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Post It’s showtime

Friday September 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post Georgia 28 – Missouri 27: Eason emerges

Tuesday September 20, 2016

There was some good discussion last week in the wake of the Nicholls scare about Kirby Smart’s balancing his long-term vision of the program (“the process”) with the short-term priority of winning the next football game. He’s been firm about not putting numbers on success, but at the same time life at 3-0 sure beats 1-2.

That’s not to say that throwing the ball 55 times in Saturday’s 28-27 comeback win at Missouri was an abandonment of or even a shortcut around Smart’s ideal of a football program. It’s what was required though to get past the challenge at hand, and it was a practical response when the running game got stuffed at the line of scrimmage (again.) But while the passing game had its best showing of the season, the running game struggles against Nicholls proved to be no fluke. Did Georgia discover a new identity on offense? Yes and no.

Even for a team with Chubb returning, it was a little surprising to see Georgia run the ball twice as much as they passed during the first two games. You figured at some point they’d have to throw the ball more even if Lambert were still the primary quarterback. I’m relieved that the staff wasn’t so stubborn that they wouldn’t consider putting the ball in the air, and I’m excited that Eason was up to the challenge.

If the season opener showed us that Jacob Eason could play at this level, the Missouri game showed us that Eason could put Georgia’s offense on his shoulders and win when an opponent’s game plan took everything else away. After two games in which Georgia ran far more than it passed, Eason attempted an incredible 55 passes, threw for 308 yards, and accounted for three passing touchdowns. There’s no question who should be Georgia’s quarterback going forward.

At the same time, this roster still isn’t especially built to open it up. Skill talent on offense is heavily weighted towards tailbacks and tight ends. The quarterback is still a true freshman. The receiving position isn’t especially deep and, as we’ve seen in the first three games, even the better receivers struggle with consistency. The offense was inefficient especially in the second half and was unable to cash in on four turnovers (the fifth coming at the end of the game.) Eason himself had an inefficient 5.6 yards per attempt – the first time all season he’s been under 10 YPA. Though Eason had a big night and stepped up on the final drive, that production was largely a factor of the number of plays ran. That is why I don’t think the offense is ready to be placed completely in Eason’s hands (yet), but we will likely see more passing to set up the run. Eason will continue to develop, those efficiencies will come up, and Georgia’s talented tailbacks should benefit.

Missouri pounced on Georgia and made short work of last season’s #1 pass defense. Briscoe in particular was picked on, but he earned some redemption with an interception and a fumble recovery. Georgia began giving safety help on the left side, and those big plays became much less frequent. The broadcast showed Smart working intently with the secondary after Missouri went up 20-14. Whatever adjustments were made, Missouri’s only other scoring drive of the night went for 7 yards after Eason’s interception. If you looked at the game as a Smart vs. Heupel chess match, Smart’s adjustment’s slowed the scoring enough for the Georgia offense to have chance after chance, and Heupel’s offense wasn’t able to deliver the coup de grâce.

  • Smart also did a good job of managing the clock down the stretch. Using two timeouts left the Dawgs with plenty of time to drive for the win – enough time that they were even able to run a few times within the normal offense. Ideally you’d want the drive to take some more time off the clock, but that wasn’t the fault of clock mismanagement. As with the first two games, there was no panic. The defense made the stop to get the ball back, and the offense executed.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever been as stressed about an extra point before. To Ham, that PAT must’ve looked about as far as Butler’s 60-yarder.
  • It’s tough for a freshman, even one starting at quarterback, to step into a leadership role, but watch Eason pumping up Ham before and after that extra point. That was Eason being very aware and in-the-moment seconds after the biggest throw to-date of his career.
  • Missouri had a chance to add some points before halftime and faced a short fourth-down conversion just outside field goal range. Aaron Davis made a nice play to steer the Mizzou receiver out of bounds just short of the sticks to end that scoring opportunity and protect Georgia’s lead going into halftime.
  • Right now the run/pass decisions are driven largely by the offensive line. Georgia would prefer to lean on Chubb (and now Michel) and bring Eason along, but that plan went out the window when facing 8 or 9 men in the box. Georgia’s tight formations didn’t do them – or Chubb – any favors, and the offense continue to look to McKenzie to run the ball to the outside. Michel also saw moderate success running from spread looks.
  • As limited as Chubb and Michel were running the ball, they were arguably more valuable in pass protection. Georgia frequently kept a back, and sometimes a tight end, in to block.
  • Eason’s underthrows became a bit of a theme during the game. There might or might not be mechanical reasons, but it reminded me of a comment by Gary Danielson in the Bama-Ole Miss game. Danielson claimed that adjusting to the speed of college receivers is one of the bigger adjustments for a quarterback coming from high school. They’ll outrun your arm if you wait too long to throw. The more time Eason can get taking first-team reps and working on timing with those receivers on deeper passes, the less we should expect to see those underthrows.
  • It’s a good thing Sanders caused the fumble on Missouri’s final play. There was no one left behind Sanders had the receiver held on to the ball.
  • Mauger’s performance was impressive enough, and it’s even more remarkable when you remember he was dealing with a persistent ankle sprain during camp. In Smart’s words, Mauger had been “beat up all camp”. I doubt he’s anywhere near peak condition, and to make those plays – particularly the precision footwork required for that game-saving interception in the endzone – showed a lot of toughness.
  • Georgia countered Missouri’s pressure early with some quick slants and rollouts off of play-action that led to five receptions for fullback Christian Payne – one more catch than he had in all of 2015.

So where does this rate among one of Georgia’s great finishes? You have the drama of a conference road game and the coming-of-age of a freshman quarterback. It lacks the magnitude of the Hobnail Boot or the 2002 (or 1996) Auburn game. 2007 Alabama is close, although that too had a little extra meaning with a rare win in Tuscaloosa. How about 1996 Texas Tech – a rain-soaked comeback win that needed a touchdown pass on the last drive for Jim Donnan’s first win?


Post Georgia 26 – Nicholls 24: You (almost) sank my battleship

Tuesday September 13, 2016

Kirby Smart’s first game at Sanford Stadium turned out to be a lot like Mark Richt’s last. In Novemeber the Dawgs needed a second-half turnover to come from behind and force overtime against Georgia Southern. On Saturday the Dawgs again faced a second-half deficit, and a timely turnover provided the margin of victory as Georgia almost choked on the cupcake Nicholls.

Each time the reaction leaving the stadium had a lot more to do with relief and bewilderment than the thrill of victory. In fact, with the lone exception of a win over a cratering Kentucky team, there haven’t been many occasions to hold heads high after a home game since the South Carolina blowout nearly one year ago. Whether it was Saturday’s horror show or the 9-6 win over Missouri or that overtime survivial against Georgia Southern, “What the hell did we just see?” has been the predominant postgame tailgate topic of conversation in Athens.

And those were the games Georgia won. There has been only one home loss during this stretch – the miserable loss to Alabama where tens of thousands rose and left as one body during the third quarter of a game where it was quite clear what the hell we were seeing. Since that day the program has stumbled on, winning far more than they’ve lost but sucking the life and joy out of the experience.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who got the “this type of game is why we fired the coach” texts after the game. They were exactly right. As much as the players can be faulted for the lack of execution and the mental mistakes that kept Nicholls in the game, it was also a reminder to Smart and the staff that they were brought in to be better. Yes, there is trust in Smart’s way of running the program, but old habits can die hard.

We saw signs of life a week ago when the team fought its way off the mat against a respectable North Carolina team – its first win over a ranked opponent since 2014. There is enough talent and toughness on the team to response in that situation, but we saw on Saturday that Georgia isn’t by any stretch out of the weeds yet and that progress is rarely linear. Kirby Smart, brought in to revive the program, touched on that reality by comparing his job to that of turning a battleship (slowly) and by pointing out that Georgia’s roster is set until the next signing day – there are no free agents to provide a quick fix.

In the meantime though it’s Smart’s job to sort out what has to do with the inherent limitations of the roster and culture and what can be fixed to prepare this team, right now, for the next game and the rest of the season. A team riding high and full of itself after a nice opener surely has no delusions of grandeur left. At the same time, one game is no cause to bail on the coach, the team, and especially the quarterback any more than the opener was cause to pencil the Dawgs into the playoff or the Heisman ceremony. Georgia remains a dangerous team but one with some very specific and, now, exposed weaknesses. Smart isn’t in the Alabama situation where he can out-athlete the opponent at every position, and I’m looking forward to some creative solutions to overcoming those weaknesses.

  • There were still a few individual great plays, but few had more on the line than Lambert finding Chigbu on a late third down pass. So many things to unpack from that play – Chigbu’s inconsistent hands during the game, the low snap, Lambert fielding the snap and recovering to maintain the timing of the short route, the corner blitz redirected wide by Chubb, and the fact that Lambert was in the game to begin with after nearly decapitating Woerner on the previous series. It wasn’t Belue-to-Scott, but no one wanted to see what would happen if Georgia had to punt from its own end zone with three minutes left.
  • Georgia doesn’t have a quarterback controversy. If you believe starting Eason was correct on Thursday, the reasoning is still the same. Better Eason make the mistakes he did against that opponent than in an SEC road game. (They’ll get fixed now, right?)
  • Trenton Thompson is becoming the player we hoped we were getting.
  • Another hit-or-miss day for the secondary. Great job to create turnovers, but they looked lost on a couple of plays like the receiver screen that gave Nicholls a brief lead.
  • The Dawgs have issues with blocking at all positions on offense, but the staff can also do more to help counter the stacked fronts we’re seeing. Opponents will expect a logjam inside and for Chubb to try to bounce outside. Nicholls was prepared for that.
  • Scheme can help Eason develop also. It doesn’t have to be deep passes or play action – Eason looked very much at home with quicker releases out of the spread, and converting a few more of those passes can clear up the line of scrimmage quickly.
  • I like the counter toss they ran a couple of times with Herrien. Nice wrinkle.
  • It was frustrating to see Nicholls get 17 of their 24 after Georgia turnovers, but forcing a field goal after their long interception return was an important win for the defense.
  • Some of the biggest applause of the day came for the cloud that settled over the stadium during the second quarter. This wasn’t up there with 2002 Alabama or 2003 Clemson for heat, but it was still a scorcher.

Post The Eason Era begins

Friday September 9, 2016

Marc Weiszer reported Thursday night that freshman quarterback Jacob Eason has earned his first start and will be under center for the Dawgs on Saturday against Nicholls State. Several other outlets later ran similar stories. There has been no official announcement yet.

Eason, sharing time with starter Greyson Lambert, played a significant number of snaps in the season opener. Eason was 8-12 for 131 with 1 TD and was the quarterback for three of Georgia’s scoring drives.

With challenging SEC defenses at Missouri and Ole Miss ahead later this month, the Nicholls State game offers an opportunity to get Eason some valuable experience. He might not yet be completely ready, but there’s no better time if the coaches saw Eason becoming the eventual starter. It would have been almost unfair to throw Eason in as a first-time starter for an SEC road game or even for the anticipated Tennessee game on October 1st. At that point, you’re looking at mid-October and nearly half the season gone before another window opened during which a change would make sense. He’ll still be tested by the defenses of Georgia’s next three opponents, but now at least he’ll have a start under his belt.

I said in the UNC wrap-up that I hope the coaches use this game to work on the passing game when we know that the Dawgs can run at will on an FCS team. Naming Eason the starter leads me to think they will air it out a little. We’ll still see some Chubb, but younger backs like Herrien and Holyfield should get most of the carries. And if the game goes as expected, Lambert will play several series – Ramsey too!

We know what kind of crowd usually turns out for these noon kickoffs against FCS opponents. Hopefully the chance to watch Eason start will put a few more folks in the stands and get them there in time for the early start.

It looks as if the job belongs to Jacob Eason now – whether he keeps it and what he does with it is up to him.


Post Enjoy halftime at home

Friday September 9, 2016

This is very cool, especially if you’re a former band geek.

SEC Network, an ESPN network with 24/7 Southeastern Conference coverage, is committed to providing the sights and sounds of the halftime band performances live during each of the network’s football games this season. Coverage of the marching bands will be offered as a second-screen experience on the SEC Network’s digital channel, SEC Network +.

So for games broadcast on the SEC Network, you can pull up the WatchESPN app on your phone, tablet, Roku, gaming console, Apple TV, or whatever and catch the halftime performance. ESPN has helpfully provided direct links to the performances on their press release.

Keep your seats everyone – even you over there in the recliner.


Post They like us – they really like us

Friday September 9, 2016

Early polls are meaningless and probably shouldn’t even be released until week 8 or so – unless you wind up in the top 10 after week one.

Not a one of the early 2015 Heisman favorites cracked the top 5 in final voting, but it’s always nice to get some deserved recognition for Nick Chubb after his improbable and triumphant return to the field.

Ordered your Orange Bowl tickets yet? Should we add some Sugar Bowl tickets as a hedge bet?


Post Georgia 33 – UNC 24: Trust issues

Wednesday September 7, 2016

I had anticipated Georgia’s opener since it was announced. I dreaded it too in a way – I was not looking forward to cheering against the team I grew up supporting. It was tough sitting with my dejected family as Georgia’s comeback turned into victory. In the end I was happy with the outcome but also glad that we got a competitive and entertaining game between two teams who will have a lot to cheer about this year.

Georgia beat a talented and experienced team that had become used to winning. Carolina isn’t to the level of FSU or Clemson, but they are favorites to win their ACC division this year. Georgia will face better tailbacks and receivers this year, but I’m not sure we’ll see many opponents with the ability Carolina has at both positions. Overlooking for a second the many things to work on from the season opener, Georgia fans should consider this a quality win.

So what does the win mean? In the short term, we saw how dependent the offense is on Nick Chubb. No surprise there, but in the interest of sustainability you’d like some balance – if not in run/pass then at least in the distribution of carries. That should improve as Michel and Holyfield join Herrien and Douglas. The defense and special teams are about what we expected (and, in the case of special teams, about what we feared.)

For the longer term, we saw a new staff put together, stick with, and execute a game plan that bested a much more experienced collection of coaches and players. It was a validation of Smart’s intent to “to change the culture and the demeanor” of the program. That process of change is by no means complete, and it won’t be complete this season. As a start, though, it was about as much as we could ask for.

I wondered last week if Kirby Smart would get one of those 2001 Tennessee moments when we knew the team had bought in. It wasn’t so much about the dramatic finish as it was the way the team responded to the coach. Smart talked during the preseason about having to earn the trust of the players in order to build the kind of program he wanted. I’m trying to avoid going overboard about the significance of a single win with so much to work on and improve, but you don’t have the kind of response Georgia showed in the second half without a healthy dose of mutual trust between the staff and the team. That trust was evident when the Dawgs went down by ten points. At no point was there visible panic or a loss of discipline. Georgia stuck with their game plan, remained patient, executed, and prevailed.

Smart said during the week that Nick Chubb wasn’t on a pitch count for his carries, and Smart wasn’t kidding. Chubb carried 32 times and had enough left in the tank to break the game open late in the fourth quarter. Even a miracle of man and medicine like Chubb had to have spent Sunday resting the knee – there’s just no way to simulate that many carries and the hits that come with them. I wasn’t surprised that Chubb was able to have the game he had – each report out of preseason camp was more and more fantastic. It was only a few weeks ago that the coaches dared to tackle Chubb to the ground in practice, and here he was starting without any limits on his carries. If anything surprised me, it was Chubb’s condition after such a long layoff. Few completely healthy tailbacks would have enough left in the tank for a 50+ yard gallop after 30 carries.

I doubt that the plan going forward is to have Chubb carry 30 times per game very often – it’s just not sustainable even for a tailback in perfect shape. But for this game with so much unsettled at quarterback, it was the best game plan. Georgia’s heavy use of the run served two purposes: yes, it exploited Georgia’s strength against Carolina’s relative defensive weakness. But it also kept the ball away from the Tar Heels’ offense. Fewer possessions meant that the game couldn’t become a shootout, and the score remained in a comfortable range for the style of offense Georgia was playing.

Quarterbacks

The ESPN broadcast team clearly wasn’t prepared for the quarterback rotation (Lambert wasn’t yanked for his performance), but Brock Huard made one important point: it’s not enough that Lambert did few things wrong – it’s that Eason was capable of making the same plays and then some. If the question is what Lambert brings to the table that Eason does not, we got two answers on Saturday. The first was the draw-the-defense-offside-on-4th-and-short play, a very specific situation Eason hadn’t worked on. The second was what Smart called the “four minute offense” at the end of each half. Many fans were puzzled when Lambert came out for Georgia’s game-clinching possession at the end of the game, but it turned out to be a very simple assignment: toss the ball to Chubb. As Eason gains experience, those handful of situations for which Lambert is more prepared will become fewer and fewer.

It will be interesting to see how the staff uses the upcoming game to work on the passing game. Chubb will (or should be) limited, and it would seem like a waste to just get through the game by leaning on the strong running game. With consecutive SEC road games ahead, there won’t be much more time to prepare a quarterback.

Offense

A coordinator can get cute with groupings and formations, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen such a diversity of each. The Dawgs showed everything from three-TE sets to the pistol to the five-wide set that created the mismatch on McKenzie’s long reception. Tight ends were limited in the passing game – Woerner had one catch for one yard – but there were a couple of other passes to the TEs that went incomplete. Even when the Dawgs did empty the backfield, there were often still two tight ends in the game.

It was in the running game where the tight ends shined. Blazevich was stellar on the edge, and he was involved in Godwin’s nice run after the catch on Eason’s first completion. Fullback Christian Payne reminded us that he was still on the team with some outstanding blocking of his own. The two combined on Chubb’s long score: Blazevich came inside on the crackback block to seal off the defensive end, and Payne led the way through the hole.

Carolina came out of the gate showing Georgia a different look than what the Dawgs might’ve expected. Blitzes weren’t a big part of what the Heels did a year ago. They were 12th in the ACC in sacks per game, and blitzes were ineffective: “their rate of getting to the quarterback on blitzes was the worst among Power 5 teams.” Most of Carolina’s pressure in 2015 came from the line. On Georgia’s first two possessions, we saw the Heels bring pressure from the corners, and it was effective. Lambert took the heat when that pressure killed those first few drives, but I think it had more to do with UNC catching Georgia a little off-guard. Georgia’s coaches calmly reacted, made their adjustments, and the Dawgs began to drive the ball with more consistency. There were still individual issues with pressure – Catalina’s pass blocking has been scrutinized – but the offense as a whole did a much better job against pressure after those early adjustments.

Defense

Allowing 17 points might not seem that impressive, but North Carolina returned a large part of the offense that set 62 team records in 2015. Georgia’s huge advantage in time of possession meant that North Carolina would struggle to put up big yardage and point totals, but even on a per-play basis Georgia held the Heels to nearly two yards per play under their 2015 average. We heard that Trubisky would step in admirably for Marquise Williams, but Georgia held him to fewer yards (and far fewer yards per attempt) than the Lambert/Eason combo posted. The Dawgs also limited Trubisky’s impact running the ball. He was able to scramble a few times, but he had nothing resembling the back-breaking runs that made Williams such a dangerous quarterback at the end of last season.

The deep ball turned out to be a large part of what Carolina wanted to do on offense. For several reasons – a couple of drops, a few errant passes, and a number of nice individual plays by the Georgia secondary – the Heels didn’t connect on a single deep pass. UNC was more effective running the ball. If new offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic can be faulted for one thing, it was throwing the ball 40 times when the running game got 8.4 yards per carry. Georgia showed weakness containing runs to the outside, and T.J. Logan’s speed caused problems whenever he touched the ball.

Maurice Smith proved to be a valuable addition to the team, and he led a unit that for the most part contained the big play threat from UNC’s passing game. Smith, Patrick, and Carter formed an effective rotation at middle linebacker. Freshman defensive end David Marshall had an immediate impact, though Carolina took advantage of his inexperience on Trubisky’s keeper. DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle provided the pressure that led to a safety. Georgia’s pass rush didn’t create many sacks, but there was enough pressure to force some uncomfortable decisions at key moments.

The Rest

Enough people have horsewhipped special teams, and it wasn’t a great night (D’Andre Walker’s brilliant individual play excepted.) When Kirby Smart tells you an element of his team scares him to death, believe him. With as much attention as Smart gives to far less significant areas of the program, we can accept that the mistakes we saw Saturday weren’t the result of negligence, but that doesn’t make us feel much better going forward.

One of Georgia’s best special teams plays happened thanks to a Carolina mistake. After Georgia cut the score to 24-21, the subsequent kickoff was short and angled to the sideline. Fortunately the return man decided to field the kickoff around the 15 rather than letting it continue out of bounds. That field position set up the safety that brought Georgia to within a point.

What’s Next

The Dawgs host the Nicholls Colonels at noon on Saturday in the home opener. If the overused maxim about improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 means anything, we’ll have plenty to watch for.


Post 16 things I’m looking forward to in 2016

Thursday September 1, 2016

Chubb comin’. Part of me still can’t believe that he’s back. May he have the kind of season he deserves.

Chubb and Michel on the field together. September 2015 offered a tease of a very effective combination. Michel proved he could more than handle the tailback position after Chubb’s injury, but Chubb in the lineup afforded Georgia the opportunity to make Michel’s versatility a headache for opposing defenses. We might not see this combination in the opener, but it won’t be long until we do.

McKenzie’s development. You haven’t heard much about Isaiah McKenzie during the preseason even as the receiver position looms as a big unknown for the 2016 team. I don’t know enough to say that’s good or bad, but more attention has been paid to the next wave of receivers and even the newcomers. McKenzie’s reputation as a return man stands on its own – can he develop into a reliable and productive receiver?

Sanders flourishing. Dominick Sanders became one of the standouts to emerge from the 2014 shakeup in the defensive backfield due to his penchant for creating turnovers and long returns. Now as a veteran in a system with which he should be very comfortable, can he take the next step?

A healthy Jeb Blazevich. A strange vague “tired leg” injury led to a slump in production after a promising freshman year. The disappearance of the TE in last year’s offense makes us forget the exciting potential Blazevich showed in 2014 and what he has to bring to the passing game. With a deeper roster and a coordinator likely to deploy multiple tight ends, we look for a healthier Blazevich to re-emerge.

An uneventful October. Since 2012 or so the month of October has tested the faith of even the most loyal Bulldogs. Horrible injuries. Team discord. The Gurley suspension. Jaw-dropping losses. Georgia will play their most important SEC East games in October, and that’s enough to worry about. If they can go into those games without the drama of recent seasons, that alone should be reason to smile a little.

A win over Tech. It’s true that Mark Richt posted a dominant record over Georgia’s rival and never lost in Atlanta. But he was only 2-2 against Paul Johnson in Athens. Kirby Smart must make a strong stand for the home field in his first outing against Tech.

Watching it come together for Eason. There’s no telling when or even if it will happen. Reports show that there’s too much potential to keep off the field, but does that mean Eason can lead the team as a first-year starter? Will there be a moment this season when it clicks that this is now Eason’s team? It’s not a perfect example, but Alabama went through the first part of last season with some of the same indecisiveness at quarterback. It took a benching and even came in a losing effort, but Jake Coker leading the comeback against Ole Miss was the moment when he gained the respect of the offense, and Alabama was a different team the rest of the season.

Receivers emerging from the committee. Even Godwin has something to show before he’s the go-to guy. Tight ends will help, but a couple of receivers stepping up will make life much easier on the quarterback. It will also make things easier for Chubb and the tailbacks if defenses can’t sell out against the run. There’s more than one way to stand out: we’ve seen McKenzie on sweeps, and freshmen like Simmons or even Hardman could contribute in the ground game. With that ground game expected to be the focus of the offense, don’t underestimate the importance of blocking by the receivers. Few long runs happen without key blocks downfield.

The Pittman effect. He might not yet have the depth and physical attributes he wants in his offensive linemen, but we can’t wait to see what Sam Pittman can do with the talent available to him. Even a gifted athlete like Chubb is held back by sub-standard line play. If Pittman can work some magic, Georgia’s offense should take a big step forward.

Disruptive middle linebackers. Georgia has enjoyed some steady MLB play recently with guys like Ogletree, Herrera, Wilson, and Ganus. The departure of Tim Kimbrough left a void, but preseason reports on Patrick and Smith have been encouraging. This athletic duo along with the experienced Carter could be among Georgia’s leading tacklers and hopefully improve Georgia’s interior pass defense.

Confidence in Jacksonville. Georgia had a nice three year run behind Murray, but the last two Cocktail Parties have been program-shattering disasters. Worse, those lopsided losses came against a coach on his way out and a first-year coach without his starting QB. No more whining about the location or the weather – one of the biggest cultural changes Smart can make is to take back this series.

Young defensive linemen. Depth on the defensive line has been a concern since the 2015 season ended, and it was a priority during recruiting. The Dawgs missed out on a couple of top targets meaning that Georgia could afford few busts among those they did sign. Rochester, Clark, Carter, and Marshall could all play this year, and we’ve heard good things about the group. Trenton Thompson is an emerging star, but he’ll need help from these guys.

The end of the directional kickoff. Special teams made some huge plays for Mark Richt over his 15 years, but some of the decisions were just head-scratchers – none moreso than the flirtation with directional kickoffs. We don’t know how Smart, with input from Beamer, will approach the entirety of special teams, but it would be a nice start for kickoffs to reach the endzone much more often than not.

10 wins. It’s why we made the change, right? Put another way: if Mark Richt were still the coach, what would your expectations be? Smart deserves some latitude to build his program with a new coaching staff, but with so many positive things happening during the offseason and a promising recruiting class coming together, it would be a shame to take a step backwards. Georgia has won at least 10 games in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Can Smart pull things together quickly enough to keep that going?

The 2016 team coming into its own. The quarterback position might not be settled even after the first game. It looks as if Chubb is back, but Michel will be limited early if he plays at all. Even the kicking jobs are up in the air. It’s going to be a little while before the team has all of its weapons available, and what we come to remember as the 2016 team might not take shape until well into the season. The point at which that happens and how well the coaches can find temporary answers until more permanent answers reveal themselves will determine how well the Dawgs navigate a tough early schedule and whether they emerge from the first half of the season as contenders.


Post Forecasting Kirby Smart’s first season

Monday August 29, 2016

There’s a weather forecasting method called climatology. It uses averages over time as a starting point to forecast the weather during normal weather patterns. On a typical July day in Georgia, climatology might tell you to expect temperatures in the 90s with a stray thunderstorm possible. Individual days can be hotter or cooler, drier or wetter, but climatology is a good place to start unless there are solid reasons not to. Climatology can also be used as a sanity check for extreme forecasts: if another forecasting tool tells you to expect snow in June, climatology leads you to doubt the model or at least to examine why the model gave the result it did.

But climatology is only one tool of many, and it can break down when there are abnormal conditions. Is there a legitimately unusual weather system developing? Have other variables changed? Has the climate itself shifted to a new normal?

The climatology of college football tells us to tap the brakes on big expectations for the 2016 season. There’s a track record for first-year head coaches and especially assistants-turned-head coaches. We know that no first-year Georgia head coach has won more than nine games, and the most recent head coach set that benchmark. If we want to keep going, history warns us about freshman quarterbacks – even the best rarely started out of the gate.

Are there enough special conditions though that might lead us to question what history says to expect? Smart isn’t stepping into a typical first-year situation. Four of Georgia’s last five teams have won at least ten games, and Smart is expected to improve on that. Georgia might start a freshman quarterback, but he’ll be handing off to one of the most talented backfields in the nation. We might even say that the climate has changed for new SEC coaches: the most recent hires for Auburn and Florida won their divisions immediately, and the window for producing results is as narrow as it’s ever been.

Kirby Smart doesn’t care one bit about what history says about the first seasons of Ray Goff or Nick Saban or Gus Malzahn, and he won’t let his decisions be clouded by the results of Matthew Stafford’s 2006 freshman year. That’s fine, but he and his team are going to have to make some extraordinary things happen to stand out from the typical first year. These are a couple of questions I’ll have on my mind during the season:

When will we know that things are different?

The 2001 season got off to a so-so start: there was an easy cupcake win in the opener, a disappointing home loss to South Carolina, and a nice rebound win over Arkansas. It was fairly similar to the way the 2000 season began. Though fans were generally positive, the late game-winning drive allowed to South Carolina and indecisiveness at the quarterback position had made it a brief honeymoon.

Things changed of course with the trip to Knoxville and one of the most famous playcalls in program history. It wasn’t just that Georgia had defeated Tennessee; they had done so the year before. It wasn’t just that Georgia won in Knoxville though it had been decades since the last win up there. It was that Georgia twice got off the mat in situations where previous teams might’ve folded. The Dawgs recovered first from the shock of an early 14-3 deficit and then found a way to recover with an improbable drive after Tennessee’s late go-ahead score. The team reflected the calmness and confidence of its coach, and the win was a significant moment in shoring up the buy-in for both players and fans.

The 2016 Bulldogs will face several tests within the first month of the season. Within five games we should have a fairly good sense of Georgia’s relative standing in the SEC East and learn how well Georgia measures up against a nonconference opponent favored to win its division. Smart doesn’t have to win them all – Mark Richt’s 2001 team stumbled late against Auburn and Boston College, but those losses didn’t undo the groundwork that led to a successful run. But with a successful and popular coach suddenly fired last year, Smart does have to show enough of a difference for fans, players, and recruits to understand that the right decision was made. Will Smart’s teams down the road be able to point to events in 2016 as the foundation for their success?

What’s the two-point conversion play?

Indulge me in one of my favorite obscure game situations. Mark Richt came to favor, with a little variation, a certain play on conversions. (See these plays from 2006 and 2011. The play was also used for the score that should have been the game-winner against Tech in 2014.) A receiver came in motion, often from left-to-right, and went underneath. Meanwhile the other two receivers on the right side of the formation cleared out the defenders. The play rolled right, the QB had some options, and the underneath receiver was usually open.

It’s one of those little details, but the right go-to play at the right time will win games. As much thought as Smart has put into other details across the program, I’m looking forward to seeing what the staff has up their sleeves. I’m focusing on the two-point conversion here, but similar thought and preparation has to go into third-and-short, the red zone, the two-minute drill, and other circumstances that might only come up a few times each game but which can determine the outcome. (Same goes for the other side of the ball – is Georgia’s defense prepared for opponents’ go-to plays and favorite tricks?)

What will Smart have to learn on the job?

Even with all of the preparation in the world, there are some lessons that have to be taught by experience. For Mark Richt, it was clock management. Richt’s self-assessment following his first season at Georgia in 2001 led him to seek out help in that area. The Dawgs fared much better in close games in the years that followed.

We have a fairly good sense by now of how Kirby Smart approaches building a program. We’ve seen the investment in staff and facilities. We’re impressed with the staff’s commitment to recruiting. We know a little bit about how he conducts an offseason. We don’t know how Smart will prepare a team during game week. We don’t know if he’s able to motivate a team from week to week during a taxing SEC season. We don’t know how he’ll manage a sideline or consider in-game adjustments. Does he panic too soon when he falls behind, or does he get too conservative with a lead? It’s possible that Smart has picked up many of these skills along the way, but it’s also likely that, as with Richt, he’ll be able to look back on his debut season and identify specific areas for self-improvement. With that in mind, how will those deficiencies show up during the season, and will the team be able to overcome them?


Post Is there a trap game on Georgia’s schedule?

Monday August 29, 2016

Preseason assessments of Georgia have focused in on a handful of games that will make or break Georgia’s season. North Carolina will set the tone. Ole Miss might be the best team on the schedule. Tennessee and Florida will determine the SEC East hierarchy. Auburn and Georgia Tech are rivals against whom Mark Richt enjoyed lopsided success, and Kirby Smart will be expected to have the Dawgs focused and prepared for them. Enough is riding on those six games that it’s unthinkable for the Dawgs to drop a game elsewhere on the schedule, but it’s always possible.

With two sure wins against non-conference opponents, that leaves four SEC games that will test Smart’s ability to keep the team’s attention on the game at hand. The Dawgs have lost to all but one of these opponents since 2013, and three of the four will be hosting Georgia in 2016. It would be a sign of progress if Georgia is able to dispatch this group without much drama, but the program might not be in a position to do that just yet. Do any of these stand out as more dangerous than the others?

@ Missouri: It’s the first true road game and the SEC opener. Georgia has fared well in their two trips to Columbia, and both teams will be in the early stages of breaking in new head coaches. We’ll see which offense has made more progress since the miserable 9-6 game in Athens last season. Though anything is possible in the league and we expect that people are writing off Mizzou much to easily, losing this game would be a big jolt to an optimistic Georgia fan base and would right out of the gate require a major adjustment to expectations.

@ South Carolina: Two former Bulldogs will lead their teams into this game. Yes, the Gamecocks are coming off a poor season. Yes, they’ve traded Spurrier for Muschamp. Yes, they make Georgia’s quarterback situation look stable. The Dawgs haven’t won at South Carolina since 2008, and this game will fall immediately after the Ole Miss-Tennessee gauntlet. This might be one that the Dawgs have to grind out.

Vanderbilt: Last season’s margin of victory in Nashville was padded by punt and interception returns, but Georgia’s offense struggled to move the ball. Fortunately Vanderbilt wasn’t much better. Derrick Mason’s defense will be a challenge for a team playing its seventh straight game, but it’s tough to imagine Vanderbilt lighting up a Kirby Smart defense. We’ll have the usual sleepy Homecoming crowd. Will the Dawgs sleepwalk through this one?

@ Kentucky: We’re used to this game following the trip to Jacksonville, so the timing shouldn’t be an issue. Recent Kentucky teams have begun their swoon by this point in the season. Mark Stoops is under pressure to get over the hump this year, and we should know how well he’s done in time for our visit. The last Georgia true freshman QB to start at Lexington (2006) left with a loss.


Post Senior LB Kimbrough to transfer

Thursday August 11, 2016

Not long after Georgia learned they might be gaining one defender via transfer, the news broke Wednesday night that senior inside linebacker Tim Kimbrough planned to leave the program. Kimbrough, known as a big hitter on the interior of Georgia’s defense and the team’s 2014 Most Improved Player, was Georgia’s leading returning tackler but was fighting to earn a starting job under the new coaching staff.

Reggie Carter, Natrez Patrick, and Roquan Smith figure to get most of the snaps at ILB this year, but it’s a very thin unit behind those three. The transfer of Kimbrough, combined with the departure of Jake Ganus, means that Georgia will be looking to replace 169 tackles from its top inside linebackers. All four of Georgia’s top tacklers in 2015 are no longer with the program.

Kimbrough hasn’t redshirted yet but he’s also not a graduate transfer, so he’ll have a year to play after sitting out the mandatory one season. There’s no speculation yet about a destination, but it would be some irony if Kimbrough decided to test Georgia’s own transfer policy after the role Georgia played in the Maurice Smith transfer. Hopefully the Georgia administration and staff learned a thing or two.


Post Alabama stands down on Smith transfer

Thursday August 11, 2016

When the transfer request of Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith blew up last week, it wasn’t hard to see the road ahead.

I expect this will follow the usual cycle: there will be some unpleasant publicity for Alabama, some haughty pronouncements from folks at keyboards, and eventually Alabama will relent.

And that’s what happened. It’s what happens every time a little light is allowed to shine on these transfer restrictions. You’d think that schools would know to get ahead of the inevitable publicity storm by now, but even mighty Alabama couldn’t help themselves. Instead the Tide have spent a week defending the inconsistent application of their transfer policy, answering for the petty and vindictive reaction to Smith’s transfer request, and watching story after story come out featuring the Smith family.

Why the change of heart? Either Nick Saban saw the light or he suddenly stumbled across some of those “unique circumstances” that justified Smith’s release, namely a story that went from local to regional to national news became more trouble than it was worth to block Smith’s transfer to Georgia.

What’s next? The transfer isn’t a done deal yet – the SEC must grant a waiver of its own transfer rules, and Alabama is more than happy to kick this can down to the league office. The league has its own “restrictions on athletes with less than two years of eligibility remaining transferring to league schools, including graduate transfers.” The Smith family expects that ruling to come as soon as Thursday evening, and Smith would then be allowed to enroll at Georgia and join the team for the final three weeks of preseason practice. As a projected starting nickel back at Alabama, Smith would provide instant depth for a thin Georgia secondary and instant experience playing in the Smart/Tucker defense.


Post Smart vs. Saban…again

Wednesday August 3, 2016

Since Kirby Smart became Georgia’s head coach, Georgia and Alabama have swapped a couple of assistant coaches, gone head-to-head for top members of the 2016 recruiting class, and now find themselves at the center of a tug-of-war over graduate transfer defensive back Maurice Smith.

Maurice Smith, a defensive back who is set to graduate from Alabama this month, wants to transfer to Georgia, where he would be eligible to play this season. But Smith’s mother said the potential move is being blocked by Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “He wants to go to Georgia. Period,” Samyra Smith said on Tuesday night. “That’s where he wants to go.”

Smith would take advantage of the same graduate transfer rule that brought Greyson Lambert and Tyler Catalina to Athens. As a reward for graduating with eligibility remaining, the NCAA allows players to transfer after graduating without having to sit out a year. The player’s current school must release the player though, and that’s where Alabama is dragging its heels.

Alabama has continued to decline to agree on a move anywhere within the SEC. “They’re being difficult. Intentionally,” Samyra Smith said.

Seth Emerson points out that Alabama didn’t have a problem with another graduate transfer to an SEC school. “Earlier this year, Alabama did not put a block on Chris Black, who graduated from Alabama and transferred to Missouri.”

Emerson also reminds us that karma can be a bitch.

The situation is an interesting turn in Alabama-Georgia relationship, given Smart serving under Saban the past nine years. And earlier this year Smart put a block on a player, A.J. Turman, from transferring to other SEC schools as well as Miami. (Turman did not want to go to Miami, but Smart said he wanted to set a precedent that players couldn’t follow former head coach Mark Richt to the Hurricanes.)

I expect this will follow the usual cycle: there will be some unpleasant publicity for Alabama, some haughty pronouncements from folks at keyboards, and eventually Alabama will relent. But will it be too late? Georgia has already started preseason camp. Alabama begins later this week. Alabama only needs to hold out on Smith long enough for him to be too far behind the curve to contribute at Georgia. Even if Smart is Smith’s former position coach, it might be tough for someone to miss a good chunk of preseason camp and expect significant playing time. It won’t be many more days before remaining at Alabama or transferring out of the conference are the only hopes Smith has for seeing the field in his final year of eligibility. The longer this plays out, the longer the odds of Smith ending up in Athens.

To add another twist of the knife, one of those out-of-conference destinations Smith might consider is …Miami.


Post Ranking the games of Georgia’s SEC Network takeover

Monday July 25, 2016

Georgia takes over the SEC network programming at midnight tonight. There will be several magazine-type shows inside the football program, the must-see Herschel Walker SEC Storied special, and ten memorable games featuring six of Georgia’s sports. Clear some space on your DVR.

I’ve ranked the ten games they’ll show taking into account the magnitude of the win for the program, the quality of the game/meet/match, and the novelty of the rebroadcast. Surprisingly spots 1-4 are not all football!

1. 10:30 p.m. — 1983 NCAA East Regional Final (Men’s Basketball – Mar. 27, 1983): The Dawgs upset defending champs UNC to earn a trip to the Final Four. This is as good as it gets for Georgia basketball. Even the football-only crowd should watch this at least once.

2. 1:30 a.m. – 1980 National Championship Game (Football – Jan. 1, 1981): You’ve seen this already, right? If not, it’s a no-brainer – the crowning jewel of the Herschel Walker era and Georgia’s last national football title.

3. 8:00 a.m. — 2016 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships (March 25, 2016): Georgia’s gymnastics and women’s swimming and diving programs have emerged as the standard-bearers for Bulldog athletics. In this meet you’ll see not only great collegiate swimmers but also world-class Olympians bringing home to Athens another national title.

4. 12:00 p.m. — 2016 NCAA Super Regional Final (Softball – May 27, 2016): It doesn’t get much more thrilling than a walk-off home run to advance to the World Series. Kaylee Puailoa’s improbable shot stunned the heavily-favored #1 Gators in arguably the biggest win in program history. If you missed this live, catch it now.

5. 2:00 p.m. — 2000 Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, 2000): I don’t know that there’s been a bigger swing in a game – perhaps the 2006 Virginia Tech bowl game is up there too. Many fans have a love-hate relationship with that era of Georgia football, but the spirit of this comeback win set the stage for some high expectations entering the 2000 season.

6. 6:30 a.m. — 2001 Women’s Basketball SEC Tournament Final (March 4, 2001): The last hurrah of the Miller-Nolan era. Kelly Miller hit an off-balance shot at the buzzer for the win to finish off a dramatic second half. It turned out to be the last SEC championship for Andy Landers.

7. 8:30 p.m. — 1997 Georgia vs. Florida (Football – Nov. 1, 1997): A cherished win between long droughts in Jacksonville. Bonus: two interceptions by Kirby Smart!

8. 1:30 a.m. — Georgia vs. Florida (Football – Nov. 8, 1980): Memorable for one play, but watch the whole thing to understand what got us to Belue-to-Scott. I put this low on the list because you’ve likely seen the game’s defining moment a million times. But one more time can’t hurt…

9. 3:30 a.m. — 2008 NCAA Super Regional Final (Baseball – June 8, 2008): The 2008 baseball team was probably the best of the three Georgia squads that made the trip to Omaha in the 2000s. There wasn’t much drama in this decisive third game of the Super Regional, but this 17-8 thrashing of N.C. State was a treat.

10. 10:00 a.m. – 2012 Men’s Basketball vs. Florida (Feb. 25, 2012): KCP and Gerald Robinson had big games, and Georgia led the entire way in the upset win. It kept alive Georgia’s slim postseason hopes for the time, but the Dawgs finished the season 15-17.


Post Richt revisionism

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).