight-game football schedule that was already stretched to its limits. We’ve learned some answers along the way. Would the SEC keep the divisional structure? (No.) Would a 16-team league mean a ninth game to improve its inventory for a new media deal? (No, for now.) Will traditional rivalries like Georgia-Florida be preserved? (Yes – at least that one.) With all of those questions answered, the big one left was the schedule itself.

Wednesday night the SEC unveiled its football schedule for 2024. Dates are still to be announced, but we know now which eight conference opponents each team will face. Here’s the league announcement, and here’s Georgia’s announcement.

I generally agree with the consensus: a nine-game schedule is still the better way to go, but this is about as good as it gets for an eight-game slate. All legacy teams will get a quick introduction to Texas or Oklahoma. Most decent rivalries seem to be preserved. (Will Georgia fans miss Missouri or, dare I say, South Carolina?) The tiered system guarantees the best programs will face several of their peers, and there are not many places for any contender to hide. The league’s TV partners should be pleased.

It’s a miss for Georgia if you expected that a better overall schedule would mean a more compelling home schedule. Tennessee and Auburn should be the highlights of the six-game home schedule, but they are teams Georgia hosts regularly. Three of the season’s most compelling and novel games (Clemson, Alabama, and Texas) will be played elsewhere. You’d hope that swings back around in 2025 (Oklahoma, perhaps?), and UCLA is set to visit in 2026. No question though that a season ticket package for games played anywhere but Athens would be far more attractive than the home games. In the past two seasons we’ve seen teams unexpectedly rise to create games of national interest in Athens (Arkansas and Kentucky in 2021; Tennessee in 2022). There won’t be many chances for a surprise with only three SEC home games, but that’s already a reality Georgia fans deal with every other year due to the commitment to Jacksonville. A nine-game schedule is really the only way out of that situation.

Divisions are gone but instead the conference split the teams into two tiers based on their conference winning percentage over the past ten seasons. It’s almost an NFL approach to scheduling. Georgia will face four teams from each tier. A program’s fortunes can change quite a bit over ten seasons, and you might not group teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Auburn the same based on a more recent history. It’s uncertain how often they’ll adjust the tiers – will it be adjusted annually using the same ten-year rolling average – but I like the implied tip of the cap to a relegation system. Will future coaching contracts include language or incentives about maintaining a program in the top tier?

This all looks good for 2024. It’s unclear how or if the format will persist into 2025 and beyond. Georgia’s announcement stated that “the 2024 schedule will be a standalone one-year schedule as Conference members continue to finalize a long-term schedule format,” so it’s possible that we’ll be doing this all over again next spring. Will this be an annual jigsaw puzzle, or will there be some attempt to put scheduling on some rules-based autopilot? Balancing rivalry games, reshuffling the tiers, and ensuring a decent rotation of other conference opponents might lead to less-attractive combinations in the future than this initial effort. The league punted on the nine-game schedule for now, but it’s still on the table, and adding another game could be enough reason to blow things up and start from scratch again.

One thing is for certain: no matter the format Georgia won’t be playing at Texas A&M.

Post Add stadium renovations to WLOCP uncertainty

Sunday May 14, 2023

A renovation of the Jacksonville stadium area has been something we’ve had our eye on for a while. Two years ago ESPN detailed plans for a $441 million development project surrounding TIAA Bank Field including a $120 million football facility for the Jaguars. That facility is under construction and should be ready in time for the 2023 NFL season. This facility is a prerequisite for something a little more relevant to us:

The Jaguars hope the project is the first step in what they are calling the Stadium of the Future for Jaguars fans, meaning eventual significant renovations — or possibly even a brand-new one — within the next decade.

We’ve learned more about those “eventual significant renovations” this week. Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry discussed plans for those renovations on local radio and laid out a timetable that could leave the Georgia-Florida game without a venue in 2025 and 2026.

Worth noting is that the mayor’s office had to clarify “that nothing is set in stone and the time period could be subject to change from two years to one.” In other words these are still fluid plans that have yet to be finalized and approved at any level. According to Andy Staples “the Gators have been operating under the impression that if the stadium renovation goes forward, it would start in 2026 and make the facility unavailable in 2026 and 2027.” On the other hand a two-year schedule for a complete down-to-the-studs renovation might prove to be optimistic. So even the timetable is up in the air. The important takeaway is that some time later this decade the Jacksonville stadium is likely to be unavailable for the WLOCP.

The news comes as the future of the game in Jacksonville itself is uncertain. The current contract between Georgia, Florida, and the city of Jacksonville runs through 2023 with a two-year option to extend through 2025. The deadline to take that option is coming up next month, but there’s still another layer of uncertainty: the SEC has yet to finalize its future scheduling format when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. Everything from 8 vs. 9 conference games, the elimination of divisional play, and the preservation of traditional rivalries is on the table. We’d hope to get some resolution to that question at the SEC spring meetings taking place at the end of May.

So a lot could be happening over the next six weeks. If we get clarity about the future SEC football scheduling format, that could inform the decision to take or leave the option to extend the contract with Jacksonville. But even that option might need to be modified if the stadium won’t be available in the final year of the deal.

Ticket crunch

Stadiums are shrinking. New stadium projects emphasize amenities over capacity. When you’re competing against a large, crystal-clear HDTV picture in an air-conditioned room, that’s probably not a bad strategy. When studies find that “70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows,” the right move is to maximize the experience for those fans over cramming another 20,000 people into bleachers. Nashville will spend over $2 billion to build a new football stadium with a capacity around 60,000 – and they plan to bid on Super Bowls and CFP games! Buffalo is looking at a new stadium with a capacity between 60-63,000. Even the massive college football palaces are hopping on the trend: work at Bryant-Denny stadium to improve premium seating will lead to a modest reduction in capacity.

Georgia and Florida already accept a smaller venue by playing in Jacksonville (or any NFL stadium.) But even that capacity has shrunk. The current contract with Jacksonville requires requires a capacity of at least 82,917 fans. Anyone who’s been to the game is familiar with the temporary seats in either endzone that got them to this number. Of course attendance was limited in 2020, and in 2021 and 2022 capacity was reduced to 76,700 with a concession of $400,000 to each school. Why? Again, premium seating. The decision was made not to put temporary seats in the north endzone in favor of a premium seating area.

The nominal capacity in Jacksonville is currently 67,814 without the temporary seating. In 2019 attendance was 84,789. Now it’s 76,700. I don’t want to presume too much about a stadium redesign that hasn’t made it to blueprints yet, but if the Georgia-Florida game is that important to Jacksonville and its stadium partners there has to be consideration for capacity. That might put Jacksonville at odds with current stadium trends, or it might require a creative solution to allow for temporary expanded capacity in a design built around the premium experience.

We’ve already seen capacity come down by about 10%. A further reduction would make this game even less accessible and more on par with postseason games. It doesn’t seem all that crazy to suggest that by 2029 10-15,000 fewer fans will have access to this game than in 2019. (And that would be about 20,000 fewer fans than either home stadium could support.)

Jacksonville or Home-and-Home

It’s been clear for some time that the financial benefits have kept the game in Jacksonville. The schools pay relatively little in terms of operating and travel expenses for the game, and there’s a handsome payout split by Georgia and Florida. That combination nets each school quite a bit more than they’d gain hosting on campus every other year. So long as that remains the case any arguments about recruiting, fairness, or a trip to the Golden Isles will be overshadowed by the windfall.

Large payouts for neutral site games are nothing new. Georgia pulled down $5 million to play Oregon in Atlanta last season and will do so again playing Clemson in 2024. It’s not hard to imagine that a marquee SEC rivalry game like Georgia-Florida would command a premium price from any of the cities Staples mentioned. (Don’t forget about the expense side of the ledger either. We hear about payouts, but remember that it also costs a good amount of money to host a home game.)

If Jacksonville is unavailable for a couple of years, the assumption would be a home-and-home series like 1994-1995. Staples reminds us that what keeps the game in Jacksonville could just as well to apply to a number of sites in Florida and Georgia.

…if Jacksonville’s stadium winds up being unavailable for two years, don’t be shocked if the game gets shopped to Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa or Miami. And if one or two of those cities bite, don’t be surprised if the price for Jacksonville to reclaim the series goes up prior to 2028.

Even with the Mercedes-Benz stadium a convenient short drive away I can’t see any other neutral venue coming close to capturing the WLOCP vibe. That seems ridiculous to say when most people’s idea of a good Georgia-Florida trip is to spend as little time in Jacksonville proper as possible. There are many ways to experience the WLOCP, but it’s hard to see the culture of “all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days” being replicated in Atlanta or Orlando. I’m willing to make an exception for my preference for home games to continue the tradition of playing this game in Jacksonville, but no thanks to turning it into just another generic neutral site game in a reduced-capacity NFL stadium. Either keep it in Jacksonville or return it to the campuses.

Post 2023 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Tuesday February 28, 2023

Greenville, SC and its Bon Secours Wellness Arena will be a focal point of women’s college basketball for the next month. After a year in Nashville the SEC Tournament returns to Greenville for the first of a three-year stint. Later in March Greenville will be just one of two regional sites for the NCAA Tournament (the other is Seattle.) Fans of eight teams will descend on Greenville to determine two Final Four participants. It’s very possible that at least one, if not both, of those Final Four teams will be on the court in Greenville this week.

SEC women’s basketball, like any other college sport, has had to adapt to rapid and widespread changes across the college athletics landscape. Any fan of college sports has had to get comfortable with change. NIL deals finally allow student-athletes to share in some of the value they create for their schools and sports. Updated transfer rules allow rosters to be remade overnight. Thanks to Covid-era allowances for additional years of eligibility there are players on rosters you’d swear you remember from the 2000s.

The effects of these changes will be on display in Greenville. Over half of the programs have welcomed new head coaches in the past three seasons. The transfer portal giveth and taketh: nearly every team has key contributors plucked from the transfer portal. Other programs have found it difficult to replace departed players and have fallen down the standings. Rejuvenated programs at schools like Ole Miss and LSU have brought in record crowds and could alter the usual patchwork of fans in the stands for the conference tournament. Thanks to new NIL deals and increased media exposure star players are making an impact outside of the SEC and even outside of basketball.

One thing that hasn’t changed is South Carolina’s dominance of the SEC. The defending SEC and NCAA champions are still on top, and they might be even better than they were a year ago. South Carolina’s last loss? That loss came in this tournament a year ago as 7-seed Kentucky caught fire and cut down the nets. An SEC Tournament title was the only jewel missing from South Carolina’s 2022 crown. Claiming that missing title is surely motivation in Dawn Staley’s locker room, but Kentucky’s run was a reminder that there are no sure things in the postseason.

We’ve had a surprise finalist in each of the past two seasons: Georgia in 2021 and Kentucky in 2022. Is there a Kentucky lurking in the field this year? That Wildcat team had two-time SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard and got healthy in time for the end of the season. LSU has emerged this season as a top 5 program and national contender, but they were humbled by the Gamecocks in Columbia. The setting probably won’t be much less hostile just 90 minutes from the South Carolina campus, but LSU has a rematch on their mind. Can a team like Tennessee or Ole Miss spoil the rematch and make their own statement about the future of their program?

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. Auburn 6:00 PM ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. LSU 6:00 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field
(LY: last year’s finish, PS: coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (16-0, 29-0) (LY-1, PS-1): Good news – they’re finally seniors! The class including Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Brea Beal arrived in 2019-2020 as the nation’s top group of signees, and they have lived up to the hype. They were among the favorites to win a national title in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. They won the title last season as juniors. If they do pull off the repeat in a few weeks, they’ll be up there with the dynasties at UConn and Tennessee in the 2000s.

Dawn Staley’s top-ranked team isn’t just built around those three decorated seniors. Eleven Gamecock players average at least 10 minutes per game. Only three average over 20 minutes per game. That’s right – starters for the best team in the nation might not play half the game. It’s not just a question of building a big lead and emptying the bench. South Carolina turns to its reserves early in games, and there are important roles up and down the lineup. Most any team could start a versatile forward like Laeticia Amihere. 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso has come out of the shadows this season and was the key factor in South Carolina’s win over LSU. Raven Johnson leads the team in assists off the bench, an indication of last season’s top-rated signing class beginning to assert itself.

Few teams can come close to matching the interior presence of Boston, Cardoso, Amihere, and emerging freshman Ashlyn Watkins. The results of that size are plain: South Carolina’s 250 blocks lead the SEC by a margin of nearly 80%. They lead the SEC in defensive and offensive rebounding. South Carolina’s success is a numbers game. They turn the ball over fewer times than anyone in the SEC. They rebound and block better than anyone. Put it all together and opponents might get one shot per possession in their halfcourt offense, and that shot might well be blocked. That advantage means an opponent must be extremely efficient in their own offense or hope South Carolina is wildly inefficient on a given night.

It speaks to the quality of the game around the nation and in the SEC that a team this loaded has had a couple of close calls. Two teams have taken the Gamecocks to overtime. A handful of other teams have kept the final score within single digits and had credible chances to win. Those results might provide hope for postseason opponents, but they’ve also been valuable and humbling experiences that will prepare South Carolina for the competition they’re likely to face in March.

Is there a weakness? As a team the Gamecocks only shoot around 31% from outside. Cooke is the team’s top perimeter threat, and she and Beal have taken over half the team’s three-point attempts. The duo connects at roughly 40%, but they can be streaky. South Carolina shot 29% from the perimeter vs. Stanford (an overtime win), 22% vs. Mississippi St. (a 7-point win), 20% vs. UConn (a 4-point win), and 27% vs. Ole Miss (an overtime win). That’s only part of the story though; they’ve shot just as poorly from outside in several blowout wins. They have so many other ways to score. Even a missed three-point attempt isn’t the end of the world when you rebound as well as the Gamecocks do. If a team is going to keep it close and have a chance for the upset, they need South Carolina to be cold from outside, limit South Carolina’s size advantage on the offensive glass, keep turnovers to a minimum to make the most of their own possessions, and hope the rest of the Gamecock team has an average night. Easy, right?

2) LSU (15-1, 27-1) (LY-2, PS-3): It was a small surprise to see LSU ascend to second place last season. There’s no underestimating Kim Mulkey, but it was a big job to get the most out of a senior class that was used to mid-table finishes. Mulkey’s challenge in her second season was nearly as difficult: replacing that experienced core and getting several new pieces to mesh. The biggest piece was the transfer of forward Angel Reese from Maryland. Reese was already a decorated star and Third Team All-American at Maryland, but she’s taken her game and confidence to another level under Mulkey. There can be a debate about the league’s most outstanding player, but Reese is the reason why LSU took a step forward after losing so much from last season.

Reese’s supporting cast is a mix of newcomers and well-traveled veterans. LaDazhia Williams, another threat to score inside, is a graduate transfer from Missouri who began at South Carolina. Sharpshooting Jasmine Carson is another graduate transfer by way of West Virginia and Georgia Tech. High-scoring guard Alexis Morris transferred to LSU, her fourth program, last season and has had a big final season. Flau’jae Johnson has been an impact freshman with a McDonald’s All-American pedigree and is the team’s second-leading rebounder as a freshman wing. Freshman Sa’Myah Smith has come on during the season for frontcourt depth.

LSU rolled through their nonconference schedule without a loss, but they received criticism for the soft level of competition. That skepticism kept them from rising far in the rankings or early NCAA Tournament projections even with an unblemished record. But as conference wins began to pile up, LSU’s quality was harder and harder to ignore. They rose to as high as #3 before falling at South Carolina. Their strength of schedule might cost them a seed or two in the national tournament, but they’ll be expected to reach the finals in Greenville for a rematch with the Gamecocks.

The near-perfect record didn’t come without some shaky moments. LSU was challenged at home by Georgia and Arkansas and struggled at last-place Texas A&M. There seemed to be a pretty clear separation in class when they met South Carolina. LSU fans packing the arena to support this deserving team was one of the highlights of the season, but the Tigers will have to stand on their own now in a “neutral” arena likely to be full of Gamecock and Volunteer fans. They have the confidence and toughness to get it done, and Reese can match any team’s best player. It’s the rest of the lineup that will determine LSU’s postseason ceiling.

3) Tennessee (13-3, 21-10) (LY-3, PS-2): With the exception of LSU and Angel Reese the conference’s top winner in the transfer portal might be the Lady Vols. Rickea Jackson had been a star player at Mississippi State since she stepped on campus. Jillian Hollingshead showed tremendous potential at Georgia while battling knee issues. That incoming star talent added alongside a leader like Jordan Horston meant high expectations for Kellie Harper’s team. The Lady Vols had returned to respectability with consecutive third-place finishes, and there was hope that this would be the year for the program to take the next step. The Lady Vols were picked second behind South Carolina, and they had three players on the preseason all-SEC first team – more than the Gamecocks!

Those expectations took a hit when a central player was lost to injury for the second straight season. Last season it was Horston missing the stretch run. This season took a turn when imposing post Tamari Key was sidelined for the season with blood clots in her lungs. Fortunately Key’s prognosis is favorable, but her absence put extra pressure on Tennessee’s wings and guards. Even with Key Tennessee struggled with a difficult nonconference schedule. Tennessee entered SEC play at 8-6 with losses to some of the best teams in the nation. Things changed once conference play began: the Lady Vols started 8-0 in the SEC until LSU cooled them off. But Tennessee has had the same problem against both conference and nonconference opponents. None of their losses are bad; lots of good teams lose to UConn, Stanford, Indiana, and LSU. Good wins however have been hard to come by. Yes, beating Alabama and Ole Miss separated Tennessee from the pack. They improved on their 2022 11-5 conference record, had their best record in the SEC in eight seasons, yet here they are in third place for the third straight season. The Lady Vols are again one of the better programs in the SEC, and that’s progress from a couple of seasons ago when they risked missing the NCAA Tournament. They’ve yet to take that next step back onto the national stage. That could begin to change with a deep run to the SEC finals.

Rickea Jackson has been the impact transfer Tennessee needed. She leads the Lady Vols with nearly 19 points per game. Horston remains a steady leader and adds 15 points per game. It says a lot though that these two 6’2″ wings are also Tennessee’s leading rebounders. First, they play with tremendous effort. But without Key there’s really not a dominant post presence, and they’ve been uncharacteristically weak against teams with elite rebounders like LSU and South Carolina. Tennessee can also struggle to find consistent scoring from night to night apart from its two stars. Only three players – Jackson, Horson, and Tess Darby – score over 6 points per game, but seven players get between 4-6 points per game. Cobbling together those points and finding someone with a hot hand – maybe Darby or Sara Puckett or Jordan Walker on a given night – has been enough to propel Tennessee to over 77 points per game, and the typically stingy Tennessee defense has done the rest. To beat the top teams in the league though and advance to the finals Tennessee will need to find a third star to shine next to Jackson and Horston.

4) Ole Miss (11-5, 22-7) (LY-4, PS-5): The Rebels finishing fourth in 2022 after going winless as recently as 2020 was one of the biggest stories of last year. This season the story told by another fourth place finish is that Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s program has staying power. The loss of Shakira Austin to the WNBA has led to a more diversified team with multiple ways to attack. Angel Baker has stepped up as the team’s go-to scorer. Madison Scott took an other step forward in her junior season with a scoring average in double figures and over 8 rebounds per game. A pair of transfers – Marquesha Davis from Arkansas and Myah Taylor from Mississippi State – have been important additions at guard. Like Tennessee the Rebels lack the imposing post presence that Austin provided. They’ve had to have much more balanced scoring, defending, and rebounding especially around the basket. Ole Miss doesn’t shoot particularly well from outside, though Baker and Snudda Collins can and will take the shot. They do have a number of players who can hit the midrange shot, crash the offensive glass, and run in transition.

Toughness and intensity have been consistent calling cards of Coach Yo’s teams from year to year. They’re undersized but outrebound opponents by nearly 9 per game. Their tight man defense limits opponents to under 35% shooting and only 26% from outside. They’re middling in creating turnovers but are happy to force a bad shot, rebound it, and get off running to the other end.

The Rebels have also improved their results away from home. January wins at Georgia and Mississippi State got them off to a 5-0 start in SEC play, and a tight comeback win at Alabama on the final day of the season gave them the edge over the Tide for fourth place. Despite finishing in the top four for two straight seasons, national respect has been tough to come by for the Rebels. They remain unranked in the polls with a NET rating in the top 25. They came close to a signature win against South Carolina, but that statement against an elite team has eluded them. They lost to the two ranked teams they faced in nonconference play. A January win over then-#24 Arkansas looks less impressive by the day. Ole Miss has simply had to settle for being a damn good team that has just enough talent and effort to rise above the majority of the conference. That’s quite a reputation Coach Yo’s program has built in a few short years. What’s next?

5) Mississippi State (9-7, 20-9) (LY-10, PS-8): Things were bleak for the Bulldogs at the end of January. A pair of ugly losses to Ole Miss and Georgia dropped MSU to 4-5 in the league, and they were in need of a reset. The Bulldogs made the most of a bye week and emerged from the break to upset Tennessee. Mississippi State finished the season winning five of seven games, and that win over Tennessee was the tiebreaker that earned first-year coach Sam Purcell the #5 seed over two other 9-7 teams. Purcell’s energy has given new life to a program that fell on hard times after amazing runs to the Final Four. A recent loss at Missouri showed that the Bulldogs still haven’t quite shaken the problems of the first half of the season, but wins over Alabama and Arkansas were enough to force a tie with Alabama and Georgia. MSU’s February success has a lot to do with the improved play of guard JerKaila Jordan. Jordan is averaging around 17 points in February and, along with Ahlana Smith, gives the Bulldogs a pop from outside. The Bulldogs have also gotten a shot in the arm from the return of leading scorer and rebounder Jessika Carter after a year’s absence. MSU’s strong finish has solidified their place in the NCAA Tournament. If they make it to Friday’s quarterfinals, they’ll see if their improved play can be the charm in a third try against their in-state rival. Purcell, known as a skilled recruiter while at Louisville, would love to have the last word against Ole Miss after coming up short twice earlier in the season.

6) Alabama (9-7, 20-9) (LY-11, PS-10): The Tide made some noise in last season’s postseason with a convincing upset of Georgia and a run to the WNIT quarterfinals. They’ve exceeded expectations in 2023 and will make the NCAA Tournament after piling up wins over the bottom half of the conference. A January win at Ole Miss is their lone win over a team seeded 5th or higher, but you can’t fault them for taking care of business against most everyone else. Alabama had a chance to finish in the top four up until the last day of the regular season, but they enter the postseason with three straight losses. Pulling out of that slide might take a win over Florida, a team that beat the Tide just a week ago. The Tide have found success this year as the conference’s leading three-point shooting team with nearly 9 made three-pointers per game. They largely play four-out, one-in with Jada Rice making plays in the paint and a quartet of guards and wings able to shoot from outside or drive past defenders. Brittany Davis scores nearly 18 points per game, and there’s no question she’s the team’s offensive engine. Davis attempts nearly a quarter of the team’s field goals and three point attempts but also attacks the basket and heads to the foul line more than any other teammate. The attention that must be paid to Davis leaves Alabama’s other guards with good shots, and you almost have to do a second take at their percentages. Aaliyah Nye shoots 45% from outside. Point guard Hannah Barber shoots 48%. Megan Abrams and Loyal McQueen merely shoot in the 30s. The outside shooting has been less reliable down the stretch; Alabama shot 30% or lower in three of their final five games.

7) Georgia (9-7, 20-10) (LY-6, PS-9): As a coach you like to see a team play its best towards the end of the season. That’s just what new Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is seeing from her Bulldogs. Coach Abe, like many first-year coaches these days, was both a victim of and a beneficiary of the transfer portal. Several key players and an entire top 10 recruiting class decided to leave Georgia during the transition. Abe responded by convincing her entire UCF signing class as well as three experienced members of the UCF team to follow her to Athens. She added three transfers from other schools and re-recruited four remaining Georgia players to stay with the program. Establishing her culture among players with such varied backgrounds has been a difficult and painstaking process. Georgia showed early signs of toughness with a win at Georgia Tech and comeback wins over Wisconsin and VCU. But there were also some disappointing losses in December, and the start of conference play was an eye-opener. Georgia struggled to a 2-5 start in the league. They had to come from behind to beat Florida and Kentucky, and a bad loss at Texas A&M all but sunk the season.

The season turned after the loss at A&M, and it turned on defense. Georgia’s 3-2 matchup zone and occasional press had its moments earlier in the season, but over the last half of the season things began to click much more consistently. Georgia finished the season winning seven of nine games including a five-game winning streak in February. In those seven wins Georgia allowed an average of 50 points per game with no one opponent scoring more than 61. Even in a pair of road losses to top 5 teams Georgia looked locked in. They took undefeated LSU to overtime in Baton Rouge and finished the season playing South Carolina closer than anyone had on the Gamecocks’ home court. Georgia’s defense has created 612 turnovers during the season (20.4 per game), and they lead the SEC in steals and turnover margin.

Offense improved along with the defense. UCF transfer Diamond Battles, Georgia’s leading scorer, took a few games to adjust to the physicality of the SEC. She is averaging 16 points per game over Georgia’s nine-game run and has broken 20 in each of the final two games. Battles isn’t the only player who improved down the stretch. Coach Abe likes to talk about players understanding and settling into their roles, and two of Georgia’s biggest role players come off the bench. Javyn Nicholson has been a physical reserve post player for several seasons but has developed a smooth midrange game to go along with impressive post moves. Nicholson averages 9.5 points per game on the season but has been in double figures in every game but one over Georgia’s final eight games. She’s also contributed on the glass with five double-doubles this year. Alisha Lewis leads Georgia in assists and three-pointers despite starting only four games. Lewis is often among the personnel on the court to close out games and hit the game-winner in Georgia’s home win over Kentucky. Audrey Warren, a Texas transfer, has had to expand her role at Georgia. She’s been a tough-nosed defender and rebounder for years but has been asked to do more on offense. Warren responded with 8 points per game and is Georgia’s second-leading three-point shooter.

Georgia’s biggest strength is also a weakness. They generate lots of turnovers but turn it over at a high rate themselves. Even that’s been improving. Georgia has turned it over 14.6 times per game over their final five games – nearly a two-turnover improvement over their season average. Foul trouble can also be a problem for Georgia. Georgia is blessed with depth at the post position, but potent scorers Brittany Smith and Malury Bates can take themselves out of games with fouls. The Lady Dogs especially need Smith available in the postseason. Earlier in the season Georgia was often plagued by long scoring droughts. Those have become fewer in frequency as Coach Abe better understood the combinations she needed on the court, but scoreless stretches can still be a problem. Georgia’s outside shooting relies primarily on three players – Battles, Lewis, and Warren – and the team is shooting under 30% from outside. The most effective offense has been to create transition off of turnovers or to attack the basket with guards and a deep rotation of posts and draw fouls.

Not many teams are playing as well as Georgia right now. They might not have the star power to pull off the deep run that Rhyne Howard and company did a year ago from the 7-seed, but Georgia won’t be an enjoyable opponent for anyone in this tournament. Georgia’s held their own in the league’s two toughest gyms, they have a coach used to having to win the conference tournament to keep a season going, and they have a deep and experienced roster finally playing well as a unit.

8) Arkansas (7-9, 20-11) (LY-8, PS-4): A second-straight eighth-place finish wasn’t what Arkansas expected at the start of the season or even in mid-January. The Razorbacks started the season 13-0 en route to a #17 ranking and began 4-1 in the SEC. A tough stretch at the end of January led to four straight losses including a trio of three-point losses. Another three-game losing streak in February was much more lopsided and suggested a team that had started hot but faded. A decisive win against Texas A&M to close the season at least stopped the losing streak and give the Razorbacks some confidence heading into the tournament. Arkansas still plays classic Mike Neighbors basketball and attempts more three-pointers than any other SEC team. Connecting with those deep shots has been the problem this year. Arkansas shoots less than 30% from outside. They might try to make up for it with volume, but the explosive scorers of their recent past aren’t on this team anymore. There’s a foursome of guards and wings who each attempted at least 124 three-pointers, but no player is shooting over 33.6%. Chrissy Carr has emerged as the top outside threat with Samara Spencer posting similar numbers. Makayla Daniels inherits the playmaker role and can connect from outside or drive to the basket and draw fouls. Forward Erynn Barnum is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Freshman Saylor Poffenbarger has been an important addition to Arkansas’ game inside the paint while also showing an outside threat. The relative lack of firepower has kept Arkansas from notching a win over the top half of the conference, but they do have a pair of wins over their opening tournament opponent Missouri. A top-20 recruiting class should help revitalize the Arkansas offense next season.

9) Missouri (6-10, 17-12) (LY-9, PS-12): Missouri also might seem a bit stagnant ending up where they finished in 2022, but they were better than expected after forwards Aijha Blackwell and LaDazhia Williams transferred. Missouri’s style hasn’t changed: they’re still among the league’s top three-point shooting teams and can slice apart defenses that overextend to the perimeter. Missouri started conference play 3-0, and wins over Alabama and Mississippi State have had them on the NCAA bubble for most of the season. Two losses to close the regular season might have dampened postseason hopes. While Missouri’s style hasn’t changed, their problem, like Arkansas, has been consistency. They lean heavily on forward Hayley Frank who is the team’s leading scorer and shotblocker. Frank also leads the team in three-pointers made and is second on the team in rebounding. That’s a lot to put on one player, and it’s gone badly a few times this year. Lauren Hansen can also get hot from outside but can be streaky – Hansen has gone over 20 points in four SEC games but has been held to 5 points or fewer five times. Mama Dembele has dealt with injuries but still leads the team in assists and can increase the pace of play when she’s in the game. Missouri has had to play a committee of players down low, and it hasn’t been as effective as the Blackwell-Williams combination.

10) Auburn (5-11, 15-13) (LY-14, PS-13): It’s not quite an Ole Miss type of rise yet, but Auburn made definite progress in year 2 under Johnnie Harris. The Tigers more than doubled their SEC win total in 2023, and they emerged from the bottom four with a season-ending win over Vanderbilt. Things started rough with six straight SEC losses, but Auburn broke into the win column with an overtime upset of Ole Miss. That win started Auburn’s first three-game winning streak in six years, but they finished the year losing five of seven games. With the exception of the Ole Miss win, all of Auburn’s wins came over the bottom 4. Auburn was also 1-7 in road games with the lone victory coming at last-place Kentucky. There’s no question that Auburn is improving, and learning to win away from home will be key to taking that next step. Forward Aicha Coulibaly and guard Honesty Scott-Grayson lead the Auburn attack averaging in double-figures and are complemented by 9 other players averaging over 10 minutes per game. Auburn plays an aggressive defense and is second in the league in steals. That aggression can lead to foul trouble, and Harris has to rotate post players to manage fouls. Both Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson are capable of huge nights scoring over twice their averages, but to hang with better teams they need help from players like Kharyssa Richardson or Sania Wells and impactful contributions from their post rotation.

11) Florida (5-11, 16-13) (LY-5, PS-6): Last season Florida finished fifth and reached the NCAA Tournament despite a coaching change just before the season and the departure of the team’s leading scorer. Kelly Rae Finley’s job as interim coach earned her the permanent gig. They haven’t been able to recapture that magic in 2023 and have slid back to the Wednesday play-in game. Injuries, most notably to Zippy Broughton, have tested the roster, and depth has been their undoing in several games in which Florida led or kept close early. Even as injured players returned to the roster wins have been tough to come by. Guard play is decent with KK Deans and Alberte Rimdal shooting nearly 40% from outside and Nina Rickards attacking the basket, but spotty post play has cost them. Jordyn Merritt, a key member of last season’s overachievers, was among the injured and has found it tough to get going. Florida did notch two quality wins at the end of the year over Arkansas and Missouri and might have knocked both programs off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

12) Vanderbilt (3-13, 12-18) (LY-13, PS-14): Shea Ralph had a decent debut last season leading the Commodores to four conference wins for the first time since 2018. Ralph wasn’t able to build on that modest success this year, and personnel is a big reason why. The Commodores carried just a nine-player roster this season after defensive specialist Jordyn Cambridge was lost for the season. Guard Caija Harbison has been the standout; she’s among the SEC leaders in points, assists, and steals. Harbison and Marnelle Garraud give the Commodores some scoring punch from the guard position, and Sacha Washington is the top post threat. Ralph’s team can put points on the board, but depth issues have shown up in rebounding and on defense. Opponents are scoring 71 points per game, shooting 45%, and outrebounding the Commodores by over 6 per game. Vanderbilt’s split series with Arkansas gave us two of the more entertaining lower-profile games in the SEC this year.

13) Texas A&M (2-14, 10-17) (LY-12, PS-11): For a while it looked as if Joni Taylor’s only SEC win of the year would come against her former team. A late-season win over Kentucky moved A&M out of the basement, and that accomplishment might be the highlight of their season. It’s been a long way down for A&M since winning the SEC regular season title just two years ago. The Aggies’ new coach has had a rough transition as she’s faced an overhauled roster, inexperience, and injuries. Taylor brought Georgia’s #7-rated signing class with her, and they’ve all had to contribute as freshmen. The top prospect from that group, Janiah Barker, missed a good chunk of the season with a wrist injury but returned just in time to lead A&M to an upset of Georgia. 5th-year forward Aaliyah Patty has been a constant through the injuries. The Aggies play the usual tough Joni Taylor defense, but scoring has been a big problem. A&M is a full ten points behind the next-worst team in points per game. They had a brief outburst against Georgia as Barker returned to beat the team she originally signed with, but teams have enough film on Barker now as the surrounding cast struggles. Another top-20 class is on the way in to provide reinforcements.

14) Kentucky (2-14, 10-18) (LY-7, PS-7): What a rollercoaster – or house of horrors – for the Cats over the past two seasons. They started the 2022 SEC season 2-8 before ripping off six straight wins. That momentum continued into the tournament, and the seventh-seeded Wildcats pulled the upset of the year with a win over South Carolina to claim the SEC Tournament title. This season’s Kentucky teams also started 2-8 in the SEC, but there was no Rhyne Howard and Dre’una Edwards to rescue them this time. They enter this tournament with a much different momentum: seven straight losses. Though there have been injuries to overcome largely this is a team that just hasn’t matched up talent-wise with the rest of the SEC. Replacing Rhyne Howard is a monumental task, and Kentucky lost a lot more from last season’s championship squad than Howard. The guard trio of Robyn Benton, Jada Walker, and Maddie Scherr give the Cats some firepower, but they struggle with production in the paint. Kentucky is near the bottom of the league in rebounds and turnovers, and coming up short in the possessions game is never a good combination. One of their wins was against first-round opponent Florida, so there’s hope for one last rally before the season ends.

Post Bobo – Take 2

Wednesday February 15, 2023

After three seasons heading up the Georgia offense, Todd Monken will head back to the NFL. It’s not a huge surprise given 1) Monken’s self-described journeyman status and 2) the interest with which he pursued NFL interviews over the past month. “I’m a vagabond,” Monken admitted in a pre-Peach Bowl interview that sounded almost like a farewell. He was also blunt about the nature of the job. “This is a business,” Monken said. That wasn’t said with a tone of dissatisfaction; it’s the reality for the majority of college coaches who come into their jobs without particularly strong ties to the school. Athens can get its hooks into you especially if it’s your last stop on the coaching carousel – just ask Georgia’s former head coaches. But even the appeal of Athens and the success of the Georgia program wasn’t enough to tie down a professional vagabond used to moving on to new opportunities.

Monken came to Athens in 2020 with a clear mandate to bring Georgia’s offense up to par with those of other national contenders. Disappointing postseason losses in 2018 and especially 2019 showed how far Georgia had to go relative to the teams it considered its peers. Record-setting offenses churning out top draft picks at LSU and Alabama suggested a new approach was necessary if Georgia hoped to break through. Monken began his renovation in the most difficult of circumstances. His first two options at quarterback washed out. The transfer hoped to be Georgia’s answer to the Heisman winners at LSU and Alabama couldn’t shake injury. The leading rusher was coming off two knee surgeries, and the receiving corps wasn’t especially deep. Oh – the installation of this new offense had to take place during a pandemic with no spring practice.

Georgia didn’t break through in 2020, but Monken showed flexibility and creativity by designing successful offenses around two very different quarterbacks. He could win with a run-heavy approach as at South Carolina or air it out against Mississippi State. Despite the uncertainty at quarterback that lasted the entire season (and then some), Georgia was able to find some building blocks around which Monken could construct a devastating attack over the next two seasons.

Three years is a fairly standard tenure for a successful high-profile coordinator. Dan Lanning was Georgia’s defensive coordinator for three seasons. It would have been disappointing but not shocking had Monken followed Lanning out of town after the 2021 national title. We know how this works: teams want to hire the coaches of champions, and we want a program that develops its coaching talent as much as it does its players. It was a pleasant development that Monken returned for an encore in 2022. He was not going to be a Georgia lifer.

Kirby Smart understood that reality and wasn’t caught off guard by Monken’s departure. Georgia immediately announced Mike Bobo as Monken’s replacement. Bobo of course served previously as Georgia’s offensive coordinator from 2007–2014 before leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State. He reemerged in unremarkable one-year coordinator stints at failing Auburn and South Carolina programs before joining Smart’s staff as an offensive analyst.

Bobo left Athens in 2014 at the height of his game. Georgia ripped off a three-year stretch from 2012-2014 averaging 40 points per game and easily finishing in the top 10 of offensive SP+. Bobo was a Broyles Award finalist in 2012 as Georgia became a national title contender. Aaron Murray became the SEC’s career passing leader. Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel ushered in a new golden age of Georgia tailback play. As Blutarsky put it at the time, “Bobo’s departure doesn’t come as a relief.” With Jeremy Pruitt’s abrasive style clashing with the rest of the staff and the program falling behind in resources and facilities relative to the SEC, Bobo’s offense was one of the more stable elements of the program.

It’s impossible to discuss Bobo without unpacking a lot of emotional baggage. But for a few years here and there Bobo has been associated with Georgia either as a player or coach since the mid-1990s. That time period covers a lot of ups and downs, and much of it fell squarely in the middle of Georgia’s 40-year title drought. Any player or coach from that era will bear the burden of missed opportunities, what-ifs, and even outright failures. Many Georgia fans will struggle with disentangling themselves not only from their opinion of Bobo from the early 2010s but also from their frustration with the Georgia program of the same time. That was plenty of time to develop a rich lode of playcalls or outcomes we blamed for Georgia coming up short – again.

Bobo might have left Athens as a hot commodity, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing since. His first three Colorado State teams finished 7-6. The scary emergence of an autoimmune disease disrupted his final two seasons at CSU and threatened his coaching career. The stress of coaching and the draining recovery process took a visible toll on the vibrant playcaller we remember. His experiences at Auburn and South Carolina with programs in turmoil couldn’t have been pleasant. Returning to Athens as an analyst was an opportunity to reset, collaborate with another coordinator at the top of *his* game, and consider his plans for the future.

Eight years is a long time. Georgia football has changed. Football itself has changed. Thanks to Monken’s success Kirby Smart has absorbed those changes as well as anyone. With Monken Smart showed urgency by looking outside the program to find someone with fresh ideas and a fluency in everything from the Air Raid to pro schemes. Georgia’s offense might not need that kind of revolutionary change again, but it does need to carry on in the same spirit. Smart would have been in the ideal position over the past year to evaluate how well Bobo has incorporated those same lessons in his scheme and playcalling. On a touchier note Smart would also have had to evaluate whether Bobo after eight difficult years still has the drive and relentless recruiting chops that took him to the top of his profession during his first stint at Georgia.

Ultimately any offense operates with Smart’s blessing and preferences, and Smart understands how dangerous a backslide to 2019 (or, heaven forbid, 2015) would be. I doubt we’ll see the return of the fullback as a glamour position in Georgia’s offense, but, hey – who knows? Fans aren’t known for subtlety, and any strongly-held beliefs about Mike Bobo from 2014 are about to be relitigated. We give it a quarter before the first non-ironic cries of “run the damn ball Booboo.”

Before he calls one play Bobo will be involved in one of the most anticipated decisions of the offseason. Georgia’s quarterback position is wide-open for the first time since 2020. The Bulldogs have three top candidates they’ll be evaluating during the spring and summer. We might have assumptions about the pecking order, but a coaching change can be a fresh start. Choosing a starting quarterback is sometimes not a straightforward or permanent decision. Monken looked for every reason to play someone other than Stetson Bennett, and the position seemed unsettled for two of Monken’s three seasons in Athens. Smart admitted that it took a while to realize the value of Bennett’s mobility. “He overcame us,” said Smart.

Bobo was involved with Georgia’s quarterbacks from 2001-2014 and coached several of Georgia’s titans at the position: Greene, Shockley, Stafford, and Murray. That means he was also involved in the Greene/Shockley platoon in the early 2000s and the in-season tryout that took the first half of the 2006 season and had Joe Tereshinski starting. The coaches decided to redshirt Murray in 2009. Bobo’s final offense in 2014 was productive, but the quarterback room was left in bad shape upon his departure. We look back on those decisions – from Greene and Shockley all the way to Bennett – with clear hindsight. The point is that even the most accomplished coaches can struggle with those decisions. Is that a preview of how the 2023 decision will pan out? Of course not, but it won’t be surprising to see the decision linger beyond spring into August and even into the season. If that happens, it’s likely that the quarterback position will quickly overshadow any talk about playcalling or scheme.

Post Georgia football and the willful suspension of disbelief

Saturday January 28, 2023

Georgia’s victory parade and celebration was worthy of the back-to-back champions. Fans turned out in numbers and enthusiasm comparable to the party that followed last year’s drought-breaking triumph. Players and coaches had a blast interacting with a crowd several rows deep as the parade crawled down Lumpkin Street.

But for all of the revelry there was a weird vibe that hung over the celebration.

It’s difficult and rare to repeat as a champion. Roster changes, coaching moves, and a shifting competitive landscape require almost a reinvention from year to year. Coaches must hold onto and fortify the few constants while adapting to change and starting all over. That’s true of any program, but the complacency that can set in after a taste of success adds another layer of difficulty. Elite performance makes unnatural demands of players and coaches. Long and unpleasant hours, the discipline required to put in the daily work, and almost-guaranteed physical pain are things few of us would or could sign up for. The shiny goal of a championship hangs out there for a handful of contenders, and that helps to give some direction to the day-to-day effort.

What happens when a team reaches its goal? Players and coaches might have cared far less about 1980 than we did, but even they were caught up in the collective release of angst last January in Indianapolis. How would they refocus in 2022 on a goal that’s already been met? Georgia’s draft results became a useful point to that end for Kirby Smart: many of the key contributors to that title were in the NFL now. Last season’s title belonged to last season’s team, and the 2022 team claiming that title would have been unearned. Fair enough.

“Rat poison” has become a running joke since Nick Saban introduced the term, but players believing their own positive press and adoring fans can be a legitimate problem when there are real issues to fix and new puzzles to solve. Basking in the glow of wins can detract from the process-oriented approach favored by Saban, Smart, and other successful coaches. To counter the praise, coaches, players, and fans will latch on to slights – real, exaggerated, or even invented – to keep the fire burning.

None of that is novel stuff – coaches look for any mental edge they can find. At some point it doesn’t even matter if that mental edge is grounded in reality. Could a Georgia team never ranked worse than third claim a legion of doubters? Repeating as champion is difficult enough, and you didn’t need more than the constant reminder of players lost to the NFL and offseason attrition to credibly suggest that someone might dethrone Georgia. That suggestion was apparently enough to serve as a motivator during the season. The defense might be OK, but there’s no way it can remain elite after losing that many players. We can keep going: the offensive line took the Joe Moore Award personally. Erik Ainge’s comments before the Tennessee game were turned into a challenge to Georgia fans, and that challenge was met. Disrespect is a universal motivator.

It’s one thing for a coach to convince himself that he’s up against the world. Coaches seem to be paranoid by nature. It’s another to get an entire high-performing organization aligned behind the same concept. These young men aren’t monks and are immersed in the same social media as the rest of us; they know when they’re being fed a line. At the same time they’re not like their peers. Anyone disciplined and gifted enough to play major D1 football has spent years learning how to work towards collective goals and follow leadership. Successful leaders are able to align individuals in the service of the group, and that begins with a unified belief in the legitimacy and virtue of a goal and a rejection of any perceived challenge to that goal. Georgia player interviews during the season were fascinating because they showed how effective the coaching staff had been at hammering home the week’s message. It’s no surprise then that coaches could be as effective getting buy-in on the bigger picture.

Fans can appreciate in a general sense that performing at the highest level requires an unusual focus. We’re a bit fuzzier when it comes to the tactics coaches use to maintain that focus. We understand that an opponent shouldn’t be given bulletin board material, but it all comes with an implied wink-wink that it’s all just cut from the same cloth as the Vince Dooley “long-snappah” meme. So it was attention-getting to hear the coaches and players continue with the same fervor at the celebration. Smart praised his team saying, “They took advantage of the opportunity in front of them to prove people wrong.” The tone of the celebration was as much defiant as it was triumphant.

That same motivation played out on an individual level. In Stetson Bennett’s case though the doubt that fueled him was very real. The tale of Bennett’s path at Georgia has been sanitized enough that even the most casual football fan can recite the story of the plucky former walk-on whose drive led him to became a Heisman finalist and two-time national champion. What often gets lost is the bitterness that helped to fuel that drive. Some of that bitterness bubbled to the surface as his Georgia career approached its end. At the celebration there was the immediate “did he just say that?” jolt that woke up fans numbed by an hour of polite congratulations from dignitaries. Then there was a short period of “surely he didn’t mean us” soul-searching among the self-conscious. The realization that Bennett was mostly talking about the media was almost an absolving relief, but the uncertainty and unease remains. This wasn’t jolly Jordan Davis riding off into the sunset. Bennett’s farewell wasn’t all the tidy lovefest we’d prefer, and given his backstory it probably shouldn’t be.

Yes, the media doubted Stetson Bennett. But so did I. So did you. It’s something we’ve never really come to terms with as a fan base, and the reason Bennett’s comments were so jarring is that it cut through the suspension of disbelief that we had created for ourselves. Bennett is now the larger-than-life fan favorite “The Mailman.” He’s the fun guy swigging Pappy after winning a national title. He’s the cocky Stequavious whose Samson-in-reverse haircut was watched as closely as the injury report.

But this was also the same Bennett who was a last resort to avoid a shocking loss at Arkansas. He was the placeholder for J.T. Daniels as we waited impatiently during the 2020 season for the switch to be made. Bennett was quickly forgotten in the 2021 offseason as the Daniels Heisman hype took over. He was again the stand-in during 2021 as we nervously wondered whether Daniels’ lingering injury would cost Georgia a shot at a special season. Right up through the 2021 playoff in the wake of a disappointing loss to Alabama there was still sentiment for someone other than Bennett. He was a temp whose assignment was renewed from week-to-week.

Fans weren’t creating this impatience and doubt on their own. Very Serious Analysts made the case for Bennett to sit throughout his career. But even the media were following the lead of Bennett’s own coaches. Todd Monken was brutally honest about the staff’s assessment of Bennett’s prospects to play. “All we did was try to bury him for the couple of years he was here,” Monken admitted. The staff entertained the quarterback uncertainty through 2020 and even 2021 sticking with the noncommittal “best chance to win” answer right up through Orange Bowl preparations.

To be fair, a lot of the reckoning going on is hindsight. The Bennett of 2022 isn’t the Bennett of 2020 or even 2021. He had deficiencies, made some poor decisions, and might not have had the measurables that coaches wanted in their quarterback. An important lesson of Bennett’s story is how he used – and continues to use – that criticism and doubt to improve himself. The Bennett we saw at Tech in 2019 and into 2020 is a far cry from the a Heisman finalist and playoff MVP we know now. You’d expect growth and development over a college career, but Bennett did it without much support at first – and even in the face of outright hostility at times. A part of Bennett might actually need that conflict in order to thrive. Kirby Smart continued to push that button even after a comeback for the ages against Ohio State, and Bennett responded with a masterpiece against TCU.

As Bennett begins his next phase he’ll again have plenty of people questioning his draft position and then his prospects for sticking in the NFL. That might be just what he needs.

Post Opening the door for Stetson Bennett: Heisman finalist

Wednesday December 7, 2022

It was just a year ago – December 4, 2021 – that Georgia lost a game. Alabama’s convincing SEC Championship Game win over #1 Georgia temporarily halted any talk of a new order in college football. Beyond the bigger picture question the loss rekindled a concern and almost a panic hiding within every Georgia fan. The Dawgs had a defense that had been called generational. The offensive scheme, laid bare and found wanting in 2019, had been overhauled under Todd Monken and showed the creativity and adaptability necessary to succeed in today’s game. There were future draft picks at every position on the offense. The only question seemed to be whether Georgia had the quarterback to put it all together.

For two years the tacit understanding was that Stetson Bennett was a placeholder at quarterback. It was Jamie Newman who was supposed to lead Georgia through Monken’s offensive renaissance. Then it was J.T. Daniels. Only a highly-rated prospect seemingly on his way to the NFL could deliver the production that elevated LSU and Alabama to titles in 2019 and 2020. As recently as the 2021 Orange Bowl – even after an undefeated regular season – there was uncertainty whether Georgia would switch quarterbacks after a lackluster performance in the SEC Championship.

Stetson Bennett finally earned the trust of fans and – more importantly – his coaches for the 2022 season and has been the unquestioned starter from the beginning. Leading a team through the college football playoff will do that for you. With the confidence of an experienced starter he’s shown complete command of the offense, navigated the team through another undefeated regular season, won an SEC title, and has earned the honor of a Heisman finalist. No one saw this coming three years ago, but you can say that about nearly every one of his accomplishments. Multi-year starter? SEC champion? National champion? Heisman finalist? Pro prospect? Inconceivable.

The Heisman finalist might be the most mind-blowing accomplishment to me. Not because it’s Bennett but in part because he’s the Georgia quarterback. I’ve usually discounted the chances for a Georgia quarterback to be considered because the Bulldogs don’t throw that much – even running Monken’s offense. It’s true that Georgia has thrown more this year, but it’s pretty stunning how far the rest of the field has come back to earth. I know passing yardage is a simplistic stat, but it’s where a lot of voters start who don’t see all of the games. (Like the 1,000-yard threshold for a running back.)

Look at some recent winners: Baker Mayfield threw for 4,600 in 2017. Young threw for 4,800 a year ago. There’s Joe Burrow’s ridiculous 5,700 yards in 2019. Even Mac Jones threw for 4,500 in a shortened 2020 season.

Now look at this year’s slate: Only Caleb Williams cracked 4,000 yards passing. Stroud, Duggan, and even Hooker are all around 3,100-3,300 yards. That opened the door for Bennett to be considered alongside them even though he’s far short of Aaron Murray’s 3,900 yards and 36 TD in 2012. He has 3,426 passing yards and passing 20 TD through 13 games. His mobility is an asset, but his 184 rushing yards don’t come close to the typical dual-threat Heisman candidate. He’s been efficient and productive relative to his (and Georgia’s) baseline. He’s the cocky leader of the #1 team in the nation, and his career arc is a fantastic story. In a season with fewer players than usual boasting eye-popping numbers, it’s the perfect moment for Bennett to build a compelling case for the sport’s highest individual honor.

(On a related note – I think that’s why Brice Young wasn’t among this year’s finalists. He’s fantastic and saved Bama on more than one occasion. But he set a high bar last year and threw for nearly 1,800 fewer yards in 2022. It’s a tough sell when voters see a guy with 65% of his production from a year ago.)

I don’t know what it says about the state of QB play that production has dropped far enough for a good year by a UGA QB to be considered Heisman-worthy. These are all very good QBs – even the ones who weren’t finalists. Only four QBs this year have surpassed 4,000 yards. There were nine a year ago (including Stroud and Young.) Are defenses catching up?

Post Georgia 37 – Ga. Tech 14: A rivalry with new life

Wednesday November 30, 2022

Last year I noticed how flat the vibe was around the Tech game from the host team. Neither the Tech fans nor – more importantly – their players wanted much to do with the game. It was clean, old-fashioned apathy.

The difference in 2021 was the indifference. Georgia fans turned out in strong numbers to see their #1 team, but the sense of rivalry was muted….The color palette of the stadium revealed the apathy of Tech fans. Assured of a three-win season and the return of their head coach, Tech fans wanted nothing to do with this game. The sarcastic cheer for Tech’s initial first down summed it up: how much energy could you put into a rivalry when it’s all you can do to move the chains?

Some of that hopelessness might have been understandable when the #1 team went up against an opponent with only three wins, but it was still jarring to see the life sucked out of the rivalry. If this year’s midseason promotion of Brent Key to head coach did anything for the Tech program, it was to restore some pride and purpose in their program. The wins that came were a byproduct. While Tech’s fans were still few and far between on Saturday for their first visit to Athens since 2018, you saw the difference on the field. This Tech team, while overmatched, was at least not the passive bystander to their own rout that they were a year ago. Tech brought reasonable game plans on both sides of the ball and, for a few possessions, came out with more energy and enthusiasm than a Georgia team that might have expected little resistance en route to another blowout. I don’t know how to say this without sounding condescending, but it was refreshing to see a Tech team put up a fight.

Georgia seemed unprepared for a Tech team willing to compete. In 2021 it didn’t matter: Georgia didn’t let a disinterested Tech team drag them into a sloppy game. Georgia played to its standard, scored on its first four possessions, and only punted once. That same focus wasn’t in place from the start in the 2022 game, and a more determined Tech team was able to stay in the game until the middle of the third quarter.

Tech’s opening series tested Georgia’s defensive discipline. It wasn’t a good sign that the game opened with a pair of 9-yard runs. The Jackets then hit a couple of easy receiver screens to the outside to cross midfield. Georgia seemed to stop the drive, but a well-executed slot fade on 4th-and-9 gave Tech a first-and-goal. (The Jackets ran that slot fade as window-dressing on a number of plays on the drive and even attempted it on first down before succeeding on fourth down. Bullard played it well on first down but got beat on fourth down.) Tech brought in their running quarterback, the left edge of the defense collapsed, and Tech walked in the first first-quarter touchdown given up by the Georgia defense all season. Chambliss got caught looking inside, and I’m still not sure where Lassiter was headed on the play.

It wasn’t a much better start for the offense. The inexplicable trend of using Brock Bowers primarily on short screens continued, and Bennett missed Kearis Jackson on third down. The Bulldogs dodged a bullet on Tech’s second possession. The Jackets again drove near midfield. They ran a fake toss that sucked in Christopher Smith and then had a wide open tight end seam route that caught reserve ILB Rian Davis out of position. Fortunately Tech’s TE dropped the pass. A completion would have created another scoring opportunity for them. A 7-0 deficit was bad enough but nothing to be concerned about. Giving up consecutive scores to open the game and going down 10 or 14 points before many fans found their seats would have sounded some alarms.

Georgia settled down somewhat as they slowly woke up. The running game came to life as McIntosh ripped off the season’s longest run by a tailback to spark the drive that put Georgia into the lead for good. The Dawgs missed another scoring opportunity as a questionable offensive facemask penalty on a fourth down conversion forced a punt. The defense, for the second straight week, couldn’t pin the opponent inside their own 5 and left themselves with no time for points at the end of the half.

The Dawgs pulled away in a dominant third quarter. Another penalty forced a field goal on Georgia’s first drive of the half after a touchdown pass to Arian Smith was ruled to be out of bounds. The defense forced their first three-and-out of the game, and the threat of a punt rush seemed to force problems with Tech’s punt operation. The Dawgs cashed in on the short 17-yard field, but again it wasn’t easy. Georgia couldn’t punch it in from the goal line, and Bowers had to scoop a short pass off the turf on fourth down. Tech fumbled on their next play to set up another Georgia field goal, and Georgia was able to open the quarter with 13 quick points before Tech managed a first down. A 99-yard touchdown drive featuring an 83-yard wheel route completion from Bennett to McIntosh blew the game open entering the fourth quarter and cleared the way for the reserves and seniors to finish out the game.

So Georgia again finishes the regular season 12-0. It’s a huge accomplishment in any year, but to do it in consecutive seasons is unprecedented at Georgia and rare for any program. Georgia didn’t take the same path to 12-0 in both seasons. Last year we were talking about the near-perfect shutout of Tech. This year for the fourth or fifth time we’re talking about starting slowly or the weather or “playing with their food” or some other explanation for an incomplete effort in a game that turns out to be a win with a margin of victory in double digits. We should know better though about the predictive nature of these games. We’ve seen this team turn it on for their biggest games, and a team that looked focused and ascendant heading into last year’s postseason fell flat in the SEC championship game. With the motivation of the program’s first SEC title since 2017, the memory of a bad loss to LSU in 2019, and a top playoff seed and virtual home semifinal game on the line, you’d expect Georgia to be a little more locked in at the start the next time they take the field.

  • Weekly appreciation of Jack Podlesny. Three points is better than nothing as the team was forced to kick field goals on three of their first five scores, and you hate to think how demoralizing a miss would have been as Tech hung close. The 50-yarder was a rocket shot.
  • Georgia has a problem on the edge. I don’t know if the solution is going with a younger player like Jalon Walker, but that will be a focal area of the defense going into the playoff.
  • Watching a late defensive line stunt involving Bear Alexander, Jalon Walker, and Mykel Williams after a nice open-field stop by Marvin Jones should give you warm fuzzies about the future of the defense.
  • Those reserves had three of Georgia’s four credited sacks in the game.
  • David Daniel-Sisavanh has to hate garbage time. He’s been on the coverage end of late scores by Michigan, South Carolina, and now Georgia Tech.
  • As a defensive lineman it’s tough for Jalen Carter to get the stats of an edge or a linebacker, but he’s so disruptive getting into the backfield and making the rest of the front six or seven better.
  • Speaking of Carter, he was a secondary target out of the backfield on the goal line pass play that went to Bowers. It’s good to show another look out of that tight formation, and we’ve seen him catch the ball before.
  • For a while a 13-yard swing pass to McIntosh was the longest pass play of the game. Bowers had five receptions for only 20 yards. Bennett completed passes to just five players. The downfield attempt to Arian Smith was a great pass, and there weren’t the weather issues of a week ago. For whatever reason the midrange, much less downfield, passing game has been kneecapped over the past few games. There’s no better example than the productivity of Bowers. Since his 154 yards against Florida, Bowers has 15 catches for 98 yards – just 6.5 yards per catch. That’s a lot of ineffective screens. The TE seam we saw at South Carolina is still a thing, right?
  • That wheel route to McIntosh turned out to be Bennett’s final pass at Sanford Stadium. What a way to go out for someone who will leave undefeated at home as Georgia’s QB1.
  • Rosemy-Jacksaint had just the one catch, but that was a tough one in space for a much-needed touchdown. It’s been a long time since that smooth touchdown against Florida in 2020, but he’s more than a tough blocker.
  • As at Mississippi State, Milton put the cherry on top with a long touchdown run. It will be interesting to see how a healthier Milton works into the McIntosh/Edwards rotation in the postseason especially as McIntosh also is playing his best football.
  • Georgia ran the ball well the past two weeks with over 245 yards on the ground in each game. That and a strong defense might be behind the retreat of the passing game, but we know Georgia will need the dynamic and aggressive offense we’ve seen earlier in the year against the more well-rounded opponents they’ll face in the postseason.
  • Second half Ringo vs. first half Ringo was one of the more decisive victories of the day.
  • Mondon and Dumas-Johnson were fantastic. Both Kentucky and Tech took shots across the middle when Georgia subbed in Marshall and Davis at ILB. The defense needs to be able to sub at those spots without much loss of continuity.
  • The late Beck fumble ended Georgia’s quest for their first turnover-free game since Vanderbilt. It might have been slow going for a few quarters, but Georgia at least didn’t give Tech’s offense the advantage of a short field until the kickoff return to midfield in the 4th quarter. Great job by the defense there to stuff Tech at midfield and force the turnover on downs. Milton finished things off from there.
  • The list of seniors, as always, only tells part of the story. Georgia will lose some underclassmen. We know there will be transfers. There’s also still the possibility under Covid rules that some seniors who walked might return. Only a handful of the seniors, like Stetson Bennett’s forced retirement, are for sure done. Whoever ends up having played their last game at Sanford has been part of some historic success at Georgia and will be remembered fondly.

Post Georgia 16 – Kentucky 6: Mistaken identity

Tuesday November 22, 2022

Going undefeated in SEC play is incredibly difficult. Just ask…any other team because it happens so infrequently. Consecutive undefeated SEC seasons had only been pulled off twice before by two of the most dominant dynasties of the last 30 seasons. Georgia joined that exclusive club Saturday with a 16-6 win at Kentucky that earned them a second-straight 8-0 SEC record. It’s another feather in the cap for the SEC’s newest emerging power.

The nature of this win seemed to reinforce the challenge of maintaining a high level of play each week. Kirby Smart thought so: he said postgame that he expected a difficult grind-it-out game. His team seemed determined to make it so.

Smart might have been wise to expect a low-scoring grind of a game given Kentucky’s style of play and the conditions. But to stop there and say, “well, that’s Kentucky for you” is to overlook some missed opportunities on both sides of the ball. Even with the cold and the wind and the road environment Georgia was in a position to make this a much more lopsided outcome. They reached the red zone on four of their first five possessions. Kentucky’s best starting field position was its own 25 and had four drives start inside its own 11. Neither the offense or defense was able to do much with those favorable situations. Three of Georgia’s four scoring opportunities ended with field goals (which turned out to be a very important nine points!) Only once was Georgia’s defense able to pin Kentucky deep with a three-and-out.

It was unusual to see Kentucky hit several deep pass plays to escape poor field position. I’m sure that’s not how Christopher Smith wanted to celebrate being named a Nagurski finalist earlier in the week. But Will Levis also had time to drop deep, wind up, and uncork those deep shots. The pass rush might have been the most puzzling thing about the defense. Kentucky gave up 40 sacks entering the game. Georgia’s pass rush had come to life since the return of Jalen Carter. Georgia did get some pressure, but they tallied only one sack and one hurry. Another sack was negated by a penalty.

The long fields Kentucky faced gave Georgia’s defense room to recover from the occasional big pass play and eventually end most drives without it costing them points. But Kentucky’s ability to move the ball and sustain drives kept the ball away from the Georgia offense. It was nearly halfway through the second quarter before Georgia’s offense began its second possession. The complimentary football with defense leading to offense that worked so well against Tennessee was less effective in this game. Fortunately the offense was able to be efficient with their few possessions and get something on the scoreboard even if was just a field goal.

While the offense was able to squeeze out some points, they did their own part to chew clock and limit possessions for both teams. An early overthrow of Darnell Washington hinted that Stetson Bennett wasn’t his sharpest. He might have been affected by the cold or was still dealing with soreness from last week, but few pass attempts had much distance, and the one deep shot missed badly and was intercepted. Georgia stuck to the run game, and Kenny McIntosh delivered with a career-high 143 yards. The Bulldogs were able to move the ball consistently between the 20s, but they found less success in the red zone when things became more compact.

Three first half field goals weren’t ideal outcomes, but Georgia’s scoring difficulties came to a head at the end of the third quarter with two unsuccessful attempts to score from the Kentucky 1. Georgia’s jumbo formation, with Jalen Carter as the lead blocker, was stuffed and pushed backwards on two similar straight-ahead running plays. Smart faced two decisions: whether to take three points or go for the touchdown and then how to get the ball in the endzone. The decision to go for it was a bit incongruous considering the fairly safe approach for most of the rest of the game. A three-possession 19-0 lead early in the fourth quarter would be untouchable. Kentucky used the momentum from the fourth down stop to become the aggressor. It took just one drive to get the Wildcats back into the game.

Smart defended the decision to go for the touchdown. “It’s a play that’s a statement play, it’s an identity play,” he said. “You’ve got to be more physical than them, and they were more physical than us.” We know how much of a core concept physicality is to this program. We saw it in the success Georgia had running the ball up and down the field. We saw it on defense in the success Georgia had stuffing one of the SEC’s more talented tailbacks. This is a physical team.

But if Smart is correct that these short-yardage situations are statements about his team’s identity, what statement does the continued ineffectiveness running out of the jumbo package make about that identity? Does Jalen Carter in the formation make the play call predictable? Are there better ways to use Georgia’s superb tight ends and Stetson Bennett’s mobility on short yardage plays? We saw wide-open scores to tight ends in these situations at Mississippi State, but in this case Georgia chose to run between the tackles twice. Short-yardage difficulties continued to plague Georgia later in the game as they were unable to kill the clock and had to punt twice, keeping the door open just slightly for a Kentucky comeback that fizzled out.

Georgia won the running game on both sides of the ball. That, some key defensive stops, and the steady leg of Jack Podlesny was enough to secure Georgia’s eighth SEC win. They know they’ll need more to turn that into Georgia’s first SEC title since 2017.

  • If it seemed as if opposing kickers couldn’t miss against Georgia, you were on to something. Kentucky’s missed field goal was only the second miss by a Georgia opponent this year in 18 field goal attempts. (Vanderbilt also missed one to preserve Georgia’s shutout.)
  • Kendall Milton continues to work back from injury and had a string of three strong runs for 28 yards to begin Georgia’s touchdown drive.
  • At the same time, it was curious that Milton was the choice on the fourth down run at the goal line to open the fourth quarter. Fresh legs weren’t an issue coming off the quarter break; the coaches had their choice of ballcarrier. McIntosh was having a career day, and Edwards is typically a tough runner between the tackles.
  • Georgia’s best chance for a big pass play was a Darnell Washington wheel route on the first drive. Bennett overthrew the pass, but Washington also slowed up. That’s a connection that should be much more in-sync at this point of the season.
  • The Bulldog offensive line was in flux as Tate Ratledge was held out with a shoulder injury. Devin Willock saw a lot of time at right guard and played well.
  • Kamari Lassiter’s ability to blow up a receiver screen is unmatched.
  • Nazir Stackhouse had one of his best games and was a big part of Georgia’s success limiting Kentucky’s running game. He, Carter, and Mykel Williams have become an excellent base defensive line. Stackhouse allowed the coaches to move Carter around and attack from the outside as much as he has all season.
  • Ringo had another fantastic interception (and for a moment had us thinking of another pick-six), but my favorite play was his tackle on third down just before Kentucky scored. Ringo fought through a pick and prevented any forward progress after the catch to limit Kentucky to just a two-yard gain.
  • Georgia’s lone sack came late in the game. Bullard, just as he did against Tennessee, crashed in from the outside and met Beal at the quarterback.
  • It was another great turnout for Georgia fans, but the cold and wind got to them too. The far-from-capacity crowd was subdued and muffled as we focused on keeping warm. Most were just interested in being done with the game as quickly as possible, and that attitude seemed to mirror what we were seeing on the field. We’re obliged to the two teams to getting us out of there as expeditiously as possible.

Post Georgia 45 – Miss. St. 19: Champions bearing gifts

Tuesday November 15, 2022

This was the one. An SEC road game after the Florida rivalry and the emotional Tennessee win. A unique and noisy environment these players had never experienced. An opponent that was unbeaten in its home stadium. A perplexing defensive system that held Georgia to 8 total yards rushing two seasons ago. An unconvetional offense coached by its master and led by a quarterback nearly as experienced as Georgia’s. It was the third offense in three weeks that required special preparation with little carryover from the previous game. If you can spot a trap game in August, is it really a trap game?

The 2020 Mississippi State game might have been a bigger challenge in terms of preparation. J.T. Daniels made his first start in place of the injured Stetson Bennett. The defense just had its tail handed to them by Florida. A Georgia defense used to being the aggressor was slow and tentative as they adjusted to the challenges of facing the Air Raid. In 2022 the defense seemed more comfortale with the assignment. Georgia held Mississippi State out of the endzone until the second half. They held Will Rogers, with two more years under his belt, to 1.5 fewer yards per attempt in 2022 than in 2020. There were still a handful of costly breakdowns and unneccessary penalties, but Georgia’s defense was the steadier unit for the Bulldogs in this year’s meeting.

Jalen Carter appeared in both the 2020 and 2022 game, and his development and increased role during those two seasons was a big part of Georgia’s defensive success on Saturday. Carter was a handful from the inside with 7 tackles, a sack, and 1.5 tackles for loss. Mississippi State is typically near the bottom of SEC rushing stats, but the broadcast documented how MSU had improved to nearly 80 rushing yards per game. Carter and the defensive front made sure MSU didn’t reach 50 yards on the ground in this game. The blueprint for defending MSU is to rush three defenders and drop eight into coverage. Georgia was able to rush three and occasionally four and could still generate a decent pass rush and formidable run defense largely because Jalen Carter was nearly unblockable.

Georgia faced a similar challenge on offense as they saw in 2020. Mississippi State’s 3-3-5 defense again sought to take the run game away, and Todd Monken was again happy to make MSU pay with big chunks on pass plays. Instead of J.T. Daniels throwing bombs down the sideline, Stetson Bennett attacked with his tight ends and big passes to the slot at a fair 7.8 yards per attempt. Georgia didn’t have a pass play over 30 yards this time after having three or four in 2020, but five receivers had catches between 15 and 30 yards. Georgia’s difficulty running the ball on early downs put pressure on the offense to convert on third down, and Bennett, playing through arm pain, was up to it. He was 7-for-11 on third down with a touchdown and a fluke interception.

Apart from the tight ends Bennett’s favorite target was Ladd McConkey. McConkey seems back in form after a midseason slump, and his versatility was on display with a 70-yard touchdown run and a 28-yard reception on a slot fade to the goal line. Kearis Jackson also had a nice game at receiver with season highs in receptions and yardage. In two career games against MSU, Jackson has 8 catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown with a 40-yard reception in 2020 and a 30-yard catch in 2022.

A big difference in this meeting was that the Dawgs managed some longer gains on the ground. Two touchdown runs by McConkey and Milton accounted for 104 of Georgia’s 179 rushing yards. Why did Georgia have two explosive scoring plays from the running game when they couldn’t move the ball on the ground in 2020? Darnell Washington played in this game. Washington’s block on McConkey’s sweep was so effective that it essentially neutralized a second defender. Washington then combined with Broderick Jones to create one of the cleanest lanes of the night for Kendall Milton to burst through. Those blocks would have been enough, but Washington added 5 receptions and a touchdown as Georgia exploited their advantage at tight end for two scores and over 100 receiving yards.

Georgia had some good performances on both sides of the ball, but they made things difficult for themselves with miscues. Bennett threw two interceptions. If those were somewhat unlucky, he got away with a couple of other forced throws. A mismanaged sequence at the end of the first half led to a Mississippi State punt return touchdown. Georgia led 17-3 with 2:30 left in the half but gave up 9 quick points to lead only 17-12 at intermission.

There’s been a theory floating around since Kent State or so about Georgia “playing with its food.” Georgia’s good enough that they become unfocused or invent ways to make things more difficult. I tend to think that’s a little simplistic and gives short shrift to the opponent, but sometimes you do have to wonder where the focus goes. It could be missed tackles. It could be Bennett eschewing the layup to Washington in favor of throwing into coverage. It could be half-hearted run blocking knowing that Bennett might make a play on third-and-long. You saw Kirby Smart yelling “Do you want to play?!?” at a player, perhaps Ringo, after an unnecessary facemask call late in the game. It’s not just players, either. The end of the first half has been an adventure as far back as the Kent State game when Bennett squirming across the goal line narrowly averted the clock running out. Smart lamented that he didn’t have enough speed on the field to cover the punt – why is that an issue on a routine special teams play in game 10?

McConkey’s run to open the second half was a palate cleanser that got Georgia back on track. The Dawgs weren’t in danger and turned it on just as they’ve done all season with three touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half. There’s no question that the team is a machine when the players are locked in, but it can be frustrating when the lapses show up. It won’t matter in the regular season; a 26-point win in a situation like this shows that Georgia has more than enough to overwhelm the teams on their schedule. Clinching the SEC East title starts us looking to the postseason though. Does it matter if games like this get a little sloppy? We’ve seen Georgia turn it on for their toughest opponents, but you know that coaches want the team more locked in with an SEC title shot and a return to the playoff on the line.

  • We lump several operations into “special teams,” and Georgia’s results among those different operations are all over the place. Podlesny remains a reliable placekicker, but his shorter kickoffs into the wind were nearly all returned across the 25. Thorson has been above-average if a little inconsistent, and a lot of things went wrong on the punt returned for a touchdown. Georgia’s return games have been nothing special. Some nice midseason McConkey returns have Georgia at 38th in the nation in average punt return yardage. Kick returns though are an abysmal 99th. We know that Kearis Jackson is a capable returner, but blocking has been so poor that it’s just best to take the fair catch.
  • It had to be a big boost to Kendall Milton’s confidence to break a long touchdown run. Edwards and Robinson took a step forward on the depth chart during Milton’s absence, but it was nice for #2 to have a positive moment to build on.
  • Jalen Carter, as a true freshman, caught a touchdown pass out of the fullback position against Tennessee. I kept wondering if he’d once again be a target from the goal-line package as Georgia struggled to punch it in, but why get cute when you’ve got a fleet of tight ends?
  • Kamari Lassiter’s development has been a late-season bright spot for the defense. He, along with the rest of the secondary, held their own against Tennessee’s fleet of receivers. Lassiter continued to stand out against MSU with a fantastic 4th-and-1 stop to sniff out a screen and end a scoring opportunity that was Mississippi State’s last real chance to get back into the game.
  • Christopher Smith hasn’t nececsarily been known as a big hitter, but his big hit to separate a receiver from the ball on a third down pass was textbook. Targeting is always a big risk on collisions with receivers in the middle of the field, but Smith’s hit was clean and effective.
  • Dumas-Johnson seemed to be a step slow. He still had four tackles but wasn’t nearly as active as Mondon. He might be banged up, and he’s important enough to getting the defense set up that we’ll take diminished production if it means he’s on the field. Marshall got some good minutes and also finished with four tackles.
  • Robinson only got two carries, but it was still a positive to get him on the field in his home state.
  • The punt return and quick score following Bennett’s second interception obscure a really solid performance by the defense. Maybe the only disappointing play was the 40-yard reception before halftime that set up a field goal. Smith and Starks mismanaged the coverage communication, and Mondon missed a tackle in such away that the receiver was able to cut back against the flow for a long gain. It was one of the few negative plays on an otherwise standout night for Mondon.
  • Thorson struggled to get much distance on his first few punts – maybe it was the cold. The punt returned for a touchdown was a line drive. But his final punt was yet another cannon shot for 62 yards that flipped the field.

The Bulldogs are SEC East champions for the fifth time in Kirby Smart’s seven seasons. They’re 10-0 in consecutive seasons for the first time in program history. The gap between this era of Georgia football and other successful Georgia periods is growing wider. There are still two games left to close out another undefeated regular season, but another division title puts bigger goals in sight.

Post You want a night game. You don’t want *this* night game.

Monday November 14, 2022

The 2019 Notre Dame game gave new life to night games under the lights at Sanford Stadium. The “Light Up Sanford” tradition that began some years earlier combined with the new LED lighting system made for an impressive and entertaining show. Night games also mean elaborate day-long tailgates and all that comes with them.

Georgia, though, hasn’t had many opportunities to show off their investment in the in-game experience. The 4th quarter scene at twilight during the Tennessee game gave a tease as the lights dimmed and danced, but there was still too much daylight to get the full effect. That was about as close as Georgia will get to a night game experience in the 2022 season. Students are writing heartfelt appeals for just one late kickoff to share the experience with the next generation of UGA students. The reasoning might be shaky, but the clamor is unmistakable. Night games have become the new blackouts.

We know Georgia gets fewer night games than other SEC schools. The reasons why range from the conspiratorial to the mundane. There was a climate on campus some 10-15 years ago aimed at curtailing Georgia’s tailgating and student life scene. Time has passed, and leadership has changed, so I have my doubts that someone at UGA is sliding notes to the SEC office that just say “noon” each week. There are several other factors determining Georgia’s home start times:

  • Georgia is good and good for ratings. Home games against better SEC opponents and rivals have been picked up by CBS in the conference’s top time slot at 3:30. That prime slot might change as ABC/ESPN takes over the entire SEC inventory of games.
  • Attractive non-conference games are at neutral sites. Last season’s Clemson game kicked off at 7:30 pm. It was in Charlotte. There are better home-and-home series on the books, and we’ll see if they actually happen.
  • The rest of the home schedule is weak. It’s true that Kent State or Vanderbilt could theoretically be slotted anywhere from noon to night on the SEC Network once the big networks pass on them. The vibe for a night game against a weak opponent isn’t what you’re after. The red lights of traffic leaving the stadium early rival the 4th quarter light show. If you just want the long tailgate, say so. You’ll likely be headed downtown or pointed towards home by halftime.
  • Georgia is on Eastern Time. If you hate noon kickoffs, imagine what over half of the conference thinks about 11 am kickoffs.
  • Kirby Smart isn’t as big of a fan of night games as you might think. You’d expect Smart would love to have recruits experience a rocking crowd with the lights doing their thing, and he might. But granting that most night games don’t turn out to be Notre Dame 2019, Smart seems to prefer a midafternoon kickoff for recruiting purposes.

There was one last chance for a night game, but we learned on Monday that the Tech game will kick off at noon. That’s become the norm for this rivalry game. It’s still getting a national time slot – ESPN’s Gameday will lead into the broadcast. That early start might be disappointing at first, but this was the one game on the schedule no one should want at night. Students will be away for the Thanksgiving holiday. They might be back in force if this were a compelling matchup, but few expect this game to be competitive. The 4th quarter festivities echoing off empty seats during a blowout on a chilly late-November night would definitely have been a monkey’s paw type of outcome for those dead-set on a night game. If it makes you feel better, think about how pleased Kirby Smart will be knowing he has a seven-hour head start on LSU resting and preparing for the SEC Championship Game.