Saturday June 4, 2016
The Senator is correct – if you need an alternative approach to player discipline after the Baylor and Mississippi State stories this week, Dan Wolken’s piece on Mark Richt is right up your alley. Richt sometimes took some heat for his decisions, but that was because those decisions were often more transparent than they would have been at other schools. Georgia faced many of the same incidents that other programs face: drinking and drugs, weapons, and unfortunately even domestic violence. Wolken does a good job highlighting the differences in Richt’s approach that made it very unlikely Georgia would ever face the ugly consequences that Baylor experienced.
If I have one disagreement though it’s the implication that it was Richt’s approach to discipline that was a bridge too far with Georgia fans. It wasn’t the “warped mindset” of win-at-all-costs fans that brought about a change here. He’s right – many fans did take pride and “puff(ed) out their chests” because of how the program operated and the man in charge of it. At the same time, that pride all too easily became a crutch and an excuse for the program’s lack of greater success. How could Georgia compete with  when we insisted on such higher standards? At least we do things the right way…
If only that were the problem with Richt.
Wolken presents the internal struggle faced by Georgia fans this way: “Georgia fans will forever be torn over their devotion to the so-called ‘Georgia Way'(*) and their burning desire to be a little more like Alabama.” It’s a false choice. Richt’s way of doing things was not antithetical to the effort we’re seeing from the new staff on the recruiting trail. You don’t have to sell out your values to avoid a staff on the verge of, in their own words, mutiny. There’s nothing unethical about coming to play with a full roster or consistent special teams.
Let’s put it this way: Richt was not fired for the things he did “the right way.” He was fired because he didn’t do enough of them.
Disciplinary issues were, if anything, a secondary concern. Certainly there was some frustration with Georgia players disciplined for offenses that might’ve earned them a lesser (if any) penalty at another school. It was also frustrating to see several of these players end up on opposing sidelines. Add in frustration with the administration, University policies, and local law enforcement. All of that frustration was (is) very real, but it contributed very little to the motivation behind a coaching change.
This isn’t the first time Wolken hasn’t quite hit the mark on dissatisfaction with Richt, but he’s certainly not the only one who sees the coaching change as a rejection of Richt’s way of doing things. I don’t, and focusing on the Georgia Way vs. Alabama Way dichotomy loses sight of the much more fundamental issues that led to the end of the Mark Richt era at Georgia.
(*) Just what “The Georgia Way” is deserves its own post – it’s come to represent everything from the truly good to a snarky epithet used when the program shoots itself in the foot (again).
Saturday June 4, 2016
I’m OK with the idea of an increase – it’s been over ten years, and Georgia has lagged behind much of the SEC. The kind of program we want costs big money. And, yes, most of that increase will go to things that fans won’t (directly) see or benefit from.
The kicker to me has to do with a story from May:
Smart likes the idea of beginning a season against a top opponent to put his players on a big stage. It can also add more attention to the program than it otherwise may get to start a season.
Even as the cost to attend home games rises, many of the more attractive games going forward are likely to be off-campus. For Smart, it makes sense for the reasons outlined above. He saw the benefit of the big neutral site games while at Alabama. It also makes sense for Georgia’s bank account: neutral site games come with premium ticket prices and bring in more money than a home-and-home series would with the same opponent.
Fans will be asked to contribute more for what’s likely to be a lesser home schedule. You’ll have the usual SEC slate, and Tech will visit every other year, and more attractive opponents in Athens are likely to be few and far between. Alabama under Nick Saban has hosted only one power conference opponent at home: Penn State in 2010. (That’s no knock on their schedule; they almost always have a challenging opener.) Georgia will have a visit from Notre Dame in 2019 which was arranged before Smart took over. But if you want to see some of the better non-conference games on Georgia’s future schedules, be prepared to travel and pay on top of your increased donation and season tickets.
Tuesday May 10, 2016
Put a few recent Kirby Smart quotes together.
First this one:
“We could literally work our window, we have a 14-day window where we can do camps, we could work every day somewhere else and never have them at our place.”
Then this one:
“What people don’t get is that you don’t have to send your whole staff. You can send one coach. You can send five coaches. We’re going to have representation at a lot of them, but which ones specifically I can’t tell you.”
“‘Where do I send my coaches. Where do I send my support staff? Where is it a priority to send them?.'” he said. “We’ve only got so many guys who can go out, so where do we send them?”
It’s pretty clear that most coaches (with a few high-profile exceptions) were just fine with the satellite camp ban. But the ban has been lifted, and coaches – Kirby Smart included – are lining up to participate, if only to play defense against rivals and competitors coming to town. As Smart explains, you have a scarce resource (the availability of coaches) and a skyrocketing supply of opportunities that will only increase under the current rules.
Smart’s mention of “support staff” interests me though. If these camps prove fruitful, bigger programs will tackle this camp issue the way they tackle most issues: money. The head coach will attend a few select camps, assistants – individually or in groups – will work several others. But for the large number of smaller camps where just having a presence would do, I could see these programs hiring dedicated staffers to represent the program. (It’s a happy twist that SEC schools would love to see the ban back in place but are among the few with the resources to hire staffers and attend more camps.)
This idea isn’t completely out of left field. Some Georgia die-hards might remember Ray Lamb who worked as the program’s director of high school relations under Mark Richt. Lamb conceded that “the NCAA reduced the role I was in to virtually nothing,” but a similar staffer (or group) charged with cultivating relationships with these camps could take on the additional duties still allowed by the rules that were part of Lamb’s job. It could be an accomplished coach from the high school ranks like Lamb who would be known among the camp organizers. It could also be a recent alum with his eye on a coaching career and a name that’s familiar to prospects.
I don’t know what NCAA regulations would have to say about this idea. Smart mentioning support staffers leads me to believe that there is at least some opening for consideration. There are of course rules about which coaches can and can’t recruit off campus, but these are instructional camps. We also don’t know if these camps will prove to be worth the trouble. I have my doubts – the real work is done on campus and during the recruiting process. But if there’s something of substance to be had there, big programs are already spending money on more trivial things than getting additional face time with prospects.
Saturday April 23, 2016
Pity Kirby Smart – all the guy wants to do is talk and coach football, and in four months he’s had to devote unnecessary time and energy to blowups over transfer policy, the state legislative process, and now entertainment contracts. And to be sure some of the distraction falls back on Smart. Every little thing is not Something That Has to be Handled. Making it seem so gives agency to the energy sucks all too willing to turn every news item into the next frustrating distraction.
At most places the news that artists often have boilerplate appearance riders wouldn’t move the needle very much. But Georgia isn’t most places, and so the Ludacris contract must become a commentary on everything from Georgia’s open records law to the management of the athletic department. That might be a difference from Smart’s previous employer, but dealing with this different and often dysfunctional landscape is still part of the adjustment.
That this contract has become another distraction is unsurprising. It’s the natural conclusion of a deal that got rubber-stamped in the panic after a promoted pre-game concert was canceled and then saved just days before the event. It’s not as if the University had never hosted a Ludacris performance on campus with a very similar rider. For that Homecoming performance in 2010, shortly after Greg McGarity became athletic director, the University Union or Homecoming committee or whoever signed off on the contract, scratched a few offending items, and the show went on.
And for something so unimportant. Look – I was glad Ludacris performed and enjoyed what I could make out over the sound system pointed in the opposite direction. But as Smart admitted, the show “probably was overrated” in terms of drawing fans. I can’t see anyone making up their minds to attend G-Day based on a 15-minute appearance announced two days prior.
You can only guess how or if they’ll try to top 93KDay next year, but we can imagine that a pregame concert won’t be a part of the plans.
Monday April 18, 2016
There’s a phenomenon with landfalling hurricanes called a storm surge. You’ll get a gradual rise of water as the storm gets closer, but as the center approaches there can be a sudden and much more dramatic rise.
That’s what it seemed like on Saturday as the crowd filed into Sanford Stadium. There was a steady stream of fans filling the first two levels during warmups and then the surge happened. In about 15 minutes shortly after 3:30, the crowd went from an impressive spring game showing of 70,000 or so to an overflow crowd of about 95,000. Fans who couldn’t find seats were perched on the stair tower leading to the 600 level. More fans were on the bridge. Others had to be turned away at the gate.
The game gave us a few things to talk about on the football side – the quarterback battle, the emergence of a few wide receivers, the promising use of tight ends, and some concern about a thin defensive front and pass rush. But really the story of G-Day was the crowd. It was sensational and made an impact on past, current, and future Bulldogs. It became an event. The challenge was made several months ago by the new coach, and fans met the challenge. We forgot our cynicism for a day and bought in, sending the message to Kirby Smart that the support was there. Now it’s his turn.
Thursday April 14, 2016
Just a few days after announcing that the planned pre-game entertainment for G-Day had fallen through, someone stepped up and delivered a heavyweight. It’s a shame he won’t have but 15 minutes.
Thursday April 14, 2016
It’s probably the most anticipated and almost surely going to be the most attended spring game in Georgia history. Fans have been looking forward to this weekend since Kirby Smart challenged fans back in December to fill the stadium. We’ve gone from “he’s kidding, right?” to a full-on commitment by the university and athletic department to prepare for a capacity crowd. Whether we get a full house or merely a very large turnout won’t be known until Saturday, but the push for 93K has been a bountiful source of energy for the young Kirby Smart era. Fans, alumni, students, players, and recruits have responded to the call, and now it’s Smart’s turn to show us what all the hype has been about.
- How many show? Kirby Smart has challenged Georgia fans to fill Sanford Stadium. I’m cynical about these things – we’ve struggled to fill the stadium even for recent late-season SEC games. But with no cost to attend, G-Day will pull from a deeper pool of fans. I also wonder about student attendance. It’s typically low for G-Day, but students like to be part of an event (as do we all.) I think the school would be happy with anything over 70,000. That would put Georgia ahead of most SEC schools and would effectively double the usual G-Day turnout. It would give Smart the kind of environment he’s looking for. If you see the upper East stands start to fill, mission accomplished.
- No, really, how many show? This piece mentions something that’s been on my mind for a while: Sanford Stadium doesn’t have turnstiles. Without a ticket to scan or collect, there’s no way to measure attendance. Any figure you see will be a guess.
- How crazy does it get? UGA officials claim to be ready for a typical home game crowd. There will be differences – parking and seating will be free-for-alls. Many of us are so set in our gameday routines that there will be some scrambling if our usual tailgating spot or seat isn’t available. Fans have been encouraged to arrive early, and the later start time should help space out arrivals. I do hope people take advantage of the gates opening at 1:00 and the pregame activities going on in and around the stadium. I’d really hate to see 50,000 people expect to go through the gates at 3:45 with no clue as to where they’re sitting.
- Pregame? A athletics administrator confirmed that “the university is looking for a musical act to perform in Sanford Stadium before the event.” So much for that. People are saying Georgia dropped the ball, but I consider this a bullet dodged. As diverse as musical tastes are, I was kind of dreading what kind of act they were going to come up with. I also wasn’t looking forward to competing for seats with people who were just coming to see (name of band.) Keep it about football.
- What’s in it for us? This will come off like the annoying Entitled Fan, but if the fan base is going to make the effort it’s reasonable to expect a little more than the usual spring game. Smart might not agree that there’s such an obligation. Since my usual G-Day checklist starts with “no injuries,” I’m a little conflicted here. I’m not expecting a surprise cameo from Chubb, but something besides walk-ons draining a running clock is called for. Smart’s not that aloof, is he?
- What’s different? A spring game isn’t likely to simulate the pressure of a close SEC game, but we should still expect to see some signs of how Kirby Smart has made his mark on the team. One of the lasting impressions from Smart’s introductory press conference was his pledge to be “hands on with the whole program.”
- Who took advantage of the coaching change? With so much turnover on the staff, the opportunities for second chances abound. Maybe there was a player in someone’s doghouse. Perhaps a certain coaching style just didn’t click. I’m interested to see if there are a couple of players who were buried on Richt’s depth chart for one reason or another who found new life with a new coach.
- What about the QBs? Speaking of new life, fans expecting Lambert and Ramsey to be put out to pasture by now will be very disappointed. Those are the two quarterbacks getting most of the work with the first team, and Jacob Eason is, as should be expected, a very talented early enrollee still making the transition. The situation might and likely will change before September, but for now it seems to be Lambert’s offense. Will a new offense and coach allow Lambert to improve enough to come out on top of a second straight quarterback competition?
- Lineman. The departure of both starting tackles gives new line coach Sam Pittman an immediate challenge. The team will be experimenting with line combinations right up through this week, so it’s anyone’s guess who will get the starting nod on Saturday. That’s not so important since we’re likely to see many combinations of linemen for both teams. The interior of the line has the most experience but even there we’ll see experimentation especially if Wynn and Pyke move from guard to tackle.
I could go on at most every position (WRs? ILBs?), and we’ll have plenty to talk about once the film is in. But really this G-Day is about the event itself: the challenge by Smart, the response by the fans, and the commitment by the school. We’ll see how each measures up and then enjoy a little football.
Monday April 11, 2016
I really need to stop getting a post 95% done and leaving it in the draft folder for a few weeks.
Georgia’s coaching change implied many things, and the repudiation of the Mark Richt way of doing things in favor of a more Alabama-style approach is close to the top of the list. We’ve seen more visible and exhaustive recruiting with a budget to match. We’ve seen the support staff grow and investment in a more experienced strength and conditioning staff. You don’t have to connect many dots to see how these changes might make Georgia more competitive.
Even some uncomfortable and controversial policy revisions might make sense in the context of a more competitive program. If certain offenses merit a suspension at one school and not another, sure – claiming a competitive disadvantage doesn’t seem a bridge too far.
Is a restrictive transfer policy one of those difference-makers for a championship program? Did Alabama reach the top thanks to Henry, a ridiculously good defensive front, and preventing a disgruntled third-teamer from looking at Tennessee or Arkansas?
On one hand, Kirby Smart’s revised transfer policy that blocks certain transfer destinations is fairly standard, and it does level this particular playing field. It’s not just Georgia dealing with these policies. Just this month Michigan had to reconsider its own transfer restriction. Louisiana Tech is deciding which course to chart with its signees after a coach resigned.
On the other hand, what’s the payoff for taking a step backwards? Is it worth this contorted rationalization? Even if this policy change is a proxy for a larger turf war, it’s at the expense of the student-athletes and their very finite resource of eligibility.
Just so we remember – almost any transfer (excepting those with rare hardship waivers) must still sit out a year. That’s true even with a release from the current school. Without a release that wait increases to two years. Unless the transfer is to a school in a lower division (FCS, Div II, JUCO, etc.), anyone who has made up his mind to transfer is already willing to sacrifice some eligibility and has accepted that price.
Georgia might seem to have taken the lion’s share of criticism for a commonplace policy, and that doesn’t sit well with a lot of us. But it makes sense – when the program takes a stance outside the norm with a policy it considered the right way to do things and walks it back, that draws attention and raises questions. Will this experience be instructive when the program reviews other controversial policies that Kirby Smart might consider a disadvantage?
Finishing on a slight tangent – it’s stories like these transfer restrictions that come to mind every time I hear coaches talk about early signing periods and the grind of having to “babysit” commitments right up through Signing Day (and, as we’ve experienced the past two years, beyond Signing Day.) Just as you start to have some sympathy for the coaches’ position, you’re reminded what signing that Letter of Intent means. Once you’re in, you’re in. Your choices can be limited for any reason up to and including the new guy wanting to mark his territory. I don’t blame prospects for considering their options as long as they can and using what leverage they might have while they still have it.
Tuesday March 15, 2016
There is no shortage of positions to discuss as spring practice opens, but the secondary seems to be pretty far down the list. Georgia has several starters returning in the defensive backfield, and it wasn’t a weakness in 2015. It’s a stat we heard and read up to and through the bowl game: Georgia has the nation’s #1 pass defense. That’s true even after giving up 281 passing yards in the bowl game: Georgia allowed only 156.5 yards per game through the air. Only five teams allowed fewer than 170 yards per game.
It’s a bit of a puzzle when you ask how Penn State came back throwing so well against that defense with a backup quarterback. Didn’t Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs throw for 312 yards? Didn’t Alabama’s Calvin Ridley have 5 catches for 120 yards against that secondary?
Surely the coaching changes had an effect in the bowl game: Pruitt was both defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. But Georgia’s schedule explains how they came out of the season allowing fewer passing yards than anyone: every passing offense Georgia faced was in the bottom half of the FBS.
There are 127 FBS teams. The “best”* passing offense Georgia faced was Alabama’s which rated 68 out of 127. The 74th-best Penn State passing offense was enough to be the second-best that Georgia faced. Five of Georgia’s thirteen opponents were 100 or lower. Teams like Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech just don’t throw often or well enough. It’s no surprise that run-heavy Tech and Georgia Southern were among the bottom five nationally in passing.
So you can be the nation’s “best”* pass defense either by defending the pass well or by the good fortune of facing a lot of teams that don’t throw all that much. In Georgia’s case, it was some of both. There were some good players: Sanders continues to be an interception machine. Parrish limits yards after the catch. Mauger has been one of Pruitt’s biggest turnaround stories.
(*) I put “best” in quotes because yards-per-game is not a very good metric for determining how well a team can pass or defend the pass. You’d rather give up fewer passing yards than not, but there are better metrics for efficiency.
The encouraging news is that Georgia did fairly well in the efficiency metrics too. Georgia allowed just 5.91 yards per pass attempt – not the best in the nation (that seems to be Michigan’s 5.41 YPA), but there were only about 11 defenses giving up fewer than 6 YPA. The pass defense was also top 10 according to the NCAA’s efficiency formula.
It’s understandable if, after all that, the outlook for the secondary takes a back seat to the larger questions elsewhere on the team. But with Smart and Tucker bringing a wealth of expertise from a defense that placed so much emphasis on the secondary, I’m interested to see how much more they can get out of Georgia’s returning players. There’s much to build on, but as we saw several times last season against opponents that were somewhat competent passing the ball, there are improvements to be made and opportunities for newcomers to make an impression on the new staff.
Tuesday March 15, 2016
Georgia’s women’s basketball program will return to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s absence. The Lady Dogs earned the #8 seed in the Lexington Regional and will open play against #9 seed Indiana in South Bend, IN on Saturday night at about 9 p.m. #1 seed Notre Dame will host the subregional and would likely be Georgia’s second-round opponent on Monday evening if the Lady Dogs advance.
(Complete Bracket Here)
Indiana (20–10, 12–6) took a step forward this year with a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten behind Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan State. Second-year coach Teri Moren was named Big Ten Coach of the Year after improving on a 15–16 record with some respectable wins over Chattanooga, Georgia Tech, and a nice upset of Michigan State. Moren, an Indiana native, was a part of the Georgia Tech staff towards the end of the last decade and had a large role in the improvement of that program. Indiana was a perfect 14-0 at home but, like most teams were less effective on the road: 5-7 in road games and 1-4 at neutral sites. They’re a relatively young team with only one senior, and sophomores Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill are the team’s best players. Point guard Buss was a hyped recruit who has delivered. As a sophomore she’s a first-team Big Ten honoree and already averaging over 18 PPG while running Indiana’s ball-screen offense.
Indiana very much has the feel of a young program on the rise trying to find itself with the occasional setback as it learns to win. Georgia, on the other hand, is a squad laden with seniors looking to cement their legacy. Georgia’s seniors began as members of an Elite Eight unit three years ago behind Georgia’s last large group of seniors, and it’s this group’s turn to see how far they can carry the team in the tournament.
New women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor was handed the keys to one of the nation’s most tradition-rich programs, and she faced an immediate challenge to that legacy: since Andy Landers reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1982, Georgia had never missed the tournament in consecutive seasons. Injuries led to losses in 2015 that ended a 20-year appearance streak, and preseason expectations had the team at risk for another season on the bubble.
The team started 2015-2016 with a strong 12-1 record in nonconference play. The SEC schedule started rough with three straight losses to ranked opponents. Georgia notched an important road win at Florida but was 1-4 in conference after five games. They righted the ship with six wins over the next seven games and won their final two home games to lock up a winning record in the SEC. That 9-7 record all but locked up an NCAA Tournament bid. Georgia finished sixth in the SEC and had a shot at a finish as high as fourth on the final day of the regular season.
Georgia’s season was once again shaped by injuries. Starting forward Mackenzie Engram didn’t play again after a respiratory issue in January. Leading scorer and rebounder Shacobia Barbee was lost on Senior Day with a broken ankle. The Lady Dogs went 1-2 after Barbee’s injury, and her absence was taken into consideration in Georgia’s seed. Guard Tiara Griffin was injured in a hard fall late in Georgia’s SEC Tournament loss to Vanderbilt, but she should be available for the NCAA Tournament. One positive for Georgia has been the emergence of all-SEC freshman Caliya Robinson.
The 2016 bid is the 32nd in program history – only Tennessee has more. The Lady Dogs have gone on to reach 20 Sweet 16s, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games.
Georgia is one of a record nine SEC teams receiving a bid to the tournament. They’ll join South Carolina (1), Kentucky (3), Texas A&M (4), Mississippi State (5), Florida (5), Tennessee (7), Auburn (9), and Missouri (10).
Wednesday March 2, 2016
There are two firsts of note as the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament gets underway on Wednesday: it’s the first time the event will be held in Jacksonville, and it’s the first time a team other than Tennessee has navigated SEC play without a loss. South Carolina repeats as the regular season champion, and they improved on a 15-1 record in 2015 the only way you can: a perfect 16-0 mark. That record might hint that everyone else is playing for second, but several teams came close to knocking off the Gamecocks, and anything can happen in the tournament. The #2 and #3 seeds lost to South Carolina by 1, 6, and 7 points during the regular season.
It could be a fun first few rounds. Each of the four bottom seeds has knocked off at least one of Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri. Tennessee will be looking to make some noise from the #7 seed. Even Auburn or Missouri coming from the 8-9 game won’t be an automatic win for the top seed. While South Carolina’s dominance has been the story, all other teams have at least five conference losses. Almost every team has been vulnerable in some way, and each team has a quality win under its belt.
There’s been quite a bit of mobility in the standings from one year to the next. Florida, Auburn, and Georgia all took a step up this season. Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU took a tumble. That’s made for some unexpected scores during the season, and it could lead to some new faces in the semifinals. Nine teams are currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament, so fans should expect competitive and quality games with a few surprises.
Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Thursday / Second Round: #6 Georgia vs. #11 Vanderbilt or #14 Ole Miss: ~8:30 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #3 Mississippi State: ~8:30 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:30 p.m. ET. ESPN
Complete Bracket Here
1) South Carolina (16-0, 28-1): Three straight regular season titles have established Dawn Staley’s program as the newest SEC dynasty. They followed a regular season title in 2014 with the tournament title in 2015 and carved out a little more history for themselves this year with the perfect conference record. It hasn’t been a cakewalk – 7 of their 16 conference games were decided by fewer than 10 points. It’s to their credit that they’ve learned how to grind out those close wins, and only a handful were really in question at the end. That experience should serve them well during the tighter competition in the postseason.
The Gamecocks feature arguably the nation’s best frontcourt, and it’s no surprise they lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots. That interior defense and the ability to hold opponents to one shot is a big part of what they do. Wilson and Coates would be enough for any team, but the depth provided by Imovbioh and others puts South Carolina over the top. Tiffany Mitchell is a versatile scorer from the wing and is the leader of the team. I could go on – Sessions, Roy – there are contributors up and down the roster which is what you’d expect from a national contender.
2) Texas A&M (11-5, 21-8): Team Courtney is once again back near the top of the standings. Seniors Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker are the only Aggies scoring in double-figures, and they’ve been enough to lead A&M to a second place finish. The Aggie formula hasn’t changed in a few seasons: they don’t shoot much from outside but rely on defense, transition, and a ton of mid-range jumpers (which happens to be the Walker’s specialty.) Two of A&M’s four conference losses have come to South Carolina, and no SEC team has come closer to knocking off the champs. A pair of close road losses to Arkansas and Florida were their other setbacks, but on a neutral court A&M could be considered a slight favorite in Jacksonville to earn a third shot at the Gamecocks.
3) Mississippi State (11-5, 24-6): Vic Schaefer’s rebuilding project has reached maturity. Despite the departure of a talented senior class, MSU has posted consecutive 11-5 seasons and third place finishes, and their best player is only a sophomore. Victoria Vivians has taken over leadership of the team and at 6’1″ can score from anywhere in the offense. Chinwe Okorie has established herself inside, but the Bulldogs also have a dangerous outside game with six players hitting at least 10 three-pointers. Morgan William, another sophomore, has become an effective point guard with a knack for getting to the foul line. They’ve lost six games all season, and all six have been to likely NCAA Tournament teams with only one bad blowout loss to Kentucky.
4) Florida (10-6, 22-7): The Gators have been a surprise this year bouncing back from a losing record a year ago. This is a young and athletic team that likes to run, but their pressure defense can be feast or famine. They lead the conference in steals thanks to that pressure, and their transition offense puts them at the top of the league in scoring with 79 points per game. If teams can handle that pressure, they can find some easy scoring opportunities, and that’s been an issue in Florida’s losses. Ronni Williams is an impressive wing made to play in this up-tempo system. Freshman guard Eleanna Christinaki made an immediate impact, and the team benefits from the experience of senior guards Carlie Needles and Cassie Peoples.
5) Kentucky (10-6, 21-6): It’s been an odd season in Lexington. Kentucky spent most of the season in the top 15 nationally, but it took a late push to finish this high in the SEC standings. An early February loss to South Carolina left the Wildcats at 4-6 in the league after an undefeated nonconference run. They’ve won six straight to enter the tournament as one of the hotter teams in the SEC, but even that momentum wasn’t enough to carry them to a top four seed after the slow start. Junior Makayla Epps helped the Wildcats overcome the loss of a deep senior class, and JUCO Evelyn Akhator has been an impact newcomer inside. But what makes Kentucky dangerous is the ability of almost any player, including Maci Morris, Alexis Jennings, and Janee Thompson, to stand out. That, combined with Kentucky’s trademark frenzied defense, makes them a team that can advance in the postseason. Their path to the SEC finals though likely goes through two teams, Florida and South Carolina, that handed Kentucky 3 of their 6 conference losses.
6) Georgia (9-7, 21-8): It’s largely been the same cast of characters for a couple of seasons, so what Georgia tries to do shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s still a team that leans heavily on defense and doesn’t shoot especially well in the halfcourt offense. First-year coach Joni Taylor has made sure that the Lady Dogs are self-aware when it comes to their strengths and weaknesses, and the need to create offense from that defense has been an emphasis all season. The result has been a defense that’s top 20 nationally and a record that surpassed the preseason consensus.
For the second straight season, the Lady Dogs will enter the postseason without their leader Shacobia Barbee. Her injury just a week before the end of the regular season leaves Georgia without one of the nation’s best rebounders and defenders, and that’s a big concern when Georgia relies on rebounding and defense to generate offense. Georgia is actually without two starters – forward Mackenzie Engram, a 2015 SEC All-Freshman team member, hasn’t played since early January. Engram’s absence has tested Georgia’s frontcourt depth, but one of the positive developments has been the emergence of freshman post Caliya Robinson. Robinson has won SEC Freshman of the Week honors multiple times and is beginning to show confidence in her range and defense.
Georgia, even without Barbee, starts a trio of seniors who have been in their roles for multiple seasons. Hempe, Griffin, and Butler all need a good tournament for Georgia to advance. Griffin has been shooting well but was bottled up by Tennessee. Hempe and Washington must watch their fouls as they work inside. Butler must handle defensive pressure and look to attack. The injuries have left Georgia thin on the bench, but minutes from Robinson and reserve guards Clark and Armbrister will have to be productive.
7) Tennessee (8-8, 16-12): The Lady Vols get credit for playing the nation’s toughest schedule, but eventually you have to win some of them. Though they took a big hit during conference play, Tennessee likely won enough during the early part of the season to secure an NCAA bid. Losses to bottom four teams Alabama and LSU had the Lady Vols in some peril before they found some answers against Georgia (of course.) There’s plenty of talent – former #1 prospect Mercedes Russell, phenom Diamond DeShields, experienced seniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore, and steady role players like Andraya Carter. For whatever reason, that talent has had trouble meshing this season, and scoring can be tough to come by. Still, Tennessee’s eight conference losses have been by an average of 4.5 points. This is a team inconsistent enough to lose their opening game to Arkansas, as they did in Fayetteville in January, or compete with 2-seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals, a team they played to within five points on the Aggies’ home court. As usual, we should expect a partisan Tennessee crowd to give their team a little edge.
8) Missouri (8-8, 21-8): The Tigers made a splash this year thanks to the arrival of SEC Freshman of the Year Sophie Cunningham. They quickly earned a spot in the national rankings and stayed there for much of the season. Cunningham’s biggest impact has been to transform Missouri from a team that relied almost exclusively on the outside shot. They’re still second only to Ole Miss in three-pointers attempted, but opponents have had to respect other elements of the Missouri offense like junior forward Jordan Frericks. Missouri has become more well-rounded and, as a result, more consistent and dangerous.
9) Auburn (8-8, 18-11): Auburn was 3-13 a year ago but was one of the surprise teams of 2016. They posted impressive wins over Kentucky and Florida en route to an 8-5 SEC start. Junior Katie Frerking has emerged as a dangerous scorer to go along with Brandy Montgomery. Their press and matchup zone has them among the best in the nation at generating steals, and the transition points can come in waves. Those two upsets were enough to separate Auburn from the lower half of the conference and keep them in contention for a top-four finish until the final week of the season. The Tigers have hit a bit of a wall though and have dropped their last three games. Their game against Missouri could be very important for Auburn’s postseason fate.
10) Arkansas (7-9, 12-17): The Hogs were also a surprise team after a poor nonconference showing. They pulled off an unexpected surge in January with four wins in five games that included some impressive scalps: Texas A&M, Missouri, and Tennessee. That momentum cooled down a bit in February, and Arkansas, like most teams, proved to be a little less potent on the road. Junior wing Jessica Jackson continues to be an impressive and dominant player able to score inside or step outside. Senior forward Melissa Wolff is another frontcourt player who can stretch defenses outside, and quick guards like Devin Cosper and Jordan Danberry can create off the dribble. This is a young team with only one senior that should be improved next season.
11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 16-13): As the program awaits the arrival of a heralded recruiting class, they’ve suffered through a second-straight difficult season. There have been some noteworthy successes including road upsets of ranked Kentucky and Missouri teams, and they’ve been frustratingly close in several losses to quality opponents. Consistency has been an issue, and only one player, Christa Reed, averages in double-figures. Guards are the team’s top three scorers, and Reed and Rebekah Dahlman are two of the SEC’s top seven in three-point percentage. Post Marqu’es Webb can cause problems if teams pay too much attention to the perimeter game. Vandy lost eight straight down the stretch until ending the season with a nice road win at Missouri. Was that enough to reverse their momentum heading into Jacksonville?
12) Alabama (4-12, 15-14): Alabama doubled their SEC win total – a good sign. They were 4-4 at home, including wins over Georgia and Tennessee, and a controversial call at the end of the Texas A&M game cost them another home win. The bad news of course is that Alabama has been winless on the road, and they’ll have to leave home to play in the tournament. Hannah Cook leads the team in scoring and steals, and she’s second only to center Nikki Hegstetter in rebounds. Alabama can be effective with their tough interior defense but struggles when opponents are knocking down outside shots.
13) LSU (3-13, 9-20): The Tigers plummeted from a fourth-place finish in 2015 to match the program’s record for most losses in a season. The team can point to injuries, starting with All-SEC guard Raigyne Moncrief. Another All-SEC guard, Danielle Ballard, was dismissed from the team. The depleted roster is led by forwards Alexis Hyder and Akilah Bethel, and much of the offense flows through guard Rina Hill who has played an astounding 1,000 minutes this season (nearly 35 min/game). Wins over Tennessee and Georgia show they can be a threat in the early rounds.
14) Ole Miss (2-14, 10-19): The Rebels fell quite a bit from their 17-12 WNIT campaign a year ago. They haven’t been able to replace some good talent from that team, especially forward Tia Faleru. The highlight of their season was an upset of then-#9 Kentucky in January, so even the last-place team has some punch. The Rebels depend on the outside shot – no team, not even Missouri, has attempted more three-pointers. The bad news is that they’re only tenth in three-point percentage. If the outside shots are falling, they have the ability to steal a win.
Friday February 5, 2016
It turns out Kirby Smart isn’t a miracle worker, but he and his new staff are damn fine recruiters. Given about six weeks with which to recruit, they turned in a top ten class that rates as the best in the SEC East. It was one of the most outstanding results for a first-year coach, and that Smart in this short time pulled off a class every bit as strong as the typical Richt class gives us a reason to expect even more from a full recruiting cycle in 2017.
The strength of the class is clearly the defensive line. Carter, Clark, Manac, Marshall, and Rochester are all big-time prospects who should, along with returning players, give Georgia nice depth up front. Manac might end up as more of a DE/OLB like Jordan Jenkins, but the defense could use depth there too.
Aside from the defensive line, the class is also noteworthy for its blue chips. 13 out of 20 signees were rated 4* or better by Rivals and were among ESPN’s nationwide top 300 prospects. The lone 2* signee was a punter selected to the U.S. Army All-American game. History tells us not everyone will pan out, but there aren’t many spot-fillers in this class.
If there was a disappointment with the class, it’s the offensive line. Georgia’s three line signees are all strong prospects – this is a quantity issue. Smart addressed that shortcoming and admitted that the offensive line and tackle position specifically would be an emphasis in 2017.
While the staff works on the numbers, we’re interested to see what Pittman can do with the linemen already on campus. Not to build the man up too much, but his reputation suggests that there should be improvement just from better coaching.
One of the consequences from the attrition in the 2013 class is that there won’t be a ton of seniors in 2016. Smart wasn’t going to fill up the roster with reaches in his first signing class and have that limit what he could do in his 2017 class.
- Credit is due to the previous staff – most of the prospects signed in this class were either commitments or had strong interest in Georgia due to the efforts of those coaches. Smart and the new coaches did an excellent job maintaining and strengthening those relationships.
- That said, there was some tweaking of the class by the new staff. They were able to pull off a few flips. They also won a few head-to-head battles for some uncommitted prospects. At the same time, Georgia lost a handful of commitments who might’ve been encouraged – directly or indirectly – to look elsewhere.
Tuesday February 2, 2016
With Signing Day upon us, it will soon be time to start talking about how all of these new pieces will fit into the program. The larger trend – and our own 2015 experience – is for more and more true freshmen to see playing time. The combination of incoming talent and opportunities on the depth chart lead you to think that the trend will continue at Georgia in 2016.
Quarterback is one position where opportunity and talent have fans looking to a newcomer. Now that Jacob Eason has enrolled, the next question seems to be when, not if, he becomes the starter. There’s been some idle offseason talk on the radio and message boards about the best way to proceed – do you throw him to the wolves right away, or do we see a gradual transition (with the obligatory mention of 2006)?
At the same time, we’re all watching the recovery and rehab of Nick Chubb. While we have no indication that the process is anything but on-schedule, Georgia’s coaches might face a similar decision: even if cleared to play, do you ease Chubb back in with someone like Michel getting the bulk of the carries, or is Chubb the workhorse out of the gate?
Whatever your own thoughts on those topics, I think most of us would admit that there is a nonzero chance that Georgia begins 2016 without Eason and Chubb in the starting lineup.
How does that possibility affect your outlook for 2016? If you saw a backfield of Lambert and Michel trot out against UNC, would your expectations change? What if September – with UNC and two SEC road games – came and went before Eason and Chubb were starters?
The Chubb situation seems to be straightforward: if he’s physically able, he’ll be in there. That doesn’t just mean that the knee is sound – he’ll also be playing catch-up with conditioning. It could be, say, the Ole Miss game before he’s able to carry the load of 20+ carries. Knee injuries are unpredictable, and the range of possibilities is everything from a full recovery to the dreaded scenario where he never regains that highest level of performance.
Eason’s path to the starting job could be a little less linear. Fans expect it’s sooner than later. The process will play itself out in spring and summer. Coaches will use the term “best chance to win.” All quarterbacks – Eason, Lambert, and, yes, Ramsey too – will have a chance to impress the new staff.
Why might the coaches hold Eason back? Start with Greyson Lambert throwing just two interceptions in 2015.
If Brian Schottenheimer deserves credit for one thing, it’s this: Lambert went from a 10/11 TD/INT ratio at Virginia to a 12/2 ratio at Georgia. That improvement wasn’t accidental. Now it’s true that this improvement came at the cost of severely limiting the passing offense – Lambert wasn’t asked to make Aaron Murray’s throws, and the passing game wasn’t nearly as productive. He also threw a few suspect passes that would’ve/should’ve/could’ve been picked off, but they weren’t.
Given a good defense, the coaches chose and eventually settled on the quarterback who didn’t make the back-breaking mistake. It wasn’t enough to get Georgia a championship, but it did get them to 10 wins. That approach carried the team through the turmoil of the second half of the season and led to five straight wins to close out 2015.
So if you’re Kirby Smart coming over from the ultimate game-management program, you’re conditioned to appreciate a quarterback who won’t put your defense in a tight spot. (You also appreciate championships and quarterbacks who can make plays.) That’s part of the decision: if you think you can navigate Georgia’s tough early schedule by minimizing mistakes (at the expense of production) in the passing game and get by following the 2015 model, Eason might not be the best choice. If, though, you anticipate that the offense is going to have to win a couple of these games, you might risk the inexperienced gunslinger.
Chubb’s availability could also factor into the quarterback decision. With Chubb, the running game could be the focus of a fairly productive offense. Without Chubb, Michel and Douglas are the only returning backs with experience. There will also be some changes on the line. Michel proved himself to be a capable 1,000-yard back, but the offense wasn’t nearly as dynamic as it was when Michel’s versatility was on display in the first month of the season. Without Chubb and a deep pool of backs, you might need to ask for more from the passing game right away and accept the risks that come with it.
We often see teams change over the course of a season. Sometimes (2013) it’s for the worse as injuries or off-field incidents cut short a promising season. Other times (2007) teams find themselves and make a run late in the season. Unless the Dawgs get fairly lucky and both of these playmakers are ready to go on September 3rd, the identity of the 2016 team could change in a big way. How late (or early) in the season that transition occurs and how well the team and coaches manage it will have a lot to say about how we remember Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach.
Friday January 29, 2016
Kirby Smart made a splash on Thursday with a helicopter tour of several top prospects, and the night ended with a high-speed police escort and the use of a live bulldog during a Periscoped in-home recruiting visit.
In other words, just another recruiting season.
The gimmicks get the headlines, but beneath the surface there is real work being done. Smart and his assistants are blanketing their top prospects and doing it in a very public way. Any new coach is in a tough spot – you have little more than a month to either establish or repair relationships with prospects that other programs and coaches might’ve cultivated for years. Georgia might or might not pull some big names on Signing Day, but it won’t be for lack of effort.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the tireless recruiting going on now just brings Georgia up to par. Within the past week we’ve seen Notre Dame park a semi truck in front of a prospects house. We’ve seen Nick Saban dancing. We’ve seen Michigan enlist Ric Flair – Florida fan – for some Signing Day wooooing. Again, the stunts aren’t really the point. It’s that other top programs and staffs have also been pulling out the stops, working around the clock, and sending some high profile coaches into the same living rooms. There’s not much new under the sun – Lane Kiffin was doing the helicopter thing six years ago.
On Sunday at a reception, retired Georgia basketball coach Andy Landers talked about the recruiting landscape. He pointed around Georgia’s state-of-the-art practice facility. Everyone has one of these now, he explained. Every school subscribes to the same recruiting scouting services to identify talent. Doing these things just gets you in the game, and it’s up to you to stand out among a crowded and competitive field.
It might be enough that Georgia is now in the ballpark with the rest of these programs in terms of effort and resources. It might be real progress just that Georgia is willing to spend on what might seem like extravagances in the name of recruiting. Georgia doesn’t get a particular edge relative to the elite programs, but it does allow Smart to make these recruiting battles competitive. The helicopters, the planes, the bulldogs, and all of the gimmicks open the door for Smart and its staff to get to what really matters: contact with their top prospects and the ability to discuss Georgia and the opportunities it offers.
Tuesday January 26, 2016
2017 LB prospect Jaden Hunter committed to Georgia on Monday. That’s big in a football sense – he’s a 4* linebacker who chose Georgia over a long list of schools that included Alabama, Clemson, and FSU. It’s a significant commitment at a deeper level also. Hunter’s parents – Brandi Decker Hunter and the late Brice Hunter were both Bulldog standouts for their respective sports. Brice’s tragic death over ten years ago left Brandi as a single mother of three and Jaden without a father. A group of Brice’s teammates made it a point to be the male role models in Jaden’s life, and it was this strong bond with the Georgia program that led Hunter to commit as a tribute to his father.
The folks at Rivals put together a pair of incredible videos for this occasion. First is the commitment itself. That’s impressive enough, but the second video is nearly as good. Anyone who followed the program in the 1990s will be blown away by the collection of former players who stepped up in Jaden’s life and who explain in this video what Brice Hunter and Jaden mean to them. Give both videos a watch – you won’t find many commitments this well done, and kudos to the Rivals staff for working with the family to produce these videos.